A recent restaurant opening in Mumbai has got chefs, diners, and critics talking about mugri – a stringy, purple, slightly fuzzy-looking vegetable – also known, for a very good reason, as rat-tail radish.
Mugri is a podding variety of radish, one that grows above the ground. Still, its beans have all the flavour and punch you’d expect from the root vegetable. Typically you’d find rat-tail radish made into a bhaji in Maharashtrian or Rajasthani homes. The Bombay Canteen, which opened six weeks ago, is possibly the only restaurant in the country that serves mustardy mugri on its menu, as part of a sev puri-like dish where a base of Sindhi arbi tuk (smashed and fried colocasia root) is topped with uncooked mugri kachumbar, chilli-spiced dahi and tamarind chutney.
The Lower Parel eating and drinking house also serves a version of mutton sukke using jackfruit and lotus stem, a Kerala drumstick soup, permit room-style chakna of whole mandeli fish fry with tamato chutney, and a chilli and salt-spiked pink guava tarte tatin served with lal mirch ice cream.
The Bombay Canteen
Each of these dishes contains at least ingredient that has been dismissed as boring and unsexy by most slightly upscale Indian restaurants. In recent years, most new eateries in Mumbai and elsewhere have chosen to serve iterations of soup-salad-pizza-pasta-burger-cheesecake – menus that allow for the use of broccoli and zucchini instead of mugri and mandeli.
However, culinary director of The Bombay Canteen, Indian-American chef Floyd Cardoz, and the restaurant’s executive chef Thomas Zacharias, were sure about this – no dish in the restaurant’s menu would use imported ingredients. In fact they will be decidedly local, seasonal, regional – their flavours and techniques will have underpinnings in traditional Indian cuisine, but they will still be playful and fun. “We see these great ingredients, and it’s sad that we [chefs] don’t use them,” said Mumbai-born Cardoz. “So we decided to put them on the menu, closest to the time that they’re in season, so they are at their best quality and at a great price.”
Indian-American chef Floyd Cardoz.
Zacharias and Cardoz’s resolution could not be better timed. It’s a turning trend that’s been a long time coming. A small number of restaurateurs and chefs are finding delight in presenting Indian food in a fresh, lively, contemporary way.
At Cafe Lota, in Delhi, 28-year-old restaurateur Rahul Dua serves regional Indian food rarely seen on menus of mid-level and fine-dining restaurants, but it’s not quite Delhi bhavan grub either. The 17-month-old restaurant situated in the compound of the National Crafts Museum, offers, for example, fish and chips, but it’s hardly what we’d typically expect – it’s really ajwain-spiked Amritsari masala fried fish crumbed with popped amaranth seeds accompanied by shakarkandi (sweet potato) chips.
Beetroot chops with ‘bhaja moshla’ cream cheese at Cafe Lota.
“Restaurants [in India] take a western dish and place it in an Indian context,” said Dua, who was featured on the latest Forbes 30 Under 30 list. “I decided to do the opposite – take a product that’s been around for 50 or 100 years and make it neater, with cleaner flavours. We’re fed up of eating expensive mediocre Italian food. Let’s take nostalgia, childhood flavours and local ingredients, and make them affordable within a certain context.”
Chef Manish Mehrotra at Indian Accent in Delhi, one of Asia’s Best Restaurants (number 22 on this year’s list), has been crazy about “khichdi, karela and kathal” since the restaurant opened six years ago. For the first two or three years, the food was dismissed by many diners because they thought it was fusion cuisine. “When we opened first, at least two tables a day would read the menu and leave,” said Mehrotra. “Later people [who stayed on after reading the menu] would ask for lachha pyaaz, pickle and papad. Now, diners at Indian Accent know that they don’t need these items.” A meal at Indian Accent is always relevant – Mehrotra changes the menu seasonally – and can feature dishes such as fresh pomegranate and churan kulfi sorbet in a mini pressure cooker, meetha achaar spare ribs with aamchur and kalonji seeds, and warm doda burfi treacle tart. (There is a rumour that Indian Accent will open in Mumbai by the end of this year, but Mehrotra maintains they’re still looking for a location.)
Meetha achaar Canadian spare ribs, sun-dried mango, toasted kalonji seeds.
In Bangkok, Chef Gaggan Anand of four-year-old restaurant Gaggan (number one on this year’s Asia’s Best Restaurants List), serves “progressive Indian food” in three extended multi-course menus. Some of his signature dishes: inverse spherified papdi chaat, pani puri in a white chocolate shell with silver varak on top, Alchemist’s Cake – a yellow dhokla shot from a foam gun served with savoury coconut ice cream. Each of these tastes are familiar enough, but the textures, temperature and presentation have been turned on their head – the treatment is irreverent, but it’s also more refined.
Cardoz is, in a way, coming full circle with his menu for India. In 1998, in New York City, he opened Tabla with restaurateur Danny Meyer. At the time, to most people in the city, Indian food meant tired, greasy, over-spiced dishes. At Tabla, Cardoz offered chutney tastings, a crab cake with Goan guacamole, Tahitian vanilla kulfi. Signature Cardoz dishes that carry through to The Bombay Canteen menu are tandoori black pepper prawns and seafood bhelpuri. But still, he says, the exact same recipes don’t work in both places.
“In the West, you have to tone down the flavours a bit,” he said. “Here you need to push them up. Also, here you make food so it can be shared.” Cardoz was always clear that the restaurant he opens in India would be local, accessible and fun. It would celebrate lauki, kaddu, tomato omelette even – things that US diners would not necessarily get.
It took Anand four years to bring his food to India. In August, he had a pop-up, a demo, and a food truck in Mumbai. At the India Today Conclave in Delhi two weeks ago, Gaggan told a handful of people that he has signed up to open a restaurant in India (in an as yet undisclosed location) by the end of this year. A week before the conclave, Anand told us that if he ever opens a place here, it would be a separate brand, more easy dining than Gaggan in Bangkok, and even more Indian. “For example, I will use more saffron and hing, ingredients I can’t use at Gaggan,” he said. “I’ll source ingredients from within a 100-km radius, and I’ll make it more sustainable than most Indian restaurants in India.”
Street eats from India at Gaggan
It’s an approach that makes business sense these days. The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India is not helping with imports. With lower food costs, restaurants become more affordable and accessible. At The Bombay Canteen appetisers start at Rs 150. One recent Saturday night, about an hour after opening, 350 people filled room. Zacharias says that on busy nights, 500 plates get through the pass of their partially open kitchen. In the next couple of weeks, The Bombay Canteen will start serving lunch to Parel’s working hordes. The menu, as expected, will be seasonal and will constantly change to keep the restaurant’s regulars keen. A Canteen Tiffin Box, inspired by lunch dabbas, will feature a full Indian meal (protein/vegetable, starch, salad, sweet dish) with adventurous riffs. “We want to do simple [local Indian] dishes,” says Zacharias. “But we want to do the best possible version of them.”