Indian, But Not as You Know It

For many in the West, the assumption is that Indian food is all curries and naan bread. Quite the opposite is true. Now Cayman is enjoying a wave of authentic Indian menus, giving a taste of this incredibly varied cuisine.

When you think of Indian cuisine, dishes like aloo jeera, kozhi varutha, keerai vadai and hariyali jhinga don’t necessarily spring to mind – unless of course you’re Indian.

Dating back 8,000 years, Indian food has a history as diverse as it is delicious. Foreign tastes and flavors have been blended with traditional fare to create one of the world’s most popular cuisines. Comprised of a total of 36 states and union territories, its regional dining is far more defined than Western perceptions allow – an assorted menu that reflects varied faiths, cultures and terrains across the subcontinent.

This is especially prevalent in the United Kingdom. From the East India Company through to the British Raj, the influence of Indian cuisine has filtered through to become a westernized version of itself, with Chicken Tikka Masala crowned “a true British national dish,” and Kedgeree and Mulligatawny soup embraced as regulars on menus throughout the U.K.

In the Cayman Islands, however, more authentic Indian cuisine is becoming available to curious diners. With many Indian expats traveling through Cayman while working on cruise liners, they have fallen in love with the islands and chosen to settle here. In turn, they bring with them the taste of home.

One of the reasons their skills are in such high demand is the incredibly thorough, outward-looking training they undergo at India’s culinary schools – the first year, for example, is entirely dedicated to the techniques of classic French cooking.

And like much of Cayman’s already diverse population, the Indian collective is growing and delivering  quintessential Indian food that extends well beyond curries. With more restaurants serving up dishes that wouldn’t be out of place in Mumbai or Chennai, we are able to experience a new outlook on this delicious cuisine.

After much anticipation, Pani (meaning water in Hindi) recently opened its doors in Camana Bay. For the team at The Market Street Group, the initial vision was to deliver an authentic restaurant that would transport the diner on a journey through India.

With ample talent available – more than 40 Indian chefs work for the Group’s restaurants in Grand Cayman – the opportunity presented itself and the menu was carefully curated by chef Ilaya Sevugaperumal. Originally from Chennai, in South East India, his regional specialties include Biryani and Dosa – a pancake-like dish that he grew up eating and now cooks every morning for his daughter’s breakfast.

The kitchen’s two large tandoor (clay) ovens, a mainstay of Punjabi cooking, bring a distinctive charcoal flavor to meats and breads.

While some of the dishes can be ordered to diners’ preferred heat levels, some are only available spicy in order to stay true to the original recipes.

Street Food

For the easiest and tastiest introduction into the world of Indian cuisine, look no further than the humble roadside stall. While street food is having an incredibly popular moment elsewhere in the world, India’s street food culture has been a way of life for centuries and remains at the heart of contemporary India.

At Pani, there is a section on the menu devoted to street food, or ‘chaat’ as it is known as in Mumbai, including traditional ‘puri’ – a snack served from food carts across India. These come in a few different forms: Bhel Puri is made of puffed rice vegetables and a tangy tamarind sauce; Pani Puri uses refined flour and has a tiny hole punched in it, which you fill with the stuffing of your choice and spiced water (first savory and then sweet). These simple and humble snacks triumph at marrying flavors usually associated with fine dining.

 

Icoa’s Asian street food menu is an established favorite in Cayman. Try the Keerai Vadai, a lentil and spinach fritter served with coconut chutney and sambhar (a lentil-based vegetable stew). Just the smell alone is drool-worthy. Other typical street food options on this menu are Palak Paneer Dosa, a crepe with spinach and paneer, and Samosa Chaat, a crushed samosa with various chutneys.

Although originally from the Netherlands, Icoa’s Head Chef Jurgen Wevers has extensively explored Indian culture and cuisine. The idea for a street food menu was inspired by his travels through Asia and his Mumbai-born wife, Shirley. He employs chefs from across all regions of India to ensure dishes are produced with the most authentic flavors and technique. “They each bring something different quite literally to the table – it’s in their blood,” he says.

Thali

In addition, Icoa serves a Thali experience every Thursday night. A common way of dining in Indian homes, the buffet-style meal consists of several small bowls served on a large platter. Small portions of vegetables, curries and yogurt line the periphery with a heap of plain rice in the center of the plate, all of which are replenished as the meal continues.

At Icoa, the changing weekly Thali selection may include Kanda Bhaji (Onion Pakora), Jeera Aloo (potatoes with cumin), Hariyali Jhinga (chicken in herb curry) and Poori (fried bread).

Thali incorporates the true essence of family at the heart of Indian culture. Traditionally, it is eaten with your hands; the fingers of the right hand specifically, while the left is used for pouring the curries and lifting your drinking glass. Don’t be fooled by the small bowls, this is a filling meal.

Fusion

At Bombay Chopsticks in East End, Chef Remy has found his niche in the fusion of two of Asia’s most beloved cuisines: Indian and Chinese. Some may think this is a mismatch of flavors, but Indo-Chinese cuisine has been prominent since the 19th century. Hakka Chinese immigrants fleeing the Opium Wars settled in Kolkata and began incorporating local spices and cooking techniques into their own cuisine, resulting in the likes of Chow Mein, Szechuan chicken, Gobi Manchurian and Chop Suey.

Chef Remy, originally from Goa, has developed the menu at Bombay Chopsticks around this Asian fusion, adding in some well-known Indian dishes. He credits his experience working with a multinational mix of chefs on board cruise liners: “A blessing and a major influence on my style of cooking.”

Cayman’s growing number of vegetarians and vegans are well served by this cuisine, as around a third of India’s population are non-meat-eaters (largely due to religious reasons). And contrary to the notion of stodgy cream-laden curries, the traditional dishes often make an extremely healthy option, revolving around pulses, natural yogurt and fresh vegetables. It is fitting that award-winning Indian restaurant Blue Cilantro operates the Health City Café, hailed as one of the best hospital canteens on the planet. It even entices residents from around the Eastern Districts to dine in.

The saying goes that “Food is the ingredient that binds us together” and for such a small, remote island nation, Cayman is a force to be reckoned with when it comes to diversity and integration. What better way to unite than through the sharing of good food?