Business Today

Global Indian cuisine: Fine Fusion

Print Edition: Jan 6, 2013

At Vermilion, a two-level restaurant in New York's swanky Lexington Avenue, adorned with ponds, a water curtain and sensual black and white photographs by leading Mumbai photographer Farrokh Chothia, one of the items on the menu is Tandoori Skirt Steak.

What's that?

It is the best of Argentine grilled steak, including, however, all the flavours of an Indian tandoori marinade. Started in 2008 by Rohini Dey, formerly an economist at the World Bank and a management consultant with McKinsey, Vermilion blends Indian and Latin American cuisines. Indeed, it is her second outlet - the first Vermilion began in Chicago in 2003.

Dey - a marathoner described as "ravishing" by a New York tabloid -- wanted to break the stereotype of Indian dishes being strong-smelling, excessively spicy, and hard to digest. "I wanted to create a cuisine that was more acceptable," she says. Her investors included author Salman Rushdie, Hotmail co-founder Sabeer Bhatia, Cisco's Chief Technology and Strategy Officer Padmasree Warrior, publishing heavyweight Sonny Mehta and now disgraced corporate honcho Rajat Gupta, among others - all of whom believe that Indian cuisine has immense global possibilities.

"If such people were willing to back me, there is hope," Dey adds. "Things are changing. Around 65 per cent of my clientele is non-Indian."

Indian cuisine, adapted to local sensibilities, is slowly but surely moving into the fine dining showgrounds of the West, where French and Italian dishes rule. Purists may say such experimentation besmirches the essence of Indian dishes, but their starch-collared attitude would leave Indian cuisine a fringe player forever. Almost all Michelin star Indian restaurants, on both sides of the Atlantic, have realised this.

Take Quilon, opened by the Indian Hotels Co in London in September 1999, which serves South-west coastal Indian fare. Here Chef Sriram Aylur introduced what he calls "progressive cooking", which mixes South Indian spices with local produce. He had to persevere, but it was worth it - Quilon has been a Michelin star restaurant for six years now. "The restaurant took three years to become popular during which I lost half my hair," he says.

Indian food, being relatively inexpensive, had also acquired a downmarket image, which Dey and others like her are keen to change. "While most Indian restaurants in the United States charge on average around eight to nine dollars (Rs 430 to Rs 500) per head, the cost of a meal at Vermilion would be $60 to $65 per person," she says.

Similarly, when Vivek Singh opened The Cinnamon Club in London in 2001, he was determined not to fall into the low income clientele trap. A Bengali favourite, shorshe bata maach (fish in mustard sauce), for instance, sold by thousands of small Indian and Bangladeshi eateries, cost around »7 to »10. The fish used was usually the Indian bhetki or the Vietnamese basa.

"We replaced bhetki with Scottish halibut fillet, cooked it in a mustard marinade in the oven, and served it on a bed of spinach with ghee rice at the sides," says Singh. He also provided a garnish of onions and gave the dish a fancy description - Seared Halibut with Bengali Dopyaza Sauce - pricing it at »28. Such moves have made The Cinnamon Club one of the highest revenue earners among Indian restaurants in Britain, with an annual turnover of »7 million.

Many believe Indian cuisine also holds potential because of its immense variety, especially in vegetarian dishes. "The world is moving towards sustainable eating and vegetarianism is becoming important," says Abhijit Saha, founder and chef of Avant Garde Hospitality, which operates two restaurants in Bangalore. Expect many more Indian chefs to open restaurants overseas.

Goutam Das

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