The best known Indian chef and author in New York talks about his return to Mumbai to set up one of the city’s most popular contemporary restaurants.
I grew up in a middle-class Goan family in Bombay. Dad was educated in England and Mom’s family was from Goa. Every day began with breakfast cooked by our full-time cook, Ermine. A day at the Cardoz home would start with Mom and Ermine planning the day’s menu; Ermine would then go to the market with a grand shopping list. My entire focus for the day was what was going to be on the menu for my two meals! Early each day, local Kolis would walk our neighbourhood, hawking the day’s fresh catch. Every home would bargain and try to get the best price. I was always on the lookout for shrimps, crabs, mackerels and cockles knowing that one of them would be hitting our table that day.
I would complain if my lunch box contained a ‘dry lunch’: sandwiches made with Britannia sliced bread and local cold storage cured meats. These were not bad, but were a far cry from the fish curries and fried fish or shellfish I could get at home. Fresh fish was brought in and cleaned and cooked for the day. I would throw a tantrum if there was no fish on the lunch menu. The best days were when it was cooked in Mama’s (my great grandmum’s) freshly squeezed coconut oil. We ate only what was fresh and local. European vegetables weren’t popular and always available in local markets.
In the monsoon, we turned to dried, pickled and preserved fish, as well as salted pork and Goan choris. Dried bangra with fresh coconut were made into a fish curry. Parra, dried mackerel pickled in garlic, chillies, vinegar and fried with diced onions was served like a warm salad with fish pickle. My great grandmother buried pork under salt in large earthen pots for four to five days and this was made into a light curry which we ate with bread. Life was delicious and good.
Our meals at night started evolving into adaptations of Continental cuisine. Meat stews, roasts and pastas graced our table every other night. To make the food more suitable to our Indian palates, Ermine would add chillies, ginger and other spices. But the one constant was that our food was always local and seasonal. Ingredients were never flown in from another state, leave alone another country. We ate what was caught or grown locally and was easily available in the market. The vegetables were crisp and bursting with flavour. The norm was to go to the market every day and get what you needed to cook for that day.
This rule has guided our eating habits at home in New York. Living in the United States, I’ve been introduced to a whole new world of local ingredients. When I first emigrated, I longed for the fruits, vegetables, meat and fish from home. But as I evolved as a chef, I realized that by doing this, I was moving away from the family’s philosophy of local and seasonal foods. I slowly started to enjoy the local produce, meat and fish. Farm stands and farmer markets became my stop of choice on my days off.
My family would eat only the fruits and vegetables that were in season. Tomato salads and corn during the summer; pumpkins and squashes during the fall, and asparagus throughout the spring. I served grilled corn sprinkled with salt, red chillies and lime juice. A simple preparation like this blew people away in the US and they started doing the same in their own homes. I have become obsessed with this philosophy of eating only local produce and I have realized how much better everything tastes this way! I even went so far as to grow a vegetable garden at home and took to farming.
The simplicity and purity of eating vegetables in season made me realize even more how much better and flavourful they are. Eating freshly picked beets, cucumbers and radishes is like having nectar. Picking coriander leaves for my weekly masala omelettes has created has created cilantro lovers in my family. I would plant garlic in the fall and see it sprout six months later. I would use every part of it when still young and then let it mature, harvesting it by the end of the summer. Eating peaches and cherries in the summer brings back memories of when I was young and in Bombay waiting for the peachwallah to roll his cart into our neighbourhood. Picking strawberries late in the evening when the sun has had a chance to work its magic on the sugars makes home-grown strawberries a treat.
I immigrated to the US in June 1988, and with my bags I took my love for food. I gave myself till August to get a job. I landed my first job on 14th August, just a day before I was all packed to return to India. I had no New York City experience and that deterred me from getting a job in most restaurants there. I started work at The Indian Café on 110 Street on Broadway. New York was a great food city but the quality of Indian food ranged from average at best to poor and was not exactly Indian.
