28 October 2016Last updated

Features | Reportage

A taste of India

Be it a blast of molecular gastronomy or a fresh take on the classics, Indian fine dining in the UAE is in the midst of a culinary revolution. Tania Bhattacharya meets the chefs who are spearheading this movement

Tania Bhattacharya
9 Sep 2016 | 12:00 am
  • Source:Aiza Castillo-Domingo/ANM Image 1 of 3
  • Be it the Lava Lamp mocktail, basil tikka, prawns with chilli foam, or labneh-ricotta kebab rolled in rose petals, what’s guaranteed is absolute gratification.

    Source:Supplied Image 2 of 3
  • Clockwise from top: Pradeep Negi, Ajay Negi, Dirham Haque, Himanshu Saini – call them chefs, call them scientists… they’re heralding a new wave of fun fare.

    Source:Supplied Image 3 of 3

If you’ve lived a large part of your life in India, food is going to form a huge chunk of nostalgia for you. Those spicy hot samosas at street corners, the melt-in-the-mouth tandoori chicken at roadside shacks, a pot of mum’s piping hot dal with steamed rice on a cold winter’s night… flavours that are forever etched in your heart and mind.

Not surprisingly, memories of those flavours often come to haunt you when you plan to dine out in an Indian restaurant in Dubai. But while there are scores of casual eateries across the emirate that proclaim to serve authentic Indian food, it’s the real deal that has finally burst on to the fine dining scene here.

‘Bringing back fond culinary memories on a plate is a tough job,’ admits 28-year-old chef Himanshu Saini. ‘But do it right and it creates an element of nostalgia among diners, which is a huge hit these days.’

He should know. Tresind, the progressive Indian restaurant at Nassima Royal Hotel on Shaikh Zayed Road where he dishes out mouthwatering Indian culinary delights, is today a must-visit for authentic Indian food with a twist.

While purists may argue that Tresind’s dishes are too innovative to be traditional feel-good Indian food, the restaurant that runs full house every day of the week paints a different picture. And what a picture it is, especially the one that the chef creates with dhokla, a steamed snack from the western Indian state of Gujarat that’s made of fermented chickpea batter and topped with a spicy tempering. Traditionally it is soft as a pillow and melt-in-the-mouth. But not at Tresind.

The chef’s deconstructed version of this iconic snack has all the traditional components that make the classic chaat – the sweet tamarind sauce, refreshingly spicy mint chutney and the cooling yogurt sauce along with arils of pomegranate for added colour – but it is the drama involved in its presentation that will have you awestruck. As your server dunks fresh dhoklas in a can of liquid nitrogen, freezing them into cubed stones and then crushing them into pebble-like pieces, you begin to wonder if your meal has got off to a bad start. But the moment these pebbles are sprinkled with hot water tempered with curry leaves and mustard, they magically transform to their spongy origin, soaking in all the added flavour.

Welcome to a new chapter of Indian fine dining in Dubai, where chefs like Himanshu are the Houdinis of the culinary world.

Of all the places in the world enjoying the Indian culinary renaissance, Dubai remains a firm favourite among chefs and diners alike. Its share of subcontinental expats is legendary, so it’s little wonder that new-age Indian chefs, who’ve mastered the art of Indian fine dining in some of the country’s best kitchens, are setting up shop in the emirate, rustling up flavours that are as much the stuff of the bylanes of Old Delhi as they are of Downtown Dubai.

And while the modern chefs are averse to depart too far from time-tested recipes, they are also keenly following local trends and diner tips via personal interactions and social media platforms.

‘The soul of the food is our USP,’ says Pradeep Khullar, chef de cuisine of Jodhpur at Al Murooj Rotana in Downtown. ‘We’re doing modern dishes that have character and depth, and each one has a surprise in store. I call Jodhpur’s dining experience retro-innovative – modern dining in a palatial, old-world setting.’

The restaurant’s interiors certainly hit the right notes. Ornate Indian paintings adorn the walls while luxurious sheer curtains and intricate chandeliers come together to lend the place a distinctive indigenous touch.

‘Dubai gave me the platform to conceive a baby – Jodhpur,’ says Khullar, who lent his touch to everything – from its interiors and menu to its carry bags (‘I want Jodhpur’s bags to look like fashion statements; after all, it’s an image that you’re carrying around with you!’).

At 32, Khullar is the latest chef de resistance in Dubai’s Indian culinary scene. At the helm of Jodhpur, he has crafted a menu that is contemporary and healthy, yet firmly rooted in its local identity. Sample these starters: chaat condensed into bite-sized macaroons and served on teensy bicycles; melt-in-the-mouth beef short ribs with slivers of tangy dried mango; chicken tikka and water chestnuts pre-wrapped in tandoori rotis, and the chef-d’œuvre – an incredible labneh and ricotta cheese cold kebab, rolled in dehydrated rose petals. Scrunchy outside, soft within.

If you have any space left for the mains and dessert, the dal makhani – made from green lentils – and nihari (meat stew) are to die for, while the jalebi tree with rabri (thickened sweet milk) cheesecake for dessert will leave you totally satiated.

‘We don’t dilute curries with chemicals, and I don’t tweak ingredients just to prove a point,’ Khullar emphasises. He constantly mingles with guests or responds to Tweets and Facebook posts about a Jodhpur dish or dining experience. ‘And I always look for children’s approval when it comes to my food; they’re the best judges of good food.

It is this hands-on involvement that gives these chefs an upper hand as they’re tuned into guests’ needs and food fads that contribute to that extra zing in presentation or taste.

However, for some like Dirham Haque of Ananta at The Oberoi Dubai, or Ajay Negi of Bombay Brasserie at Taj Dubai, it’s just as important to remain true to timeless traditions that elevated Indian cuisine to its pride of place in the international culinary platter.

