Chef’s Table: Indian Chefs Are Upping The Game With Freestyle Cooking

The top three finalists in the Freestyle category of LFEGA are changing the food scene in the country, one unique dish at a time.

Annabelle D’Costa

Across the country, top chefs are turning a dish on its head. Part play, part theater, full marks for innovation. The result? A menu that’s refreshingly different, and speaks the language of its creator—the chef. In some of the leading restaurants of the country, these fearless improvisers have scripted a deliciously new story. Here’s the best of the best, popular dishes from the finalists of the Freestyle category of the

Living Foodz Epicurean Guild Awards 2018


Indian Accent, Delhi

Chef Manish Mehrotra pioneered the modern Indian food adventure, marrying Indian cuisine and various global flavours in a gastronomic matrimony that every patron has enjoyed ever since its opening 9 years ago.

It's not difficult to see why Besan Laddoo Tarts are so beloved at Indian Accent. Adding a contemporary twist to this classic dish, Mehrotra came up with the idea of serving these with cream cheese filling and mithai cream. Sharing a little backstory behind this dish, he says, "When leaving for college in Mumbai, my mother and my friends’ moms would always pack us a dabba of besan laddoos. We wouldn't eat them on our way to college, but wait until we reached the hostel. We would then compete to see how many laddoos we could each eat. Each looked different - some were plain, others filled with dried fruits, but in all of them there was a special we could taste a mother’s love."

It’s difficult to pick one or two from their much-loved menu. From the protein section, he speaks of the Tamarind Glazed Pork Ribs served with steamed potato chilli salad. A soul-satisfying dish, he calls it. While the sweet and tangy meetha achaar spare ribs were inspired from a South-East Asian cuisine, smoky BBQ ribs with a sticky glaze, the dish served at the restaurant is one with sweet flavours and not smoky. And as far as side dishes for a whole rack of ribs with a hint of tamarind go, spicy potatoes make a great choice.

It's no news that most Indians love pani puri, aka puchka, aka golgappa, aka pani ka batasha, aka gup chup, depending on where you're from. "I think the world got the idea of a sphere filled with a liquid centre for molecular gastronomy from this Indian street food. As a child, I used to compete with my friends to see who could eat the most puchkas, urging the puchka-wala to make it as spicy as possible until our eyes watered, and one of us would give up." As this street food makes almost everyone go weak in the knees, Indian Accent, every pani puri lovers' paradise, serves both flour and semolina puchkas with a variety of waters—sour, minty-fruity and yogurt-based— allowing diners to make their own combinations. Replacing the otherwise traditional potato filling with masala couscous, Mehrotra's variation of this popular street food is a must try.

The Bombay Canteen, Mumbai 

Adding a breath of freshness to the food scene in the country, The Bombay Canteen, Mumbai is winning hearts, one dish at a time. There are arbi dishes on one hand, and then there’s Arbi Tuk served at The Bombay Canteen. Chef Partner Thomas Zacharias says, “This is our version of a Sindhi snack called tuk which is usually made with either potato or arbi and is inspired by papdi chaat.” Prepare yourself to dive into a world of spice-packed flavour with these crispy disks of colocasia served with spiced yoghurt, tamarind chutney and a kachumber made of mugri or rat-tail radish, a slightly pungent and very seasonal local ingredient which brightens up the dish.

The Bhutte Ka Kees on the menu at The Bombay Canteen is another dish worth a try. Inspired from a local dish served on the streets of Indore, Zacharias was so enamoured by the flavours of the dish that he knew it needed to be reimagined and added to the restaurant’s everyday menu. “In an attempt to up this simple dish, we took inspiration from polenta fries and made bhutte ka kees flavoured corn fritters dusted with a local Jeeravan spice mix, along with a coconut chutney which mimicked the flavours of the original dish. But somehow it wasn’t complete. It needed a bright fresh element, which I found in a local sea purslane called moras bhaji. Moras is salty and pairs really well with hing, and as a salad on top of the Bhutte Ka Kees fritters, it made the dish whole,” he says.

When Zacharias went on food trips across Maharashtra, he stumbled upon a spicy mutton lonche (pickle in Marathi) from Kolhapur. “After several rounds of trial and error, ultimately, we took the elements of a Kolhapuri thali and created the final dish which we call Mutton Lonche “Taquitos”—crispy bhakri tacos filled with the spicy mutton pickle and served with fermented cucumber and a cooling peanut yoghurt.

Bastian (Mumbai)

If you were to try out just one dish at Bastian, Mumbai, it should be Mom’s Singapore Curry, says Chef Kelvin Cheung, the brain behind this dish. While he personally prefers this Southeast Asian coconut curry served with Mud Crab (cooked along with the shells), one is free to choose between any type of protein or vegetable. He says his mother, who’s originally from Singapore, inspired this unique dish. “Right before our grand opening, I took a trip to Bangkok along with my wife. While there, we got a chance to taste a delicious curry served at the local seafood market. Back home, I wanted to make something similar and tried playing around my mother's original recipe. And thus Mom’s Singapore Curry was born—a combination of fresh Thai flavours and the Singaporean style food I grew up eating.”

Accommodating food allergies, the Gluten Free Chocolate Chip Pancakes from Bastian’s Sunday Brunch menu, is another drool-worthy dessert one shouldn’t miss out on. Made with three types of chocolate - white, milk and dark chocolate (every chocolate lover’s dream come true), these pancakes are light and fluffy, unlike traditional pancakes. A favourite on social media, these pancakes, he says, owe their popularity mainly to Instagram-friendly diners. But every famous dish starts somewhere, and this dish started way before gluten-free foods were all the rage. “I started courting my now wife who is gluten intolerant. While I did manage wooing her with my cupcakes and popcorn grits, it was these pancakes that got the yay,” he says.

Every chef/cook has that one dish they had the most fun inventing and for Cheung it was the Animal Prawns from the Littles section of the dinner menu. He says, “This dish is a combination of a dish I used to cook every day at my father's restaurant growing up, and a sauce inspired by one of my all-time favourite meal, the In-N-Out Burger Animal Sauce.” Modernising his father's walnut shrimp recipe with a gluten-free and lighter version, he opted for fresh aioli, pickles made in-house, and Bastian’s very own version of fermented Sriracha chili sauce to come up with this exceptional dish. House-made sauces, he says, are what truly make all the difference and cooking without them is a delight. Not only do they taste better, they’re fresh and free of preservatives and chemicals.


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