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My Journey of Cooking Italian Cuisine in India

From time to time I find my thoughts wandering to the great meals I’ve had. A couple of years back, there was the one at Il Palagio, the Michelin star Italian restaurant at Four Seasons, Firenze, where I attended a special dinner titled ‘The Reds and the White’, a six-course extravaganza created by Executive Chef Vito Mollica using the divine autumn white truffles from San Miniato by Savini Tartufi paired with nine great Italian reds from the house of Pio Cesare (Piedmont), Allegrini (Venteo and Tuscany) and Argiolas (Sardinia).

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Extravagant Truffle Dinner

For many years now ‘La Cucina Italiana’, or the Italian Cuisine, has been one of my favourites. I love Italian cuisine for its simplicity, flavours, diversity and magical ingredients. Italian cuisine arrived in India a couple of decades ago when I was just starting my career as a chef. It was the early ‘90s and cooking Italian food in India had its own challenges. It is not possible to cook any ethnic cuisine without the right ingredients and Italian recipes in particular use a wide variety of indigenous and artisanal ingredients. Finding some of these ingredients was as difficult as mastering the art of cooking itself. Substitution may be possible at times, but the results may not be inspiring.

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Cured meats and Fresh pasta in Parma!

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My first brush with Italian cooking was in the kitchens of the Orient Express, New Delhi. Although the menu there was ‘Contemporary European’, it included several elements of Italian cuisine. In 1998, I had the opportunity apprentice with Michelin Star Italian Chef Giorgio Locatelli at Zafferano. What an experience it was to witness the art of converting freshest ingredients into superlative dishes! White Alba truffles, delicious salads, amazing antipasti, fresh seafood, creamy risottos, al dente pastas, delicate desserts and great Italian wines were all there. On my return to India I opened Seventy Seven, an Italian cuisine-inspired fine dining restaurant at the Manor Hotel, New Delhi.

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Spaghetti Carbonara

With no import licence, Italian ingredients were hard to come by and I had to depend on purveyors who would import these ingredients for me. Soon, they were all rewarded as the demand for these ingredients, showed a steady increase and their businesses began to flourish. I also encouraged local farmers to grow fresh herbs and exotic vegetables and worked closely with Gayatri Farms for guinea fowl, duck, turkey, Japanese quail and corn-fed chicken. Around that time, economic liberalization also facilitated the availability of more imported food into the country.

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Fresh produce in Florence

In my next assignment as Executive Chef of The Park, Bangalore I was entrusted with creating and opening the Italian restaurant I-t.alia, in 200. It was to be the finest Italian restaurant in the country and we collaborated with the legendary Italian food expert Antonio Carluccio for a comprehensive training programme on Italian Cuisine. Soon after I put together a menu that was an honest expression of Italian food augmented with fine presentation.

Italian Blog Arichoke and green peas risotto for Italian article

It has been a long journey of love, fascination and discovery of Italian cuisine for 21 years. Even today the knowledge and understanding of Italian cuisine and ingredients continue to inspire the menus of my flagship restaurants Caperberry, a showcase for avant garde European cuisine, and Fava which features Mediterranean cuisine, as they do for several restaurants across the world.

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The popularity of Italian food is fuelled by the many similarities it shares with Indian cuisine in terms of ingredients like tomatoes, garlic, chilli etc, regional cooking diversities and the simplicity of home cooking. It is also packed with a wide range of comfort food like pastas, pizzas, risottos and hearty soups all of which are as delicious in their vegetarian format.

With so much to offer, Italian cuisine continues to delight chefs, diners, food lovers and enthusiasts around the globe in a manner that makes it a real ‘cuisine of the world’.

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The Marriage of Single Malt and Fine Food

For many of us the ultimate expression of fine dining is a well-crafted, multi-course dinner accompanied by an appropriate wine for each course. There are few greater pleasures in life than the wonderful tango of food and wine. Still, don’t you sometimes wonder if it can be done a little differently? Perhaps another beverage that has the versatility and characteristics which makes wine such a perfect partner of food?