Most cooks who worked the stoves and tandoors were farmers or truck drivers back in India before they took up cooking as a second job. I never saw a good Goan fish curry, or sahel gosht, or lal maas, or a great homemade dal. I was exposed to a cuisine that I had no relationship or experience with. I never knew that Indian food was a one pot curry cuisine. For me it was a very strange experience to cook at a restaurant where the Indian food that was served was a changed, adapted version of a one pot of sauce meal. Add cream to this curry sauce and it was served as a korma. Add green simla mirch and it became a jalfrezi. Add coconut milk and it became a Goan fish curry. Luckily, the owners were open to my changing the menu to include Goan, Hyderabadi and other Southern flavours. It was what I knew well.
The education in Indian food for America and its people was still to begin. The biggest disappointment was that Indian food in the US was nothing like it was back home. Indian food here meant poorly executed, non-seasonal, greasy, murky Mughlai food. I did not want anything to do with this sub-standard representation of Indian food. After a year-and-a-half, I joined Raga, an Indian restaurant that was run by the Taj group. But even here, guests didn’t understand Indian food beyond chicken tikka masala, saag paneer and chicken makhani.
I then got an opportunity to work for the St Regis Hotel in New York. I quit my sous chef position to become a line cook, making salads at Lespinasse restaurant simply to get into the American system. I started my dream job of cooking French food with Asian ingredients. I did not realize then how great an impact it would have on my career afterwards. The chef Gray Kunz let me introduce Indian flavours into the food when he began to see my passion and the vast potential of Indian cooking, techniques and flavours.
The more I cooked, the more I started to play with Indian ingredients in the kitchen. I was able to put dishes on the menu with an Indian soul. Looking at baingan bharta and reimagining it to make it a smooth, silky dish rather than a thick, clunky, heavy dish opened my eyes to the potential of looking at Indian spiced cooking in a whole new light. Or taking kabarga and using a different cut like shanks and refining the finishing without taking away the flavours made me excited. Till today I have guests mention my milk braised lamb shanks as one of the best dishes they have ever eaten. I was happy to be introducing so many diners to the wonder of Indian flavours. It gave me and my cooking recognition, and I rose to the post of Chef d’ Cuisine at Lespinasse. No Indian had ever done that before—it was twenty-seven years ago.
I experimented, using haleem as a base for lamb chops. I used baingan bharta as a puréed base for another dish of lamb shanks. I added mango pickle to lamb and beef jus and spice rubs and green cardamom to meats in winter. The combination of sweetness with acidic flavours can create magic. American diners had their first exposure to the wonders of flavour and texture of Indian cuisine that we have grown up with in India. I also realized that my love for Indian food and flavours had not diminished with my stay in the US.
The early nineties saw the beginning of farmers’ markets in America. The use of local produce started to get recognized and new trends in recipe development were beginning to emerge. New American cuisine, like all great cuisines, was going back to the basics of food and cooking. Chefs stopped using ingredients if they were not in season—they did not use asparagus or peas in the middle of the winter. They started to use meat and fish that were local. People discovered the magic of flavours that came from local meats, black sea bass and monk fish instead of fish coming from France. Great ingredients, great techniques (like simply roasting and lightly seasoning ingredients), tradition, locavorism and seasonality were the focus.
Alice Waters, an author and restaurateur from Berkeley, started the Chez Panisse Foundation which encouraged organic and homegrown produce in cooking. This reminded me so much of what good Indian food used to be back in Indian homes. As the art of cooking took centre stage, it led to the birth of TV shows and celebrity chefs. This phenomenon has continued to grow since then. In India the trend has been different. People slowly started losing home cooks. Both parents started to work, so the need to eat out grew. Every time I returned home, I found new developments in the food world. People in India had begun eating differently. Stand-alone restaurants started mushrooming across the cities. The food available to all had improved by leaps and bounds. This was all so exciting.
I left my position as Chef d’ Cuisine at Lespinasse to open Tabla in 1997 which, at that time, was the first and only Indian restaurant to play with Indian food. We opened to a 3 star review in The New York Times and I got to play with the way I cooked. No one had served halibut, red snapper or lobster with Indian spices before or even vegetables like asparagus, heirloom tomatoes and Brussels sprouts. It is common now, but no one then had served poha or sabudana all dressed up as a part of a salad. The more I experimented, the more I realized how much our guests loved the flavours. The US was made up of two groups of people: those who loved Indian food and those who hated it. I wanted to convert the second group to the first.
