Fortune Cookie

Zorawar Kalra’s Newest Brainchild, Delhi’s Masala Library, Inaugurates the Era of Post-Modern Indian Cuisine

Posted: July 15, 2016 at 10:24 am   /   by   /   comments (0)

Delhi’s Masala Library, which opens for dinner on July 18, moves away from the road it took in Mumbai and lifts Modern Indian Cuisine to new peaks of sophistication.

HOURS before I went to Masala Library, which has brought about a fairytale transformation to an old luxury car showroom on Janpath, I was with Executive Chef Arun Sundararaj of the Taj Mahal Hotel and he was speaking in his usual entertaining style about a grand khichdi from the kitchens of the Nizams — apart from mutton, chicken, quail and partridge, and three  varieties of lentils, it packed in just about every masala and paste you can imagine, topped up with generous dollops of ghee.

That was the pinnacle of Indian cuisine in an age when grandeur was synonymous with excess. Delhi’s Masala Library, the second restaurant of the brand that has swept just about every food award in its city of origin, Mumbai, has turned this paradigm on the head and concurrently upped the ante for the established masters of Modern Indian Cuisine — Bangkok’s Gaggan and our own Indian Accent. It is the home lab of post-Modern Indian Cuisine (its founder, Zorawar Kalra, prefers the expression “post-molecular gastronomy”). And if it doesn’t make the cut for the World 50 Best Restaurants, then there’s something terribly wrong with the list.

It may not be entirely coincidental that Masala Library, which formally opens on July 18, is the brainchild of 35-yar-old Zorawar, whose father, journalist-turned-food impresario Jiggs Kalra, discovered the gems of Indian cuisine (rescuing them from the shadow of their bastardised cousins then popular in the west) and put them on the world map. (Camellia Punjabi was the other person who championed the same cause around the same time, besides writing 50 Great Curries of India, the must-have wedding gift for generations of Indian women till the Internet took over.) And like his father, who was the Matt Preston of his time, presenting cookery shows when television was just coming of age in India, Zorawar is all set to make his small screen debut in the new season of MasterChef India with Vikas Khanna and Maneet Chauhan.

Masala Libary’s founding chef, Saurabh Udinia, who’s barely 28 years old, started his life as an acolyte of Indian Accent’s celebrity chef Manish Mehrotra, but after teaming up with Zorawar, he has become a ceaseless innovator. For Masala Library’s Delhi edition, he has travelled across the country, 15 states in all, to discover the way people cook at home and then giving everyday dishes delicate twists that are distinctively his own.

You must have his minimally cooked flavour bomb, Mizo chicken stew served with Manipuri black rice, to understand how the simplest foods get elevated in the hands of a gifted chef and impart the greatest pleasures. By adding roughly mashed onion as filling in a bajra roti and serving it with a dollop of unforgettable white butter, Saurabh lends new life to a forgotten, poor man’s food. Even the Kashmiri nadir choorma (a gently spiced air-fried sliver of lotus stem) served with the traditional radish-walnut (mooli-akhrot) chutney retains its authenticity, even as it comes to the table like a little work of installation art on a stone that Saurabh hand-picked from the Ramganga bed after spending 14 hours driving up to the river. The Nizam’s chefs would have turned their collective nose up at this blasphemous simplicity.

Saurabh addresses the worst fear of his generation — that an Indian meal is a tad too heavy for one’s comfort and health, so it’s best avoided — and he makes Masala Library food light and airy, without being any less flavourful. Indian food doesn’t necessarily taste better if it is amped up with diverse forms of fat.

I am sure it is a debate that Saurabh has daily with his father. He says his parents would never appreciate the food he cooks. His father, who was in the business of fresh fruits in Karol Bagh before retiring from the trade, swears by Karim’s, and his mother loves the Rajasthani flavours she has grown up with. There’s predictably a generational difference between their taste buds and their son’s cooking style. Saurabh brings together in the keema karela — his mother’s recipe — that he serve with semi-circles bitter gourd pickled for six days in apple cider, vinegar, salt and sugar. Touches like these are what sets Saurabh apart and makes Masala Library the restaurant that promise to be in the news.

KERALA’S FAT TAX A FAT LOT OF RUBBISH

KERALA’S communist rulers may have made history by ensuring there state is the first to impose a 14.5 per cent ‘fat tax’ on fast food products, but will it make rid the state of its tag of being the second most obese after Punjab? The state’s present regime is of course gunning for what it regards as an elite obsession, but the truth is that Kerala is the least penetrated by fast food restaurants, so its obesity epidemic has nothing to do with burgers and pizzas.

There’s obviously something wrong about the diet followed by the average citizen of the state. The root of the problem may lie in the use of coconut oil for cooking, or in the high consumption of refined carbohydrates, but who has the time to go into such deeper questions affecting the common good? Kerala’s ‘fat tax’ is therefore yet another instance of a government going after an easy target — it reminds me of the hoo-hah over Maggi that turned out literally to be a two-minute drama — when the quality of the food we eat is itself suspect because of the adulterants packed into our raw ingredients and the complete neglect of the basic principles of food hygiene in ‘non-elite’ roadside stalls and restaurants.

But yes, we have to fight fat, and the only way to do it is to start a concerted nationwide campaign in schools. In my younger son’s school — the older one’s getting into college — so effective was the ‘Say No to Junk Food’ message propagated from the time the students were in the pre-nursery age, that he (or his friends) rarely go to a fast-food restaurant (it’s only on birthdays that they make an exception) and insist on gorging on greens and having fruit juices instead of colas. Ironically, though, the school ‘canteen’ sells bread pakodas and samosas as if they are beacons of good health!

That’s where the contradiction sets in. Hence the need to think the move through and make ‘fighting fat’ not a subject of whimsical state-mandated actions, but a national movement led by students. Taxes don’t mean much to young people, but the constant repetition of beneficial messages, backed up by fresh initiatives on the ground, such as a ban on fried products and the promotion of fresh fruits and milk in school canteens, make a real difference. Let there be propaganda for a good cause!

THE AVERAGE JOE TRUMPS VIP CULTURE

THE OTHER DAY I was surprised to hear from the food and beverage manager of a leading hotel  that VIPs have ceased to be their VIP guests, but the ‘Average Joe’ is the new VIP. There was a time when if Bill Clinton went to a restaurant, the whole world made sure it would follow in his footsteps at least once. In the new networked world, VIP guests only mean trails of uncouth securitymen and tantrums we can live without (and if it’s a film or cricket star, then your premises get invaded by fans who are not likely to ever visit your restaurant for a meal).

Today, it’s your friend’s Facebook check-in, or restaurant selfie, or Instagram pictures, or recommendations on a Facebook or WhatsApp group that get you going to a restaurant. The ‘regular’ guest therefore is the new VIP; TripAdvisor, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter reviews are the new Testaments. As my friend, the food and beverage manager, put it so memorably, “Yes, we take good care of our VIP guests, but always have an eye on the women who post on Facebook and Instagram. They are the ones who get the real VIP treatment.” It’s so good to know that  consumer power has got the better of VIP Culture in restaurants at least!

This edition of Fortune Cookie first appeared in Mail Today on July 14, 2016. Copyright: Mail Today Newspapers