There's a distinct element of time-travel involved in dining at Gaggan Anand's Bangkok restaurant. One moment you are contemplating a translucent, futuristic orb that looks like it has emerged from a lab, rather than a kitchen. Then, as you spoon it into your mouth, taste memories begin to swirl around in your head. Suddenly, you are transported from the elegant and serene colonial bungalow in downtown Bangkok; the flavours are so intense, so true, that for a flash, the din and chaos of an Indian street corner of your childhood are all around you, as the cool, 21st century version of a classic street food favourite, papdi chaat, slides down your throat. Chowpati Year 2050 is a signature dish here at Gaggan, a yoghurt spherification with mango chutney, savoury crispies and potatoes. It was thought up by a 30–something Kolkata born Indian chef who has, in the barely three years since his restaurant opened, pushed the boundaries of traditional Indian cuisine into the realms of true innovation and fantasy.
An ex-Taj man, with experience at the Orient Express, the Zodiac Grill and cooking for Presidents behind him, Gaggan came to Bangkok, by chance, in 2007, and stayed on. Bangkok, the destination in South East Asia, was where he intended to change perceptions of Indian food, translating his personal vision onto plates. A lucky stint at el Bulli, under Ferran Adria, where he happened to be the first Indian to work under the celebrated chef, set him on a path that resulted in the most unique interpretation of Indian food, to date. On a Tuesday evening, I watch Gaggan regretfully turning away several drop-ins hoping to try the extraordinary and thought provoking Indian cuisine for which he has quickly become known.
I'm at the Chef's table for the evening; a glass partition separates me from the kitchen, where an energetic young team is engaged in creating what Gaggan likes to call 'progressive Indian cuisine.' It is a chef-driven space, with all the elements that one would expect of a Ferran Adria acolyte – foam, liquid nitrogen, gels; oddly shaped instruments stand on tables and shelves are lined with uniform tins with labels that would not be out of place in a laboratory.
A twelve course tasting dinner plays itself out over the evening, with strong elements of drama, surprise and whimsy. But no matter how playful some of the names of the dishes may be – Bong Connection, Viagra - taste is a serious business here. Gaggan has worked his way to the heart of every dish, so that his deconstructions, and play with form, texture and structure hold true. The Scottish salmon, cooked sous-vide in a Bengali kasundi, mustard sauce, is a perfect example of 'the familiar made unfamiliar'; the elements are instantly recognizable, evocative, but treated with complete originality, bringing excitement to and unexpected responses on the palate.
Exquisitely tender wild French Quail, again cooked sous-vide, with Chettinad spices; Umami oysters with lemon foam, angel flowers and salt from the Indian Ocean, tinged with spices from Malabar; and my choice of the evening: Norwegian Diver Scallops with shavings of young coconut and curry leaves, inspired by the flavours of the Malabar Coast. The distinctive flavours of these slivers of coconut and spice I last tasted years ago at some tiny eatery in Calicut are harnessed with perfect ease, and unleashed on the Norwegian scallops, bringing the old experience vividly alive, while experiencing the new. And this, really, is the essence of the food at Gaggan – it is truly modern in its use of techniques and ingredients, without the slightest loss of the traditional reference points. The flavours are twisted, distilled and intensified, rather than altered or compromised in any way, summoning up a host of taste memories and emotions. The range of dishes is a condensed and intense presentation of the sheer diversity and complexity of Indian cuisine from across the country: from the most obvious Punjabi Chicken Tikka Masala, which morphs into a light air and frothy kebab, and a stunning version of a Goan classic made with Iberian pork cooked sous –vide for six hours, with edible flowers and a vindalho reduction. The simplest home recipes like kulfi are suffused a sense of surprise. The food is futuristic, but firmly grounded in flavour. The experience of new sensations, sights and textures heighten the senses, and you find yourself thinking that this is what you always felt Indian food could be, just that no one had explored its true potential - until now.
Wines are a passion with the Chef, who travels the world in search of artisanal productions, putting together a collection that simplifies the experience of selection. So the eclectic list, with many real gems, does not disappoint.
Gaggan feeds his restless creativity through travel. Adventurous, iconoclastic, and obsessed with flavours, Japan, Varanasi, Calcutta and Lucknow throw up the shapes, textures and inspiration, adding a strong element of design to his food - the Thailand Creative and Design Center called him 'an innovation and design guru.' The day after I dined at Gaggan, he was to take me to one of Bangkok's famous markets; but a few text messages later, I learnt that he was in fact rushing to Singapore, where his restaurant had been voted to tenth place in the San Pellegrino Aqua list of Asia's 50 Best Restaurants. In the challenging environment of Asia's fast – evolving restaurant and food scene, this is definitely one Indian chef to watch.
Gaggan, 68/1, Soi Langsuan
Back to the Future appeared in UpperCrust magazine in the 2nd Quarter, April – June 2013.
Image Courtesy: Gaggan Anand