Mouth-Pleasures In Bangkok

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Gaggan Anand is the first to fully transform Indian cuisine with ‘molecular’ techniques. But how is the food? Gaurav Jain meets the chef and his team

Pioneer Chef Gaggan Anand
Pioneer Chef: Gaggan Anand at his eponymous Indian restaurant in Bangkok Photo: Terence Carter

“WHY ARE YOU DOING PASTAS?” asked the English woman. “I’ve been to all the Indian restaurants. I know this food. It’s not spicy enough. And I want my kebabs and curries together, not as courses.”

See: something flipped in chef Gaggan. “Ma’am,” he began, trying to squash the urge to throw her out. “There are two types of restaurants. Curry houses and chef-driven restaurants. You should go to a curry house for all that.”

“I’ve lived in Delhi, too,” she insisted. “I know north Indian and south Indian food.” Turned out she ran her own balti house in London.

“There’s no such thing,” he replied hotly, “as north and south Indian food. My mom doesn’t make naan every day at home. There are at least 20 basic cuisines in India. You’ve come to the wrong restaurant. I’m a confused Indian. I’m a north Indian who grew up in east India and studied food in south India. So of course my restaurant will be a confused restaurant.” Some of the diners at nearby tables clapped.

Later, he sent her a complimentary chicken platter. Then he comped her and her mate’s dinner — a first for this gig. She promised to return.

“Next time, ma’am,” he added, “Please call before coming. Don’t call the staff, call me. Call the King of Confusion.”

***

It ends with rocks. Egg whites and violet flower sugar petrified in liquid nitrogen to form frozen aireous crumples. Flavour, colour: mango. Pick it up, it’s giddily light. Open your mouth and take a rock, all of it, in. Don’t: break it before. Wait a moment, and you’ll smell the violet in the tip of your nose. When you bite, you see (and then, feel) a burst of cold air rush out of your mouth and nostrils.

Chef Gaggan Anand had invented the dessert the day I arrived at his eponymous Indian restaurant in Bangkok last summer. Bringing it out to show his team, he began to try to name it. He thought of the Earth as one reference theme, and asked me what I thought it looked like. I’d been eyeing it. Mushrooms, I said. Aah, he said, and stretched out. He closed his eyes for two moments, and then: Molten Rocks. A few minutes later it was: Lava Rocks.

What good is food without its memory? Of those moments of smell, of touch, of taste, of ingestion, we remember most… the taste. And even that recognition, that moment, we need to repeat surprisingly often to escape our inattention. The rest recedes in noise.

When you bite, the nitrogen streams out of your nose. Ninety nine point nine percent humidity helps.

 

THE FIRST definition of Gaggan, according to Gaggan, is: We use spice as flavour, not heat. (The vindaloo reduction sauce, I found, was too creamy, too sweet for my hardened buds.)

Rajesh pulled me aside. He’s one of the partners in the restaurant, a man with a telecom day job. He’s a worrier. He fixed me with his relaxed, hard eye: “In the first six weeks,” he told me, “we had to do a lot of thinking. Gaggan can make and deconstruct anything — he can make dirt or dust of vindaloo. But we decided to use these techniques to enhance the classics. In India, every region’s food is designed for the weather. You have to work with that. So we have a lot of seafood in this restaurant in Thailand.”

This cuisine is modernist not just in technique but also because it’s restricted to the experts — you can’t really do it at home

The hints have been coming. A few Delhi restaurants began the charge into pre-plated modern Indian cuisine — Indian Accent at The Manor Hotel, Varq at The Taj Mahal Hotel, Monsoon at Le Méridien. Two years ago, London-based and Michelin-studded chef Vineet Bhatia brought his full-blown nouvelle Indian cuisine to Ziya at The Oberoi, Mumbai, his first restaurant in India. And just over a year ago, Gaggan opened his restaurant in a quiet, green, embassy-type neighbourhood of Bangkok, offering what he calls ‘Progressive Indian Cuisine’: food interpreted with the scientific kitchen techniques pioneered by the likes of Spanish chef Ferran Adrià, and often miscalled ‘molecular cuisine’. Some restaurants in India, such as Bengaluru’s Caperberry, have begun to use some of these techniques — foams, gels, spheres, etc. — but they offer mostly European food or cocktails. Gaggan is the world’s first restaurant to apply these techniques wholeheartedly to Indian fare.

