From Barak Obama to Narendra Modi, Chef Varun Inamdar, the maestro, has satisfied every palette. Oshin Fernandes speaks to him about his passion fuelled tryst with an ingredient that we all love – Chocolate
Q- You represent the Ecuadorian Cocoa in India; do you think India as a market is ready for such a niche as well as curated product?
Absolutely. India is clearly divided into three segments. The non-chocolate lovers whose minds you may, may not be able to influence. The second being the clear milk chocolate eater who do not understand anything but Milk chocolate, and, their idea begins and ends with that. And the third category is the well-travelled, chocolate connoisseurs which are lesser in numbers but certainly and very prominently there.
These are the one that ask every little detail about the chocolate right from its varietal, origin, cocoa content, fat content, type of sweetener, sugar levels, artificial or real flavour profiles, use of emulsifiers, organic, vegan, gluten free, egg free and the likes. And trust me this category is not the carefree types and are certainly not brand conscious. Having said that, when I represent India on world cocoa forums, the idea of India as a chocolate consuming nation is different, we are largely perceived a milk chocolate eating nation. And there, niche titles like these hold a lot of weight.
Ecuadorian farms produce high quality cocoa beans and are consecutively used in the best gourmet chocolates in the world. But the question is how many turn back to ask the origin, and, that is the sad part. Apart from the superior taste that the cocoa beans impart to a bar, the process of drying is extremely crucial, at what temperature, and, how the fermentation takes place. Over the last decade, as the demand for more flavourful cocoa has risen, Ecuador has emerged as the pre-eminent exporter of fine beans. Ecuador played a key role in introducing chocolate to the West. Unlike other Spanish colonies in South America, where gold and silver was in abundance, Ecuador was exploited for its cocoa.
Q- You seem to experiment with the most mind boggling chocolate combinations, what ignited the spark to make such flavours?
It stems from my idea of doing something different in the world of food. Yes, I respect the classic combinations and the trusted flavours but somehow the usual caramels, butterscotch, chilly don’t excite me. A lot of sharp oriental flavours entered the market a few years back like sriracha, wasabi, schezwan pepper, lemon grass, kafir lime and Thai chillies in the chocolate arena.
Now I think we are ready to take our experiments to higher levels and start experimenting with ‘Savoury chocolate cuisines’, which I have initiated over 6 months back and are well received. Also, may be something as crazy as Vosges who designed dark chocolate infused with smoke, a hint of Alderwood smoked salt, and Rogue Ale’s Chocolate stout beer. And why leave, their apple smoked bacon flavour behind.
I like experimenting. And the best example could be my range of chocolates – Barcode, which have taken the International cocoa world by storm and my recent stint in the master chef India episode, where I created a simple chocolate truffle cake but like an Indian story board. The sponge flavoured with elements of Kashmiri Kahwa, Ganache with black cardamom from Sikkim and coffee from Kerala. Black sesame chikki from Gujarat. Hence covering flavours from East-West-North-South of our incredible India.
I do a lot of crazy stuff with chocolates, like my ‘Signature Chocolate Salad’. Many would wonder about the salad. But trust me, the ones who have tried it, have raved about it. Many of my contemporaries even try to stake their claim, today. But it’s always best to pioneer!
Q- With an array of patisseries and desert houses at every corner, what does it take to become a master of just one ingredient, chocolate in this case?
It clearly takes some serious passion to duck out and head the pack. It is a very competitive field with energies flying high on creativity and mastery. It is undoubtedly the most skilled section of the food industry. Immense patience, perseverance and dedication are the only way of mastering this one ingredient. Also, this is a clear aspirational, yet luxury product, hence, keeping young minds motivated is the real challenge.
Q- The Chocolate dimension is already cluttered with the classic concoctions, what areas do you think are yet to be discovered with it?
Like I said, chocolate is no longer an impulse product which it once used to be. Today you place an order for an imported chocolate you may receive it after three days, when you may not be in the mood to savour it. Bakery, Pastry and Chocolaterie is truly cluttered but when creativity rises high, there is no end to this. Use of cocoa butter as a healthy fat is certainly going to be soon in vogue and take over olive oil and canola oil globally. Cocoa Juice, is soon going to take the world by a storm, just like how aloe vera and coconut nectar have.
Q- With a MasterChef perspective, what key points are to be kept in mind while making the use of chocolate as a savoury and not a desert?
We need to understand that chocolate by itself is a very strong taste on the palate. Also, cocoa nibs go amazingly well as a crunchy salad topping. Dark chocolate goes well with wild birds, game and red meat or as a sauce to accompany with. Herbs and spices are earthy and grassy hence a dark chocolate again would go well. White chocolate goes well with tart, sour ingredients like lemon, citrus, passionfruit, carambola, kiwi and the likes.
And Milk chocolate goes amazingly well with something fruity and floral. We have been eating chocolate as a dessert or a candy right since we remember. But the moment we clear our inhibitions and fears it could be the most powerful ingredient in our kitchen. Pan searing in cocoa butter could add a completely different flavour profile-subtle yet prominent. Dusting meat with cocoa powder could lead to beautiful caramelisation.
Q- Having worked with cocoa farmers in India, what challenges do they face, especially with a competitive global market?
Sustenance is the biggest challenge. Cocoa growing cycle by itself is challenging. Hence most farmers are into multi-cropping so that the money keep burning kitchen fire. Cost rise and eventual prices drop is another challenge. But slowly the markets are recovering and so are the production capacities.
We grow cocoa trees but when it comes to the finest we are not amongst the top cocoa growers in the world. Cocoa trees need a high temperature, plenty of water and air that is always moist. Now if you really think of India’s demographics, it is a country with very pronounced humid tropics and hence Cocoa plantations, in early 70’s were introduced as a mixed crop due to its commercial importance. It is cultivated as an under-storey intercrop with sufficient shade in the southern states of India, albeit with not too much ease. Off the total cocoa production in our country, 1/3rd of it is produced singularly by Tamil Nadu.
Q- With 2017 just around the corner, according to you, what trends in chocolate will we get to see in the coming year?
For me ongoing trends don’t really mean too much. I am someone who would lead the pack and create some of my own. I created a chocolate mannequin for public display when every chocolate maker in the country was cribbing about humidity and temperature. I made a chocolate Ganpati on television when everyone was making a hue and cry about the incorrect and non-eco-friendly ways of idol immersion.
I initiated tasting workshops of cocoa juice when no one knew about this as an ingredient. Today I have conducted over 3000 chocolate tasting workshops across India, which could just be a dream for many. So with me, nothing is impossible. Let’s wait and watch.