Indians are born food critics and assign a major part of their routines revering about the rajma-chawal or chhole-kulche. Moreover be it a new job, a new workstation, a new born child or simply newly bought shoes, Indians love to binge and celebrate. They all swear by those authentic, native recipes their mothers and grandmothers prepare.
The challenge for expat chefs is to blend the flavors of their home country with the authenticity of the local palate to amaze food connoisseurs across the country with lip-smacking delicacies. Be it dishing out an authentic laccha paratha or a roasted tenderloin chicken burger, these chefs celebrate the variety Indian cuisine has to offer and combine it with spices from their regional platter to serve a country who know its food well. While many of these chefs consider Indian consumers to be the best food aficionados they have catered to, living in a strange country, especially pleasing its people with luscious culinary delights, can be quite a Herculean task.
Little India speak to several successful expat chefs across the country for a peek into the challenges they face, the part of India they love, the dishes they rave about and the people who have made them feel at home.
Chef Eric Khoo Thiam Huat
Though the Head chef of Royal China, New Delhi has spent just a year in the country, Chef Eric Khoo is floored by the boisterous affiliation towards food that Indians exude, especially the cuisine he specializes in – Chinese. “India is a big country with a unique culture and strong religious affinity. I like the people here, especially the ones who come to our restaurant and are usually educated, polite and hail from the elite Indian class,” he says.
While the share of non vegetarian diners is growing rapidly, the country is largely vegetarian, certainly more so than any other country Huat has worked in. “Indians prefer their food to be hot and spicy,” Huat says. “They even enjoy at late hours of the night and I appreciate the fact that they enjoy food served in its authentic taste.Thankfully, the customers I have catered to at Royal China don’t prefer run of the mill Indo-Chinese food, but authentic Chinese which we prepare. Sure, we modify the spice quotient if a guest demands it, but I ensure that it doesn’t get influenced by Indian tastes.
“For the same reason, I have brought in some changes in terms of cooking to achieve the genuine Chinese taste. A simple dish like fried rice may smell differently when subjected to a high level of cooking method with proper fire control and timing. The aroma which it breathes then is what makes it different from roadside Chinese outlets.”
He finds living in India very similar to China, although the food culture is quite different in both countries. “In China, people rarely cook at home, as there are a lot of restaurants, hawkers and food courts, but in India, the emphasis is highly on preparing meals at home.” On visits home, he has taken back home with traditional Indian spices, which even his family now relishes. “Eventually, I would want to move back since my family is in China, but the love and freedom of creativity, which I have received from my colleagues here, hasn’t once made me miss my family. That’s what gives me the drive to enjoy every bit of my stint here”
Chef Naphaphak Prompaksa
Naphaphak Prompaksa at Shangri-La’s Eros Hotel, New Delhi, has resided in both New Delhi and Mumbai and loves India for of its pace and people. “Indians are by and large warm and friendly by nature. Living in India is quite easy for me now as I understand a lot of Hindi and also speak some. New Delhi is a beautiful city and I stay in the heart of it. So it’s great.”
She finds the culture, beliefs, traditions and values are same as the ones back home, in Thailand. She has even taken to the sari, which she says is now her favorite dress. “I love the many ways in which women drape it. It’s so exciting to see how one garment can be worn in so many different styles and fashions.”
She loves the cosmopolitan taste of the average Indian diner who is well-travelled and open to experimenting with different cuisines. “Cooking for Indians is easy as most guests who come either want to try something new or have already tried it and come back because they like it. Thai food is very appealing to the Indian palette and there’s no modification required. Indians love spices and Thai food is famous for being spicy. With me, I have bought in typical authentic Thai cuisine, which has found an audience in India. I believe the key to improvisation is regular customer feedback. I always make it a point to meet the customers and take their feedback on the food. Luckily, they like the authentic Thai food that we serve and appreciate our authentic tastes.”
Prompaksa relishes chicken and mutton biryani and has introduced a concoction of grilled chicken roti with sweet Thai sauce giving Indians a slice of both Indian and Thai cuisine. Mostly though she stirs up authentic Thai delicacies, which she has discovered are appreciated by her diners.
Chef Antonello Cancedda
Having lived in India for nearly two years now, the Italian Chef Antonello Cancedda at JW Marriot’s Oregano restaurant in Chandigarh, loves the city he lives in and is amazed by the strong family roots most people still have. “I just love the country, the culture and most of all I love the people. They are so peaceful and meditative. Living in India is an amazing experience. I am here as an ambassador of my culture and at the same time I find Indian intricacies such as Yoga, Hinduism, Indian Cuisine, Sufi Music creating a deep impact on my daily life too.”