Cooking with liquid nitrogen at Gaggan
Smokehouse: Cooking with liquid nitrogen at Gaggan, Photo: Gaurav Jain

Gaggan was also the first Indian, and the second Asian, to train at Adrià’s research academy in Barcelona, which complemented his legendary restaurant elBulli. I’d spent a few days with Vineet Bhatia in his new Mumbai kitchen leading up to Ziya’s launch two years ago, and I was curious to see what Gaggan was up to. What was he doing with Adrià’s techniques to Indian food, even as many in the global food circuit dismiss these methods as postfangled, or, worse, outmoded? When I finally visited him in Bangkok, I found little to be dismissive about. What I did find: a gay leap from Adrià’s emphasis on defamiliarisation of every food: landing instead on his appetite for mouth-pleasures: for a perhaps typical Indian modernism: hearty-food-turned-delicate.

If precariousness turns you off, this isn’t for you.

***

Gaggan. 68/1 Soi Langsuan, Bangkok 10330.
www.eatatgaggan.com

Deconstruct a well-known dish by breaking it into its individual ingredients, and then assemble them again in new textures: new textures achieved by making spheres, gels or foams by adding agents like agar, or instant-freezing them in liquid nitrogen, or creating ‘soil’ or ‘dirt’ out of them, or smuggling a new flavour by adding a smell, such as of bourbon. Much effort is expended in this defamiliarisation through changing textures and intensifying flavours. Gelling, foaming, steaming, spherifying, smoking, nitro-freezing: this cuisine is modern not just in technique, it’s modernist also because it’s restricted to the experts — you can’t really do it at home without the gizmos and specialty chemicals.

Defamiliarly: From top: Three-act foie gras; Jaume’s sangria; Tobacco-smoke ice cream; Mango snowball; Chocolate lava; Mojito LN2 Photos Courtesy: Gaggan

A lot of the focus of this cooking is on this, but not just this. It’s also on how to cook something in a new way, such as with sous-vide (slowly cooking in vacuum packets in a temperature-controlled water bath for hours), to get better results for the same traditional dish. And it’s on how to pair the dish with new, unexpected items, such as edible cress.

Tasting Menu on kitchen whiteboard:
1. Yogurth
2. Oyster/Corn Salad
3. Razor Clams/Goat Cheese Salad
4. Truffle Ravioli
5. Pork Vindaloo and Strawberry Cru
6. Red Sangria
7. Snow Fish Dry Moilee
8. Mushroom Risotto Zucchini Flower
9. Bhoona Mutton/Chicken Tikka Masala/Methi Matar Malai and Dal
10. Lava Rocks

2,300 baht: Choose between three meats. 3,000 baht: Choose any two. 3,700 baht: Choose all.

Yogurth: a bob of spherified yoghurt in a broad spoon. It glides in on its slick skin and you have to catch it; bite for a soft burst of chaat raita. Before you get over your surprise you find you’ve already swallowed it, leaving a quick memory.

Oysters topped with nimbu pani foam: the meat is sweet after the lemon, a lift of light sea.

Pork vindaloo: Iberian pork sous-vide for six hours; once cooked, served with honey cress and cold strawberry-spice sauce: by far the best thing on the menu. Salmon cooked lightly with kasundi: the highlight, again, are the flowers: salty fingers and schezuan cress.

The chicken tikka is frothed with a superb green chutney foam, but whelms the flavoured air anyway. The lobster is disappointingly familiar. Fish sukha too creamy. Dal over-sweet. Among the traditional items, the bheja works best — it’s hot enough to hurt just a bit.

Edible mojito: sugarcane lumps soaked in rum, mint and lime juice: sous vide for two days to make them tender, then chilled. Nice crunch, and who knew your teeth would appreciate the alcohol that much. The tobacco-smoke ice cream worked, perhaps… it was too delicate to tell after all the vindaloo and kasundi. The paan mousse was exactly what it sounds like, an accurate invention. Lava rocks felt better than they tasted.

