India's premier luxury lifestyle women's magazine
Wine & Dine
April 25, 2011

Khandvi With A Twist

Text by Shirin Mehta

Travelling the world has been one of Michelin chef, Vineet Bhatia’s biggest inspirations. He invites Shirin Mehta to traverse the East with him and imbibe some tantalising flavours

At the Oberoi, Mumbai, Chef Vineet Bhatia, the only Indian chef to have received two individual Michelin stars, is jet-lagged and tired. And yet, he has already had a turn in the kitchen for the lunch service at Ziya, the trendy Indian fine dining restaurant. Busy setting a new menu in place that will challenge his creativity further, this man of the world, has given a global perspective to Indian cuisine, though he claims that his preparations represent a jugalbandi of dishes only from the various regions of India. Served in courses rather than the normally prevalent community sharing and dining that Indian food involves, and plated in the style of western fine dine dishes, what Bhatia dishes up is a cuisine that is actually entirely his own.

Bhatia remembers family lunches as a child. “Mom made a rogan josh which we ate with tyrewale parathas…they were thick like tyres and absorbed the delicious gravy. She would spend a great deal of time making this and until today I try to re-create that flavour but cannot. I learnt from her the passion for food and creating it for your family. I feel that same passion but I take it to a larger audience.” His experiments with ingredients may also be traced back to his mother who once created a delicious kheer made with cauliflower just as her son has created barfi from chicken and rasmalai out of fish. “Memories come, go, change….I came up with my own cuisine, not a new cuisine, not a fusion but Indian cuisine with a twist.”

Bhatia’s creations retain the essence and taste of traditional Indian while incorporating influences and ingredients garnered from his travels within and out of the country….

Bangkok, Phuket, Pattaya….
My first venture into food was on my honeymoon. My wife, a pharmacist, was very amused at my intense involvement with cuisine. For her, khana is khana, but I eat, live and dream food. Even then, I always saw it as an art. My constant quest was, how do I make my desi khana the best in the world?

While we did have a very classic North Indian meal in Bangkok that was really good, I found Thai food to be very inspiring. After all, it is a derivative of Indian food. While Indian food will puree cashew nuts and other dry fruits, I learnt from Thai cuisine to keep the nuts whole, giving the dish a bite and rendering it lighter to eat. It looks more luxurious and you cannot cheat on the ingredients since they can be seen. I have also adapted the flavours of their often-used lemongrass when I realised that Mom used to make tea with lemongrass. I started to use it in powdered form in kababs as well as crème brulee.

Singapore….
Singapore was a huge eye opener for someone like me who came from Mumbai. That city is achingly green, squeakily clean. I was so impressed by the hawkers’ stalls at Newton Circus. I remember eating a stunning barbeque of stingray and downing it with clean jars of freshly-squeezed sugarcane and litchi juice. I realised how advanced they are at sourcing products of great quality and sometimes hard to get in the area. This was a turning point for me. I learnt to source the best and freshest for my kitchens.

Sri Lanka….
Sri Lankan cuisine I discovered, is similar to Tamil Nadu’s. They use coconut milk a lot and I learnt to incorporate it in my cuisine. I make a crème caramel with coconut milk, to which I add caramalised gur, ajjwain and till. It works extremely well…. You look for ideas to borrow and steal but you must make them your own – mix and match and you have a winner. Very few people can taste food in their mind – I can smell saffron in my mind and blend it with other ingredients…. Like a perfumer or a tea blender. I am fortunate that I can taste in my mind. I am blessed that I can concoct dishes just sitting in my chair and they usually come out great.

Gujarat, South India….
Until I joined catering college in Gujarat, I had never tasted Gujarati food in my life. The farsans, khandvi, samosas – it was like a mystery box. I realised however that you do not touch the classics. You can only adapt a bit. So, I do a khandvi rolled with crabmeat. Make the batter in the usual way, cut the strips and cook the crab in a very traditional South Indian tadka. This is then rolled into the khandvi and makes a delicious dish.

You cannot change South Indian classics like idlis either. Being classically white in colour, we could not serve them in the winter months. So, we served baby idlis with a heavy lamb korma cooked with kaju paste and cream. The idlis were cooked with morels and classic coconut chutney which changed the colour and gave them a dark ring that looked very aesthetic. We did not serve rice with the curry, but only the idlis. This is not a re-invention of classic cuisine but rather, I am applying a different thought process to make it more interesting, more glamorous. One of the new dishes I plan to introduce at Ziya is a classic dhokla, served with South Indian Chettinad prawn. Just to give the plate a little lift and make it look wonderful.

Nepal….
I have had Nepali cooks working for me and I would watch them making momos for themselves. I said show me how you make them. Why can’t we use lobster meat in them, crab, asparagus, sundried tomatoes…the possibilities are endless. And we serve it with sundried tomato pesto which uses the technique of making pesto but is a chutney. Pesto sounds sexy, it sounds great. We also use the momos with rice made traditionally in Assam in a dish that incorporates chicken sheekh kabab or vegetable kofta wrapped with rice and steamed. It is a meal in itself.

In Peru, Bhatia has cooked potatoes that are naturally black in colour. He has seen butta with black kernels. He aches to incorporate these ingredients into his cooking but they are hard to come by. In the Gulf countries, he has banqueted with princes and dined with Bedouins. He discovered that they use a lot of curry leaves in their food since it grows locally. He has also discovered that their biryani is flavoured with parsley. Somewhere, sometime, he says that these influences will get incorporated in his cuisine. And already, he is working on incorporating fresh camel’s milk in his food. “From Rajasthan, perhaps,” he says.

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