Until recently, global conversations about Indian food were dominated by talk of oily curry and chicken tikka. However, a generation of chefs has been giving a contemporary and stylish spin to the traditional, and celebrating India's regional and community cuisines. Amidst this, two Michelin-starred Indian chefs have stood out for their focus on food from India's southern states and coastal areas.
Srijith Gopinathan, the only Indian-American chef to get two Michelin stars in the world, works at the Campton Palace, the Taj group's hotel at San Francisco. Sriram Aylur is the master chef at Quilon at Taj 51 Buckingham Suites and Residences in the UK, the first south Indian restaurant to get a Michelin star in 2008 and one of the first Indian restaurants to get a Michelin star in the UK.
It is a rare honour -- no restaurant in India has been awarded a Michelin star to date. Their success, along with those of fellow chefs such as Alfred Prasad, Cyrus Todiwala, Gaggan Anand and Atul Kochhar, is testimony to the growing popularity of Indian cuisine around the world. The two star chefs were recently in India and spoke to HuffPost India about the evolving global perception of Indian cuisine.
Both Aylur and Gopinathan's families are from Kerala, and the two still draw inspiration from the traditional food that they grew up eating at home. In their own ways, they've played an important role in carving a name for southern flavours in the US and UK. Aylur, who is famously known as the largest importer of Indian spices in the UK, marries traditional flavours with contemporary techniques and new ingredients.
Aylur's own professional tryst with regional food began with Bengaluru's acclaimed Karavali restaurant in 1990, which is famous for spotlighting family recipes from communities across the southern states. His London restaurant Quilon is simultaneously traditional and experimental -- the menu features a Mangalorean chicken curry, as well as a baked black cod with spiced palm jaggery glaze, a fish commonly used in Japanese cuisine but adapted to Indian flavours. "Any ethnic food done the right way has great potential," Aylur says. "That is the next stage in a mature market like UK."
"Indian cuisine is no longer spicy food that comes in a bowl, and I think soon it will be among the top ten mainstream international cuisines."
Gopinathan, who has trained at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America, has created a Californian-Indian cuisine that highlights fresh, local and seasonal ingredients, but also makes ample use of coconut, tamarind, jaggery and curry leaves. For instance, his signature dish is the slow-cooked Maine lobster that comes with a coastal coconut curry and black rice. Gopinathan's success is all the more remarkable because Indian food remained largely under-appreciated in the US until recently, in comparison to other ethnic cuisines like Chinese.
"Indian food was equivalent to north Indian food for the longest time," Gopinathan says. "It is only now that regional chefs are travelling and cooking their own regional food. That's one step forward. It is no longer spicy food that comes in a bowl. I feel soon Indian food will be among the top ten mainstream international cuisines." Moreover, the rise of third and fourth generation Indians and inter-racial marraiges in the US has also played a role in popularising Indian food in the US.
One reason for the predominance of north Indian food outside the country is the history of migration. Aylur cites the example of the curry houses in UK, which were mostly started by Bangladeshi immigrants. "Outside India, Indian food has had the longest existence in UK. The only difference is that when it started, most of it was not done by Indians," Aylur explains. "Almost all of them were people who had not done cooking back at home. It required no training and was done out of necessity." This started changing 15-20 years ago, when trained chefs from India starting joining and opening restaurants in the UK and food was closer to what home cooking. When Aylur came to London in 1999 to open the Taj restaurant Quilon, he was starting a restaurant that focused on the seafood dishes of India's south-west coast in a country dominated by curry houses.
"Even now, there are still some people who come to my restaurant and say that they can't understand a single dish on the menu, though they were told it is Indian."
"To the uninitiated, the biggest stereotype about Indian food is that is largely about chicken tikka, butter masala, dal makhani, tandoori chicken, and naan," Aylur says. "Even now, there are still some people who come to my restaurant and say that they can't understand a single dish on the menu, though they were told it is Indian. It is rare, but it still happens."
Both the chefs also speak of the social taboo against becoming a chef in southern India. In 1984, when Aylur gave up his law studies in favour of a career as a chef, he faced considerable resistance from his community. "In the south, becoming a chef was not considered to be the best profession to choose. Because education was so important, you had to become a doctor, engineer, chartered account or civil servant," Aylur says.
"There was a point when everybody was wondering why the hell I wanted to become a chef and wanted to get into a school that taught catering. You should be cooking only when it is impossible for you to study. " Even after two Michelin stars, Gopinathan says people in his hometown in Kerala still ask him if he works for TCS because he is in the US. "It is very tough to explain to them that I am not into tech," he chuckles.
Though it has taken a long time for south Indian food to enter the world of fine dining, Aylur says it might finally be getting its due. "In the south, food was often taken for granted. Until and unless, you don't start respecting your food and taking it seriously within the country, nobody else will," Aylur reflects. "It took a lot of time for us to appreciate our food, and the fact that it inherently had the quality of being fresh, simple, healthy, light and respectful of ingredients. It ticked all the boxes."
"It took a lot of time for us to appreciate our food, and the fact that it inherently had the quality of being fresh, simple, healthy, light and respectful of ingredients."
Southern Indian cuisine is known bold flavours especially sour and chilli and use of spices. Do the chefs temper the use of spices when cooking for non-Indian customers? Contrary to the popular view that southern Indian cuisine is spicy, oily and hot, Aylur points out that this is only true of restaurants rather than homes.
On the contrary, its subtle flavours, and the use of coconut, an ingredient which is also present in south-east Asian cuisine, makes it easy to adapt it to a global audience. "Coconut is a great ingredient because of the creaminess and sweetness," Aylur says. "Most of the cooking in the south is about very less oil, a lot of braising, stewing so it inherently has the qualities that the west is attracted to." So even if the chefs lower the heat level of a dish, the flavours remains subtle. In Aylur's Quilon, cuisine from Kerala is especially popular because of its versatility.
For the chefs, the next big trend in Indian food has to be the celebration of regional, home-cooked cuisine and its sheer diversity, as well as the respect accorded to vegetables in Indian cooking. "I ask the same question to everyone: how many of them eat chicken tikka at home? I'm saying just embrace that cuisine," Aylur says. "I wish we had a lot more importance given to our own cuisines in our own country. France and Italy are the best examples of how respect for a cuisine start from your own country before anywhere else. That will be half the battle won. It is the greatest soft power that any country can have."