‘Our food is very ingredient-centric,’ says the 28-year-old Dirham, who set up Ananta around two years ago and has been steering it to critical acclaim since. ‘For instance, our biryani is not contemporary; it is made the way it has been cooked for centuries.

‘We always try to keep the symphony of the ingredients intact – tradition must be preserved where it’s necessary – but make changes where the flavour of a dish can be enhanced, within its own realm of taste.’ An example of this is using rose water in the biryani, which is made in-house from powdered rose petals. In fact, Dirham ensures all the spices are freshly made in the kitchen, be it turmeric or sandalwood powder, instead of buying them ready-made, and that nearly every ingredient is sourced from the best in India – such as getting lamb from Jaisalmer, or using only a certain brand of rice.

‘We experiment with our chutneys or relishes, but our main dishes remain true to tradition,’ says Dirham. ‘For instance, a bakarkhani [spicy flat bread] must go with a galouti [kebab].’

While it took Dirham a year-and-a-half to research India’s royal culinary traditions before the theme was set for Ananta, Ajay was determined from the outset to ‘showcase the traditional cuisine using a lot of techniques from Indian households.

‘My aim is to see my guests leave the restaurant with a smile and a satisfied tummy.’

When Bombay Brasserie opened in 1982 in London, it didn’t take long for the restaurant to become a sophisticated representative of Indian cuisine abroad. So for diehard Indian food lovers, its opening at Taj Dubai marked a milestone. And the rustic fare, perfected and beautifully plated by chef de cuisine Ajay, remains true to its heritage – it guarantees absolute gratification, despite the odd tweaks and twists.

The regular chicken tikka, for example, made way for the basil chicken tikka, its flavours elevated by the charcoal smokiness of the tandoor. ‘The first thing that comes to people’s minds when they hear chicken tikka is that it is red,’ says the chef. ‘So, I experimented with a basil marinade and it turned out very well. Now it’s my signature dish here.’

Despite the extremes across the same spectrum of Indian cuisine, however broad that classification may be, all these restaurants have ushered in a novel approach to Indian fine dining. And be it classic interpretations of royal cuisines from Awadh or Lucknow, or almost artistic renditions such as deconstructed shepherd’s pie and shawarma biryani, flavours and techniques remain strictly uncompromised.

‘We cook using the same ingredients and methods,’ says Pradeep Negi, chef de cuisine of the recently opened Farzi Café at City Walk Dubai. ‘However we spin it, the flavours remain the same. For example, our dal chawal arancini with rolled-up papad looks really modern but once you eat it, all you’ll feel is that you’re eating home-made delicious dal chawal.’

The 29-year-old has been with Massive Restaurants since ace restaurateur Zorawar Kalra launched it a few years ago, and Farzi is the brand’s casual-chic, hip and happening face, with the tag line, Get ready to get Farzified.

‘People in Dubai love Indian food; they know and identify with it,’ he adds. ‘The region is home to a lot of complex food and shares similarities in terms of technique, ingredients and cooking. So what we provide is global Indian food – taking common dishes and giving them a Farzi spin.’

The twists and turns will indeed have you whirling in ecstasy. For instance, the deconstructed shepherd’s pie sounds woefully foreign, but you have to give the dish a shot – bite-size pieces of pan-seared Wagyu, spicy potatoes, herbs and a potato mash, all of which instantly remind you of the dhabas of north India (OK, maybe not the Wagyu.)

Primarily catering to the 18-48 age group, Farzi serves up an impressive range of flavours in small portions, so diners can share and experience it all. The mocktail bar is equally popular, with its flavoured soda shikanjis (spiced lemonade). There’s a week-long waiting list for tables. ‘We present global food differently, but with an Indian touch,’ says Pradeep.

These chefs in their late 20s and early 30s have trained in some of India’s best kitchens, and clearly they’ve turned out to be the best protégés. Himanshu and Khullar were both polished by Manish Mehrotra of Indian Accent in Delhi – the restaurant has been counted among Asia’s 50 best for years now and its foie gras stuffed galawat kebab was a huge rage. Dirham learnt the tricks of the trade at Dum Pukht at ITC Maurya, rated by several connoisseurs as India’s best restaurant. Ajay honed his tandoor skills as a specialist with the Oberoi group before kick-starting Amal at Armani Dubai and taking Patiala at Souk Al Bahar to new heights as head chef, while Pradeep has been a Zorawar mentee.

It is this training that has enabled Himanshu to push the boundaries further and further to whip up masterpieces. After all, why can’t Indian food break out of its butter-chicken mould and be progressive?

‘It’s all about reinventing classic Indian dishes with your own twists, while maintaining their authentic flavours, textures, aromas and spices,’ he says. ‘At Tresind, ideations like deconstructed pani puri, tuna bhel, mushroom galouti or balu shahi doughnut give a refreshing twist to cater to discerning epicureans. Diners should approach progressive Indian cuisine with an open mind.’

The chef’s comfort food might be chole bhature [chickpeas masala with fried bread] and chilli garlic noodles from a roadside van in India, but all that is a far cry from his scintillating menu that turns every preconceived notion about Indian cuisine on its head. Deconstruction is a huge part of his dynamic food philosophy, and Himanshu embraces molecular techniques with bravado. ‘Each dish at Tresind offers a one-of-a-kind gastronomical experience,’ he says.

Progressive or just flirtatious presentations aside, there’s no doubting that Indian fine dining in the emirate is trending.

The popularity of his latest introductions to the menu – chicken tikka carpaccio with lychee and tarragon, and a mango phirni [milk-rice pudding] popsicle with mango and passion fruit gel and coconut snow – are proof that it’s surely headed in the right direction too.

Tania Bhattacharya

Tania Bhattacharya