With all of its spices, its diverse culinary traditions, and its intensity of flavor, Indian food can be daunting – even to the most dedicated of foodies. If you find yourself intimidated by its complexity, you’re not alone: Chef Hari Nayak sympathises.
Trained at the Culinary Institute of America, an apprentice under the legendary Alain Ducasse, and an author who’s worked alongside Daniel Boulud, Chef Hari Nayak has impressive fine dining credentials. The chef and restaurateur is also behind a number of culinary projects (Utsav in New York and Matt & Meera in Hoboken, to name but a couple), as well as six well-regarded cookbooks, including Modern Indian Cooking. But fundamentally, he understands that Indian food traditions can be overwhelming for some – and he strives to support a message of epicurean simplicity. Read on to learn more about Nayak’s foodie past, plus his tips on how best to introduce yourself to India’s incredible cuisine.
Greaves: What drives you as a chef? How has growing up in Karnataka influenced your cooking?
Chef Hari Nayak: ‘Living in New York now, I am drawn towards market trends and the local produce available here. I am a very spontaneous cook – there could be an ingredient, something I tasted during my travels, or just my childhood memories that get me going.
Growing up, I was very inspired by the way my grandmother would cook for the family. She would wake up at 4am to grind fresh batter, make spice pastes or prep vegetables that would be cooked during the day. We took it for granted that there would be freshly cooked food ready for every meal. The happiness she felt when we sat together and savoured and enjoyed each bite was incredible – every meal was like a celebration. I draw a lot of inspiration from this feeling of cooking from your heart, of bringing people together and celebrating food.’
You frequently say that Indian cooking doesn’t need to be complex. Could you give us practical examples of how you’ve simplified it?
‘I have taken Indian recipes that are known for their long lists of spices and herbs, and simplified them using ingredients that can be found in most American grocery stores. Dishes like biryani can be made easily using minimum ingredients and prep steps, while recipes like Curry in a Hurry let you make a delicious-tasting chicken curry in less than 20 minutes. Home cooks can also make spice mixes and blends ahead of time to make the process faster and less intimidating.’
How do you adapt to appeal to a diverse audience without losing the essence of the original recipes?
‘My cookbook, Modern Indian Cooking, is a collection of easy-to-prepare recipes created for the adventurous home cook. The recipes are exciting and approachable, while exploring how Indian cuisine can be fused with other cuisines around the world.
The cooking techniques have been adapted to the Western styles quite a bit, and the traditional flavors of Indian cooking are given an international twist. My dishes are Indian by nature, but their global flavors help make them appealing to a wide audience. I want to create a childlike sense of curiosity for the new and unfamiliar.’
Which dishes would you recommend a first-time traveler to India try?
‘I’d suggest ordering a thali meal in any region, as it gives you a variety of dishes to sample. Also, each region has its own specialty. Pav bhaji in Mumbai; masala dosa in South India; tandoori chicken, dal makhni and roti from a real Punjabi dhaba in North India; biryani in Lucknow. The list is never-ending!’
Do you have a signature dish that you are most proud of?
‘I like experimenting with dishes I grew up with in Udupi, and giving them a contemporary reinvention. Some of my favorites are roasted beetroot rasam, ghee roast duck, chipotle chilli chicken, sea bass coconut rasa, coconut crab papdi and octopus varuval, to name a few.’
What challenges have you faced within the fine dining scene?
‘There is a gap in educating consumers about the diversity of our cuisine. It can also be challenging when customers are not willing to pay for top-quality ingredients and products. Indian cuisine has a long reputation of being cheap eats. Breaking that barrier to present an elevated experience and charge the right price is a challenge.’
Has the perception of Indian food changed globally? Are there any trends you foresee?
‘It is changing rapidly. I believe we have a long way to go, but I am very positive that someday soon, Indian will be one of the top three popular cuisines in the world.
There are many young chefs who are part of this trend, of the elevated Indian dining experience. Some have taken it too far, and one questions the integrity of the dish – but I do feel it is necessary that as chefs we challenge ourselves, innovate, and make the cuisine progressive. Maintaining the right balance between traditions and innovation is the key. I foresee food going back to basics with simple ingredients, no-fuss presentation and a new focus on regional cooking.’