‘Lazeez should be the takeaway; rest is just window shopping’

By: | Updated: March 5, 2017 3:01 AM

He is the king of regional cuisine. Having worked at various Taj hotels across the country, chef Arun Sundararaj is behind many plates of traditional Indian food.

A dish of methi aloo, where both components are cooked separately and then brought together on a plate at Varq.

He is the king of regional cuisine. Having worked at various Taj hotels across the country, chef Arun Sundararaj is behind many plates of traditional Indian food.

However, tradition comes with a large twist at modern Indian restaurants these days. For instance, something like the kofta has been completely overhauled. What is traditionally meant to be a dish having an osmotic flavour exchange between the gravy and the dumpling, has metamorphosed into a dry concoction placed on an artfully applied smear, both having distinct, individual flavours.

Because, customers going to high-profile restaurants don’t expect a bowl of brown gravy with coriander garnish put on the table, looking like it just emerged from their own home kitchens.

As chef Sundararaj explains, he can no longer cook a simple dish of aloo methi and serve it the traditional way. Now, he sautés the methi separately, and tries to infuse the methi flavour into the potato using cream as a vehicle. The potato is then served arranged like a galette alongside the methi. So much deconstruction, only for the sake of aesthetics.

“But that’s how things work now. We have to beautifully plate every dish that emerges from our kitchens. It’s the least our guests expect,” he says, adding that plating Indian food is all the more challenging. “Indian food is not meant to be eaten separately. It is only when you mix things together that you get the flavours. So we can’t ape the West in plating Indian dishes,” he says.

To serve a traditional Indian meal, he takes inspiration from the thali, which, for him, embodies beautiful plating. Dishes like dal and curd are no longer considered mainstream. They are, instead, served as accompaniments in small bowls. “No Indian meal is complete without subzi or dal. But all these elements can’t be plated together, so we serve them separately,” he explains.

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Chef Sundararaj points out how various chefs in Indian restaurants use accessories like small pressure cookers, miniature shovels, etc, to plate innovatively. He recalls how even he once bought several crystal mini prams to serve berries in a dessert. “Thankfully, chefs have support from beautiful crockery these days. We can now think of a dish and then go to a potter and get customised dishes made. For Indian food, plating is aided many times by how a dish is shaped.” However, he insists that for him, flavour is the takeaway and he’d trade off looks for flavour any day. “That thing called lazeez is important. As a chef, I want to trap that in a dish. That should be the takeaway for a diner. The rest is just window shopping.”

Arun Sundararaj, Taj Mahal Hotel, New Delhi Flavour vs Presentation 70:30

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