Indian cuisine: 5 things we learnt in Milan and San Sebastißn

Gastronomika and the new Cittamani restaurant offered a focus on the subcontinent: a surprising tradition

18-10-2017

A focus on India at Gastronomika 2017. And beyond...

It’s now India’s turn! It feels like the time has come to make space for the subcontinent on the roller-coaster of international cuisine, after it’s been relegated to an extra role with no particular quality. The comparison with neighbouring China (they look at each other across a 3,380 km long border) is necessary: many years ago we came across the first restaurants to serve chicken and almonds and spring rolls in Italy, a rough copy of the food really served in Beijing. We then learnt these were a bad caricature of a great tradition, when we had the chance to taste the first versions of Chinese fine dining.

So we discovered that China has at least eight strongly differing culinary schools (plus countless secondary interpretations: like saying that Sicilian cuisine is one, but there’s a big difference between Palermo and Catania…) and we mostly came across the Cantonese one, the most western, for historic reasons: Canton has always been the main point of connection between Europe and China, and the local cuisine had already acquired some essential characteristics of our culinary culture in the 19th century, and so on.

Ritu Dalmia, chef at Cittamani in Milan

Ritu Dalmia, chef at Cittamani in Milan

The same applies to India. Many different styles fall under the umbrella of “Indian cuisine” with multiple facets just like the multiple facets of the geography, society, economy and climate of this huge country. And while in Italy, and not only here, the few existing Indian restaurants replicated until yesterday a mediocre model of the first Chinese restaurants, giving us a distorted view of what happened at home, so the other day at the new Cittamani in Milan we discovered that things are quite different. This was thanks to the lovely Ritu Dalmia, 44, chef from Calcutta in love with Italy: she runs 7 restaurants in her country and on Wednesday the 27th of September she opened the 8th, but next to Milan’s cathedral (Piazza Carlo Mirabello 1. Tel. +39 02 38240935). And it’s already very popular. Our Indian full immersion continued at Gastronomika 2017, San Sebastián’s fine dining congress which seized the moment and invited India as guest.

Here’s a few things we discovered on this double occasion.

Rogan Josh cutlet, that is to say lamb tandoori with mashed potatoes, tasted at Cittamani

Rogan Josh cutlet, that is to say lamb tandoori with mashed potatoes, tasted at Cittamani

1) At Cittamani chef Ritu Dalmia presents Indian cuisine from the north, highly contaminated, so it’s easily understandable for our palates. With excellent results, in fact. We tasted delicious versions of naan bread, lovely Poori filled with peas, burrata and tomato chutney, juicy pork cutlets in Coorgi style, caramelised with tamarind, a delicate Turbot with Moilee (a sauce made with coconut milk, on a bed of quinoa), Rogan Josh Cutlet, that is to say lamb tandoori with mashed potatoes… «I have Marwari origins, a region in Rajasthan, in the north of the country. But I was born in Calcutta and raised in New Delhi. Saying there’s a single national cuisine is not fair towards the rich and diverse Indian regional cuisines. You can say however that there’s a specific North-Indian tradition, which has gained popularity across the world», Dalmia told Identità Golose (see: Cittamani di Ritu Dalmia, il ristorante indiano che Milano aspettava).

Gaggan Anand at Gastronomika 2017

Gaggan Anand at Gastronomika 2017

2) Back to the initial parallel: while Chinese cuisine has now acquired the prestige it deserves, but without a representative chef, India can count on Gaggan Anand, at the top of Asia’s 50Best for the past 3 years (and 7th in the World, in 2017) with his Gaggan, which is in Bangkok. The chef was the most awaited guest in the Indian team in San Sebastián. He repeated that he’ll close his restaurant in two years’ time, but without affirming, as he did in the past, that «every restaurant can live up to 10 years. Then it becomes a brand», if only out of courtesy for the many hosts who were listening to him carefully from the audience, evergreen icons – and with a very long experience – such as Juan Mari Arzak, Martín Berasategui, Carme Ruscalleda, Pedro Subijana.

Gaggan presented Paturi with cedar wood. It’s sea bass marinated in coriander seeds, Bengali mustard oil, green chilli peppers, lime, garlic, cashew nuts and salt, wrapped in banana leaves and cooked/smoked in cedar wood

Gaggan presented Paturi with cedar wood. It’s sea bass marinated in coriander seeds, Bengali mustard oil, green chilli peppers, lime, garlic, cashew nuts and salt, wrapped in banana leaves and cooked/smoked in cedar wood

He portrayed his cuisine like a cocktail of «nostalgia, craziness and dreams», a mix of past, present and future. And said Indian tradition is a nice blend too: «We’ve been subjected to continuous invasions: the Portuguese, the Dutch, French, Chinese, Turkish, English, Persian, Arab, Mongol». In a constant stratification, Indian cuisine is also the result of all these influences. «Modern eating, in India, is a matter of going back in our history, not compressing us with curry, spices, masala. I have learnt Spanish techniques too, but then I started to study our roots».

Manish Mehrotra

Manish Mehrotra

3) The leitmotiv of all the Indian chefs at Gastronomika was: the idea you have of our cuisine here in the West is wrong. Manish Mehrotra has a restaurant in Delhi (plus one in London and one in New York), Indian Accent: «Our real food is not chicken masala. We have a huge culinary culture, we eat insects too and we can present dishes for any palate in the world. We’re the country of spices, but this doesn’t mean our recipes must be too spicy». In his opinion, chaat is «a perfect speciality: it has texture, colour, flavour, bitter, sweet, acid and savoury notes». He presents one with spheres of potatoes and ragda with white peas. The word “chaat” comes from the Sanskrit verb "Caṭ", which means taste with your hands; it represents the sound you make when you lick your fingers.

Part of the Indian team at Gastronomika

Part of the Indian team at Gastronomika

4) This is a typical element, in India. «We use our hands», says Gaggan Anand, pointing out the importance of touching food: «All the bread in our country is kneaded by hand. And out of the 23 dishes in my menu, you must eat 22 without cutlery».

Manjit Singh Gill

Manjit Singh Gill

5) Gaggan Anand was the star among the Indians, but the team leader was this man with a turban in the photo above. His name is Manjit Singh Gill and he’s like the great elder of Indian cuisine. He’s a professional (he now coordinates the culinary offer at Itc Hotels) who has been working tirelessly for over 40 years trying to keep the culinary culture of his country alive. He’s linked to Slow Food, follows the Ayurveda school, supports the sustainable philosophy of “Indian Vedic wisdom”, which he uses to experiment new dishes. He says: «There’s an Indian tradition, which is first of all an ancient philosophy, that is shared across the country. It is based on seasonality and harmony».

The audience at the congress

The audience at the congress

He speaks of «five elements, five senses, three branches, three moods, six aromas [sweet, sour, bitter, salty, pungent and astringent] nine feelings» and even six seasons, which are our four seasons plus cold dewy (between mid January and mid March), and monsoon, from mid July to mid September. Each has its recommended food and flavours, always following the general idea of balance between man, food and nature. The above mentioned Manish Mehrotra confirms: «All across India, we use spices. But food differs greatly across regions. We’re the children of different languages, religions, cultures and histories: we celebrate them all with food. And we share a common accent, the Indian one».
Translated into English by Slawka G. Scarso


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