With a number of fine dine establishments helmed by chefs who are venturing beyond the ordinary, a cosmopolitan population and evolving palates, Dubai has gradually emerged as a centre for progressive Indian cuisine.
In one of his columns, noted journalist and food critic Vir Sanghvi recalls his first meeting with Chef Gaggan Anand when he sauntered into the latter’s eponymous restaurant in Bangkok over a decade ago. Anand hadn’t yet become the legend he was destined to be, but his genius was evident in every dish he served, defining what was then, uncharted territory for even well-informed Indian food writers – progressive cuisine.
Perhaps both, Sanghvi and Anand themselves, wouldn’t have imagined that the restaurant would not only find a place among the world’s best, but also spawn a new revolution of desi cuisine being given an haute makeover to make it palatable for global taste buds. What began as a slow fad spearheaded by super chefs such as Anand and Manish Mehrotra (Indian Accent), has now become a fast and furious trend with progressive or modernist Indian cuisine spreading its wings around the world. And while it may have started in Southeast Asia and certain elite pockets of India, it has now found a bonafide haven in another world-class city – Dubai.
It is perhaps fitting that Dubai – a city with no Michelin-starred restaurants but one that hosts outposts by Michelin-recognised chefs such as Gordon Ramsay, Jason Atherton and Vikas Khanna – would welcome the modernist Indian trend so enthusiastically. After all, the UAE is known for bringing the best of the world to its palm-fringed shores, and progressive Indian cuisine is certainly the most innovative highlight of the nation’s culinary heritage. It is no wonder then that this country is bursting with restaurants offering their own versions of modernist Indian fare indicating that globalisation of Indian cuisine – despite hits and misses – is here to stay.
Dubai-based food writer Natasha Faruque believes that the progressive Indian cuisine scene in Dubai has evolved primarily because of four reasons: An increasing number of global travellers visiting Dubai, palates becoming more sophisticated, world-class chefs pushing boundaries and diners willing to pay more for an elevated experience and ambience. “Previously, Indian food was thought to be the cheaper alternative but now people are happy to make it more of a special occasion rather than everyday dining,” she observes.
The hit list
Leading the pack is Tresind, a fine dine launched in 2014 that proved to be quite the game changer. Led by the talented Himanshu Saini – a mentee of Manish Mehrotra – Tresind changed the outlook towards Indian cuisine with eye-popping presentations, unique mix-n-match of global ingredients and cooking techniques that had discerning foodies drooling.
Three years ago, it took the experimentation journey further with the launch of Tresind Studio, offering an even more immersive tasting menu experience. “With modern culinary concepts working on breaking perceptions about Indian cuisine, the possibilities are endless. It is already shaking up the scene, and slowly people are understanding that there is much more to be done with Indian flavours,” explains Kevin Joshi, Group Head, Marketing and PR at Passion F&B, the parent company of Tresind.
The mind-boggling possibilities of inventive Indian food is fully realised at the chic Mint Leaf of London, located in DIFC, Dubai’s financial hub. Executive Chef Pradeep Khullar kick-started his progressive cuisine journey with Manish Mehrotra and Indian Accent, leading the team as sous chef. The lessons learnt there have translated beautifully in his menus at Mint Leaf of London, the ethos of which is to present Indian food with style and flair.
Khullar emphasises the process, which he believes is the key to creating a menu that appeals to all tastes. “I usually have a vision of the menu which is determined by reading up on ingredients and how they have been utilised in non-Indian cuisines. Menu development also involves eating out in local restaurants, experimenting intensely in the kitchen and taste testing with the FOH team and colleagues. Incorporating constructive feedback is what elevates a menu from a good one to a great one,” he says.
It’s not just about luxe eating
If Tresind and Mint Leaf of London championed progressive Indian cuisine as the fine dine alternative to avant-garde French or Italian fare, Farzi Cafe took the casual tapas route, targeting a young, hip crowd. The hugely popular Indian brand landed in Dubai, its first overseas branch, in 2016 and positioned itself as an affordable and fun eatery offering global classics alongside traditional Indian, using modern techniques. Within five years, it launched in seven different countries. Executive Chef Pradeep Negi says, “At Farzi Cafe, the food comes with cutting-edge techniques in a cafe format, adding a global twist to Indian food and Indian twist to global food with lots of drama.”
The impact of modern Indian cuisine, bolstered by an explosion of cookery shows, YouTube videos and the influencer culture, has been such that even restaurants offering authentic food have tried to include some modernist elements. Case in point being Punjab Grill that recently launched its footprint in Dubai after its first venture in Abu Dhabi. Kaustubh Mahajan, General Manager, Punjab Grill, believes the move was vital to “stay relevant with ever-changing globetrotters and food aficionados”. Progressive cuisine, he says, will exist comfortably with authentic fare because a lot of Indian chefs are finally leaving their comfort zones and venturing to do more. “A matured market will continue to see the rise of both formats,” he adds.
