Niyati Rao, Head Chef and Partner at Ekaa, the newest kid on the fine-dine block, plucks a leaf from her childhood in unusual ingredient pairings. All the nostalgia from home-cooked meals, travels, and special occasions have come together to create dishes that live up to the simplicity and of those times.
The unusual pairing of ingredients, dressed up to travel incognito to your palate, simply confound. Think chicken parfait smothered in soy cilantro beads, a la caviar. Honey chilli complexioned farm sausages. Generous blobs of egg yolk butter squatting on rice, plum seed vinegar, kadamb chutney, bhoot jolokia oil, and more. Her inborn flair for painting is mirrored in the perfect strokes of each plating, as the dishes are served up with a hush of veneration. “I have small hands,” she says modestly, “that help me articulate artfully on the plate.”
Hands that have trained under the best hands in the line of work. Rao values R&D, a fundamental she learnt in the kitchens at Zodiac Grill, and Wasabi by Morimoto in Mumbai, A Reverie in Goa and Noma in Copenhagen. In a combined, sincere ethos, she has emerged with a layered, evolving repertoire of techniques. “I love kombucha and am learning the mechanics of getting it right, from an expert. I have spent a good part of my early years in Surat as my nani lived here. She used to slice and soak tiny mangoes in salt and water and the mix emerged as a tangy panichu a few days later. Looking at the expert, I realise that Ba was doing it forever and now I am learning the same, going back to the basics,” she says, adding, “Our mothers and grandmothers used to prepare everything at home.
The thing is, no one has kept a record of these processes. The culinary hands were unbeatable, so many years ago when there was no refrigeration, or liquid nitrogen available. I was thumbing through the diaries of Awadh’s Nawab Wajid Ali Shah. It is flabbergasting, how the khansamas made a bird fly out of a puri!”
Shilpi Madan for Sunday Standard