Every time a restaurant recreates their menu, the first thing that excites people is the addition of a new ingredient, or a new technique, or a twist to a traditional dish (don’t tell me you’ve not secretly enjoyed the combination of an ice cream with an Indian sweet or the berrying up of your barfis). Chefs these days are travelling especially for food, looking to enhance their current palates even more by discovering new ingredients or products in different countries, and finding a way to incorporate them in dishes. They savour various cuisines on their trips, that believe it or not, sometimes even surprises them.
Bringing it home
When Prateek Bakhtiani, head chef at Ether Atelier Chocolate, was travelling to Tuscany, he discovered a new tea blend. He met two sisters who had turned their love for tea into a tiny boutique. called Oro Nero. “These sisters take frequent trips around Italy to find local ingredients to flavour the superior tea that they fly in from across the globe. Their ortigia tea blend is amazing. Ortigia is a small island in Sicily littered with groves of several native citrus fruit. It has quickly become one of my most prized teas, in what is an almost dangerously large collection,” he says.
Thomas Zacharias, chef partner at The Bombay Canteen, discovered Ambula when he was travelling through Odisha. “I was on my #ChefOnTheRoad trip through the state when I came across Ambula, a form of dried raw mango from Odisha, and I brought it back for my kitchen,” he adds. It gets even more unusual when Chef Benoit Vidal, the corporate chef of Foodhall, reveals one ingredient he’s recently used. “Corossol is a fruit I’ve discovered in Africa and I used it in a recipe that added great texture and flavour,” he says. Chef Prateek Sadhu recalls his discovery of the cloudberry in Ladakh. “A few months back, we travelled to Ladakh for foraging and we stumbled upon this wild berry called cloudberry. It’s native to the region. We’ve come up with a dessert with cloudberry and we’ve juiced it and made a sort of kombucha with it too,” he says.
Chef Aabhas Mehrotra, Executive Chef, Sorrentina, has a rather interesting discovery to share. “One of my proprietors got me a brochure that said sweet olive paste. I realised this could be really versatile and could be used for savoury as well as sweet dishes. So we tried to make our own recipe with olive paste, orange juice, lemon juice and you can pair it up with cheese and toast. It’s like a marmalade, and the flavours compliment each other,” he says.
The city inspo
Most of these chefs have their favourite cities that they love eating in, but there are also cities that they go to because it inspires their palate. Bakhtiani delves into details about his favourite. “Saint Malo, a coastal town in France, has instilled in me a deep respect for what terroir can do to every element of every ingredient. Specifically the local butter, called Bourdier, which I hear is now shipped to Michelin-starred restaurants all the way to New York, is intensely rich and incorporates seamlessly into the local seafood specialties and simple desserts,” he says. Chef Sadhu finds his inspiration in Copenhagen. “I’ve always been used to strong flavours and I still like strong flavours, but this city showed me how to showcase strong flavours but in a subtle way,” he says, while Mehrotra gives a breakdown on why he loves Mumbai. “You’ll find everything here, from the upper niche areas to smaller ones,” he says.
What? That can be eaten?
We’re not the only ones constantly debating if pineapple on pizza is a good idea, or if cheese and chocolate are indeed delicious (Yes, they are). Chefs often come across unusual ingredients and food fusions that leave even them dumbfounded. In fact, Bakhtiani uses leather to infuse his chocolates and I can tell you, they are beyond rich in flavour. “I’ve used peach leaves to make sauce and I’ve made ice cream from yeast. I’m going to try making chocolate with Neroli too,” he chuckles. Did you know birdfeed is used to make a chutney? Neither did Zacharias. “Niger seeds, also known as Khurasni, which I’ve always known to be birdfeed but actually makes for a fantastic dry chutney and is consumed by communities across India,” he explains.
Chef Mehrotra has found something called kiwi berries. “I was cooking for my boss and I discovered them then. They’re like kiwi and really tiny, sweet and sour. I would love to include them in my salads,” he says. There are also bizarre fusions, like Vidal points out, like Chinese and Mexican. “This fusion has always confused me. They’re both cuisines that are greatly diluted in terms of authenticity across the globe, and putting them together just makes it worse,” he opines. Chef Sadhu, however, quite liked the combination of tacos and spaghetti. “In Mexico, I had tacos stuffed with spaghetti in tomato sauce,” he says. Zacharias has an even weirder addition. “I had Mortadella ice cream in Bologna, Italy,” he tells us, while Bakhtiani adds, “Dessert tacos or dessert pizza. Just the thought makes me sick.”
Adding the best to your palate
We ask these chefs about the one ingredient they want to introduce to their kitchen. Bakhtiani, not having lived in India for a long time, wants to become familiar with the local spices and herbs. Zacharias, keen on adding umami, would like to try soy, miso and seaweed. “However, I have a self-imposed rule of not using non-indigenous ingredients in my kitchen, so I refrain from using them,” he adds. Vidal is a fan of berries, which he feels can be expensive in India. “I’d also like to try working with dragon fruit, kaki, Buddha’s hand citron as that can bring different flavours and textures that the Indian consumer is not familiar with,”he says. Look out for chestnuts this month, as chef Mehrotra plans to bring those to his kitchen in a big way, while Sadhu wants sour elements from Indian cuisine. “I feel Indian food is not just about spice, it’s about sour taste too, and I want to go deep into Indian sour fruits to introduce them in my kitchen,”he says.
We know people who take their trips #forthegram, but some trips are only made moerable because of the food. Chef Bakhtiani discovered top burgers on his last trip to New York. “I found top three burgers in no particular order: Suprema Provisions, Minetta Tavern and Emily,” he reveals. Zacharias, on the other hand, explored terrains closer to home. “ I visited seven cities in Odisha to explore and learn about Odiya cuisine, and even took cooking lessons in an Odiya home. Prior to that, I took a trip to some villages in the Sahyadri ghats in Maharashtra to explore wild vegetables being cooked by indigenous tribal communities,” he tells us. Sadhu shares some exciting anecdotes from Mexico. “We ate at all the best restaurants as well as at the hole-in-the-wall kind of places. My friend is a chef and owns Quintonil, one of the best restaurants in the country. He also took me to this house where someone made fresh tortillas and lamb barbecue,” he adds.
Food trends 2020
With the new year upon us, we definitely want to know what’s going to make it big in the food scene. While Bakhtiani refuses to indulge in a conversation about trends, Zacharias feels fast casual concepts inspired from regional Indian cuisine, vegan foods and meat alternatives will make it big. Vidal says, “I think there will be a renaissance of traditional flavours. Chefs and customers alike are increasingly going back to the basics, and looking for authenticity more than fleeting novelty. In the same vein, I believe that chefs around the world will approach reinvention of the classics with more respect for the underlying concept.” Mehrotra believes India is now focusing on niches. “Specialty cuisine over multi-cuisine places is becoming a culture that’s going to become bigger,” he says. Sadhu thinks the only trend that’s going to become bigger and will set in will be zero waste cooking. “It’s the best and the only trend that will take off,” he concludes.