No matter where in the world you live, from Singapore to New York to Delhi, you might get the wrong idea about Indian food. In many places, it means greasy, spicy, saucy, cheap — the kind of grub you’d dig into after many rounds of glycerin-filled beer. Don’t get me wrong; there’s nothing like a big bowl of thick dal makhani (black lentils) or cream-soaked butter chicken, and hot-off-the-tandoor naans painted with butter, washed down with a glass of cold Coke. But eventually even that gets old.
Each item reflects India’s culinary diversity, whereas your standard shop food draws mostly from the state of Punjab.
Try looking for an Indian restaurant that serves anything else and you’ll get bemused reactions. The best you can do is specify that you want South Indian grub — in which case, you’ll be pointed toward a neighborhood eatery that serves steamed spongelike idlis, crisp dosas (crepes) and sambhar (lentil stew).
So thank Bhagavan, Allah and everyone else for Café Lota, a quaint, 8-month-old restaurant hidden inside New Delhi’s National Crafts Museum covered with leafy trees and surrounded by the finest creations of India’s craftspeople. Its proprietor, Rahul Dua, a 27-year-old man who learned cooking from his mum (he told OZY), has lived in eight cities across India and has (thankfully) begun to reinterpret Indian cuisine as much more than the greasy grub we Delhiites (and the rest of you) have associated with the term.
Dua’s restaurant serves up stuff even Indian-food gluttons might not know of: dishes like sindhi kadhi with aloo tuk (curry with drumsticks and vegetables, a staple of India’s Sindhi community) and salli boti (mutton curry garnished with fried potato straws — a popular dish among India’s Parsis). Each item reflects India’s culinary diversity, whereas your standard shop food draws mostly from the state of Punjab.
Oh, and of course, it falls into this new, nebulous, but oh-so-delicious category of modern fusion.
Instead of serving bhappa doi (a Bengali dessert of steamed, sweetened yogurt) as it is, Dua serves it as a cheesecake. He uses quinoa instead of semolina for his take on the traditional South Indian breakfast porridge, upma.
”We didn’t want to be a restaurant visited only by foreign tourists or very wealthy people.”
This all started with restaurants in London where chefs Vineet Bhatia, Atul Kochar and Cyrus Todiwala opened successful restaurants that serve beetroot-filled samosas, naans (Indian flatbread) stuffed with wild mushrooms, crabs served with passion-fruit salsa. So it’s perhaps ironic that New Delhi is at last catching up.
But the changes are coming in droves. One of the city’s best-known restaurants is Indian Accent, which does modern Indian cuisine and where a meal can cost 2,000 rupees (about $34) per head.
Dua, on the other hand, wants to serve food at prices middle-class locals can afford. “We didn’t want to be a restaurant visited only by foreign tourists or very wealthy people,” said Dua. “So it evolved into being modern Indian food that is approachable in terms of price and the way it is presented.”
The most expensive dishes on Lota’s menu, large plates of non-veg seafood items, cost 365 rupees ($6) in a city where the average price of a seafood dish is 600 rupees ($10). Dua claims he earns a healthy profit without making his food boring, exorbitantly priced or repetitive — there’s a new dish on the menu every two weeks.
“I’m so happy to be called a poor man’s Indian Accent,” he says.
Stomach growling yet?
Aayush Soni is a journalist and glutton living in New Delhi. Follow him on Twitter @AayushSoni.
Why you should care
Because “Let’s just order Indian” will never mean the same thing again.