Interview with Chef Manish Mehrotra on pairing Indian food with wine

Ever wondered how to pair Indian food with wine? It's not impossible as renowned Chef Manish Mehrotra, Corporate Chef at Indian Accent Restaurant, Manor Hotel, New Delhi explains in a detailed interview.

Chef Manish Mehrotra is one of the foremost names in Indian cuisine today. He has been inducted into the ‘Order of Escoffier Disciples’, was a guest Chef on Master Chef (India) in 2015, and has been awarded with the Excellence award For Shining The World's Spotlight On India -Condé Nast Traveller India Readers 2014’.

Chef Manish Mehrotra

I want to start by thanking you for your valuable time, I do appreciate it.

You are with Oriental Octopus and of course the Corporate Chef at the Indian Accent. When did you realize that you wanted to be a chef and how did you come into this line of ‘Modern Indian Cuisine’?

Going to hotel management school was a career decision, and I took a decision that “Yes, I had to go into the hotel industry”. But when I went to a hotel management school, there I saw that the kitchen was the most creative place in the hotel industry. Everything else was quite scripted. You had to talk in certain way; you had to walk in certain way, to dress up in a certain way. You had to behave in a certain manner according to the hotel policies.

But the kitchen was quite innovative...…something new, and you could do something of your own. So that is what really got me interested in the kitchen, and here I am.

And what about ‘Modern Indian Cuisine’?

Modern Indian cuisine…. Yes! I would say I was always a Pan Asian chef and had always worked with the Pan- Asian restaurants. My specialty was Thai. But Indian food was always around… it was always, always, always around. So, when I was in London doing a Pan- Asian restaurant, I got a chance to do a little bit of contemporary Indian there on my London restaurant menu. At that time I realized that “yes, I can do this also!”, and then I decided to open an Indian restaurant. We always wanted to do something different with the Indian restaurant because the reputation of Indian restaurants in the world and of Indian cuisine is very, very wrong and very, very bad.

Chef Manish Mehrotra

People think that we are just a cheap greasy take away, and we are NOT. I think this is all over the world, I don’t know if whether it is because of us or whether it is because of the Bangladeshi cuisine or if it’s because of the Pakistani cuisine, whatever. But the reputation is not that great. People think there are very few choices in Indian food and that people in India eat butter chicken, chicken tikka masala and naan bread day in – day out!!!

Galangal Infused Patrani Mekong Basa, Tomato Shorba Essence

So that is why I wanted to do Indian cuisine in such a way that global people… recognise it... that it is more of a global cuisine rather than just [regular] Indian cuisine, and to do it in such a way that every individual from across the globe can easily identify with it and that it comes into the lime light for all the different things which we have in India.

We have everything, we have food for every palate, we have food for every ethnic group… We have so much! I wanted to showcase it in such a way that the world can recognise it.

Dal Moradabadi

 

What is the approach or theory you follow and what inspired you to come up with dishes like “duck khurchan cornetto”?

A bit of playfulness, bit of day –to-day things. Duck is not a very suitable kind of a meat for the Indian palate because we are not that adventurous by birth to eat meats which have got different kinds of flavours. Duck has got a gamey kind of a flavour, which is not very suitable for the Indian palate.

Duck Khurchan Cornetto, Herb Yogurt, Chilli Chutney

So, that is why I did that duck in such a way that it becomes suitable for the Indian palate and it has a bit of playfulness in a cornetto. So now you are eating a duck ice-cream cornetto kind of a thing. And because of that playfulness people are ready to try it, and when they try it, they don’t find that tough duck, gamey flavour with our dish. So they feel happy about it, and they are ready to accept it.

 

What are the most popular wines ordered with food at Indian Accent?

At Indian accent, new world wines work better, and sell more than the old world wines.

 

Why is that?

There are many reasons for that.

Firstly, wine is still a bit of a new thing for people in India. People [restaurant patrons] are still in the learning stage in terms of wine.

Then the second thing is that the quality of wine that we get here (in India) is not that great. Because of the excise laws, because of the importers monopolies … we don’t get a very wide variety.

If I have to put 4 different Chardonnays from around the world, it would be really difficult for me to get 4-5 different types of Chardonnays. I’m at the mercy of suppliers, the importers, and whether that brand is registered with the excise department or not.

If suddenly one day, nobody registered a Dom Perignon, then for the next year, that champagne would not available be with you.  Wine has to be registered with the excise department and importers get their wines registered. So, if a new wine maker in Chile or South Africa tells the importer (who imports the wine in India) that I will give a very good margin on my wine, he [the importer] will make sure he registers that wine, and he will sell that wine in India only. Whether the wine quality is good or bad, it’s not that important for him.

So we are under their fingers most of the time because of the excise laws changing.

You see why? Alcohol is still a taboo in India. People still consider or [at least] governments still consider that wine should not be promoted at all, like alcohol should not be promoted in any case. So they have all the hurdles [in place] to achieve that, all the rules and regulations. Some rules are really funny, some rules are really weird, but those are the rules.

So, we have to function in accordance with that, and that’s why the quality and the variety of wine that we get in India is not very good.

Second thing is people [restaurant personnel] are beginning to know about wine, but there is still a lack of knowledge in how to handle a wine. From a hotel point of view, or a restaurant point of view, we are still struggling in the sense that we don’t have that much of technical know –how, or training, or expertise that we can have a beautiful cellar below my restaurant where I can store my wines properly, at the correct temperature, with the correct humidity, or correct sunlight etc. We don’t, because that is not a priority.

