Any avid restaurant-goer, celebrity-watcher and fine wine fan in Mumbai knows the name Indigo, and the same is proving true in Delhi and beyond as the famed restaurant expands past its frequent appearance on San Pellegrino's 50 Best Restaurants in Asia list. Chef/restaurateur Rahul Akerkar started his career bussing, washing dishes and cooking in the kitchens of New York City (with little if any intention of keeping the chef's whites) before returning to his native city to answer his calling.
Full disclosure: I've known the Akerkars my whole life. Our families' apartments, where they've lived for half a century, are adjacent in a distinguished old building in the Kemps Corner neighborhood of Mumbai, and Rahul and his sister Tiki (better known as film actress Avantika Akerkar) were the first other half-Indian half-Eastern European Jews I ever met. Aside from my own brother Elan, there haven't been any others. We're a rare breed and while you'd think between the two cultures our math skills would be so sharp none of us would consider being chefs, actors or food writers…all we want to do is feed people, and eat. Theatrically.
But that's not to say Hinjews can't crunch numbers (we've also been called Om-Shalomers and Masalox). Akerkar moved to the Northeast to study biochemical engineering at Franklin & Marshall University, then to New York's Upper West Side, where his German-American mother Jinx is originally from, for his Master's. However intellectual and lucrative a Master's in biochemical engineering from Columbia may seem…well, you've just never owned India's most successful restaurant empire now, have you? Oh, and as of right now, we're calling it Bombay.
I spoke to Akerkar after what sounded like one hell of a dinner shift — always a good thing — and got the lowdown on the epic pairing of Chateau Margaux wines with Indian cuisine, the succulent lox topping the bagels at India's first gourmet appetizing shop, deli and cafe and I even snagged a few stories from 80s-era New York kitchens that would make Bourdain himself grin.
So Rahul, what was…
Breaking news! We're doing an epic historical wine dinner on Sunday! Chateau Margaux has been trying to bring high-end Bordeaux into India in a big, focused, orchestrated way. They've engaged some of us who set up the Bombay branch of the International Wine & Food Society and we already did a vegetarian dinner with Michelin chefs from Paris.
Okay, scrap that first query. Chateau Margeaux wines with Indian food?
Yes! It's a known fact that you can't really pair big Bordeaux cabs with spicy Indian food so we've worked to absolutely shatter that. My newer restaurant, Neel, is based on the food of the old Muslim nobility — we have 50 types of kebabs — and with those wines it's a marriage made in heaven, unbelievable! As long as you control the chili fire spice, the food is so rich and complex with layers and layers of flavors, 85-spice masalas and whatnot, then it can handle the wines. An '85 or '96 Margaux is so big and layered that its complexity with the food's spices meld together beautifully. The owners of Chateau Margaux are coming down for the dinner, it's going to be so epic.
Indigo and Neel are certainly breaking down any preconceived notions of fine dining in Bombay. How did you come up with the idea for Indigo Deli?
We entertain a lot at home, and the food we do is simple, it's deli food. Indigo is a lot more sophisticated and cerebral, and it wasn't accessible from a comfort level point of view. I felt the need to make a fun place, plus — I remember this clearly — you couldn't get a deli-style sandwich in Bombay, which really sucked. So I decided it was time to do a fun place with great sandwiches and it evolved form there. We decided to do India's first Reuben, with our own corned beef. None of that existed here. Also for selfish reasons, we were able to import meats and cheeses, and one of the first things I ordered was pig parts in jelly, which I love and my mother loves and which absolutely nobody ate, so I imported that and pickled herring for us.
What was the initial response? Do Indians like bagels? And how tired are you of hearing the "deli in Delhi" thing?
People loved it because there were no mid-market fun, casual places that did truly good food in an honest way. Our portions were way oversized, we were affordable, the ingredients were fantastic, we had a friendly staff and the menu really had something for everyone. And it just flew. We have six locations now, expanding out in New Delhi, so of course you'll get "oh a deli in Delhi? Indigo IN Delhi?" and yes it confuses everyone. We make our own bagels, which is of course a constant battle. People like them and they're close to the real thing, but no cigar.
Speaking of fun, affordable and fantastic, what's your favorite street food and backup favorite street food?
I love chaat. Pani puri is my big favorite, then in Bombay you have somthing called vada pav, a potato fritter in a bun with dry garlic chutney and pickled green chile that's to die for. It's like the filling of a masala dosa rolled into a ball, dipped in chickpea batter and fried, then mashed into a bun. Hits the spot every time. The backup would be more of the same.
Can tourists eat street food?
