Indian cuisine has been in the spotlight this year and not just because a tradie got fined for breaching restrictions in his quest for butter chicken.
Thanks to out-of-work-chefs such as Nabil Ansari (Sunda) and Adiityaa Sangwan (Pt Leo Estate) going solo, and stars of their own pop-up brands like Helly Raichura (Enter Via Laundry) and Harry Mangat (Biji Dining), regionally specific, personal or contemporary takes on Indian dishes have been a defining food movement of 2020.
It seems to have taken far too long for this to happen in Melbourne. Of course, we have had Adam D'Sylva's Tonka presenting contemporary Indian in a modern package for a number of years, and Jessi Singh just can't open enough vibrant venues pumping out his "unauthentic Indian" (just in the past 12 months he has opened Mr Brownie's Rooftop, Mrs Singh and Daughter in Law).
But in a year when food and nothing but the food matters because fitouts and service don't factor, standing out has become vitally important, and that has resulted in some wonderful things.
You could pick out an entire microtrend of restaurants serving vada pav. The Mumbai street snack of a soft milk bun swaddling batata vada – a spiced, deep-fried potato fritter – and green chutney has popped up at modern ISH in Fitzroy, Burger Shurger in Elsternwick and Ansari's Indian at the Windsor Hotel. A snack-size carb-on-carb comfort, it's little wonder it has found traction.
The contemporary camp is always a fun place to play. It is where chefs such as Nabil Ansari is a reworking his mother's lamb samosa, making his with whole ducks minced then cooked with garlic, ginger, spices, dried apricots and confit onions, then wrapped in duck fat filo pastry, sprinkled with fenugreek leaves and served with a fudgy, tangy hit of date and tamarind chutney.
You'll find a similar twist at ISH, where owner Ganeev Bains is giving a Delhi-style seekh kebab (typically a naan-wrapped filling with fresh onions, mint and coriander chutney) a full Aussie pie shop makeover, wrapping his garam masala-spiced lamb filling in puff pastry.
These are good times to witness the fresh possibilities of a cuisine you may only have previously seen through a heavy lens.
Last week, in a collaboration dinner with soon-to-open Italian vegetarian restaurant Riso, chef Harry Mangat of Biji Dining made a dish of spring vegetables, sweetly pickled onions and a besan (chickpea) flour sponge with topli nu paneer – a delicately silken Parsi-style version of the curd cheese. Washed with a coriander oil-spiked coconut broth, it was an electric dream. "I don't cook traditional Indian dishes," says Mangat. "My style is very ingredient-based. That's the starting point and then I go and research, test and taste."
Chef Adiityaa Sangwan has been running Kesar, a mod-Oz Indian side hustle on the Mornington Peninsula since he was stood down from Pt Leo Estate. He's been digging into his heritage (his parents are from Rajasthan and Haryana in the north) for contemporary dishes like a zippy side of fried green bananas tossed in his own garam masala blend, and kitchari (an Indian rice and lentil dish similar to the Middle Eastern mujadara) pumped full of local truffles.
These menus comes from within, a combination of the chefs' nostalgia, their life and work experience and the ingredients they have to hand, and are the only real recipe for authenticity for any cuisine. We are suddenly seeing that in spades this year and it is truly an exciting thing.
But equally so is the unflinchingly traditional story being told by Helly Raichura in her weekly Enter Via Laundry banquets, which explore a different region of India each week.
Raichura began the pop-ups as a hobby, cooking the dishes she saw as bizarrely, frustratingly missing from our landscape (dishes that are eaten at home but considered "too Indian" or "too homely"). Now, her banquets sell out in a flash.
But even on her mission to expand that horizon, she started hesitantly. "I cooked with puff pastry, but one day, I decided to make khandvi." She says the tightly rolled besan flour crepes served with coconut are so simple she didn't bother practising and when she served them (flat, with a coconut sauce, native bush tomato and garlic flowers), the great reception was a turning point. "I was only going to cook Indian from then on."
Raichura now meticulously researches and creates dishes as close to traditional as possible, phoning locals just to make sure. This year she has opened up the door to bafloo, the heady spice-laden potato salad from Gujarat; tandalachi bhakri, a rice flour bread from Maharashtra; and the fresh vegetarian sadya (banquet) of the Kerala region.
Her current obsession is with a mutton stew from Telangana, eaten after prayers. There are no shortcuts. It features 22 spices (including flower petals), sourced from five shops, and is cooked for six hours until sticky surrender.
All this said, we have probably never eaten more butter chicken in our lives. Manpreet Sekhon, who owns Eastern Spice in Geelong and has just opened Masti, a new restaurant in Fitzroy, says she is making between 20 and 50 kilograms of her charry, savoury dish each week.
It is also a best-seller for Ansari and Sangwan, who says, "I think in times of hardship, people gravitate to those comfort foods which are recognisable, homely, and delicious."
But there's a bounty beyond, and we're paying attention.
Ansari's Indian, giftshop.thehotelwindsor.com.au
ISH, 199 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy, ishrestaurant.com.au
Biji Dining, bijidining.com.au
Enter Via Laundry, entervialaundry.com.au/evl-at-home