Anyone with a little knowledge and understanding of beverages will know the answer: the Scottish ‘water of life- usquebaugh’ a Gaelic word from which the term whisky has emerged. Within the vast world of whisky it is the ‘Single Malts’ that hold the most promise because of their close resemblance to wines, not necessarily in taste but in characteristics which make them ideal for food pairing. Like wine, Scotch whisky is a natural artisan product with a lot of skill and craft involved in its production to achieve consistent results of distinction. It also happens to be the most popular spirit drink traditionally enjoyed before and after dinner or sometimes as a cocktail (not by purists though who believe the addition of any third element besides some pure water can ruin the dram).

The increasing popularity of Single Malts in the last decade or so has opened up the potential of Scotch whisky as a fine accompaniment to food. Single Malt Scotch Whisky is a whisky from a single distillery made using 100% malted barley and water by batch distillation in copper pot stills. Malt whisky which has more flavour constituents than blended whiskies is generally matured in oak casks for at least 10 years even though the mandatory requirement is only 3 years. During the maturation process the harsher constituents mellow and some of the characteristic flavours, aromas and colour develop. There are over hundred pot still malt distilleries in Scotland. Each of these produce malt whiskies which differ considerably in flavour and bouquet depending on several factors like geographical region (Lowland, Highland, Speyside, Campbeltown and Island), climate and natural elements like water and peat (used in the kiln in which the malt is dried which gives it a smoky, somewhat pungent flavour).

Single Malts

Other factors include the distillation process, the size and shape of stills and the maturation process in oak casks. With so many variables it is natural that the single malt whiskies vary from light, floral and fruity to full bodied, earthy, smoky and peaty. It is this diversity of nose and palate that makes it possible for different single malt whiskies to be married to and enjoyed with different kinds of food. The pairing principle for Single Malts is no different from that of wines. In both cases one has to ensure the ‘balance’ of flavour, strength, aroma and taste. The term ‘balance’ here means that neither the Single Malt nor the food should dominate each other. The natural progression has to be from Lowland to Highland and then to Island and from young to old.

Using this rule of thumb, one of my favourite pairings is the Dalmore 12 years with Stuffed morels with whisky and honey reduction. This single Highland malt of great distinction with hints of Olorosso Sherry (from the maturing casks), orange and spice notes and a well-rounded, rich citrus mouth feel and woody finish is a great match for the exotic, earthy flavours of morels, creamy ricotta honey and olives.

The other is a more complex single malt called Jura Superstition made from island malts 13 to 15 years old. Despite being an island malt it does have the heavy peaty and smoky characteristics prevalent in the malts from Islay. With its multiple flavour profile it marries very well with the robust flavour of Rosemary and almond crusted lamb chops with whisky and wine sauce.
.Although it may be virtually impossible to replace wine with Single Malt at the dinner table, it has definitely emerged as an exciting option that can add a lot of panache and vigour to fine dining in recent times.

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SINGLE MALT DINNER MENU

CANAPES & COCKTAILS
Scotch Rarebit
Savoury olive and herb scones
Scottish smoked salmon and caper scones
Pairing- Single Malt Special Cocktails- Whisky Sour & Mint Julep

DINNER
Amuse Bouche
*******
Ayrshire potato salad deconstruction – roasted potatoes, onion, truffle, green pea gazpacho and beet foam
OR
Whisky grilled scampi with avocado salad
Pairing – The Dalmore, 12years
*****
Pan grilled silken tofu with roasted pepper and basil
OR
Oat meal crusted Scottish salmon with sautéed mushroom and whisky sabayon
Pairing – Jura Superstition
*****
Sweet lime sorbet
*********
Tomato confit, mint and goat cheese tart with whisky-saffron beurre blanc
OR
Shepherd’s pie deconstructed – slow braised lamb leg, feuilletage of baby onion, potato and sun-dried tomato and whisky jus
Pairing – The Dalmore, Gran Reserva
******
Raspberry cranachan, whisky flavoured chocolate fudge and fig ice cream
OR
Tome de savoie English cheddar and with tea pot de crème and cornichons
********
Cryo espuma
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Petit fours and coffee
Pairing – Dalmore Cigar Malt

Molecular Gastronomy

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Smoking things up!

