How Indian Accent’s Manish Mehrotra Became a Celebrity in Israel Without Having Ever Visited the Country
ISRAEL is the next big destination for haute Indian cuisine. It started with an Israeli food critic having a meal at the Indian Accent a couple of years ago. The critic came in unannounced and unrecognised, had his meal, and went home to write a grand piece on how Indian cuisine had come of age — and how different it was from what’s served by ‘Indian’ restaurants in Israel.
Indian Accent’s guardian angel, the celebrated chef Manish Mehrotra, didn’t even know that he had become a star in Israel — because the critic writes for the country’s main Hebrew newspaper — till his restaurant started getting a steady trickle of Israeli tourists who knew exactly what to order and how to eat the food. Curious, Mehrotra asked them how they had came to know about him and that’s when he learnt about the impact the critic had had.
Before Indian food became the rage in Israel, Ben Neriah, a young chef (then only 27) in Tel Aviv, which is the country’s nightlife capital as well, set off on a four-month tour across India, China, Thailand and Vietnam to discover the flavours of Asia to define the menu of the restaurant that he had planned to open.
Having worked in the kitchens of such iconic establishments as Arzac (San Sebastian, Spain) and Le Bernadin (New York City), the chef knew all about Michelin-star dining, but he was driven by the idea of developing an ‘Asiaterranean’ cuisine — Asian food with Mediterranean touches (lots of olive oil, eggplant and tomatoes, for starters) — and his dream translated into the restaurant named Taizu. TimeOut magazine named it Israel’s best new restaurant and not long thereafter, Neriah was honoured as best chef of the year (a hat he has now worn for three years in a row).
Needless to say, Neriah is quite a celebrity in his country and, interestingly, the top-selling items on his menu are butter chicken and beef vindaloo presented in the Asiaterranean style. On Sundays, Taizu‘s menu is 100 per cent Indian (there’s even Indian music — Bollywood numbers — accompanying it) and it ensures that the restaurant gets sold out. Neriah says it’s the result of the review of Indian Accent by that influential critic. “Indian cuisine today is widely discussed in Israel today. People can’t seem to have enough of it,” he said to me in an interview during his recent visit to India. “Many new Indian restaurants have also come up,” he added.
Neriah had come here for what he said was a dream project — an opportunity to understand Modern Indian Cuisine with Mehrotra. “I couldn’t miss the chance of working with a chef of his calibre,” Neriah said. On November 8 to 12, Mehrotra will be at Taizu, working at its kitchen, to present his interpretation of Indian cuisine to Israeli diners. He is one of 13 top chefs from around the world who will be in Israel next month for an annual dining event called the Round Tables by American Express. For Mehrotra, it will be his first visit to Israel (he’s already a celebrity without ever visiting the country!), but his $90-per-head dinners (without alcohol) are all sold out.
“I was really excited when I first heard I had to go to Israel,” Mehrotra said. He’s going with a big bag full of ingredients such as jaggery (gur), amchoor (made from whole and dried green mangoes), different kinds of papad and mustard oil, which is one ingredient that Indian chefs miss when they are abroad because of the rich flavour it lends to food.
Mehrotra uses mustard oil to make his favourite dishes such as Kashmiri haak with lobster (turnips, or gogji as the Kashmiris would call it, will replace the crustacean for those who consider lobster to be not kosher). In the hands of a master, Indian cuisine acquires the kind of variety and depth it needs to court the international palate without losing its authenticity.
This article first appeared in my Fortune Cookie column in Mail Today on Sunday on October 20, 2016.
Copyright: Mail Today Newspapers.