Noma, of course, is burning up food networks, after the shock-announcement this week about its impending closure — next year. In the world of “too-fine dining” and its worshippers, this is the equivalent of an earthquake — somewhere between 6 and 7 richter scale; between “serious local impact” and “waves felt internationally”.
But this piece is not really about Noma. Or, even about exploitative luxury restaurants built on cheap labour, bizarre dishes (those live ants mimic the taste of southern European citrus, by the way), or interns coming out about “toxic” restaurant cultures (long hours, no or little pay, no or little social life, bullying…), however important these discussions may be.
It is also not about fine (or expensive) dining failing, because as we have seen in India this last year, it is not. In unequal societies where luxury goods and services are status markers, people tend to consume and spend even more in times of stress. In India, they are, anecdotally: Top restaurant Indian Accent in fact had its best revenue showing last week in 13 years, we are reliably told, and ?1,000 cocktails at “upscale casual” bars are not going out of fashion any time soon in Delhi, Mumbai or Goa.
Instead, this piece is about another 2023 trend, a rather unexpected Noma legacy: As Indian diners look for food experiences that are ingredient-led, authentic, fresh, and sustainable, eating out may just be transforming from mere entertainment to story telling. And somehow, that restaurant in Copenhagen started it.
Local, seasonal ingredients
January 2023. At Mumbai’s Masque, the number one restaurant in India according to the Asia’s 50 Best List, founder Aditi Dugar and chef Varun Totlani are planning a trip to see seaweed harvested off Goa. “It is an ingredient that has a lot of untapped potential in ‘modern’ Indian food, especially if you consider there are 800 varieties of 800 species along our vast coastline,” says Aditi, about the accidental find of chef Varun, when he met producers in Goa making small batches of edible Indian seaweed.
Since then, at Masque Lab, the restaurant within a restaurant where a more intimate and experimental approach to serious gastronomy is put forth, menus have seen pani puri with seaweed, seafood marinated with seaweed and seabuckthorn (from Ladakh) stock flavoured with it “marrying the north and the south”, as Aditi puts it. Now, in this ponkh season, there is the young millet spiked with it in a bhel.
In Gurugram, meanwhile, at Omo café, chef Vanshika Bhatia is excited about another ingredient and fermentation technique: The fermentation in Nagaland of the local rice liquor is exactly the same as Koji fermentation of the East; how soy sauce or sake are made. “We can use this koji fermentation to intensify other flavours and ingredients. I am eager to use this in my kitchen,” she says, planning a new lab space within her restaurant where she will host ticketed special meals centred on experimentation with the plant-forward gastronomy and hyper-regional Indian ingredients — Himachali sepu vadi with apple chutney, steamed green pea siddu with taro mash...
In Goa, meanwhile, chef Avinash Martins is experimenting with “Goa’s tribal cuisine” at his Table In The Hills, set in a plantation owned by his family for generations, cooking up the likes of patoli, turmeric leaf stuffed with coconut, rice and jaggery, with local women in the area. While at Farmlore, off Bengaluru, a much-deserved recess is in place; chef Johnson Ebenezer and his team having worked their hearts out in a spurt of winter creativity involving multiple elements and courses with ingredients such as Kochi oysters, watermelon pearls, roses grown on their farm, teja chillies and dantina soppu.
A new “modern” Indian style of cooking is based on hyper local ingredients, many lesser-known. It also recruits well-known ones, like drumsticks, combined in unexpected ways. These meals are presented in settings that are small, intimate, “labs” or studios, but sometimes farms and fields as well. What is more, many of these spaces are now booked out months in advance, sometimes within minutes of “opening”.
As Marina Balakrishnan from Mumbai, who does the immensely popular all-vegetarian Oottupura meals in Mumbai (only as delivery via her website) says, “As soon as I announce a meal (weekly), I get sold out in 20 minutes”. Marina uses “homely” ingredients such as long yard beans and tender jackfruit, green banana and pumpkin in her pulliserry, thorans et al, does not pander to touristy stereotypes of fiery Kerala “curries”, and yet there are more takers than she can cater to for stories of home via food.
