Bombay Dreams and Golden Peacock earned Michelin nods while sticking to their roots
Indian restaurants in the Pearl River Delta are trying to convince customers there can be a refined and elegant side to a cuisine often sold as cheap and cheerful.
It's a sad fact that despite being recognised as one of the world's great cuisines, only a handful of Indian restaurants across the globe have been recognised by the Michelin Guide. Fortunately for us, one of those is in Hong Kong and another in Macau.
So what does it take for South Asian restaurateurs to please the Michelin inspectors? It turns out to be the same combination of authenticity, creativity, quality ingredients and attention to detail demanded of other restaurants. A hint of molecular gastronomy doesn't go amiss, either.
At the one-Michelin-star Golden Peacock at The Venetian Macao, molecular gastronomy appears on menus only on special occasions, says chef Justin Paul. It's used with a light touch, if the sandalwood-smoked scallops the chef made for us are any evidence. The scallop is hidden under a sandalwood foam and silver leaf, edible flowers and the vibrantly coloured pearls made by the molecular gastronomy technique of "sphericalisation". Slightly chewy from a 30-minute smoking process, the Scottish scallops take on the delicate aroma and flavour of sandalwood, an aroma more commonly associated with soap.
It's not an immediately obvious combination, but it works.
Other dishes are more down to earth. If there is one dish common to almost every table in India, it's lentil stew dhal. Chefs are judged by the smokiness of the dish and many keep their method secret. At Bombay Dreams in Wyndham Street, Central, the consultant chef is Irshad Ahmed Qureshi, a master chef from Mumbai who is happy to discuss his technique. He obtains a smoky flavour in his dhal by flavouring the oil and spices in the dish from the start - he places a lump of hot charcoal in the spiced cooking oil for a few minutes before removing it and adding other ingredients.
At Golden Peacock, the process is more intricate. Dhal is a signature dish made with a process that takes over 12 hours. When the restaurant closes its tandoor for the night, the oven continues to give out heat so a dish of black lentils is placed on top to cook slowly, resulting in the requisite smokiness and a creamy texture. The next morning the lentils are cooked again in clarified butter with a purée of freshly skinned and seeded tomatoes. It's the use of the fresh tomatoes that Paul says separates his dish from the version found "in every hotel in India".
The restaurant has 12 chefs from India, supported by five local chefs, and this is why it can offer a diverse menu from around the country. There are chefs from eight different states cooking regional specialities. Paul, himself, is from Kerala, a southwest Indian state noted for its waterways and fish dishes. Gucchi shorba is a soup of morel mushrooms, imported from France, flavoured with cumin and elephant garlic - actually a type of leek. While the morels stand up to the background level of heat, the overwhelming flavour is black pepper and the cumin seems a little lost, one of the few misses from a lengthy menu.
Salmon is marinated in a yellow chilli and cream cheese and cooked in the tandoor. This is highly succulent and, like many dishes, is served on a black slate and garnished with an intricate undressed salad of leaves and edible flowers. Using slate instead of a plate would seem out of date in another restaurant but makes for a dramatic presentation of Indian food, especially if you are more used to seeing chunks of protein covered in a brown gloop served on a stainless steel platter.
Moving round the country, Golden Peacock also offers a sea bass dish from Calcutta, famous for its seafood and use of mustard oil and seeds. The sea bass fillet is cooked with five spices and comes on a bed of chilli paste, okra and a vividly coloured sauce flavoured with kasundi mustard seeds soaked in vinegar.
Fresh whole spices are essential for a high level of Indian cuisine, says Qureshi, explaining that Bombay Dreams imports its spices from India whole, then roasts and blends them on site. At Golden Peacock, the spices used are mostly imported from Kerala, as are the hara murchi, long green Indian chillies.
Richness also comes from other ingredients such as cashew nut paste that coats an Australian lamb chop. The meat is marinated in oil flavoured with ginger and amchoor (sour mango powder often used as a tenderiser) before being coated in the nut paste and yoghurt and cooked in a tandoor. The chop is shaped a bit like the Indian subcontinent.
There's one type of refined Indian cooking that regretfully Paul cannot bring to Macau. The tradition of shikar, or "hunting for game", brings many a quail or rabbit to cooking pots in India. Paul would love to include quail and rabbit on his menu but can't. The restaurant is certified halal and hunted animals have by definition not been killed according to the prescribed ritual slaughter methods of Islam. Paul, whose cooking you may have tasted at Jashan, the Hyatt Regency hotel or Veda in Hong Kong, says Macau's import restrictions are much tougher than Hong Kong's.
Dessert ingredients are not a problem, however, and probably the best of the desserts we tried at Golden Peacock was kulfi - ice cream - made with Greek figs. Indian ice cream is not made like others, by thickening milk with eggs before churning and freezing. Instead it's made by cooking milk slowly until it becomes thick. This process can take five or six hours and is painstaking because a lapse in concentration can mean burned milk and a ruined batch.
Paul is happy to have one Michelin star and says getting a second isn't realistic as it would mean having to compromise authenticity. At busy times of the year the restaurant serves more than 500 customers at lunch and 400 at dinner, many of whom are Indian tourists expecting flavours and service typical of home. Those aren't the standards sought after by Michelin inspectors, who may, for example, want more individual plating of dishes and a far more intricate wine service.
Michelin inspectors are not Paul's most demanding customers. He also caters for the Jain sect, whose adherents are strict vegetarians who don't even eat onions, garlic or root vegetables. Alliums are said to provoke sexual desire and harvesting root vegetables might involve killing insects.