“We wanted to showcase India through her ingredients,” says Chef Prateek Sadhu of Masque, the restaurant to first really popularise an ingredient-forward approach. When Masque first opened its doors in Mahalaxmi, Mumbai in 2016, the concept was almost completely foreign to the Indian diner. Their tasting menu format and seasonal changes had people sceptical, but Chef Prateek won them over. Masque has consistently been mentioned in best restaurant lists all over the world, including Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2021. The executive chef and co-owner of Masque is delighted to see more restaurants in Mumbai warm up to the concept of ingredient-first menus to utilise indigenous produce to their maximum potential. Ekaa, a December 2021 launch in the Fort area of Mumbai, by Chef Niyati Rao, and co-founder Sagar Neve beautifully presents humble ingredients in unusual combinations. The mastermind behind Mumbai-based plant-forward bistro, Sequel, Chef Founder Vanika Choudhary, has also opened Noon, a chic space that focuses on local ingredients and age-old cooking techniques in BKC.
In a conversation with these pioneers, LuxeBook unravelled the magic behind very diverse Indian ingredients and dived deep into the process these chefs employ while creating dishes that highlight them.
The cuisine-based restaurant market was already very saturated, said Chef Niyati Rao, who previously worked at Noma, before settling in India to launch Ekaa. “As a chef I never wanted to limit myself when it came to imagination or ideas, and that could happen when I was thinking only about ingredients,” said Chef Niyati. Scouring local markets, as Ekaa’s menu was developed during the lockdown, she decided upon simple ingredients like cauliflower, wheat and potato to champion in her dishes. Chef Niyati also collected knowledge from kitchens at home, from different communities of the country. She is currently experimenting with mogri, a root from the radish family commonly used in Gujarati and Rajasthani households, amongst other simple but forgotten foods.
The philosophy behind Noon was putting the spotlight on eating seasonal, respecting each ingredient for its natural time of harvest, promoting a diverse diet and palate. The founder of Noon, Vanika Choudhary took inspiration from her experience with food as a child, as well as her trips around the world to plan its menu.
Chef Prateek’s motive to launch Masque was to start a conversation around a different narrative for Indian food. Straying away from the classics that India is known in the Western part of the world for, he strove to research the length and breadth of India to bring into focus the hidden gems of the country. To celebrate Masque’s five-year anniversary, Chef Prateek then took these gems across the country, via pop-ups in Delhi, Bengaluru, Chennai, Kolkata and Leh. Pop-ups and collaborations with other F&B establishments are also on the radar of both Ekaa and Noon. In fact, the parent company of Ekaa, Nisa Experience LLP is also slated to open a conceptually driven restaurant later this year in Mumbai.
Map of India’s ingredients
Having examined the core of each ingredient at Masque since 2016, Chef Prateek still feels like he has only scratched the surface and wishes to dive deeper into the treasure chest of Indian ingredients. He travels every two months, to step out, see what’s seasonal, and interact with locals to understand the traditions associated with a particular ingredient. Chef Vanika of Noon remembers winter traditions like drinking a black carrot fermented beverage called kanji during her childhood in Kashmir. Or eating foraged dandelion greens in the summer and fresh wild mushrooms towards the end of the spring, all of which have inspired the menu at Noon. The founder of Sequel wanted to present to them in a fun and contemporary manner, that was not intimidating in a way unusual ingredients are so often to an unadventurous eater. For example, at Noon, black buckwheat from Ladakh is used in tartlets with black garlic and goat’s cream mousse, topped with slow-cooked Chioggia beets replicated the texture of meat.
Revisiting international traditional dishes through the lens of Indian ingredients, Chef Vanika even creates an in-house miso at Noon, made not with soybeans, but with local proso millet from Karnataka. Rice koji (fermented rice widely used in Japan) is made with Ambemohar rice that is domestic to the Western Ghats. To showcase ingredients traditionally dismissed as those with subdued flavours like king trumpet mushrooms, she glazes them with coconut kokum kefir (fermented milk drink) on the charcoal that is fermented for about a week. About 30 ferments including kefir, kanji and miso are liberally used in the Noon kitchen, fermentation being a process that Chef Vanika is extremely passionate about. Using an ingredient completely is also an integral part of Noon’s philosophy. Coconuts are used in copious quantities by the restaurant to make milk and ice cream. The leftover husks are used to smoke hara chana in a hara chana and beetroot hummus dish. A cocktail named Battle of Oranges is made using all the parts of an orange. The peel is used to infuse, while its juice is used in the cocktail itself. The seeds of the orange are used to make bitters.
