Nishant Choubey, corporate chef of the Japan-based Seinan Group, owned by Sher Jung Bahadur Singh Sandhar, is foraying into new terrain. Sipping on Gentleman Jack, an extra-smooth Tennessee whisky, at the latest edition of the Mail Today Zest Nights last week, the celebrated chef revealed that the group's new exciting venture, Tokyo Mithaiwala, has caught many Japanese foodies by surprise.
"Japan's culinary heritage boasts high levels of technical excellence. For the past two decades, the cuisine was looking forward to nurture interests in desserts other than their own since Japanese gastronomes are obsessed with getting just the right balance of sweetness. The opening of Tokyo MithaiWala has fulfiled this gap for many foodies. The dishes made of chhenasuch as Cham Cham, Chhena Payas and Chhena Jamunare the most popular since the sweetness is according to the palate," elaborates Choubey.
In the past, too, Choubey has been known to experiment with classic Indian sweets. Foodies fondly remember innovations such as the eggless Jalebi Churros in which he served jalebi alongside aerated cream and peanut butter crystal.
WITH these adventurous forays, says culinary historian and author Pushpesh Pant, Choubey is living up to his reputation as somebody who is serious in his pursuit of excellence, even as he keeps his mind open to criticism. "Nishant is one of the only well-known chefs in this generation taking forward the legacy of trailblazers such as Vineet Bhatia, who first wowed the Indian diaspora by experimenting with mithai and Manish Mehrotra, who has evolved some wonderful innovations with Indian desserts while keeping the presentation modern," says Pant.
Bhatia, who successfully runs a number of Michelin-starred restaurants around the world, first busted the misconception that Indian desserts had to be full of syrup and always cloyingly sweet. He even wrote a book called My Sweet Kitchen and unleashed a repertoire of syrup-based, chhena and khoya based sweets, improvised for an international audience. London-based Bhatia tells MAIL TODAY that one of the secrets of popularising Indian sweets in the West, which he learnt early, was toning down the sugar. "In 1990s, when I first began in the UK, I was doing just classic Indian desserts. But the foodies there found it overwhelmingly sweet. Improvising Indian sweets was never a priority for an earlier generation of chefs working in India's leading hotel chains. They didn't look at desserts seriously, as if desserts were lesser citizens. I decided to do away with this discrimination," recalls Bhatia. He went on to create such classics as chocolate samosa, which is part of food folklore.
One of the best-known modern Indian chefs with the first-mover advantage in creating innovative desserts is, of course, Manish Mehrotra of Indian Accent. Mehrotra's Gajar Halwa Tart, which has been on the restaurant's menu for close to a decade, has been since cloned by a number of imitators.
Moreover, critics can't stop raving about the manner in which he uses liquid nitrogen to create a molecular version of the classic winter dessert called Daulat Ki Chaat that can be served around the year.
"My takes on classic Indian mithais are light, healthy and not-too-sweet," lets in Mehrotra, considered the father of modern Indian cuisine, "It is a radical departure from the longheld notion that Indian mithais are limited to just Kulfi and Ras Malai and that they have to be overly sweet," he adds. "In 2016, the desserts at our New York restaurant were considered to be among the top 10 dishes in the Big Apple. Whether it is through presentation or sophistry, the idea is to make the dessert relatable to the global audience," sums up Mehrotra.
Japan is a society that doesn't mind the dichotomy between traditional values and progressive business. Still, says Choubey, the audience may take some time time warming up to new twists on Indian sweets. "They are opening up gradually and are not a market as evolved as, say, a Bangkok."
Does Choubey have the business acumen and the culinary chops to succeed in Tokyo? Pant says Choubey's experience of working in Thailand at Indus, Bangkok, will come in handy here. "The trick is to get the correct sugar balance. The Japanese palate is not very different from the Thai one. Food lovers there prefer a dessert which has a cheese-like balance of sugar that is not excessively sweet." Here's saying sayonara to good, old gulab jamuns!