See that in the photo? THAT was not scallop. That was a freaking perfectly cooked revelation from the sea, otherwise known as the tandoori scallop at Ajanta restaurant in Berkeley, California. This is a perfect example of a (sort of) new restaurant trend across the country, upscale Indian cuisine.
Technically speaking, upscale Indian cuisine can go by many names, anything from fusing Indian ingredients and recipes with another country’s cuisine, modernizing traditional Indian recipes, or using Indian ingredients with non-Indian cooking techniques. Examples? So glad you asked…
Starting in my hometown of Chicago, a great example of upscale Indian cuisine is Vermillion Restaurant in the River North neighborhood. Vermillion focuses on fusing Latin cuisine with Indian cuisine and does a pretty damn good job of it. Their cocktails are a huge hit, and heavily incorporate Indian spices and ingredients, like in the Garam Masala Bloody Mary, the Lime Pear & Green Chili cocktail, and their Pani Puri Margarita, which perfectly fuses Latin and Indian in one drink.
Their tapas selections allows customers to sample of wide variety of their Indian-Latin fusion cuisine. The duck vindaloo arepa is a great example of their fusion cuisine, as are their artichoke pakoras with eggplant chili coconut sauce.
Chef and owner Lachu Moorjani of Ajanta Restaurant in Berkeley, CA serves a modern version of a few traditional Indian dishes by substitute local ingredients. For example. tandoori chicken, or chicken rubbed in a tandoori paste and cooked in a tandor oven, is a popular Indian dish served in many restaurants across the world. Moorjani does two modern versions of his dish with his tandoori scallop (locally sourced from Monterey Fish Market) and tandoori portabello mushroom (also known as vegetarian foie gras, and one of the best dishes on the menu). The dishes are made the same, by being rubbed in a special tandoori spice paste and left marinate, then cooked in the bottom of a tandor oven, but the local ingredients help to elevate these dishes to the next level.
When you’ve grown up with traditional Indian food like I have, the prospect of eating a modern version is quite exciting. For example, nearly every Indian restaurant I have ever eaten at left me feeling like I could give birth to an Indian baby at ANY MOMENT. This is in part to the high amount of fat traditional Indian cooking tends to use. Chef Neela Paniz of Neela Restaurant in Napa, CA incorporates a family cooking method that allows for less fats and a lighter version of modern Indian cuisine. When blooming spices in oil prior to cooking a dish, a technique quite common in Indian cuisine, instead of using a lot of oil, she tilts the pan while she cooks the spices so she only has to use a small amount of oil. This results is a noticeable difference in the finished dish, a much lighter, more refined flavor.
There are plenty of other ways chefs across the country are creating their own versions of upscale, modern Indian cuisine, but these are a few great examples and easily replicable in your own kitchens. Next time you’re making a pot of Italian tomato sauce, see what it tastes like with a bit of heat from some garam masala (hot spice mix). Feel free to cook an Indian recipe substituting proteins, starches and vegetables you have available locally, instead of painstakingly seeking out every last esoteric Indian ingredient. I love using crushed black cardamom seeds and ginger powder to give baked goods like cakes and fruit crisps an interesting flavor. What kind of modern or upscale Indian do you create in your own home or restaurant?