Indian cuisine reflects a 5,000-year history, encompassing an array of native regional sub-cuisines from the geographic landscape of the subcontinent. It has been impacted and influenced by various cultural interactions through trade relations and is, more importantly, a resultant effect of the numerous foreign invasions and colonisations by the British, Portuguese and Spanish regimes. This led to diverse regional cuisines and flavours that still delight today.
The period between 8th to 18th centuries saw the advent of some major dynasties such as the Chola Empire, the Hoysala and Vijaynagara Empires, Kakatiya Kingdom and the Reddy Kingdom in the South and the Ahom Kingdom in the East and the Sikh, Rajput and Mughal Empires in the North, to name a few. It was during this time that foreign travellers and traders introduced the locals to new products, cooking techniques and methods, including the use of unique spices and tea, especially saffron—a hallmark seasoning in many dishes emerging out of north India. India’s economic ties, and later invasion by Persia, infused the country’s cuisine with many Arab approaches to meal preparation.
Refined by the whims of history and geography, Indian cuisine has spread to the rest of the world—especially the Western hemisphere. In the last 70 to 80 years, since its proliferation, innumerable restaurants, cafés and dhabas (roadside eateries) have been introducing gastronomes from far and wide to India’s eclectic cuisine. Rotis, tikkas, tandoori and curry became the buzzwords for diners across the world and Chicken Tikka Masala, a product developed by immigrants from the subcontinent to the UK, has come to be considered UK’s national dish.
In those circumstances, until very recently, however, the hearty sprinkle of spices was adjusted—less chilly and tamed flavours—to suit the unaccustomed consumer’s palates.
Mostly, Indian cuisine, available outside of India, has been focused on dishes found and served on the dining tables in north India, which do not necessarily represent the entire culinary landscape that the country has to offer. Despite its global reach, Indian cuisine—on and beyond the subcontinent—has lacked authenticity, standardisation and a sense of panache.
In my view, the reasons for this shortcoming boil down to the scarcity of recipes and records. Every royal khansaama (cook) chose not to share their secret recipes with anyone, thus leading to the slow, but steady, death of many classic dishes. Another reason is the presence of numerous regional cuisines, with sub cuisines presents, each boasting their own iteration and variation to the same dish. As a unified region, we have never focused on taking pride in our cuisine and presenting it in the right manner to the rest of the world—a failure that has spawned an abundance of dish variations, most of them not even remotely authentic, found across the globe.
Over the decades, Indian cuisine became rather boring with the same meals and presentations available anywhere, whether it would be a high-end five star restaurant or a small roadside eatery.
Sadly, the cuisine had not seen much innovation—the portions were large, focusing on quantity rather than quality, and on arrangements much resembling those of the early 1900s—which almost led to a stagnation of the cuisine. Having said that, over the past few years, restaurateurs and chefs, who have realised the need to revive this lost legacy, have been portraying Indian food in a different light. Many successfully tried and introduced fusion cooking to India’s food, which is now elevated to the next level through progressive cuisine.
The difference between fusion cooking and progressive cooking is thin yet vast. It is widely believed that whenever you mix two things together, it is considered “fusion”. Even if that may be theoretically correct, fusion cuisine combines elements of various dining traditions while not fitting specifically into any and has been in existence for many years.
Whereas, progressive cuisine, a relatively newer concept, focuses on traditional aspects of a region’s cuisine by using modern cooking techniques, global influences and presentation styles to showcase the food in a whole new avatar that, nonetheless, retains its traditional essence.
As an Indian and an avid lover of the robustness Indian food offers, I take immense pride in our cuisine and believe it is up to us Indians to make the efforts to refine it and reintroduce it to the world in its modernity, while preserving its roots. And that’s the reason we commenced our current venture, Massive Restaurants, which operates acclaimed Indian cuisine restaurants such as Masala Library by Jiggs Kalra, Farzi Café, Made in Punjab and MasalaBar.
Progressive Indian food has unique elements, which allow for the dish to be presented differently, but with familiar flavours. Your eyes might not recognise it instantly, but your palate will. This has been achieved by introducing uncommon vegetables such as turai (ridged gourd), kaddu (pumpkin), karela (bitter gourd), and other similar ingredients, which were rarely—if ever—included in the menus of commercial Indian restaurants.
The use of micro greens in cooking and plating is another means—apart from the use of spices very unique to their geography—to bring about fresh, unique flavours to modern Indian food. Among the most notable contributions to development of the cuisine has been the introduction of modernist culinary techniques, which have revolutionised the perception of Indian dishes, making them more relevant to today’s well-travelled and exposed diners.
Among my personal favourites is the Wild Mushroom Chai—presented like an English tea service but truly Indian in its flavour. The beverage comprises a mushroom consommé (similar to a tea decoction), dehydrated mushrooms (akin to dried tea leaves) and truffle oil crumbs (as the creamer). A dish which I feel is perfect for calorie-conscious gourmands is the Raj Kachori served with saunth (tamarind chutney), where the chutney has been converted into foam, thereby offering the guest the taste and experience of the original recipe, but with an enhanced look and just one percent of the calories.
Along with the reinvention of Indian cuisine, we are now witness to the varied hues of the cuisine being recorded at regional, national and international levels through blogs, Indian food-based online forums, as well as many culinary books being published, which showcase recipes from various regions and communities of India.
Aside from the radical changes being done in the menus of many new Indian restaurants the world over, the cuisine has also gained ground owing to the popularity of cable television. Successful programmes such as Daawat and Zaike Ka Safar, followed by newer projects like the MasterChef franchises in India, Australia, and the US showing a different, more creative aspect of Indian food, with a fine balance between traditional and modern Indian dishes and their presentation.
It is imperative, and time, for us to take our century-old culinary heritage forward by imbibing cutting edge, modernist cooking techniques, working with relatively uncommon ingredients and showcasing dishes from across the country.
With the acceptance of Indian cuisine in the day-to-day life of diners across the globe, this revolution is only expected to intensify with more and more chefs and restaurateurs becoming adventurous and bold with food, preparing and presenting it in a novel manner for years to come. These are very exciting times for Indian
The author is Founder and Managing Director, Massive Restaurants Pvt. Ltd.; he also served as a judge for MasterChef India in 2016