Interview with an Innovator

Indian Accent’s Manish Mehrotra: ‘India is a land of spices, not chillies’

Lamb keema, Indian sorrel and perhaps even British game are headed for the chef’s new menu, as he continues his exploration of regional Indian flavours.

25 May 2018
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Mehrotra on Paper – CV

  • Attended the Institute of Hotel Management in Mumbai, where he first got a taste for cooking
  • Came to London and worked in the now-closed Indian restaurant Chor Bizarre for Old World Hospitality
  • Opened the first Indian Accent in New Delhi in 2009. The brand expanded to New York in 2016, before arriving in London at the very end of last year

“Most chefs will say, ‘I was inspired by my grandmother,’ ‘I used to cook with my mum.’ Nothing of that sort happened with me,” muses Manish Mehrotra. In fact, the Indian chef, whose Indian Accent currently sits at number 19 on the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list, didn’t become interested in cooking until he began training at a hotel management school. Even then, being in the kitchen only attracted him because it was the least boring part of a course he began out of necessity.

But after several years in the food industry, moving from cooking pan-Asian eats to his own unique brand of Indian cuisine, Mehrotra is a lot more enthusiastic. The culinary brain behind the original accolade-laden Indian Accent has overseen the opening of two more branches in as many years. He tells Food Spark excitedly about his plans for the upcoming brunch menu in New York – lamb keema baked with eggs, chilli cheese toast – while also discussing what he’s going to add to the London outpost’s new menu – prawns with Indian sorrel leaves (also known as gongura) and lamb pilau with barberries

“The type of food that we do at Indian Accent is very, very different from what other Indian restaurants are doing,” notes Mehrotra. “So no chicken tikka masala, no butter chicken. Flavours are really very traditional.”

His arrival in London couldn’t have come at a better time, as Indian cuisine is reaching new heights in foodservice, while beginning to broaden out in retail. Food Spark talked to Mehrotra about regional Indian specialities, what traditional condiments he’d recommend for supermarket shelves and his plans for adding Indian-spiced game meats like grouse and boar to the menu.

  

What people know of Indian food is very limited. Everybody thinks we eat only curry and naan bread – which is not true! In India, we eat naan when we go to an Indian restaurant. Nobody cooks naan in their house; nobody’s got a tandoor in their home!

There are certain dishes on our menu that are very grassroots-level dishes, people’s home recipes, which we try to incorporate on our menu with our own twist. So very unusual kind of Indian dishes which sometimes even Indians feel, ‘Oh really, I used to eat that when I was a kid, after that I’ve never eaten this.’ So that kind of surprise factor and nostalgia factor is there in our menu.

We try to feature dishes from smaller regions. We have a dish from a very small coastal region, near Mumbai, where they make a dry shrimp pilau, which is there on our menu now at the moment with scallops and semolina-fried prawns. And we do a small little curry with kokum, which is a souring agent used in the Western part of India – and in different parts of India we use different souring agents.

We absolutely keep the Indian influences separate – no Kashmiri lamb in Keralan spices.

Regional dishes, people really don’t know about it that much, so we try to incorporate these things on our menu. Because India is a large country, and I think we have food for every palate.

We eat different meats, we eat different vegetables, we eat festive food, we eat royal food that is quite rich, we eat simple home-cooked food and we eat healthy food. So all different types of things are there in Indian cuisine and I try to incorporate all different influences from all different parts of India on our menu, rather than just sticking to one northwest frontier, which is like kebabs and heavy curries.

The earlier representation of Indian food, I would not say it’s not a correct interpretation, but there is still lots to be explored. And the way we do our food, the use of spices, everything is the way we eat at home.

My mother never made chilli-hot food; it was always a balanced kind of a food – and if someone wanted something spicy, they could take a green chilli on the side or a pickle on the side or a chutney on the side.

India is a land of spices, not chillies. Chillies came very late to India by the Portuguese from South America, almost 300 years back. It’s the spices, the use of spices, and the spices are used in such a way that no one dish is flavoured with one single spice, it is always spice blends. Different spice blends.

I have many favourite spice blends: chaat masala, our own garam masala. Then there’s a kolhapuri masala – kolhapuri masala is almost 25 different ingredients, but it’s very, very aromatic. You could say it works like a flavour enhancer in dishes – especially in meat dishes it works very well. Garam masala, our own is like a finishing masala, so you make the dish and in the end you add a little and it really uplifts the dish. Chaat masala goes with my colder dishes very well, with the chaats and pani puri – when we do the street food it goes very well with that.

What Indian sauces could work on a supermarket shelf? A nice tamarind chutney. Or a raw mango chutney – not the sweet one, but the raw mango one, the green one with mint, chillies and ginger.

A dish I expect London diners to get excited about is our morel mushroom dish. We stuff the morels with mushroom confit and then toss it with a little bit of sweet and sour tomato curry – but it’s a dry dish. So toss it a little bit and dust it with roasted walnut powder and serve it with Parmesan crisps and a little bit of morel cream. It’s very meaty, very mushroomy.

We try to incorporate one iconic thing from a city in our menu. So in New York we do stuffed naan breads called kulcha with pastrami and mustard butter on top. Here, we are doing black pudding with egg kulcha, cooked in a tandoor. That’s a tribute to the city.

I was just working on my follow-up menu with game meat. Wood pigeon and grouse, duck and quail – these are the things that will come on our menu. But I really want to use it in such a way that the meat should not be destroyed by just putting it in a curry or with lots of spices. I really want the meat to have that game flavour. If I make a wild boar shish kebab, once you’ve minced it and mixed it with spices, it might as well be regular pork or beef or lamb – I could call it anything.

Our pork ribs is one of our signatures. We cook pork ribs in coconut milk, braising it in the oven for almost three and a half hour, and then we toss it with a very famous sweet mango pickle, with onion seeds, fennel seeds, chilli flakes.

I belonged to a completely vegetarian household, and now I’m talking about wagyu! I can’t afford not to eat meat now, but in my house it was a completely no onion, no garlic household. No question of meat coming to my house. Most of the day-to-day cooking was pure vegetarian. So that really taught me that food without too many fancy things can be tasty; simple food can be tasty.

There are certain ingredients which are novel or unique in India, but here are common, so you can’t do it here... A simple example: if I put caviar on something in London, it’s caviar. But in India, if I say I am using Beluga (caviar), that’s a novelty, that’s something different. And a vegetable as simple as jackfruit – in India it’s nothing special, but in New York, it is.

Even in India, regional food – from Kashmir or Manipur – is coming into the limelight. People are becoming slightly more adventurous, they’re becoming more knowledgeable about ingredients, hygiene, sustainability… Earlier, regional food used to be a small joint or a mom and pop kind of a restaurant, but now it’s coming to the bigger and better restaurants, even fine-dining restaurants, which is very good.

A lot of casual Indian dining is coming up which is quite new and trendy, which is in sync with other casual cuisine restaurants. Where you’ve got Palomar and Barbary, you’ve now got Kricket and Hoppers and Gunpowder, which are exploring regional cuisine also but done in a slightly hip way. It’s not only about weekend curry night with beer; it’s changing, and I’m really happy about it.

After you have two or three menu changes, then I find the restaurant is settled. You feel all the dishes there on your menu are your star dishes.

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