Bengali fervour on US plate

Rohini Dey
Rohini Dey

From Australia to America, from Bangkok to British Columbia, Indian cuisine is taking a giant leap into globalisation by fusing alien tastes and making it a rage among gourmands across the world.

The latest on this bandwagon, though, is a pioneer of sorts: a Bengali woman, who is in the spotlight for turning her back on a coveted World Bank consultancy, then chucking a lucrative job at McKinsey and Co. of advising high-tech and telecom firms to start the Vermilion restaurants in Chicago and New York, which offer menus that are made up more or less in equal part from the heady tastes of India and Brazil.

Rohini Dey told The Telegraph today that as the daughter of both Bengali parents, “my first experience in fine dining was in Calcutta”.

She is a firm believer in the idea that “all respectable sweets originated in some form in Bengal”.

In an article, Dey had challenged the notion that the French have a monopoly over good food. “Nobody takes their cuisine more seriously than Bengalis,” she asserted today from her restaurant in Chicago.

Dey is not alone in promoting Indian fusion cuisine. Adam d’Sylva, 32, born of an Indian father and Italian mother, won a competition to be Melbourne’s Young Chef of the Year 2008. The award, after being nominated three times in a row, has spurred d’Sylva to own, in partnership with two others, Coda, a fusion food restaurant which opened in Melbourne last month.

High on d’Sylva’s menu at the new venture are Hanoi-style rice paper rolls, cuttlefish marinated in seven Indian spices and snails baked with pickled lemon.

Recently, Thailand’s celebrity TV chef Vinder Balbir popularised American bakery chain Au Bon Pain’s Malai Tandoori Paneer Tikka Bagel at the chain’s 30 restaurants across Thailand.

It is made with Au Bon Pain’s typically New York-style sesame bagel which, Balbir says, is close in taste to naan. She marinates fresh paneer in thick dahi paste with ginger, garlic, fresh lime, chilli powder, mango powder and tandoori masala, then grills it in a tandoor.

In Washington, Indian restaurant Bombay Club has been replaced in popularity by Indian fusion restaurant Rasika, which serves up delicacies such as Virginia clams in coconut paste, dhania and green chillies, durade cooked in a tawa, and avocado banana chaat.

Bombay Club became a household name among foodies in Washington after Bill Clinton, along with his wife Hillary and their daughter Chelsea, occasionally sauntered across from the White House for a casual Indian meal when he was President.

The effort to take Indian cuisine to its next logical stage of across-the-board acceptability in America was initiated by Delhi-born Malayali Thomas John, who was first featured in this newspaper after he won a competition in 2002 as one of America’s “best new chefs”.

John won the award for his recipe for curried scallop salad with mango dressing, for which he used Indian cardamom, mango and pepper along with Western ingredients.

Dey, 40, a masters graduate from Delhi School of Economics and a PhD from the University of Texas, is now expected to take Indian food in the US to great new highs if only because of the company she keeps.

At the opening of her second Vermilion restaurant on Manhattan’s east side eight months ago was Salman Rushdie, one of the high-profile investors in the venture. Other celebrity investors include publishing titan Sonny Mehta and Hotmail co-founder Sabeer Bhatia.

Her flourishing Chicago outlet opened its doors five years ago, backed, among others, by McKinsey’s former head Rajat Gupta.

Shortly after the opening of the New York restaurant, Dey proceeded to commit what many Americans would consider tantamount to heresy in their traditional kitchens.

For the traditional Thanksgiving feast last year, Dey and her executive chef Maneet Chauhan put together a bhuna bhutta roasted corn soup followed by Brazilian black bean slowly cooked chorizo with garam masala, then the traditional turkey renegadely marinated in ginger and Indian black cardamom.

Chauhan who was the 40th candidate to be interviewed by Dey in an extensive headhunt for the job, is from Ranchi, an alumnus of DAV Jawahar Vidya Mandir and Loreto Convent.

She later joined the CIA. Not the spy agency in Langley, Virginia, but the world famous Culinary Institute of America in New York, where she earned a degree.