Chef Floyd Cardoz tackles culinary challenges with contemporary upma, maps your edible memory and makes you eat your vegetables.
INDIAN food is not what you eat when you go out, it is what you take your parents to. Chef Floyd Cardoz has spent a large part of his career disproving such theories in New York, with his critically acclaimed contemporary restaurant Tabla in the late nineties, and he now brings that culinary confidence back home. Earlier this year, Cardoz, 54, launched his Bombay Canteen in Parel, with a local and seasonal menu. From the now popular methi thepla taco (a variation of fenugreek paratha) to dishes featuring brinjal, bottle gourd, amaranth greens, kokum, Goan sausage, Indian mutton, even a mean watermelon curry, here is a celebration of all things native. ‘‘Our forefathers knew these vegetables were good. I do not import anything at Bombay Canteen, not even the oils. There are no red bell peppers, no basa and absolutely no Australian fish and meat, only Indian mutton,’’ he reels off. Cardoz is here on a quick trip, his third after their opening, to make a few tweaks to the modern Indian cuisine format, because ‘‘you need to be smart enough to adapt to what your guests want.’’ Complying with local demand, they are now ‘‘bolder in flavour, and express the heat a little more.’’ That said, with Indian food playing a strong role in global dining for a few years now, the Mumbai-born chef is ready to take risks and put heirloom or indigenous ingredients on the menu that wouldn’t necessarily appeal to everyone.
|Cardoz’s rule book? To be a global Indian restaurant, you must innovate all year. You should have an identity
? When chefs cook with what is available locally, it also makes for good business sense. Why pay Rs 100 for something imported when it’s just Rs 50 for a better product that is grown locally? Work on a seasonal menu, and reasonable price points
? Avoid clutter on the menu. I recommend only 50 dishes max
? Make your menu user friendly. People shouldn’t have to struggle to find out what they are eating
? Simplicity is important. Your roots are important.
Fuelled by a cause
Besides his work with New York’s larger-than-life restaurateur Danny Meyer, Cardoz’ successful stint on the reality show Top Chef Masters (courtesy a winning wild mushroom upma) and his role as culinary consultant on the movie, The Hundred-Foot Journey, made him more than a celebrity. ‘‘It is two decades since I left India and the protagonist Hassan’s story, of leaving India to become a famous chef in France, was similar to my own,’’ he says. Unfortunately, it also means dozens of young chefs today, straight out of school, insist that he show them how to get on TV. ‘‘I tell them to learn to cook first,’’ he shoots back. Cardoz may have been inspired to join the hospitality industry after reading Arthur Hailey’s Hotel, but it wasn’t easy. Recalling the gruelling six months he spent at the butchery at Taj Mahal, Mumbai, he says the highlight was learning to skin and fillet pomfret in 17 seconds. To win a challenge, of course! ‘‘There should be nothing in the kitchen that is beneath you,’’ says the man who initially wanted to become a doctor. What saved him, he says in retrospect, is that he loved food. ‘‘My Bombay Canteen partner Sameer Seth and I eat with a different mindset, for I believe no matter where you go and what you eat, there is gold to be found,’’ says the man who loves collecting stories, just as much as he does silicone spatulas and specialist knives.
‘‘When we have native grains like amaranth, why are we hunting down quinoa; or when there is crisp lotus stem and okra chips, why look for kale?’’ Cardoz begins. We insist on eating polished basmati, he observes, even when each state has a variety of unpolished grain. ‘‘Nothing compares to the nutty, flavourful red rice and its nutritive value,’’ says the chef who introduced a prawn biryani made with surti kolam rice at the Bombay Canteen. Partial to single malts and Old Monk, Cardoz delights in planning food holidays. ‘‘Last year included a trip to Asador Etxebarri in Spain’s Basque country, known for its baby eel and gooseneck barnacles on the menu. Then came Japan, where there is a good reason for everything on your plate. In Italy, we rented a villa in Tuscany and I cooked every day,’’ he chuckles, recalling how his sons (22 and 17 years) sometimes tire of his enthusiasm. Nostalgia, he says, and creating food memories are connected to personal well-being. ‘In my childhood, it wasn’t the same fish, the same vegetable or fruit all the year through. Now you eat a tomato in the middle of winter and there is no delicate balance of acid and sweet, no aroma – it is all lost in commercial vegetables. Why can’t we learn to refine the way we grow and cook our food without taking away the soul?’’ he questions.
The local advantage
Progressive chefs across the country are introducing indigenous greens and vegetables for their nutritional and environmental benefits. In restaurants, there are logistical problems when such vegetables are seasonal and tough to integrate on menus. Research on Africa’s super vegetables proves that the demand for such ingredients can improve food security and economic growth.
We long for foraged feasts, part of childhood memories but common at restaurants like Noma in Copenhagen. As food writer Vikram Doctor puts it, we miss out on the obscure vegetables that come to light through foraging (teams of foragers are generally used abroad for this purpose, which we lack). In Chennai, Crowne Plaza’s Executive Chef Praveen Anand (and the genius behind Dakshin), has had traditional dishes like prawn and drumstick on the menu for at least 15 years now. His Locavore festival, featuring ingredients grown or raised locally, was unusual yet popular
when introduced a decade ago. At their grill and wine restaurant, On the Rocks, a small plate of six different greens is served as an appetiser or starter. Anand’s avarakai (broad beans) salad and sauteed ridge gourd are enjoyed by expats as well as locals, though he laments the gradual disappearance of the long snake gourd variety. Want to learn more? Navdanya, the movement that protects seeds, has workshops where you can pick up sustainable skills and knowledge that women have evolved over the years.
Join the club
Indians have the largest diversity of vegetables in the world. The cuisine of every region is distinct, reflecting the intelligence of our cultures. There are at least 4,500 kinds of brinjal and over 2,000 varieties of rice. They are resistant to pests as they belong here. So stop being colonised, and celebrate what is grown in your land.
— Vandana Shiva, Navdanya Seed Savers
WHEN a diner seeks comfort and adventure simultaneously, there is no better way to bring both to the fore. The trick is to take something indigenous and present it like never before. I am all about the integrity of food, even if at times, I get carried away. At Fatty Bao, we have Malabar spinach in gyoza. I incorporate elements like lady’s finger, or crispy lotus stem. And we have had a bathua ravioli at Olive Beach for a while now.
— Manu Chandra, chef & partner, Monkey Bar and Fatty Bao
CERTAIN edible roots of colocasia are an acquired taste but they are nature’s gift to mankind. By eating what is right for the season, you safeguard your health and enjoy the best flavours. These health benefits and preparations are getting lost with the older generation. It will take a while, but we must take pride in eating what is local and ours to enjoy.
— Praveen Anand, executive chef, Crowne Plaza