An amalgam of the traditional and the new
The future always means anticipation. It means looking to something new the next day. It means looking for a change, a surprise or just a refreshing difference. This is the way we look at everything in life, food being no exception.
Over the years we have seen our country and our city in particular growing in flavours. Sometimes it is a whole new different cuisine making its way into the restaurant circles or sometimes it is just the well known local heroes like idly or dosai dawning many avatars. At this stage, we no longer refer to it as an influence but a friendship which has crossed many oceans and boundaries to provide that diversity on the plate.
Who would believe that there was a time when there was no masala dosai, rasam vadai or a vegetable uthappam? These were the brainwaves of some chefs who wanted to give their clients a choice. With each tweak or twist there was a new creation. Then, migration of a few people from the northern parts of our country introduced Chennai to parathas and subzis. Today the menu has increased in size with the inclusion of Chinese, Italian, Mexican, Greek, Arabic...which satisfies the well travelled customer and it also gives the chefs of today a larger platter to work on.
At each stage there is always a question - What more? What next?
Culinary expert Chandri Bhat observes that in Chennai we have gone a full circle. Today time is one of the most precious ingredients. "After a nice holiday around the world one waits to go back to home and comfort. Similarly in the food scene too it's the traditional cuisine which is in demand. One longs for the flavours they have grown up with. The cuisine has moved from being country specific to state specific and now moving into the districts. A lot of study is done before it appears on a menu card. Even the foreign chefs come from smaller regions of their countries. The art is to produce these traditional flavours with the technology available today and present it creatively. As concepts, you again find wood fire ovens and mortars and pestles in kitchens today to prove yet again that grandmom's cooking is back! That is why over hyped alien flavours cannot sell and would definitely be a failure in markets like Chennai."
While chatting with Chef Praveen Anand of Sheraton Park he tells me that a cuisine which Chennai should be introduced to in the future is South American. He has had the pleasure of tasting some well made Peruvian dishes and believes that their usage of coriander and cumin is completely different and can be very interesting to the Indian palate. Concepts like slow cooking or cooking with vacuum have been given a shot but have been able to survive for only a short period but he does see it coming back in the near future. He too believes that tradition is a key factor. To prove this he has created a Kaapi Kadai in the lobby of his hotel where a mami serves hot filter kaapi and a little snack like a murrukku or a sundal which is popular with many.
One of the projects underway for the Oriental Cuisine Group is to ensure there is no depletion in seafood which is Chennai's strength. Mahadevan believes that fisherfolk should be assisted in procuring fine produce and a kitchen created where the customer gets to pick his fish, sauce and style. "Sustainability is the key in today's world. Local produce should be well utilised and the final diner should experience a value for money product. Innovation is scouting for traditional recipes from the time when food was considered medicine and vice versa which explains the healthy lifestyle."
Therefore, if there were certain flops it has been more to do with concepts and never with cuisine. Health food, for example, is a topic much debated and considered pretty fashionable to talk about. Some might request for the medium to be olive oil or some might look at an exotic salad but overall it has been observed that an Indian diner loves his food and wouldn't like to think about his calories outside the four walls of his home. Therefore, exclusive health food outlets have struggled to survive unless they also had sinful options on their menu cards.