Chef Niyati Rao of Ekaa, on the other hand, follows multiple methods to develop her dishes. One is to focus on a single element and build a balanced dish surrounding it, making sure the fats, acids carbohydrates are in equal measure. The other, is centric to the design of the menus. Ekaa has three menus, first the tapas menu where small plates are meant to whet the appetite, second is the à la carte menu which contains balanced dishes, where one ingredient is incomplete without the others. The tasting menu is more adventurous, and a balance of cooking techniques, incorporating steamed, fried, grilled and pickled elements to add a range of textures to the dishes. However, in a singular dish of the tasting menu, one ingredient occupies centre stage, while the others play important supporting roles.
Speaking of hero ingredients, Chef Vanika Choudhary tells us about an ingredient she would like to champion. The millet, a grain with many different varieties like Proso, foxtail, finger millet, pearl millet. It is also an ingredient which makes its way to Noon’s menu primarily in the form of finger millet, aka ragi from the Dharmapuri area of Tamil Nadu where it is harvested by tribals in the area. An accessible ingredient, which is now becoming a rage worldwide for its health benefits, but Chef Vanika advises sticking to indigenous varieties of the millet.
At first shot Chef Prateek of Masque declines to answer which ingredient he would pick as one he thought most unusual, but when narrowing down the options to his most recent trip, he mentions berries he discovered in Uttarakhand. “Hisalu and kaphal, also called Himalayan berries have an extremely short shelf life in the summer and are only available in that region. The logistics is also a challenge, but Chef Prateek is excited to work with these precious ingredients at Masque. His only criteria when first picking up a new ingredient is finding out how a local incorporates that ingredient in his or her diet, then use that as a building block to create something that is entirely ‘Masque.’ As Indians we are spoiled for choice, there are so many interesting fruits and vegetables that will surprise you every time,” he explains.
Giving us a sneak peek into the next season’s menu, Chef Vanika tells us which ingredients Noon will be favouring. Pink guava is one of them, which will make its way to Noon’s cocktail menu. Mango, jackfruit and nolen gur are also coming in hot for summer. Nolen gur, aka, palm date jaggery sourced from West Bengal, will be used by the restaurant to make a plat-based garum (typically a fermented fish sauce). The cooking technique of preservation will make its way to the forefront in the summer, one ingredient that is set to undergo the process is the pink guava.
Respect for local ingredients
According to Chef Niyati, the first thing to keep in mind when respecting an ingredient is its season. Mangoes in December or strawberries in May are a big no no. It is bad for one’s health, and a sign of disrespect to the ingredient, and to the farmer who toiled to bring it to the table. When it comes to sourcing locally, all three F&B entrepreneurs concur, and Chef Niyati says it best, “Sourcing them locally is a necessity, not an option.” She highlights how essential it is to understand the ingredients around us before venturing further into the world.
Another broad aspect of treating ingredients with care is its point of origin. Ekaa is conscious in choosing local fish mongers, smaller businesses, farmers who put R&D first, and grow produce that is often organic, unsullied by pesticides. For example, Chef Niyati uses Indrayani rice from Maharashtra, and sources Ayurvedic ingredients that Ekaa uses in its cocktails from local shops in Mumbai.
With awareness and buzz around ingredient-drive restaurants increasing, the diner’s expectations are also at an all-time high. New restaurants like Noon and Ekaa are already seeing a great response and developing a regular customer base. Noon’s founder is optimistic about the restaurant, given its flexible format of small plates, its craft cocktail menu and cozy atmosphere. Having pioneered the farm-to-fork format with Sequel, which subsequently turned into a term used and abused, Founder Chef Vanika Choudhary hopes ingredient-driven is not headed the same way. “It’s like talking about sustainability,” says Chef Prateek, who considers sustainability to be one of the most misused words in the F&B industry. Ingredient-driven however, is something one can easily detect just by a meal, so there’s hope still for the true visionaries to stand out.