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Fusion foods, beyond the tamasha

Easy availability of readymade ingredients, pastes and powders, both Indian and foreign, is tempting us to improvise to create fusion culinary melodies

Fusion foods, beyond the tamasha


Pushpesh Pant

Fusion, for most of us, translates into confusion. This is almost invariably the case when we sit down to eat. Combining common familiar ingredients with exotic ones is perhaps the way the culinary experimentation started. The next ‘evolutionary’ stage was the incorporation of various cooking techniques — baking, blending, steaming, stir-frying, etc. Plating, that is presentation for eye appeal, has always been a crucial part of fusion foods. There is an urgent need to dispel the misconception that Indian chefs, celebrities as well as nameless ones, were inspired and initiated in this tasty game by foreigners.

Bawarchis in princely kitchens regularly indulged in a display of competitive culinary wit to wow their patrons and guests. Abdul Halim Sharir, who lived in the courts of Wajid Ali Shah and Bahadur Shah Zafar, has described many fusion delicacies in his memoirs penned at the turn of last century, ‘The Last Phase of an Oriental Culture: Lucknow’.

In the early days, wannabe fusion maestros in India followed in the footsteps of their peers in the western world. They were quite content to pair local and foreign ingredients as whimsically as they could. Many enthusiasts were eager to show off their scientific and artistic talents. Gadgets were acquired in a frenzy: blow torches to flambe at table top or creating thick clouds magically with pureed cauliflower, maybe. This wasn’t just a theatrical interlude because it did transform the taste of the plated dish subtly. The flame-caramalised starches changed the texture intriguingly or enhanced the creamy-mouth feel. ‘English’ vegetables that translated as exotic and expensive were included in traditional Indian recipes. But Indians soon got tired of tiny tasting portions in an elaborately curated menu that filled up naans with blue cheese and garnished meen moily with shrimp wafers. Once the novelty factor faded, the discerning guests realised that true taste lay beyond the tamasha.

Ironically, it took a little over a quarter century before Indian chefs woke up to the reality that our country’s regional cuisines and repertoire of myriad community kitchens offered enough diversity of ingredients and flavours as well as cooking techniques to play around with swadeshi fusion. The liberalisation of economy had energised youngsters to travel the length and breadth of our vast land in quest of better education and jobs. Unconsciously, but significantly, they contributed to the emergence of a pan-Indian taste. Paneer found its way into the dosai, idli shed inhibitions to appear in chaat. Momos manifested in a tandoori avatar and the search for one’s roots helped intrepid millennials breach man-made linguistic borders. Covid-19 catalysed the process of shattering stereotyped gender roles. Lockdown forced people to mix and match with whatever was at hand. This prepared the ground for fusion in homes.

Much has been written about ‘Chindian’ cuisine or Indian Italian or Tex-Mex. Today, we have moved beyond Indian Thai or Greek, etc. There is a surging wave of vegetarianism and veganism. Trendsetting chefs are rediscovering ayurveda’s wisdom to enrich their recipes. Turmeric and other herbs and spices commonly used in India are being embraced as superfoods.

Easy availability of readymade ingredients, pastes and powders, both Indian and foreign, is tempting us to improvise and create fusion culinary melodies. Korean sauces happily play a mouth-watering duet with kasundi. An advantage of adopting fusion at home is to make excellent use of leftovers and/or completely utilising expensive ingredients.

For us, the success of fusion in the culinary realm should be measured by harmoniously blending tastes, textures and colours, not to forget aromas. One must hasten to add that it isn’t only the professional chefs who dabble in fusion fare. Housewives, the unsung homecooks, have also created fabulous dishes in India. Many of these now slowly disappearing recipes relied on common vegetables improvising at the time of ritual fasting or days when fish, fowl and flesh were eschewed.

Our sister Shailaja recently treated us to kele ki machhli, a dish in which raw banana mimics fish in a draping sauce that relies on traditional Bihari spicing. It was sheer coincidence that we were served kasundi aloo with Korean sauce at Mesa restaurant at Aerocity, the emerging food hub in the Capital. Both were refreshingly different from the run-of-the-mill stuff and we are excited to share these easy-to-cook fusion delicacies at home.

Kasundi aloo with Korean sauce

Ingredients

Potatoes medium (boiled, peeled) 4

Kasundi (mustard paste) 3 tbsp

Korean sauce 2 tbsp

Black peppercorns (ground) 1 tsp

Salt To taste

Lemon juice 1/2 tsp

Red chilli sauce 1/2 tsp

Method

  • Cut the potatoes into halves. With a sharp knife, slice off the top and bottom to create flat surfaces. Slice again across the middle. Spread some kasundi paste and replace the top half.
  • Spread Korean sauce generously on top. Spread a thin layer of oil on a non-stick pan and carefully arrange the potatoes on it. Sprinkle salt and pepper over these and pan-grill till a crispy outer layer is formed. Carefully remove and arrange on individual serving plates on one side. Spread kasundi generously on the other side in an attractive pattern. Sprinkle a few drops of red chilli sauce.
  • Both the kasundi and Korean sauce are easily available in food stores. You can even replace the Korean sauce with BBQ sauce. And, if trans-regional fusion is what tempts you, then play with khatti meethi saunth and kasundi.

Kele ki machhli

Ingredients

Banana (raw/unripe) 1

Mustard seeds (ground) 4 tsp

Besan 1 tsp

Red chilli powder 1/2 tsp

Cumin powder 1/2 tsp

Garlic ginger paste 1 tsp

Green chillies (ground, optional) 2

Onion (grated) 1

Tomato (grated) 1

Garam masala 1/2 tsp

Mustard oil 1/2 cup

Kasuri methi A pinch

Salt To taste

Method

  • Slice the banana (after peeling) length-wise. Cut into three or four pieces, shaped as fish fillet. Prepare a marinade mixing 2 tsp of ground mustard seeds, 1/2 tsp of besan, a little salt and a large pinch of turmeric and red chilli powder with some water. Add a little mustard oil. Apply this to banana slices and keep aside.
  • Heat mustard oil in a pan. Reduce heat when it reaches smoking point. Fry the mock fish pieces lightly in batches and remove. Don’t overcook.
  • Put in grated onions with garlic-ginger paste and stir-fry till onions are translucent. Add tomatoes and powdered spices, along with ground mustard seeds and remaining besan. Add salt. Continue frying till the fat separates. Now put in fried banana fillets and add half a cup of hot water. Boil on low-medium flame for two minutes. Reduce flame to simmer for another two minutes. Sprinkle garam masala and kasuri methi just before serving. Add more water for thinner gravy. 

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