 

Even in the hotel trade?

Even in the hotel trade because the consumption is not that high.

And the third reason why new world wines are more popular is because of the price factor. New World wines are cheaper than the old world wines. An Australian or a Chilean Sauvignon Blanc will be cheaper than a French or an Italian Pinot Grigio. Italians [wines] are still cheaper but still, if I can compare it to a French Chardonnay, an Australian chardonnay will be cheaper than a French chardonnay.

 

Roughly what is the percentage difference by which it would be cheaper?

I would say if I sell a good French chardonnay for Rs 9000 a bottle, then an Australian chardonnay will be around Rs 5000-Rs 5500. That’s a big difference.

A New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc goes the best with our food and the climate. A Marlborough or a Cloudy Bay work very well with our food. But these are all within the price segment of between Rs6000-Rs8000. Which is very, very good. The moment you go to Chilean, Chilean will be slightly cheaper than that.

 

What is your take on traditional Indian food Vs modern Indian cuisine when it comes to pairing with wine?

See, first thing I would like to tell you is that without traditional Indian food, there is no modern Indian food. Like, without grandfather there wouldn’t be a grandson. So, without traditional Indian food there is no Indian food.

63C Egg Curry, Chicken Keema, Bacon Crumbs

Second thing is that traditional Indian food- what we consider traditional Indian food, we ourselves don’t know. Because the traditional Indian food is not the food that we used to get in Punjabi centric Delhi based restaurants.

 

What is your idea of traditional Indian food then?

Traditional Indian food is very, very different from…… It’s highly regional; it’s in people’s homes. Because restaurant food and traditional Indian food (I find) is very, very different.

If you have a festival in your house or a puja in your house or a ceremony in your house, I don’t think you make butter chicken in your house! You eat butter chicken whenever you go to a restaurant! Or a dal makhani etc.

Churan Ka Karela, Quinoa Puffs, Bitter Melon Crisps

 

I was thinking of traditional Indian food as what we have been used to eating in restaurants so far Vs home cooked food or home -made food

Home cooked food and the local food!  Where Indian cuisine went wrong was with the 60’s uprising of Indian cuisine, of typical Delhi based restaurants serving heavy curry dishes. From there I think everything has gone haywire. The creamy gravies and creamy curries and oil floating on top and malai kofta and butter chicken and Rogan josh; etc is where things have gone wrong! The real Rogan josh doesn’t even look or taste at all like the Rogan josh we get in a restaurant because Rogan josh is from Kashmir!

So, traditional Indian food was always there. But we consider the restaurant food as the traditional Indian food, which is not true. I would say that that [kind of] food is really difficult to pair with wines.

Food [restaurant food] is really high on everything. Everything in the sense... What is the traditional way you go to a restaurant (Indian restaurant) and eat? How do you eat? You go to a restaurant, the first thing that comes on your table is the pyaz [onion], papar [poppadum], and chutney, and pickle. You fill yourself with that.

Then you order two – three different type of starters? Usually it is all tandoor based starters, which are highly marinated with so much masalas [spices] that your mouth is full of fire. And chilies are the biggest enemy of wines.  I think if it’s the chilly (normal chilly) then it’s fine. But if it’s the ‘blow your mind’ chili, it can harm anything, not only wine, you can’t taste anything, and you just have to wash it down with water or beer. You can’t do anything about it. 

And then come the creamy gravies with the butter naan etc... So, it’s very difficult to enjoy that kind of a cuisine with wines! The gravies are so heavy that they coat your mouth. You can’t taste anything; your mouth is very creamy, and buttery. The only wine you can drink is Champagne or a very light bodied, slightly acidic white [wine] which helps you wash your palate all the time.

Duck Chettinad, Upma Barrels, Tomato Onion Chutney

 

In that case, what about something that’s typically prepared at home? Like tikkies or a mutton curry which you make at home or something like that?

At home you make a normal mutton curry, you don’t make it excessively spicy. People at home, they don’t cook [like that]!! My mother never made spicy food at home (the blow your mind spicy)! No body eats spicy or oily food at home!! And the thing is that a normal mutton curry, if it is a nice soothing mutton curry, which has got some nice flavours, a very good light bodied red will go well with that.

Meetha Achaar Canadian Spare Ribs, Sun Dried Mango, Toasted Kalonji Seeds

 

Not a Merlot or something like that, but a lighter red?

Not very heavy bodied, but light bodied, yes. It will go very well. Or white will go even if it’s a red meat (I don’t follow that rule of red - with – red, white- with- white). If it is a nice, slightly gelatinous curry (when you cook mutton with the bone marrows and all, in a pressure cooker, it becomes nice and sticky -gelatinous kind of – not oily but gelatinous kind of with the marrow), so that will go well with a white also. It coats your mouth.

 

So something like a Chardonnay?

Yes, Chardonnay will go very well with that, because it’s slightly fatty. The mutton is slightly fatty, slightly coating your mouth. A dry chardonnay will go very nicely with that, and it will balance out the fat level in the mutton.

Again, all these dishes where you really need to wash it down; I would say a light white, slightly fruity, with spiciness, not sweet will go very well with that.