Interns from India
In 2010, the year Instagram was born, Noma in Copenhagen, then seven years old, had yet to garner the kind of influence it eventually built. But it was the first year the restaurant was ranked number one in the world by the 50 Best list.
Aspiring Indian chefs, then new to social media, were taking note. That year, chef Prateek Sadhu became one of the first Noma interns from India, working for three months with the team, learning the new Nordic ways of foraging, fermentation. Over the next eight or nine years, a steady trickle of Indian chefs, either freshers from affluent families or mid-career professionals desiring to learning about global gastronomy, started applying for — and getting accepted into – the quarterly internship programme at the restaurant that formed the backbone of its operations. None of them were paid (it is reported that Noma’s recent move to pay its stagiaires added at least ?40,000 (approx. ?39 lakh) to its monthly wages bill, making it unsustainable) but they came back with ideas.
“Of course, there was the foraging and fermentation, and one could draw parallels between how they salted everything; lacto-fermentation to extract flavour, and our own Indian traditions, say the oil-less, salted nimbu achar my grandmother made in Kanpur,” says chef Vanshika Bhatia, “but it was more…” Vanshika interned at Noma in 2016 when she was just 20.
“It put the spotlight on ingredients, which we were not used to in Indian restaurants then. It gave us also a language,” says chef Abhishek Gupta, executive chef at The Leela in Gurgaon, also a Noma alumnus. (He applied for five years continuously, before being accepted in 2017).
After he got back from Copenhagen, Abhishek ran an experimental lab within the hotel called Epic for two years, where he used fermented local ingredients from pickled amla to pickled roses, guar ki phalli, berries or chocolate desserts and more, and constructed dishes from these. Even now, he builds in such experiments in day-to-day hotel F& B. “We are doing things like millet sourdough and after the pandemic these are doing really well as people have become very conscious about what they are eating,” he points out.
What Noma possibly gave to chefs such as Abhishek and Vanshika (as also scores of others such as Niyati Rao of Ekaa in Mumbai, Gresham Fernandes of Impresario and Mythrayie Iyer of Farmlore) was not technique or copy pasting ingredients but rather a vision — a thought. If Nordic gastronomy, earlier dependent on the tomatoes and lemons of southern Europe, not indigenous to colder, sparser climes, could be transformed, why not Indian gastronomy with its vast playground of ingredients and techniques?
“Noma also came about at the right time, with the advent of social media and that helped spread its message”, points out Prateek. Social media is about story telling, and exposure to Noma’s stories seems to have inspired a generation of Indian chefs to tell theirs, transforming individual experiences for a larger audience.
A story in 8 courses
In India, storytelling as part of culinary experiences had been a part of the Mughlai/Nawabi/Nizami legacy. Old khansamas and bawarchees were known to tell tall tales not just about a 100 spices akin to a One Thousand and One Nights fable (Lucknow’s tundey kebab, any one?) But as modern restaurant commerce struck root and gastronomy in India turned from being a patronised art to commercial transactions based on mass tastes, both provenance and story telling seemed to have fallen by the way side, buried under mounds of generic tandoori, pink pasta, and well more lately molecular gastronomy-wrought chaat!
Luckily, that is changing. If Noma-inspired chefs started relooking at local ingredients intensively in the last five years or so and centre-staging those stories on their plates, the pandemic seems to have transformed at least a section of the audience that is now keen to dine on the “authentic” or unusual, and wants to know how and where an ingredient comes from.
Rajnush Agarwal, the Oxford-educated owner of Mharokhet, an “experiential farm” off Jodhpur that offers private dining experiences, with seven-eight course meals, says that people have been booking the (fully paid up) dining experiences six months in advance. Clearly, authentic and rooted dining experiences will be a way forward for Indian gastronomy in 2023.
More than money, “diners are now ready to spend time for a thoughtfully-crafted experience, that was overridden earlier by this need to have ‘fun’…says Aditi of the curations at Masque Lab. Mindful dining can be fun too. And no, you don’t need to scramble for a booking at Noma to experience it.