One of the most abused terms in the world of fine dining has to be “fusion”. It may now be acceptable to cook your pasta with a dash of cumin at home— and admit as much. Or to raid your refrigerator at midnight to come up with your own fanciful versions of sandwiches, hummous with paranthas, or even spaghetti bolognaise — using Maggi noodles and left-over mutton curry, as Mumbai-based restaurateur Riyaaz Amlani, who owns the Mocha café chain, admits to rustling up. But ask a chef and one of the most mocked -at terms in his dictionary is likely to be “fusion”. Even accomplished chefs who are almost never going to ruin a dish just because they’ve let their imaginations run on a bit shy away from the term. So, their food can be “experimental” or “modern”, or even “cutting edge”— choose your adjective—but never “fusion”.
Yet, in the right hands, fusion needn’t be confusion. On the contrary, it has great potential to turn ordinary dining into a wow experience. Last week, I got first-hand experience of this when I met chef Manish Mehrotra from Tamarai, London, a restaurant that specializes in South-East Asian (and Chettinad) food, with a twist. Chef Mehrotra used to head the kitchens of Oriental Octopus at the India Habitat Centre (and other outlets in the NCR) and was back in town to give final touches to a “contemporary” (yes, that’s the word) Indian restaurant that Old World Hospitality, with a never-fail track record for all its restaurants, is now setting up. Despite his impossible schedule and the fact that none of the OWH kitchens are equipped to send out a Tamarai meal, he took me through a tasting. And what an experience it turned out to be.
Think sushi — in this case an unsual salmon roll filled with curd rice, topped with salmon roe, garnished with curry leaves. As a concept it is simply mind-blowing. And so playful that you wonder why no one in India has thought of bringing it here, particularly for the benefit of all those squeamish about “raw” Japanese. While you may argue that the spicy rice inside overwhelms the subtlety of the fish, it is a delicious Tamarai hot-seller. The second starter that I attempted was a clear winner, however: A tofu roll infused with lemon grass, coconut-ty flavours; almost like our own humbler and insipid aloo or paneer croquets but in looks alone. “No one likes tofu either here or in London,” says the chef, so this was a creation meant to make it more palatable. It satiates every Indian’s desire for a “hot” (deep fried) snack, exploding at the same time with unexpected flavours.
But here’s a tricky question: What is the secret to successful fusion cooking? For Chef Mehrotra, the touch stone is taste. His ultimate guiding principle, he says, is that the “food should be tasty and it should be value for money.” There can be no arguing against such a formula. But there are other little things that also matter. There is attention to quality, and to detail, and there is also a chef’s willigness to take no shortcuts. To coat the tofu roll, for instance, Mehrotra uses Japanese hand-cut bread crumbs — not the local ones pounded ones—for better texture. For the totally awesome main course, New Zealand—Scottish in London to save the carbon miles– lamb in a yellow Indonesian curry, the lamb is slow cooked to perfection in coconut milk over a grill. The result is that not only is the right texture accomplished with the grill maintaining a steady temperature, but also that the fatty smell that puts off many of us Indians from lamb becomes non-existent.
Finally, there’s flair. Flair versus method is an old debate in cricket as in Bollywood: Kapil Dev coming into bat without his helmet; Aamir Khan retaking to move a glass of water from the table, you get the gist. So it is in the world of food. You can be a truly sincere student at the catering school but the difference between a cook following exact measurements (and that too is important) and a gifted chef will always be an intuitive understanding of food. I see this in our own chef as he serves up the dessert—a delicious coconut and palm sugar crème brulee. The counterfoil to this – in London —is an Elder flower sorbet to cut the sweetness. Since that is not available in Delhi, the chef instinctively skewers some grapefruit that’s there in the kitchen and presents it alongside. It is perfect. No, fusion needn’t be confusion always.
(This article was published in the Business Standard, on March 14, 2009)