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Nature’s basket > Extotic Food
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While the local spices and home-grown delicacies will always be a perennial favourite, it’s the exotic which is the flavour of the season. Fine dining is a way of life and the trend is here to stay! No, we’re not talking about caviar or pate de foie gras but, if it’s authentic Italian cuisine or a genuine Thai spread – now it’s all there in your proverbial backyard! We spoke to international specialty chefs, who delve into the intricacies of pampering the Indian palate, experimenting with flavours and their quest for originality.

Penne with fresh chives tossed in olive oil and drenched in pesto sauce or the baklava loaded with honey, nuts, and orange essence or even the quiche with its herby flavour and cheesy tinge – the diverse cuisines across the globe are now gaining acceptance in our land of spicy curries and aromatic chutneys. Now, with most restaurants flying down international chefs to add that authentic flavour to their specialty menu, dining out has become an exciting experiment for a growing section of self confessed foodies.

Cultural Cornucopia
“India is the world’s virgin” says Oriana Tirabassi, in her heavily accented English. This celebrity Italian chef, who was at Courtyard by Marriott for the re-launch of their Italian specialty restaurant, Rhapsody was a fashion designer before she donned the apron in a bid to pursue her passion for food. “I realized that fashion designing and cooking aren’t so different. They are both passionate forms of art which require the ability to fashion things with your own hands”, she adds. The gourmet chef notices that, in India, food plays an important cultural role as it does in Italy. “Food is an integral part of our hospitality. If you came to my house in Italy, my mother wouldn’t let you off until you had finished everything on your plate,” she laughs.

Chef Oriana arrived at the JW Marriott, Mumbai, three days before the 26/11 attacks. “My friends phoned me and asked me to come back but I knew I had to stick my ground. Life poses challenges such as these only to test your strength”, she relates, unfazed. In the next three months, while hotels all over Mumbai were empty in the aftermath, her restaurant Mezzo Mezzo never had a table empty. Her stint at Mumbai gave her a chance to cook for the crème de la crème of Bollywood. “I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone as humble as Akshay Kumar. He has no star hang-ups whatsoever”, says a clearly smitten Oriana.

A Melange of Flavours
Talking about Italian cuisine, we speak about the ubiquitous Pizza – Italy’s global ambassador. “Pizza performs a huge role in initiating first timers into Italian food. Pizza is used as a stepping stone to get them interested in the broader aspects of Italian cuisine”, explains Oriana. Delving deeper into the cuisine, Oriana muses on how the slow cooking method infuses a distinct flavour to the entire preparation. “Unlike here where the rice and flavours are separate, we try to infuse the flavour into the risottos which taste like cream caramel”, she says.

The extra virgin olive oil is an integral part of Italian cuisine. “Authentic ingredients like the extra virgin olive oil are very important while making Italian food. So, if anyone is trying to sell you olive oil which does not have extra virgin stamped on the bottle, never buy it”, she instructs, clearly revealing her love for Italian food and the quest to preserve its authenticity.

The Crest of Royalty
It’s not every day that you come across a chef with the distinction of catering to the whims and fancies of Thailand’s royal family! For Chef Orasa Petchlert, it has been a tradition passed down the ages and an inspiration to get into the food business. “My grandfather was a chef with the royal family and many other members of my family were associated with the food industry, in some form or the other. Watching them, I was inspired to cook”, explains Orasa who is now a specialty chef at Silk, the Thai restaurant at Asiana Hotel.

Orasa trained and worked at the Pacific Club, which is frequently patronized by not just the royal family but also the rich and famous in Bangkok for 35 years. Her style of cooking hovers on the exquisite as she firmly believes that looks definitely matter! “Presentation is very important and intricate care has to be taken to ensure that the food looks as good as it tastes. In order to make sure that the taste is authentic, the main ingredients, like lemon grass, kaffir lime, galaga, oyster sauce, soya sauce and many others are imported from Thailand. Even the coconut milk which we use in Thailand is very different from what we get here – it is a lot thinner”, she brings to our notice.

The Chinese Connection
During the recent years, Chinese food has become a culinary familiarity, thanks to takeaways and restaurants in every street corner serving fried rice, schezwan noodles and Manchurian. Orasa nods her agreement, “People here don’t find Thai food alien because it is a lot similar to Chinese food. And, Thai is a rice based cuisine! Generally, there are three distinct flavours – spicy, sweet and sour. Unlike Chinese cuisine, we use a lot of herbs like galaga, kaffir lime and lemon grass. And, Thai food is mildly spicy, less oily and healthier than Chinese food. The Thai chili is smaller and is used more for the taste while in Chinese cooking; it’s used primarily for garnishing”.

