The short-lived winters are on their way out and the unrelenting humidity is starting to creep in. Having battled rush-hour traffic and sultry weather, the plush burgundy tones of soft lighting in Trendz at InterContinental The Lalit, Mumbai, have an immediate calming effect as we enter. The cooling hues, gleaming steel surface of the Teppanyaki counter and abstract paintings on the wall with peculiar Chinese symbols, look like a sombre stage ready for the play to begin. A nudge at the side flap door reveals the complete chaos that reigns inside. And amidst all the commotion walks out the executive chef Allan Limmer. His tall frame is a little intimidating but the warm smile is quite reassuring as he takes absolute charge of the situation. And in no time the organised chaos resolves into the perfect setting for the fascinating drama that is about to unfold.
With the heat waves rising, Limmer and his team have decided to experiment precariously with the simplest yet the most unusual ingredient – the litchi. Considering it is used rather regularly in Vietnamese cuisine especially when dried under the hot summer sun, as I am to learn later, the option is an interesting challenge.
Stranger to no extraordinary situations, Chef Limmer has worked in some of the best restaurants with the most experienced chefs around the world and comes with a distinct style of his own. Molecular gastronomy, which can change a chewing gum in your mouth to an ice cream within seconds, is the trend in haute cuisine that is his pet forte. But right now, he is focused on his team’s efforts, his expressions reminding me of a cricket coach whose team is minutes away from a mind-blowing victory, as he watches his chefs get ready to face the camera along with a volley of some inquisitive queries.
While sous chef Yogesh Amin, one of the key players, is a little edgy about the shoot, the Vietnamese chef Tia Tong Hong is simply jet lagged. He has reached Mumbai just the night before and looks befuddled with his eyes closing every now and then, but being a good sport he is more than raring to go. The duo will give the humble litchi a twist of their own. While Chef Amin has decided to prepare chicken and litchi salad made in contemporary western style, Chef Hong is all set to kick up a sumptuous appetiser with grilled shrimp on sugarcane and litchi in authentic Vietnamese style.
Fairly new to the city, Vietnamese cuisine is a part of the East Asian cultural sphere. The authentic style entails the use of oodles of fish and soy sauce, rice, fruits and vegetables as common ingredients for most creations. A diverse range of herbs, including lemongrass, mint, coriander and Thai basil leaves are also used in abundance. As Chef Hong explains, “Traditional Vietnamese cooking is very light, flavoursome and involves the use of very little oil with a generous measure of healthy herbs making it hale and hearty.” Cooking for this petite chef is not just a fiery passion but a legacy inherited from his grandmother. Having worked in various countries earlier he has now come to India to offer gourmet lovers an exclusive opportunity to taste and devour Vietnamese cuisine.
Chao Tom with litchi is a popular snack for house parties. The spicy fish sauce complements the gooey sugarcane stick which reduces the hotness of the spices. The liberal use of the unusual cilantro, a coriander-like herb adds to the tangier taste. And even as the chef talks zealously, about food and football with equal ease, his proficient hands are a delight to watch as he gets his culinary creation ready for the impatient cameras.
On the other side, our quiet chef Amin is also getting his act and ingredients together. A dutiful student, he has a focussed and single-minded obsession for food. He loves experimenting with various cuisines and his fusion of various flavours, be it plain stew with exotic salads or hot wasabi with bland boiled potatoes, are quite a hit among food aficionados. Today he has vowed to charm us with a very simple chicken and shrimp salad fused with the sweet and sour flavour of litchis.
Akin to a painter working day and night to complete his unfinished canvas, Amin broodingly clips, cuts, chops and washes with focused dedication to complete the very succulent chicken and litchi salad which is as pleasant to the palate as it is to the eyes. Amin has used steamed chicken to keep the calories on the lower side and boosting the health mantra further, is the use of the uncommon watercress, a perennial Eurasian herb that is high on fibre and low on calories. The final ritual of plating is just as important to the chef with an eye for every small detail. He charitably pours the sweet and piquant dressing and gets the different colourful layers of fruits and meat together to give it an attractive sumptuous look. A quick critical appraisal from all angles and the dish is ready to be photographed and devoured in all its glory.
Chicken and Litchi Salad
Chicken breast, 1 pound; Fresh litchis; Salad oil, ¼ cup; Lemon juice, 2 tablespoon; Sliced cucumber, 2 cups; Lightly packed watercress sprigs, 4 cups; Salt to taste; Freshly ground black pepper.
Rinse chicken, Bring three quarters of chicken stock to boil.
Add chicken breast and steam for 5-10 minutes. Remove from the heat and let it rest with the other ingredients.
Mix the litchi and the juice with all the other ingredients and keep cool.
In the desired bowl mix all the green leafy vegetables well with the dressing.
Cut up the chicken into drafts and plate.
Grilled Shrimp on Sugarcane and Litchi (Chao Tom with Litchi)
Medium shrimp peeled and deveined, ½ kg; Litchi, 1 can; Cornstarch, 2 tsp; Palm sugar or brown sugar, 2 tsp; Black pepper, ¼ tsp; Fish sauce, 2 tsp; Egg, 1; Cloves garlic, 2; Minced shallot, 2 tsp; Canola oil, 3 tsp; Sugarcane sticks, 1 can; Lettuce, 200 gms; Cilantro, 8-12 sprigs; Fresh herbs- red prilla, Vietnamese balm, 8-12 sprigs; Nuoc cham dipping sauce, ¾ cup; Salt to taste.
Chop the shrimp in a bowl, add 275 gms chopped lychees, ¼ tsp salt, cornstarch, sugar, pepper, fish sauce, egg, garlic and shallot.
Put the mix in a food processor and process just until a coarse paste form, remove the paste in a bowl, add oil and mix. Leave the paste aside for 30 minutes. The mixture will stiffen as it sits.
Cut 3 or 4 sections of sugarcane lengthwise into sticks, each ¼ or ½ inch in diameter.
Line a steamer tray with parchment paper and oil the parchment. Boil water for steaming.
Put lettuce and herbs and dipping sauce on a platter.
Wet one hand and put 2 tbsp of paste on the palm and spread it out in a circle. In the centre put the sugarcane stick then close your hand to make the paste adhere to the stick and surround it.
Steam the shrimp sticks over boiling water for 3 to 5 minutes, until opaque, slightly puffed and just cooked. Transfer to a plate and set aside to cool.
Preheat a grill to medium-high. Rub some oil over each of the shrimp portion of each stick.
Grill the shrimp sticks for 6 to 8 minutes until the paste is sizzling and nicely brown.
Transfer to a serving plate and present with the lettuce, herbs, and dipping sauce.
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