The Backbone of Modern Fine Dining

In early 2004 when I was attending Johnson and Wales University, Providence, under the ‘Foundation for the Future Scholarship’, the culinary circle in the US was buzzing with the names of two top Chefs, Thomas Keller of French Laundry in Napa Valley, California and Ferran Adria of El Bulli in Roses, Spain. Onone hand Chef Keller was translating Haute cuisine to the highest level of refinement, finesse and perfection using mostly traditional ingredients and techniques, on the other Chef Adria had given a whole new dimension to culinary arts and created wonders on the plate by applying scientific principles and approach to cooking, which is today broadly referred to as ‘Molecular Gastronomy’.

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Caperberry Restaurant, Bangalore, India!

French Chemist and Author Herve This defines Molecular Gastronomy as “the practical application of science and physics in cooking to create a new taste experience”and Harold McGeesimply puts it as ‘Scientific study of deliciousness’ I like to define Molecular Gastronomy as ‘a style of cooking which combines culinary arts with culinary science and culinary artistry.

The somewhat controversial term ‘Molecular Gastronomy’ was coined by Hungarian born physicist and food enthusiast Nicholas Kurti and Herve This, who were also responsible for convening the first ‘International workshop on Molecular Gastronomy’ in Erice, Sicily in 1992. The idea was to bridge the gap between culinary arts and culinary science and re-orient some approaches to cooking by bringing together, food scientists, chefs, cookbook & food science authors and food enthusiasts.

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Liqid Ntrogen cooled Long Island Iced Tea

The field of Molecular Gastronomy has opened up a whole new area for chefs to experiment, innovate and create. It is about cooking with unusual ingredients and still handling foodstuffs with the usual care.A basic knowledge of food preparation and the use of high quality produce, combined with the physical and biochemical aspect paired with a philosophical touch is what makes molecular gastronomy special. It is not purely artistic or only out for special effects. As a consequence there are no creations that have not been carefully planned.

Chefs have now been collaborating with chemists, food scientists and industrial designers to transform food that look and taste different.Some of the key techniques include deconstruction, hot ice, jelly noodles, encapsulations, aroma leaf, foams, sous vide, liquid nitrogen and deep-frying in water. Another aspect of molecular gastronomy is combining foods with similar volatile aroma molecule compositions, which determine their flavour. If one ingredient has high levels of amines or aldehydes then they should be combined with other ingredients that contain high levels of amines or aldehydes. Many times the combinations are not intuitive or obvious. At the Fat Duck, Chef Heston Blumenthal (even though he does not subscribe to the term ‘molecular gastronomy’ to describe his cooking) combines Caviar with chocolate and oysterswith passion-fruit jelly. Unusually shocking combinations but they seem to work wonderfully well due to the presence of common amines.

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Where all the magic happens!

Top Chefs, irrespective of their cuisine including Joan Roca & Jordi Roca of ElCellar De Can Roca (Modern Spanish), Andoni Luis Aduriz of Mugaritz (Modern Spanish), Massimo Bottura ofOsteria Francescana (Modern Italian), Joachim Wissler of Vendome (Modern German), Alex Atala of DOM (Modern Brazilian) and Daniel Humm of Eleven Madison Park (Modern French) use techniques of molecular gastronomy in their cuisine. Even Chef René Redzepi of Noma, which features Seasonal Nordic Cuisine, has worked in El Bulli and has undergone extensive training in molecular gastronomy.

When I started Caperberry (Bangalore) in 2009, my aim was to provide customers with a unique dining experience and this has been made possible by applying techniques of Molecular Gastronomy to my style of Modern European Cuisine. Caperberry has evolved over the years and I have also introduced some dishes with Indian flavours enhanced by techniques of Molecular Gastronomy like Gol Guppa Spherification, Sous vide cooked lamb roulade with Kakori Kebab Spices and live maple wood smoke and Spiced Cryo Espuma which have been very well appreciated by our guests.

Churros moderne

The good news is that Molecular Gastronomy today has become synonymous with Mainstream Haute Cuisine and is a part of the cooking style in most fine dining restaurants across the world. Because of continuous innovations in Molecular Gastronomy during the last couple of decades many restaurants have enthralled their customers and have hogged the limelight in the list of ‘Best restaurants in the World’.

Abhijit Saha