As I cooked, I realized that those who disliked Indian cuisine were afraid of all the lesser known and unrecognizable Indian ingredients like pomfret and karela and the murky, greasy sauces. The menus in Indian restaurants never changed and were never seasonal. This made it a cuisine that was stagnant and one they did not want to eat very often. I wanted to bring about a transformation in this attitude. When I myself enjoyed homestyle Indian food every day, why could I not make adventurous diners enjoy it as much as I do? I started to introduce seasonal American ingredients to Indian food and our guests began to appreciate it. I emphasized on the philosophy of cooking that was ever present in India: cook with what is available in the market that day, no matter what the ingredient is.
Returning to India today, I look around at the restaurants and I see the change. In the past four years the restaurants in Bombay have evolved, but not that much. More chefs and restaurants are worshipping the cuisines and ingredients of the West. Some are running the usual masala of pastas, pizzas and burgers. Menus are extremely long and, to me, mixed and confusing. ‘Multi cuisine’ is becoming a phrase that is being used by more and more restaurants. I wonder (as should every diner) that with such large menus, how do restaurants keep the food fresh? On the other hand, regional Indian restaurants are still keeping to the philosophy of cooking with whatever is the freshest and in season. If an ingredient is not available, it’s just too bad; it’s just not on the menu as they will proudly tell you. These restaurants are always busy, making guests wait for tables. The question to ask is if these restaurants are successful, why can’t all restaurants follow their philosophy?
Which is why I love Highway Gomantak in Mumbai. If a certain fish is over for the day, it is over. Find something else on the menu. This is the spirit of serving food that needs to be celebrated. This is who we are. I love what Indian Accent in Delhi is doing, making food more accessible, reconstructing and sometimes deconstructing, and using Indian spices in a manner that they don’t hit you on the head. The chef at Café Lota in Delhi is celebrating the wonders of India through a different modernist lens.
One of the phrases I often hear from young folks in India is ‘Indian cuisine is where you take your parents to.’ Our love for things ‘phoren’ has moved to food too. How many people cook at home anymore? Why are we letting age-old recipes, traditions and ingredients die? There are chefs and restaurateurs who would rather travel abroad to eat, but would not travel through India to enjoy its heritage in cooking. If you ask them what would be their last meal, more often than not the answer would be a dish they enjoyed abroad. What’s wrong with our grandma’s cooking?
My last dish would be either my mom’s xacutti or her sorpatel with gootlies from A1 Bakery in Bandra. In my opinion most countries’ cuisines reach their apex when all their cooks celebrate and choose their own cuisine, ingredients and techniques. Restaurants in France and Spain now cook traditional cuisine with spices, something that was not present in their cuisine, to this extent, a hundred or even fifty years ago. The ingredients used are those that were being used for hundreds of years, but with changes that reflect availability. I believe a cook becomes great when, and only when, he or she understands where his or her taste buds come from. Understanding their native cuisine gives them an understanding of the nuances of all cuisines. Many Indian chefs say, ‘I am a Continental cook, I don’t do Indian.’ I went through this same metamorphosis. I believe I only started to achieve success and fame after I embraced and celebrated Indian cuisine like I had never done before.
I believe the next step for Indian food, restaurants and chefs is to celebrate India. Look for ingredients from the far reaches of the country. Celebrate the cooking of all regions. Figuring out a way to use ingredients that our forefathers used in everyday cooking will evoke magic. I visited markets in Mumbai where I saw rat tail radishes, green jowar, water chestnuts, amaranth leaves, khatta saag, varieties of pumpkin and squashes, various types of rice and beans, but yet never saw one of these ingredients in any restaurant. These ingredients have evolved for our climate and way of life. They are best suited for the life here and are sustainable. At The Bombay Canteen, which opened in February 2015, we strive to celebrate and showcase our great cuisine. We refuse to use imported meat and fish and only source native Indian ingredients.
I also believe chefs should celebrate and support each other by forming a community that supports them. Competition is healthy, but it’s best to be allies supporting one another. Share your local growers and farmers: the more they produce the better it will be for the entire food community. If one of my sous chefs leaves me to become a chef, I would consider myself successful. If another restaurant copies one of my recipes, I would feel flattered. I believe the better a restaurant gets, the better the restaurant community gets. My final philosophy still remains: ‘Good food and cooking is not only about how a dish tastes or looks on the plate, but how good it makes the cook cooking it and the guest eating it feel!’.