Asia’s Best Female Chef May Cook Indian Food, But It’s Not Quite What You’d Expect
Acclaimed Bangkok-based Indian chef Garima Arora recently took over Restaurant Flame in Makati to create a dazzling 10-course dinner that melded her Indian heritage with global and local flavor influences
“I find throughout the world that Indian food is extremely misunderstood and underappreciated and it is time that we take responsibility to change that. Indian cuisine is full of ancient recipes, techniques and food philosophies that are extremely relevant to the modern cook anywhere,” proclaims Chef Garima Arora, Asia’s Best Female Chef for 2019, and fast becoming an influential and passionate voice in the global culinary scene.
As an Indian chef based in Bangkok, Chef Garima shows how her Indian heritage works its way into her contemporary and global style of cooking. Easily on my top 5 best meals list this year was an amazing first dinner I had at her acclaimed Restaurant Gaa in Bangkok last March 2019. So when fellow food journalist Cheryl Tiu announced that her event platform, Cross Cultures, was flying Chef Garima and her team to Manila for a two-night takeover of Discovery Primea’s Flame Restaurant last September 2019, I didn’t need to think twice before signing up.
Gaa is currently ranked number 16 on the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2019 list, not to mention it’s the highest new entry when it debuted on the list this year. Just a few months before this honor, Gaa was awarded its first Michelin star by Michelin Guide Thailand, bestowing on Chef Garima the honor of being the first Indian woman to receive a Michelin star. It’s a remarkable feat considering that the restaurant opened only in 2017.
Chef Garima recently launched Food Forward India, a not-for-profit initiative to bring together the most relevant and passionate individuals from the F&B industry to re-examine, re-evaluate, and reintroduce Indian cuisine to the world. While her menu isn’t traditionally Indian, she brings a lot of her Indian cuisine to her dishes, as seen by the 10-course dinner that she prepared for Manila diners at Flame.
Unlike the usual chef collaborations that visiting chefs do with their local counterparts, Chef Garima and her team opted for a complete takeover format instead, essentially bringing the Gaa experience to the Flame dining room. The result was a delectable 10-course dinner made entirely of Gaa dishes—showcasing Indian, Japanese, Thai, and yes, even Filipino flavors—that were paired with Veuve Clicquot Champagnes and Cloudy Bay wines.
At Bangkok’s Gaa, the degustation dinners usually start with a cold and refreshing soup, like the refreshing and in season Chilled Soup of Pink Guava with roselle leaves and fermented mulberry powder that we enjoyed at Flame.
The second course highlighted Chef Garima’s Indian background, featuring duck cooked in three ways: Savory Betel Leaf crisped in duck fat stock, Spicy Duck Doughnut stuffed with duck keema filling, and tamarind-glazed Duck Tongue served with sev (a crunchy chickpea snack), coriander stems, and red onions.
The deceptively simple looking third course of frozen Chicken Liver and Longan on top of homemade toast—my favorite during my first Gaa experience—still managed to impress me and my dining mates, as we all tried (and failed) to ask for second servings.
Another favorite from my Gaa Bangkok experience is Corn, which we were told was the most Instagrammed dish on the Gaa menu. Chef Garima’s signature dish is comprised of grilled young corn seasoned with lime, black salt, red chili powder, and yeast oil, served with an addicting corn milk dip. This dish was inspired by her childhood memories of eating a street food snack called bhutta or grilled young corn with lime, black salt, and red chili pepper. I can picture myself eating a dozen of these or more, easily.
The fifth course of Koji, Caviar was inspired by Japanese koji, a fungus used to ferment Japanese staples like sake, miso, and soy sauce. Chef Garima uses sweet white koji from fermented Thai jasmine rice to make the bread. The koji used at this stage is said to smell like lychee and bananas, which prompted her to serve the caviar-topped bread with some banana water, resulting in a most delectable and fragrant bite.
A field trip to Farmer’s Market in Cubao inspired the Gaa team to experiment with some of our local ingredients. Local favorite taba ng talanga was simmered in fresh coconut milk, red and green chilies, and ginger before it was served on Khakra, an Indian flatbread, garnished with a salad of red onion, mint, and kamias.
We were instructed to eat the next dish like a taco. Fried Soft Shell Crab was served on seaweed bread with mustard greens, cashew or casuy paste, custard apple or atis, nata de coco, and a sprinkling of marigold flowers, finished with a few drops of calamansi. Team Gaa’s scrumptious love letter to Manila didn’t disappoint.
Next was a perfectly cooked Tamarind Glazed Grilled Pork Belly, served with an attractively bright topping of pickled red onions, green coriander stems, and glazed tamarind. It was a fitting savory finale to a much raved about meal.
For dessert, a deceptively simple looking scoop of Burnt Organic Coconut Ice Cream, was topped with pork floss, a salty, savory element ubiquitous in Thailand, that brought out the coconut’s natural sweetness and the burnt ice cream’s depth of flavor
The meal ended with a sweet Betel Leaf, partially covered with dark chocolate and fennel sugar, then topped with rose chutney and cardamom silver. It was Gaa’s edible take on the Indian paan, a traditional after dinner digestif or mouth freshener
This dinner was hands down one of the best restaurant takeovers from Cross Cultures. In fact, most of the attendees agreed that it was next to impossible to choose just one favorite dish for the evening, as all the dishes served were not just uniquely Gaa, but also very delicious.
I’ll make sure to keep an eye on Chef Garima and her inspiring work, especially with the first chapter of her event, Food Forward India, kicking off in Mumbai on October 17, 2019. “With Food Forward India, we hope to create a platform for the brightest minds of the industry to bring back a sense of curiosity and a more intelligent outlook on Indian food,” she says. Indeed, curiosity, intelligence, and lots of talent have made her one of the top international chefs today.