Chef Niyati Rao: Turning Royal Extravagance Into Modern Classics
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What does India, Japan, Mexico, Russia and China have in common? Well, it's the fact that all these nations have immensely rich histories, including culinary history of course, and have at some point or the other been at the helm of empires that stretched far and wide. But the making of empires in history isn't just about conquest. It's also about trade and cultural exchanges that have led to the creation of incredible cuisines--and that's the focus of Chef Niyati Rao's new menu called Royal Empires of the World. 

Known to the world as the creative force behind Mumbai's celebrated restaurant, Ekaa, Chef Niyati Rao is famed for her concept-driven menus and ingredients-first approach. For the new Royal Empires of the World menu, she not only searched for just the right ingredients to represent each empire, but also collaborated recently with Pune's outstanding Ukiyo at the Ritz-Carlton, Pune for a pop-up that introduces the world to the food.

In conversation with Slurrp, Chef Niyati Rao explained her motivation behind bringing historic empires back to life through their kitchens, placing Indian empires from Maharashtra and Travancore in a list of global empires, and so much more. Here is everything she had to say.

Imperial Families, Global Food

Firstly, Chef Niyati Rao explains that the new menu she and her team at Ekaa has created has been in the works for a while now. "Time and time again, we at Ekaa found ourselves going back, seeing these old recipes and being very fascinated with what the royal families around the world or what the imperialists around the world used to consume because we believe that some things, they trickle down from the top tier of society," she explains. "And we just wanted to find more about the food of excess or the extravagant food. I think the use of ingredients was much more fine as it didn't come out of hunger, choice or out of necessity either. I think it came out of passion."

She says that her team was enamoured by this rich history and decided to create their own take on it. Once that was done, they decided to launch the menu at Pune's choicest restaurant, Ukiyo for a number of reasons. "What better place than Ukiyo, which does fine Japanese food and plus it was Pune, which was very, very dear to us, and it was the city of Peshwas, too. And that's why we had to dedicate a course to the Maratha Samrajya as well, and, to the Japanese imperial dynasty, the Meiji Empire."

Bringing History Back To Life With A Spin

Chef Niyati Rao explains that the focus of her new menu isn't just about showcasing the extravagant nature of royal or imperial kitchens but to "any flavour combination that's actually lost in time that people don't really know or go back to, or may be the origin of a lot of dishes that we eat every single day." The trickle-down impact of these royal kitchens, she says, can still be felt today. "It's taken us so much research and development, but that is something we've always been very keen on. I think Kings and Kingdoms are always something that fascinates everyone and we all want a little piece of history and storytelling to make the experience better. We at Ekaa believe that we cannot step into the future if we know nothing about our past," she says.

So, she explains, there are quite a few ethically sourced ingredients which have been picked from each and every one of these empires and their royal kitchens. "Colostrum is the first milk of the cow that is meant for, the calf. And when we get any excess out of it, which the calf is just not going to have, the milkman gives us some of it that's left over. So, we will be using colostrum, for the Scandinavian course, because the Vikings were actually very, very famous for using colostrum," she quips. "We will be using some ants as well for the Aztec course and hundred percent, chocolate. But we will be giving it our own spin on the classic mole, of course, because I think the entire Aztec Empire is almost an ode to that one ruler, King Montezuma, who made hot chocolate very famous and he was the man from whom it actually trickled down."

Of course, keeping seasonality in mind comes naturally to the Ekaa team, and this menu represents that clearly. "We're using shakaloo, which is also called jicama, from Bengal. We will be using nolen gur, which is palm sap jaggery or palm sap sugar. We would be making a special bread this time, which is 110% hydration. And the starter in it is almost two years old now. We'll be using different kinds of seaweeds, a special Chinese sausage called the lap cheong sausage, which has mugwort and mountain pepper as an Ekaa spin."

Indian Royal Empires In Focus

India was once the nation of myriads of royal dynasties and many of them managed to create vast empires spanning even beyond the subcontinent. Of these, Chef Niyati Rao is focusing on two currently: The Maratha Samrajya and the Travancore Empire. "Soon, when we plan to extend this menu and add more courses, we are actually planning to add the Mughal dynasty as well,"she says. "We were split between doing the Chola kingdom or the Travancore, and we chose the Travancore. We would love to do a kingdom from the Rajputana as well. So, you know, there are loads that will be coming soon, although to feature it for the first time, we've chosen Travancore from Kerala and the Maratha Samrajya because it is Pune at the end of the day."

But isn't the food from these empires, even the Indian ones, more focused on luxury and extravaganza rather than being ingredients-focused? Chef Niyati Rao says no. "After our research and development, we just realized that they had chefs who were very efficient and capable to not waste anything and to always use an ingredient brilliantly," she says. "So, for us, it's just about forming a good bond and a connection between the good stuff in the past to the great stuff in the present. And that's precisely what we've done. If we thought that something was done that was not right back then, we would give it our own spin and we would do it in a way that we would not waste anything. And that's just, what experiential menus are all about."