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Just as history and heritage form the foundation for Miele, Gaggan Anand bases his innovative cuisine on age-old culture and tradition – and is changing the world’s perception of Asian food, one dish at a time.
He speaks in rapid-fire fashion, voicing whatever thoughts come to mind. And there is a lot going on in the head of Gaggan Anand.
A giant in stature, Kolkata-born Punjabi chef and restaurateur Gaggan is in many ways larger than life. He is the first Indian and second Asian to have worked at Alicia Foundation, the culinary research facility founded by Ferran Adria. He is widely touted as the first chef to put a molecular spin on Indian food. This is also the man whose eight year-old Bangkok-based restaurant serving progressive Indian food has topped the Asia’s Best list four years in a row. In his head, fantastical dishes are dreamt up: such as a plain-looking yogurt sphere that explodes to reveal a complex blend of spices, a signature amuse bouche that sets the scene for a meal at Gaggan. And the presentation for another course involve serves putting out green pea mash with truffle, fenugreek and tomato to the sound of Lick it Up by KISS – and guests being instructed to literally lick their plates clean once the chorus line comes in.
For the Willy Wonka-esque dishes that he concocts and his devil-may-care mannerisms, Gaggan has come to be considered by some as a madman, the untameable rock-and-roll star of the food scene. Yet there is method to the madness. And at the heart of it all lies a modernist chef’s reverence for traditional food culture and culinary heritage.
Revisiting history to reinvent the future
In fact, one will gather many nuggets of information on Indian culinary history and culture from a three hour-long degustation at Gaggan. To call a dish “curry” and present it as a plate of raw scallops with shallots, a quenelle of cream, and a splash of chilli and curry leaf oil, might seem pretentious to some. But the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and Gaggan delivers in that department, not just through cutting-edge food preparation technology, but through a deep – and ever growing – understanding of his motherland’s deep culinary culture.
After all, Gaggan has said before that if he could eat one thing for the rest of his life, it would be the Bengali dish of muri ghonto, a spiced stew of fish head and rice. And his fondest childhood memory: munching on the street-side snack of puchka – a crisp-fried rounds of dough shells filled with spice water. “It presents spicy, sweet, salty and savoury flavours all at the same time. It is an immensely powerful taste, one that tingles all the senses.”
He is now a very much a global citizen by his own admission: “I am a Global Asian. I am a chef from India serving progressive Indian cuisine in Bangkok now, and moving to Japan in 2020 (for the opening of a new fine dining concept GohGan). Can't be more global than this.”
Yet it is the flavours of India’s food that guide his palate, and India’s culinary heritage that flows in his blood and keeps the fire burning in him. So he revisits his homeland every year, and reads and eats extensively. “India is a huge country with an immense history of food and I am constantly reading and constantly researching about it,” he shares.
The two-month stint at Alicia Foundation opened his eyes to the science of cooking and fired his imagination in terms of how modernist techniques can be applied to Indian cuisine, he emphasises that creativity for the sake of it is without value: “Smoke or liquid nitrogen or edible flowers do not define a cuisine. What defines your creativity is simplifying a dish yet retaining the immense flavour – one that triggers emotions and memories make you want more and more of it.”
“You have to have a strong connection with your roots to improvise your cuisine, and let it evolve” he opines.
For the catering college graduate who had joined the Taj group and operated his own catering business in India before entering the fine-dining scene in Bangkok, his creativity is geared at changing the way Indian cuisine is perceived. “Before, Indian cuisine was associated with greasy and heavy curries and naan that people would eat after a night of drinking. Today, its presented as flavourful, minimalistic, beautiful and in my menu. Every course has a reason for its inception, and a beautiful memory attached to it, and presents the quintessential flavours of Indian food. From drunk food it has now become an exciting fine dining cuisine – the attitude towards Indian cuisine has changed.”
A global Asian perspective
Yet Gaggan’s radical yet considered reinvention of his homeland’s food is not just a triumph for Indian cuisine. The international accolades he has earned has also changed how the world sees Asia as a food region. The food cognoscenti are now descending upon the region – previously better known for its rough-at-the-edges street food – for some of the best fine dining experiences to be had in the world. His myriad collaborations and guest appearances at food events around the world further extends the ripple effect of his ground breaking work.
However, he feels that more could be done to put the spotlight on traditional food culture and traditions - especially while Asia is enjoying its moment in the sun. “I am always motivating people or chefs to explore their own regional cooking. From there your food will have a story: a story of the dish’s provenance and what is it going to be like now.”
“If I were to design a program to help Asia leverage on its prominence as a food region to promote and preserve its food culture and traditions, I would make all upcoming chefs to first learn about their own culinary heritage,” says Gaggan. “Only when you understand the ‘why’s behind the dishes, then can you design the food to today's lifestyle and acceptability.”
Just as Gaggan is passionate about preserving and promoting culture and traditions, Miele has been working with our local partners to celebrate their local heritage. From specially commissioned books that explore the link between heritage food and one's sense of history and family, to films that demonstrate the relationship between culinary traditions and innovation, to architectural endeavours that see a state-of-the-art Miele house built within the space of a heritage structure, such projects are an extension of the 119 year-old company’s philosophy of innovating on the foundation of tradition and heritage. For it is through linking past to future that continuity is achieved – and a legacy is passed on.