Absolutely yes, and this is what I tell friends: when you travel to India, generally if you eat at the really low-end open-air dhabas where they're cooking in front of you, you're not going to get sick. Maybe you don't want to eat chutneys that have been out in the sun for a while but if you're eating stuff that's cooked fresh, there's no way you should get sick. It's fresh, nothing is stored — it's out of the fryer or tandoor on to your plate. As with anywhere, don't eat fish in regions where it's not readily available and vegetables are generally not a problem. If you eat at a 5-star place, you should also (hopefully) be fine.
Now, if you eat at the mid-level you will probably get sick, and the reason is we have a huge power problem. Most cities except maybe Bombay have power-outs all the time, and small-time India is especially notorious. Places where simple tourists would go for AC and a sense of cleanliness, those are the places that will get you sick. They don't understand hygiene, the fridges don't work all the time and food is not stored properly. First timers are going to get one bout of shits but after that's over, you should just enjoy your food.
What's the first thought in your head when a foreigner says "I love Indian food?"
They're thinking of the horrendous export in the rest of the world: tandoori chicken, butter chicken, tikka masala, stuff like that. It's that sort of heavy Punjabi North Indian food, oily meat curries, and most of the time those places are run by Bangladeshis, so even that Indian food was just a facsimile of all the crap they were serving in the West anyway. That's what comes to mind in terms of what they know to be Indian food, but beyond that…what the hell is it actually? There's regional food but there's no Indian food.
In that case, let's talk fusion cuisine. Does Indian cuisine fuse? It is inherently already fused?
Good example: I have a recipe in the upcoming International Quinoa Cookbook. I used quinoa to make upma [traditional semolina porridge], then served a fish curry over it. But the fish was cooked Western-style and the entire dish is plated Western-style. If you're considering that to be fusion in a way, then it works. Indian doesn't "fuse" per se, but it lends itself to many different things. The Chinese food we have in India is a true example of fusion food. It's sort of like the Creole food in New Orleans or even the American Chinese food which started in San Francisco.
The other kind of fusion is when you take a flavor and put it together with some other stuff on a plate, and that doesn't always work. The chef really has to know how to handle spice if you're doing Indian. There's a lot of local vegetables which don't really translate, but at the same time I do a cumin fettuccine and make a cream sauce with mutt, a local vegetable. It's a bit like beetroot leaf with a beautiful flavor like basil. That could be a fusion dish because we use a local vegetable not usually part of Italian food, Indianized it and it went beautifully. We served that during a Chateau Latour dinner.
What's a food trend in India that's surprised you?
I'm concerned that we're embracing mediocrity. The West went through a huge evolution and growth period in food in the 80s and 90s, restaurants found their space, diners found their space and good things started happening. Now you have everything from haute cuisine to hot dogs, all distinct cuisines that continue to evolve. Here, there's no home-grown talent from a Western point of view, and I'm saying that from a Western point of view.
You have people who go overseas, dump their ideas in India, their restaurants open and close and that's evolution too, but it's the natural growth that comes from homegrown talent that there's a great shortage of here and it's worrisome because you have a large population of people with money now, a burgeoning upper-middle class, they have money to spend they don't necessarily have the exposure to different cuisine. They haven't been abroad, but they're hungry to try new, better things, but they don't have the context to compare a 600-rupee burger and a 2000-rupee burger [about $10 and $30]. There's little need to do things with perfection right now. Your food must be decent, but it doesn't have to be sexy, and that's not necessarily a good thing.
You've been ranked among Asia's 50 Best Restaurants for many years, climbing the ranks from #75 in 2007 to #28 in 2013. Have you visited any others, and does it make sense to you that Indian is looped in with Asian? Are Indian restaurants at any disadvantage there?
I've been to some of the other restaurants. I don't travel as much as I should and I don't travel all over — I go to New York, I do high-end eating sprees there, then a few other cities for 2-3 days…then I go eat on the street cause that's where the good hot dogs are. Should Indian food be grouped in Asian? Probably not. Asian food has a completely different flavor profile for a different palate compared to India, and it's a little odd perhaps to include it in the same list because you happen to be on the same continent.
Our own food here in India is so different, how do you compare even regions to each other? When you talk about these lists, it's more than just the food. It's the total package: are they being honest to what they're doing and being creative? Is it a restaurant that you'd go back to? That should really tell you if it's a good restaurant or not. Those places are great, but in a way it's like theater — once you've been, you're not going back for the same show over and over again. For me, a simple roll-up-your-sleeves place that's consistent and serves interesting fresh food on a constantly-changing menu, those are the best in the world.
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