I’ve been thinking about Jehangir Mehta’s food ever since I tasted it last summer, so it’s with special delight that I recently received his new cookbook, Mantra: The Rules of Indulgence.
Mehta is a breakaway cook on steroids. The title comes from Mehta’s aversion to the rules that govern much of Indian, and specifically Ayurvedic, culinary traditions. His “indulgence” of the title is not some hedonistic indulgence, it’s Mehta giving himself permission to indulge in rule-breaking of all sorts. And does he ever!
Mehta grew up with cooks serving Ayurvedic meals at home. I don’t know a lot about Ayurvedic cooking, but I do know that some of its most important foods — avocado, pomegranate, blueberries, grapefruit, and honey — are among my favorites. Food seems to be a means to address heath concerns; certain foods are believed to be beneficial both to prevent certain maladies and to address them once they show up. There is a heavy on emphasis on “balance.”
Part of what makes Mehta’s food so interesting is his sense of play between 1) centuries-old rules and 2) modern sensibilities. He seems happiest –and of most interest to breakaway cooks — when he’s pushing individual ingredients far beyond their traditional roles. This in my opinion is a fabulous way to cook: by isolating powerhouse ingredients — think of miso, tamarind, lemongrass, matcha, pomegranate molasses, rosewater, saffron, chipotle, preserved lemons, ghee, shiitake, umeboshi, jaggery . . . the list goes on and on — WITHOUT the burden of doing everything traditionally associated with those ingredients, a cook is utterly free to create new dishes that carry whatever predominant notes one wishes.
Mehta brings his unique sensibilities from the pastry world, where he has concentrated most of his considerable energies, to the savory world, so dessert-minded people will have a field day with this book. While many of the techniques are from the kitchen of a truly professional restaurant pastry chef, and are thus in all likelihood beyond the reach of average home cooks with limited time and equipment, the sheer ballsiness of his creations are so inspiring that home cooks might want to take them on anyway.
Some examples: he makes a vegetable cake that sounds incredible: cauliflower, artichoke hearts, golden beets, and broccoli, mixed together with paprika, eggs, flour, and sugar. Cauliflower clafouti, anyone? Made with almond flour, lots of butter and eggs, and milk. Cardamom cookies, chive biscuits, tumeric Yorkshire pudding, guava-tamarind brittle, saffron-glazed nectarine “carpaccio” with yuzu sherbet …. don’t all these sound wonderful, and almost familiar to breakaway cooks?
And for anyone wanting some grown-up non-alcoholic drinks: how about a cool glass of orange-marigold iced tea? Or perhaps some lavender citrus tea, a basil cocktail, or just cucumber water? I imagine that all of the drinks in the book could even be made in concentrated form, and combined with some sparkling water for everyday drinking.
Mehta has a tiny, and I mean TINY, restaurant in NYC called Graffiti. His kitchen, apparently, is the size of several large cutting boards (I’m barely exaggerating). Several friends of mine have visited it, and all have come back with glowing reports. If you find yourself in New York and want some breakaway Indian food, Mehta style, do ring him up and make a reservation. If you need an additional reason to visit, his prices are insanely low by NYC standards. Do report back, please, if you end up there.