WHILE there is no denying the appeal of a bowl of creamy butter chicken, steaming naan bread and perfectly fluffy rice, Rishi Desai’s modern approach to Indian food transforms well-known and loved flavour combinations into new and sometimes unexpected dishes.
Desai, who might be a familiar face to some as a semi-finalist from the fifth series of MasterChef, has just released his book Modern Indian.
He grew up in India with a mother passionate about cooking, who at the age of 65 still owns and runs a bustling spice shop and makes her own spice mixes, condiments, pickles and sweet and savoury dishes. From a young age Desai was in the kitchen, learning about the subtleties of spice and nuances of Indian cuisine.
‘‘[My mum] keeps telling me I was five years old when I first cooked something in the kitchen,’’ Desai told GT with a laugh over the phone from Canberra, where his day job is as a public servant.
‘‘In India everyone plays cricket so my friends would be on the oval playing cricket and I would be in the kitchen making something.’’
Decades later, Desai is still cooking: sharing his home country’s cuisine and its famous flavour combinations, but also transforming perceptions of Indian food as being purely about curry.
‘‘If you look at Indian food, everything is in the curries and curries are great, especially on a day like today – it’s 12 degrees Celsius, you want to dive into them,’’ he said.
‘‘But at the same time you need to feature the ingredients and make them the hero of the dish. You have to be careful though to ... keep the flavours the same, so you have the butter quail, which is the same taste as butter chicken. You keep the flavours the same, you make it modern and use different techniques.’’
A big part of modernising Indian food, for Desai, is texture: ‘‘The first concept of modern Indian food is that the flavours have to be the same, so you can’t change the flavour combinations. The second thing is to introduce textures because Indian food has textures, but you don’t often realise they are there...When you are enjoying the food, you should be enjoying different textures coming through,’’ he said.
‘‘The traditional Indian food seems to be one texture: a soft naan bread, a soft curry and a soft chicken so you don’t have many textures. I try to introduce textures into the food.’’
Desai cites a recipe from Modern Indian, what he calls a fish curry in a bowl, as the perfect example of using established spice combinations in a new way with different textures: coconut milk poached salmon with spiced veloute and caramelised onion puree. ‘‘It has the same flavours from the onion puree that a coconut curry will have and then the salmon is cooked at 42degrees, which means the texture is very different from a traditional curry, and to introduce more texture you introduce fried wild rice so you get a crunch,’’ he said.
Having lived in the US and travelled the world before settling in Canberra, Desai’s recipes show off his well-developed use of spice, but also his love of cooking techniques from around the globe. There’s the Italian influence in mango panna cotta with candied mango; the American influence in Indian club sandwich with mixed vegetable chips; and even Japanese influence in the tandoori-spiced tuna tataki with Indian pickled mushrooms and garlic and coriander mayo. He’s even included Indian takes on risotto, brulee and the staple dish of steak and chips.
‘‘That [influence] has actually come from my own background; I love to eat Italian food at least once a week and Chinese food once a week so I make those types of dishes at home often. The techniques are not new to me, but just using them in Indian food is a bit different,’’ he said.
Desai’s international take on Indian dishes even extends to the condiments, which any Indian food lover knows can elevate any homemade dish from run-of-the-mill to next level. If readers have made traditional European pickles, relishes and more, Desai said similar techniques can be used to make Indian versions. It’s just the ingredients that differ.
‘‘If we talk about condiments, the way the French do it or the way we do it in the Western world is the same way the pickles are done in India, it’s what goes into them that is different,’’ he said.
‘‘If you look at the French, they’ll use vinegar and sugar for making a pickle but in India we’ll use oil and mustard seeds, but the pickle concept is the same.
‘‘It’s just different ingredients. Once people know that, ‘Oh it’s just making a pickle, I know how to make a pickle, it’s just two different ingredients’, then I think they’ll feel comfortable making it.’’
Pickles sorted, breads are also an important part of any Indian meal and feature in Desai’s book, which he hopes will become a one-stop-shop for Indian food. It’s all about making Indian food easy and accessible.
‘‘What you want to do is keep things simple. Everyone loves naan bread, but they don’t necessarily know a good recipe, so I incorporate that into the book,’’ he said.
‘‘The second thing is, the spices I have used in the book give readers basic spice blend recipes. The last thing you want people to do is to look at a recipe and say, ‘I don’t know how to make this, I don’t know where to find it’.
‘‘You don’t want to give them reasons not to make the recipe, so if you have everything in one place, all the breads, all the spice blends, all the chutneys, all the main meals, people feel more comfortable saying, ‘Yep, I’m going to make a naan bread from this page, a [main] recipe from this page and a chutney from that page’, and get on with it.’’