Few chefs take it upon themselves to study history. For Sunil Srivastava of Verandah Progressive Indian Restaurant, it's a passion. And it's one that colors his food. A knee injury that temporarily kept him off the line early in his career led to an intensive research project in his homeland that meant going into the field, "Talking to the oldies and grannies, trying to understand their food." He made biryanis with a master who had been working on his specialty since the age of 8. He's cooked recipes from around 300 BC, the time of Alexander the Great's campaign in India. But if you think his skills lie only in his native cuisine, you're only getting part of the story.
Back in India, he won a gold medal in French cooking, which was his focus before embarking on his magical history tour. Yes, he can craft a seafood-filled, lobster-shaped pastry with sauce homard, but it's when he combines his two loves, Indian food history and Euro-style culinary techniques, that he's at his best.
With a new five-course tasting menu at Verandah, he's taking diners on a journey through India and doing just that. "People will always come in and ask for butter chicken and palak paneer," he acknowledges, but that's not Verdandah's purpose. He wants to give diners the same education he got, in a single delicious night.
The five-course meal "Forgotten Foods of India" changes each time Srivastava makes it, but it always includes veg and non-veg options, as Indians like to call them. Diners must reserve ahead for the $85 trip across India, which is $150 with wine pairings.
When we tried it, Srivastava began the proceedings with a fritter made from a single ajwaini leaf, grown at his home. Much of his produce is homegrown, including chiles, yams, and lemons, which all figure prominently in his cuisine. It allows him to serve hard-to-find flavors like arbi (known in English as colocasia), a starchy cousin of taro. His version is made into a spicy kebab which his wife and Verandah co-owner Anupama rolls in nigella seeds at the table. The meat side of the same course is based around burnt-garlic-dusted scallops, a nod to the seafood of Cochin.
The kebab course showcases Srivastava's affection for modernist cooking. Either a bouncy cube of minty paneer or a spiced char-flecked chunk of chicken disappears under a cloud of mint chutney foam on a plate covered in tiny leaves and flowers.
Srivastava gets particularly animated when talking about dum pukht, a cooking method that involves covering foods in a layer of dough, allowing them to braise or steam while the bread cooks above. "Dum means 'life.' You're not allowing the life to go out of the food," he explains. The usual dinner menu includes rice-based dum biryani, but on the tasting menu, he prepares Dharwan-style (an area of Rajasthan) potato curry or chicken in creamy sauce. Either way, it's served with a cone of pappadum, apricot-speckled basmati rice, and cucumber-tomato raita.
But the ultimate stunner is a dessert that ties together a slew of techniques, showing a potential future for Indian foods that come from deep in the past. Anyone who has been to South Asia knows that the ancient tradition of chewing betel leaves has been elevated to paan, aromatic, sweet-filled versions of the stimulant. Srivastava presents his as a tiny pouch for rose petal mousse, topped with a typical shower of colorful candied fennel. There are petite balls of the milk dumplings gulab jamun, and a mound of sweet lemon cream.
The next time you're craving Indian, do Srivastava (and yourself) a favor. Don't order the butter chicken. Take a bite of history.