Gaggan is a manic, flowery, aggressive cook. His food is light.

***

Gaggan, 34, will tell you that no one ever expected him to do well… do well in the pre-globalisation, middle-class sense. He, the back-bencher nuisance, the boy who’d carry only two drumsticks in his bag to school, the boy always in trouble with his strict former-Air Force father: how could he become a doctor or engineer? In Class IX, when he told a cousin he wanted to do hotel management, she snorted: “High hopes”. It didn’t seem to matter that he came from a family of serious foodies and that he’d begun cooking when he was 10. It didn’t seem to matter that, far from being the rocker bad boy, he didn’t smoke or drink. That despite all his rebellion he still enjoyed listening when his father delivered expositions on the amount of fat raan ought to have. Gaggan had to make his own way, always. His parents, wanting to discourage the habit, told him they couldn’t afford to buy him a drum-set; so Gaggan made Rs 3,000 in 30 days sticking posters for the newly-born Channel [V] onto cars at a petrol pump, and bought his sticks. He did crack the Indian Institute of Hotel Management exam and chose to train for three years in Kerala, “the furthest I could be from my dad.”

Gaggan’s career, and in fact his entire 20s, were punctuated by a clawing, grand passion. He fell in love with a classmate at hotel management school. Their relationship was the kind that makes friends clutch their heads. She broke up with him just before his interview for a prestigious programme at The Oberoi group. No girlfriend, no fancy job. Gaggan graduated and went to work at The Taj instead. Then the friend returned to his life, and though the couple was happy, he says she demanded too much time from him. He began slacking at work, bunking entire days, till he couldn’t take the pressure any more and resigned. They married in court without telling his parents and returned to Kolkata, where his parents threw him out of the family. Broke and depressed, he spent a year in a haze, doing nothing except giving some odd cooking classes to housewives.

Eventually he emerged from the haze and set up a roaringly successful catering business, but his difficulties at home continued: he says his wife was ultra-possessive, wouldn’t let him keep a bank account in his name, beat him with a shoe, once threw a lock at his head and he fainted. He got diabetes at 27. Professionally, he was doing better: in 2005, he started consulting for the Rashtrapati Bhavan, and would cook for President Kalam when the latter travelled to the Northeast. He reconciled with his parents.

Then, as a favour to a friend who needed a consulting chef for a new Indian restaurant, he came to Thailand for a few months. Here, at last, was a whole new life, one that would not destroy him. He moved house. Two restaurant jobs and one more attempt at reconciliation with his wife later, he was free. Divorced and ready to set up his own restaurant with some partner friends.

Gaggan was the first Indian to train at legendary chef Ferran Adrià’s research academy in Barcelona

Whatever manner of back-bencher Gaggan was, and some of his favourite people now are his Thai rocker pals, at heart he is a food nerd. He reads about chefs, new techniques, and documents each of his new creations. After finishing dinner service he goes home most nights to research new ideas for a few hours. elBulli and its monastic, scholarly approach to food was made for him. Perhaps it is the memory of having his life trussed and violently controlled by other people that makes Gaggan stubborn, gruff, quick to anger. But in his natural element, inside the kitchen, it all fades away. He is that oxymoron — a genial chef. His staff, including Chef de Cuisine Prashant Chipkar, are mostly cheerful, and when anyone screws up, Gaggan is most focussed on how to fix it.

Gaggan speaks fluent Thai in his kitchen. This kitchen with this staff in this country. This is home. This is why he’s not trying to expand; he claims to never want to open another restaurant at all… not yet anyway. Just the costs of renting space and importing ingredients from around the world make such a restaurant in India unsustainable even today.

WHAT USE is food without its memory? The memory of eating something. Better: the memory of reading something being eaten. Even better: writing about the memory of reading something being eaten. Best: writing about the memory of reading something being eaten, something that you then remember eating yourself. I wrote this listening to Nina Simone’s Sinnerman. Try eating something with it on.

Gaurav Jain is Literary Editor, Tehelka.
[email protected]

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