Chef Floyd Cardoz Talks About Reimagining Indian Food
An Indian-American chef with deep roots in his childhood Bombay and coastal Goa, Chef Floyd Cardoz is currently on every Mumbai foodie’s mind, since the opening last year of The Bombay Canteen, the ever-bustling eatery of which he is culinary director. Cardoz has been known for his inspired pairings of American ingredients with Indian flavours as witnessed at Tabla, in New York’s Flatiron District, which pushed him and his ‘new Indian cuisine’ into culinary stardom in 1998. Tabla closed in 2010 and it is only recently that Cardoz has moved closer home. Here, he turns the New York formula on its head, highlighting seasonal produce and regional Indian cuisine, but in his inimitable way. He denies that his cuisine has anything to do with ‘fusion’, a word that most chefs prefer to stay away from, but what would you call methi theplas served with pork vindaloo, we ask him!
You do not describe your cuisine as fusion…. The word ‘fusion’ has been used in a way that it is more confusion than anything else, so it has no definite identity. Our cuisine is identifiable, in line with everything we do, so that is why we don’t like to call it fusion. We call it a modern expression — doing Indian food very differently.
What about Western techniques?
“Techniques are pretty similar through cuisines. You call it braising in France, or making a curry in India — it’s cooking something in a liquid. They call it roasting, we call it cooking in a tandoor — you are cooking with dry air….”
What is The Bombay Canteen’s secret to success?
“First, we have taken ingredients, vegetables and meats, that are very familiar, trying to keep everything as local as possible. Then, we have looked into how these ingredients have been treated in India and what people in India enjoy about food. They love flavour, they love texture, so that’s what we are playing with — flavour and texture. The sweet, the sour, the spicy, the bitter, all these are common in almost every Indian dish and we try to focus on them.”
How do you come up with the combinations?
“We are looking at traditional dishes and we are cooking them so that we accentuate the good parts of their ingredients. I search for a lot of traditional combinations. We do not mix and match. We do tamarind and coconut with fish because that’s what has been done. The use of tomato and yogurt and paneer, it has been done. The spices that are being used, it’s what has been done. We don’t put tomato ketchup in a dish — that would be confusion. So we have, on the menu, a coconut rice that I grew up eating. Another rice dish, cooked in a banana leaf, that I remember having way back in 1987, in Gujarat.”
Your blogs are so evocative….
“I would like to write more; I don’t have the time to…. In the last two years, I have opened two restaurants.”
New York and Mumbai?
“Mumbai reminds me a lot of New York, being a melting pot of different cultures where everyone is very excited and interested in all these flavours, so doing what we do, which is adapting from different cultures from within India, makes a lot of sense. Because that is what India is all about.”
So The Bombay Canteen is not like anything that you did at Tabla?
“No, that was very different. We were using American ingredients and adapting Indian flavours to America. Only the spices were Indian. Tabla was a restaurant of its time and of its place. The Bombay Canteen is a restaurant of its time and of its place so it has to respect what India is all about, and respect its past as well.”
Are there any particular dishes you would like to talk about?
“I cook very passionately…. So, I don’t try to put anything in a dish that doesn’t belong there. All the dishes that I came up with initially and which Chef Thomas (Zacharias) innovates with now are about connecting to the past, about dishes that he grew up with or that I grew up with and how to approach them in the best way possible.
Take the arbi tuk for instance. We used to make tuk at home, a very Sindhi dish. But, if I had just put arabi tuk on the table, most people would not have enjoyed it. So we dressed it up with watermelon radish and chutneys to make it sing. The pork vindaloo tacos are another example. I love the bitterness of theplas and it really works with the acidity and fattiness of the pork. Even the kaleji…I remember going out on the streets in Bombay and eating mutton kaleji cooked on the skewer. But to try and recreate that would be really hard so we use chicken liver that cooks really fast. I remember growing up and fighting over chicken liver in the curry. So, I said okay, this is a great ingredient!”
Your grandmother made great food, have you used any of her recipes?
“The vindaloo recipe has come down, what we do with the snapper is a recipe from Thomas’ family, the mango chutney that we use in the seafood bhelpuri is a recipe that my wife’s mother had made which I had loved, so I adapted it. So there are things that we found over the years. Documenting it for future generations, that’s what we want to do.”
“I am looking to open a restaurant in New York. It will be Indian but modern Indian…. Not modernist cuisine, no. We will be looking at Indian food differently, using ingredients from a foreign country.”
How do you prevent the combinations from becoming gimmicky?
“Every dish we make here, it comes not from the head but from the heart. When things come from within, with passion, they will never be gimmicky. When things come from the head, because you are thinking of what you can put in, instead of just instinctively doing it, it may be gimmicky. We are not trying to reinvent the wheel here. We are just looking at things that were cooked a hundred years ago, 50 years ago, 40 years ago, 10 years ago, instinctively and passionately.”
Favourites: chilled seafood bhel, desi tacos, tandoori pork spare ribs, charcoal grilled chilli calamari, pumpkin seekh kabab.
Publisher’s delight: One Spice, Two Spice (2006), A Time to Cook (2016).
Fun facts: studied biochemistry in graduate school but is not interested in creating ‘science-geek food’; was culinary consultant on The Hundred-Foot Journey.