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Soul food for a progressive palate

| Updated on January 20, 2018 Published on February 19, 2016

Cooking up a storm: Gaggan in Bangkok is often called the “world’s best Indian restaurant”

The interiors of Gaggan in Bangkok

Gaggan Anand, the man behind his eponymous restaurant Gaggan

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Real deal: The food at Gaggan is inventive and adventurous yet wholesome

Gajar ka halwa at Gaggan

Fine dining manages to serve comfort food with an edgy, unexpected twist at Gaggan Bangkok

I confess to approaching the evening with some scepticism. I’m not naturally drawn to so-called fine dining. “You don’t need a silver fork to eat good food,” the American chef Paul Prudhomme once wrote, and I couldn’t agree more. I would happily choose an unprepossessing dhaba or my grandmother’s vegetarian Punjabi cooking over a Michelin-starred establishment.

But a few weeks before heading to Bangkok, my nine-year-old son, whose culinary tastes are somewhat more refined than mine, read about Gaggan and insisted we visit. Gaggan, in case you’ve been living under a rock lately, is the brainchild of Chef Anand Gaggan. The Kolkata-born prodigy honed his skills at, variously, the Taj Hotel group, an Indian restaurant in Bangkok, and El Bulli, Ferran Adrià’s now closed Spanish masterpiece.

Gaggan’s self-described “progressive Indian” restaurant was established in 2010 and has been taking the culinary world by storm ever since. Last year, it was named the best restaurant in Asia (and the 10th best in the world) on the prestigious San Pellegrino global rankings. It has often been called “the world’s best Indian restaurant”.

And so it was that my wife, our two sons and I found ourselves stuck in thick, coagulated Bangkok traffic on a winter evening, emerging just in time for our 6 pm reservation at Soi Langsuan. The restaurant sits in an elegant white colonial building with high ceilings, wooden floors, and walls inlaid with slabs of marble. We were ushered upstairs, and seated at a table next to a Swiss watch designer, a man who — as he later told me — travelled the world sampling the best restaurants. Gaggan is now firmly ensconced on the global map of foodie destinations.

So what, exactly, is “progressive Indian” food? Chef Gaggan’s stint at El Bulli (a restaurant he has compared to “the Vatican” of cuisine) has established him as a purveyor of molecular gastronomy. Gaggan has himself expressed some ambivalence about this label, talking about the classical origins of his food. Nonetheless, the menu contains touches that undeniably fall within the pantheon of modern molecular cooking: incongruous mixes of flavours, often expressed in foams, and elements like “edible plastic bags” or “edible charcoal.”

Molecular magic

Mostly, molecular cuisine is an adventure — a journey into the unpredictable and unexpected. This is precisely the sensation evoked by a meal at Gaggan. As we made our way down the 15-item set menu, we found ourselves encountering tastes and textures — and mixes of tastes and textures — that were at once familiar, and new.

There was, for instance, the “Chocolate Chilly Bomb” — a taste of pani puri, encased in a thin shell of white chocolate instead of a puri. Then there was Gaggan’s variation of macher jhol, except here the familiar taste of a Bengali fish curry was transformed into a condensed ball of fish in a layer of tempura batter. (In a typically playful touch, the menu didn’t say what we were eating; it simply asked us to “Be surprised!!!” and guess. For the record, no one at my table guessed correctly).

The standout of the evening — at least for inventiveness — was the “Old Fashioned” cocktail I sampled. Upon ordering from the long list of drinks “Nacho” (I never learned his real name), the restaurant’s genial “mixologist” was summoned. My cocktail combined bourbon whiskey, infusions from a jar of tandoori-baked red capsicum, and a crystalline Japanese ice ball. As a finishing touch, Nacho pulled out a hookah, filled it with shreds of Cuban cigars, and proceeded to blow the smoke — and flavour — into my drink. It was one of the best cocktails I’ve ever tasted.

As the evening went on, I found myself becoming increasingly less sceptical. Perhaps the real test of the cuisine was my children’s reaction. Shortly after we were seated, a waiter offered to cook something special (“like a pasta”) for my younger son. We were both tempted. I felt somewhat guilty about imposing this culinary adventure on a seven-year-old. But we took the plunge together, and it is a testament to the fundamental soundness of Gaggan’s cuisine that it is not simply inventive or adventurous — but also delicious.

Seal of approval

I suppose a food snob would say his food was avant garde. What struck me was that, experimental, complex and innovative as the meal inarguably was, the food also retained just enough simplicity, and perhaps even homeliness, to make it a real meal. I’d even have to say, and this is the ultimate compliment, that it ranked up there with my grandmother’s cooking.

Our dinner took over two hours. Time passed quickly. Walking out into the warm night, I encountered Garima Arora, a chef at the restaurant, and the woman tasked with spearheading Gaggan’s planned Indian outpost. For years, there have been rumours that he would be setting up shop in his homeland. Now, it seems a location has been finalised in Mumbai, and the restaurant could open by the end of the year. Arora, the 28-year-old veteran of the Copenhagen-based Noma restaurant, will be running the show. Keeping in mind the difficulty of securing our reservation in Bangkok, I told her she could expect a call from me when she opens. “There will always be a table for you,” she said. I intend to hold her to that.

Akash Kapur is the author of India Becoming: A journey through a changing landscape (Penguin)

Published on February 19, 2016
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