At Punjab Grill, the approach has been to use modern methods to tap into culinary heritage and turn the mundane into something special. A fine example is their signature Burrata Baingan Bharta. “This dish was introduced to highlight the role that Sikh and Punjabi migrant workers are playing in the Italian Dairy farms today. The rich and creamy Burrata is paired with sarson ka saag (mustard cress) chutney, baingan ka bharta (spiced aubergine masala) croquettes and makki di muffin or spiced corn muffins – all three traditional Punjabi dishes, re-imagined with western cooking and plating techniques,” says Mahajan.
Tapping the woke crowd
Currently, modern Indian food in Dubai is travelling in a new direction – that of glitzy lounges for a woke and international crowd looking for a place to chill with great music, creative cocktails and delicious food. MASTI at the very happening La Mer beach, is a name that fits this description. “Our idea was to make MASTI to Indian what Coya is to Peruvian food and Zuma is to Japanese,” says owner Pallav Patel.
Drawing inspiration from global cuisines, MASTI’s chefs create unique new dishes that boast the best of all words. Examples: truffle gol gappa, watermelon bhakri and octopus cafreal! “Indian dishes feature on our menu but they are modernised using international ingredients, for example, Burrata Butter Chicken or Saag Paneer Lasagna. The end result is a mesmerising menu of flavour, colour and texture which showcases the diversity and versatility of modern Indian cuisine,” adds Patel.
Needless to say, eclectic food demands equally creative beverages to complement it. Bhim Sen Gupta, an award-winning bartender, says that recent progressive Indian restaurants have changed their approach towards drinks. “Cocktail menus have expanded with new craft cocktails featuring local and exotic ingredients,” he says, elaborating on his own approach that re-introduces Indian ingredients with western mixology. He cites two of his own concoctions that reflect this thought process. The tequila-based ‘Tiger Peeta Hai’ cocktail is mixed with homemade tamarind and dates cordial served in salt and chilli rimmed glasses. “There are some flavour pairings that are absolutely perfect – such as tamarind and tequila! Then there is this drink I named, ‘Dil jhoome mazaa’, a raw mango infused vodka with spiced mango juice reduction and splash of soda water. Mango drinks such as Frooti and Mazaa are hugely popular brands. It is my take to bring back nostalgic memories for Indians abroad,” says Gupta.
The challenges: Attracting non-Indians
However, for a progressive Indian restaurant to sustain in a vibrant, expat-centric city such as Dubai, it’s not merely enough to create innovative menus. To stand out in a super competitive food scene, these restaurants have to spread their net wide – among Indians and non-Indians. And that’s just one of the many challenges. There are also issues such as unrealistic pricing that make them financially non-viable and repetition of flavours or ingredients that diminish the strength of the menu – all of which hamper the industry’s growth.
The key therefore, is to ensure that the ‘wow’ factor never diminishes, especially with the transitory international audience. Tresind Studio does that through regular culinary collaborations with well-known international chefs, a campaign that Joshi says has “helped in increasing awareness about Indian flavours globally”. On the other hand, MASTI depends on unique activations such as their Gin & Jazz Night, Elephant Bath brunch and Chef’s Table. “Allowing our menu to be more approachable via the combination of Indian flavours infused into global dishes helped us tremendously in speaking with the non-Indian clientele,” says Patel. Khullar believes location is important. “Mint Leaf of London is located in DIFC which helps drive the non-Indian clientele. But to retain these diners, we continuously change menus, prepare special dishes which are known across the globe and keep the spice level suitable for all palates,” he explains.
A bigger challenge is to woo the regular Indian diner. While progressive cuisine may be becoming popular among the younger, more globalised Indian, there is still a large section that does not like their biryani and parathas to be tampered with.
Hence, restaurants have to balance their offerings with a good mix of classics and innovative dishes to cater to traditional tastes. As Khullar says, “Food is very subjective. There are always diners that love classic dishes such as Seekh Kebabs, Kormas and Dum Biryanis. That’s the reason I try to be as flexible as possible with my food – while you might find a Corn 3Ways and Stewed Greens on my menu which is essentially an innovative take on the classic Palak Paneer, I would happily serve the latter, if requested.”
Does this defeat the purpose of progressive cuisine is another question altogether!
Looks over taste
However, the biggest problem is the lack of proper awareness, especially among those who confuse modernist with ‘fusion’ while attempting to climb the progressive bandwagon. With social media becoming a huge factor in the marketing of a restaurant, a lot of chefs often ignore taste and technique in the hustle to make food more Insta-worthy. As Faruque notes, “What a lot of these restaurants get wrong is that they sign up for the bells and whistles; they overuse molecular gastronomy techniques where it’s not needed but forget that the food has to taste delicious in the end. Just being Instagram-friendly doesn’t mean it will work.”
With the current challenges facing the F&B industry in the post COVID-phase, it’s understandable that only the best and fittest will survive. But problems aside, what can be said with certainty is that Indian food will continue to traverse the progressive route despite the roadblocks. Going back to Gaggan Anand, it’s all about telling a story through the food as he famously stated. And that is the only story that a chef needs to know to ensure that this culinary trend translates into an evolved cuisine at the global level.