Indian Food 2005

by Liz O'Connor and Betsy Feinberg
September 2005


Indian food, with its rich and complex nuances, has attracted a fan base in the US that continues to grow. In New York City alone, numerous Indian restaurants have opened just this past year, including Bombay Talkie, serving Indian street food in a fashionable Chelsea setting, and Radha on the Lower East Side, a vegetarian restaurant featuring Indian specialties. American chefs are also looking to classic Indian recipes and dishes for inspiration. But mastering these layered flavors can be challenging.

By learning the mainstay ingredients and cooking methods of traditional Indian cooking, chefs can begin to unravel the complexities of Indian cuisine. In Indian Home Cooking, authors Suvir Saran and Stephanie Lyness describe how sautéing spices in the cooking oil at the onset of a recipe creates a warm, muted, lingering layer, while grinding spices and adding them later on presents a more obvious and immediate flavor burst. Every step, easy enough in and of itself, creates the multifaceted depth we find so compelling.

Chef Suvir Saran breathes life into his cookbook recipes at Devi in New York City, where his regional Indian cooking echoes his New Delhi upbringing, during which he spent much time in the kitchen. Currents of childhood nostalgia course throughout Saran’s cooking, as do a myriad of influences and experiences that embody the diversity and variety of the Indian subcontinent. Crispy Fried Okra is a delightfully crunchy, addictive snack-India’s counterpart to the French fry-and derives from a dish that Saran concocted at the tender age of 10 with the help of the family cook. Jackfruit Biryaani was a favorite meal of the chef’s father and sister, and at Devi it is recreated and reinvented as a playful pyramid constructed with alternating layers of billowing rice and hefty jackfruit punctuated by a spiced tomato sauce.

Saran specializes in translating India’s street food to the table of his New York City restaurant. Burrah Kebab, more commonly known as Tandoori Lamb Chops, are roasted until tender and offset by the warm flavors of nutmeg, cumin, and paprika, and the sharp acidity of vinegar and lemon juice. With a “less is more” attitude and a flair for inventive experimentation, Chef Saran proves that Indian cuisine is ripe with possibilities.

For years now, London chefs like Atul Kochar of Benares have led the charge in imaginative, sophisticated Indian cuisine. Now it seems that New York chefs are finally catching on. Ada on the Upper East Side has been a pioneering presence since its opening in 2001, with Chef Rajender Rana helming a kitchen that turns out carefully presented, sophisticated Indian food. Indeed, stylish plating is one of the signature aspects of Chef Rana’s menu, which offers authentic Indian cuisine presented in an old-school French style. According to the chef, this emphasis on plating is what sets Ada apart from its peers, although he notes that the fusion of Indian cooking and French presentation is beginning to catch on in other upscale Indian restaurants like Devi. Chef Rana also emphasizes the importance of fresh ingredients in creating nouvelle Indian cuisine. While most curry houses use stock goods, Chef Rana relies on organic produce and homemade ingredients to create such dishes as Mini Bombay Baskets, a savory medley of tomatoes and onions tossed with cumin, ginger, bhel mix, and mint and tamarind sauces, among others.

Although Chef Rana’s kitchen at Ada is staffed by fellow Indians, he believes that anyone is fully capable of learning the tricks of the trade, given the right amount of exposure, experience, and practice.