Indo Canadian Chef Akshay Bhardwaj says Indian food can change the culinary culture in North America.
Chef Akshay Bhardwaj is no stranger to food trends. He has been observing the discerning palate of foodies for years across the continents, while working in some of the most prestigious kitchens around the world. He has taken care of the kitchens at Cosa Nostra in Canada, among other restaurants. The chef also worked as a stagier for a short while at Rene Redzepi’s Noma, in Copenhagen, Denmark — which was voted as the World’s Best Restaurant in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2014 — to learn what it like working in a world class kitchen.
Having traveled the world, Chef Bhardwaj has been observing that Indian food often does not get its due in some of the most celebrated world tables, due to its dated presentation.
The chef, who grew up learning about food by observing his grandfather making chutneys, insists that the Indian food philosophy of using fresh, local, seasonal ingredients, as well as an emphasis on condiments, is something that the most gourmet cuisines in the world follow.
Though a lover of Indian fare, he specializes in European entrees. He says that the more he studies European food, the more similarities he finds with the ancient kitchen culture of India.
He is currently stationed in Delhi as the corporate chef for Eastman Colours Restaurants’ culinary ventures, including a world tapas bar, La Roca in Aerocity, Delhi.
Bhardwaj, who spent most of his life in Canada observing the Indian food and its acceptance in the West, talks to the American Bazaar on why Indian food has not yet gone mainstream in America.
America is a melting pot of cultures and a place where every immigrant community brought along its own food culture. Now, despite Indians being one of biggest immigrant communities in the US, it can’t be said that Indian food has gone mainstream in America. What do you think are the reasons?
To understand the immigrant history of America and how it is linked with the popular food plates, you have to understand it in phases. The first food exchanges happened in America, when the first immigrants mostly from Northern European countries began coming in America. Toward the early 19th century, a lot of Jews from Eastern Europe began coming to the US and brought their own food culture. It was also around that time when the Italian food became very popular in the US. As far as Indian food is concerned, I would say it began making its presence only during the most recent phase of food exchanges where Asian, and particularly Chinese food, became a rage. Indian food is not yet mainstay but it is also ahead of the exploratory stage. Almost every American would have had tikkas or dals more than once in their lifetime. It may be noted, however, that the same cannot be said for all the European countries. So there is a lot of territories that Indian food needs to break into.
But some of the earliest Indian settlers in the US came from Punjab, way back in the 1900s, with thousands of Sikhs settling in California. Why did the food exchange not begin early as in the case of other communities?
If you look at the pattern, then you will see that most earliest Indian settlers belonged to rural India and though farming was a mainstay in the community a lot of them looked at other jobs to survive in a new country. Also, Indian food with the curries and masalas was not something that the early Americans would have taken to easily. This was alien food! It also requires a lot of confidence for a community to come and introduce their cuisine to the new country. The earliest Indians were on a survival mode and exchanges only begin when the community is either too big or too sure of their acceptance. However, around that time another interesting food fusion took place which unfortunately is not documented as much as it should have been. The earliest Sikhs married Mexican women and their household food became an amalgamation of tortillas and makhni dal. It must have been an interesting phase!
You have worked in Canada, where a sizeable population also has Indian roots. What would you say about the early Indian food exchanges in North Americas?
I would say that the problem why Indian food took longer to be accepted as a gourmet cuisine was because, while from Europe many immigrants brought along their excellent home cooking techniques, Indians failed to so, or did not explore the medium of promoting their food. The new generation of educated chefs from India came to the scene very late, but a lot of early Italians in America were not trained chefs but excellent home cooks who continued their preparations. Most Indians, who immigrated, unfortunately, looked at food as a business proposition and not a passion project. That’s why there was an emergence of pop and mom shops who sold Indian food but discredited its real preparation. It was often to cut costs or to attract customers but overall it did a very bad PR for Indian food in the West. We are coming out of that phase slowly but surely.
You said that it was at Noma, the world famous two-Michelin star restaurant, that you began noticing the parallels between your earliest food memories practiced in your Indian family kitchen and the world standards of sustainability, simplicity and love that make a dish. Explain to us.
Every Indian who has had the pleasure of being fed by his or her mom, grand mom or any elder in the family would know that love is the primary ingredient in all our home dishes. At Noma, we followed the philosophy of infusing love into each dish to create magic. I remember growing up my grand dad would make chutneys with locally grown, often ingredients that he himself sowed, tended and cared for. He would also prepare it as an extension of love he had for his family. After I became a chef, that emotion stayed on with me. Most world-famous chefs are passionate about every dish they plate and isn’t that the case with Indian moms too in our home kitchens? Indian food in America is still evolving but if we were to bring back the secrets of our past into our cooking, the immigrant Indian food would be a big revolution across the world.
(This post has been updated.)