His diners have a wide awareness of global cuisines and the spirit to experiment with new ones. “People come to Oregano to taste authentic Italian food and we explain the flavors to the customers and give them the truly Italian experience. Indians, especially the people in Chandigarh enjoy authentic Italian delights and pay great attention to the quality of food.”
He has tried to keep the food as authentic as possible. “People enjoy the local spices that I have brought in from my homeland and appreciate a small briefing about the dish before ordering it. Cooking for Indians hence isn’t that difficult. In fact, the customer feedback has been great so far. People in Chandigarh really appreciate authentic Italian cuisine there are lot of customers who have few particular favorites dishes which they call in advance and request me to prepare for their next dinning in my restaurant.”
He himself is fan of yellow dal and thinks the diversity of Indian cuisine needs to be promoted to expand it to a global audience. He has found himself charmed by the friendly character of Chandigarh and the spiritual connection he has found through yoga and meditation.
Chef Nuria Rodreguez
Chef Nuria Rodreguez, of Spain, has spent two years in the country surprising Indians with authentic Spanish delights at the Mediterranean cuisine restaurant Imperfecto in New Delhi. “I couldn’t be happier than here. India is fantastic. I like the culture, the people, the customs and so many other things. At first, Indians come across as very serious people, but when you get to know them and extend a hand of friendship, you fall in love with their hospitality. Thankfully, I have many Indian friends now and I know their customs. Though they drive me crazy sometimes, but I respect them and have fun being a part of them.”
India may be very different from her country in terms of food, relationships, and beliefs, but Nuria has taken it in stride. “In India anything can happen. That’s what I have figured. So while people may be very friendly on one hand, some are very closed and want you to take the first step.”
She specializes in Mediterranean cuisine, which Indians are gradually opening up to, but she says she has never tried fusion unless a guest wanted the spice level to be altered. “I have never done fusion and believe in acquainting Indians with authentic Mediterranean preparations. A good part about Indians is how conscious they are getting towards their health and want the same to reflect in their food too. Cooking for my customers hasn’t been so difficult hence. Customer feedback for me is extremely important. It even helps you connect with the people you are serving and gladly many of my guests are my friends now.”
Having travelled the world she considers Africa and India to be her favorite places to travel and explore and enjoys Indian spices; her favorites being butter chicken, palak paneer and butter garlic naan. She misses the cheap beer she used to get back home in Spain and detests the exorbitant rent she shells out every month. But she enjoys the cheap massages, the culture seeped deep in spirituality and her loyal customers who have become friends over time.
Chef Bela Rieck
With a culinary experience that has taken her to Indonesia, China, Slovakia, Germany and now India, Bela Rieck, the executive chef of Sheraton Bangalore Hotel, is a citizen of the world. While adding pins to his world map is exciting, he says he is also tempted by settling down and retiring in India. “Living in India, especially Bangalore has been perfect! The climate is very nice; everything is available, good bars and restaurants all over the city, exciting food and lots to explore. If I would need to complain about something, it would be the traffic.
“Sadly, as India is such a big country I haven’t had the chance to explore all cultures and people. But I love the fact that people are so friendly and open-minded and always raring to explore new things,” he says.
Tieck says the key to satisfying any customer is by delivering quality food: “It’s actually easy for Indians as above everything they simply want to eat good food. As long as you are giving them lip-smacking delicacies, they will be always satisfied. Though generally, I believe that food should be authentic and representative of its origin, but of course I would never refuse a request from our guests to spice up the risotto in our Italian Restaurant Bene, if that suits their palette. As a matter of fact, even though our guests liked the idea and the presentation of authentic foreign food, but in my experience people prefer the traditional way of serving it.”
Rieck has introduced Indians to many German delights: “We did a very nice authentic Oktoberfest last year in our all day dining restaurant Feast which worked very well with the guests. In addition, in our buffet menu you will find one or the other German style salad. Also our breads have a German twist with pretzels for dinner.”
He finds that Indian customers are attentive to detail, and also value conscious, which is similar to his home country, Germany. He enjoys working with his cooking team and learning something new from them each day. “That’s the beauty of my job. So far nobody has denied sharing their knowledge with me, and this is not something you find in every country.”Though Bela can’t single out a particular thing will he take back from India, he is falling in love with the variety in Indian food and its concoction of spices. “I simply love Indian food. I find the taste, the mixture of spices and the variety of all the different flavors very exciting, but I guess you love it or you don’t like it, there is not much in between. I once created a fusion named chicken tikka Yorkshire pudding and served it with Dal Makhani, which was quite exciting. Moreover, I love palak paneer and can enjoy a nice piece of tandoori chicken, wrapped in hot naan bread any day.”