Contrary to popular belief, Thai food is very vegetarian friendly. “It’s not just meat – meat all the time! We have a lot of options for vegetarians and use a lot of seasonal vegetables and tofu. In Thai cuisine, the vegetables are first blanched and added only later on in the cooking process. This ensures that the nutrients are intact and not killed by overcooking”, explains Orasa, who is deeply rooted in her Bangkok culinary tradition. “I don’t believe in changing Thai cuisine to suit any palate. But, if you’re looking for authentic Thai food, you get it here”, she signs off.

Cooking up a Masterpiece
Cooking, for Turkish Chef Mehmet Koyuncu, is not just another day at work. It’s a passion and a way of life. After his graduation, Mehmet got an opportunity to work in the kitchen at one of the restaurants. And, that was when he fell in love with the art of churning out culinary masterpieces. “It has been 9 years since I have been in the culinary industry.

I have traveled across the World, including countries like Africa, Dubai and many others. When I first came to India, I was quite skeptical if the people here would like Mediterranean cuisine. But, I was surprised at the enormous response. Since Mediterranean cuisine is low calorie and very healthy, a lot of people are opting for it. In India, people are a lot more open minded to different cultures”, says an appreciative Mehmet, who is currently the Chef de Cuisine at Kefi, the rooftop Mediterranean restaurant at Taj Mount Road.

Having worked with big names in the industry like the Kempinksy and Magic Life Group (Turkey), Chef Mehmet adds a dash of variety to the menu at Kefi. He explains, “We have chosen the best of the cuisine from five different Mediterranean countries like Lebanon, Morocco, Spain, Greece and Turkey. Mediterranean cuisine relies heavily on fresh fruits and vegetables which are very, very important. So, I like to use a lot of seasonal vegetables apart from a variety of cheese to add flavour. And yes, olive oil is integral to Mediterranean cooking. I like to make a couple of variations of a particular dish and have a tasting session. The feedback decides which version stays on the menu. Eventually, I leave it to the people to decide”.

The Touch of Originality
Mehmet has been in Chennai for the past two years and has developed an innate fascination for Indian food. “When I came in, I couldn’t eat any kind of Indian food as it was very difficult to digest it. But now, I can eat anything what I want. I can cook Indian food pretty well and eat the local dishes all three times a day”, he reveals proudly. But, would his love for Indian food create a difference the way he perceives Mediterranean cuisine? “Not really. Mediterranean cuisine is light, healthy, very low calorie and mostly semi cooked - drastically different from Indian cuisine. When I cook Turkish food for instance, it is purely Turkish. When I cook Indian food, it is very Indian. You can change yourself but not the cuisine”, adds the chef.

Driven by passion, Chef Mehmet wouldn’t do anything which doesn’t excite him. “My signature dish is Yaneh Sultan Ibrahim which is fish along with shallot, onion, garlic drizzled with saffron. It is a very nice combination and is a hit with many of my clients. Apart from the usual humus and dolma, spanokopita which is a pastry with spinach and cheese is quite popular too”, says Mehmet who believes that competition brings out the best in a chef. “I love to cook. I cook at the hotel and then, go back home and cook again. But, only if there is competition, the quality is great. In the process, you learn to give your best shot”, reiterates Mehmet, before bringing the conversation to a closure.

Designer Desserts
When it comes to ingredients, celebrity pastry chef from France, Mickael Besse knows how to balance local ingredients with those which are not available locally. “I am a big fan of local ingredients though we use a lot of not-so-local ingredients. We do import the chocolates, coffee and the Japanese green tea. The idea isn’t to import the maximum number of ingredients but, to find the best from all over the world and bring it here”, he smiles.

The man behind the deliciously innovative spread of desserts at Ecstasy, Satyam Cinemas, Besse believes in adding an original tweak to the classic favourites. “Dessert is not just about eating pieces from a larger cake. Every piece is unique and was handcrafted separately. We are trying to give the consumer something exciting and at the same time affordable. Ecstasy may not be cheap but it is not expensive either”, relates Besse, strongly.

The Sweet Story
Chef Mickael Besse feels like a designer when he’s crafting edible delicacies. “It’s like I am creating a new line for every season. My latest collection is called “Herbs and flowers”. That’s about desserts - you take flour, oil, chocolate and sugar and you can transform them to a completely new form. Believe me, with chocolate and sugar you can make any shape in the world”, adds Besse, who was asked create a bakery, a one of a kind pastry shop in Chennai that could compete with international standards.

For Besse, cooking is the product of inspiration. “Whatever I see when I travel – whether it is a building or architecture or some design, inspires me. I think there are absolutely no limits to innovation,” signs off the master chef in his inimitable style.


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