The first time I wrote about anything molecular it was well over half a decade ago and even back then, it wasn't a novelty in the Western world. If anything, molecular gastronomy had a wild run right at the beginning of the second millennium before it eventually settled down but the debates ensue as to whether it can be considered mainstream food or just gimmickry on a plate.
In India, as always, it arrived much later and in much less organised fashion, so much so that even half a decade since its arrival, most people are still toying with this concept without being exactly sure what they want from it. This wouldn't be an entirely bad thing - curiosity is the mother of invention - but these "people" often happen to be the industry stalwarts, the professionals who should be leading the trend rather than be led by it.
But all that is rouse for later, first we must try and understand molecular. The idea is pretty simple really, it is an attempt to revisit the basics of cooking at a more micro (molecular?) level with the help of the principles of science. Now this doesn't once mean that other cooking isn't scientific: right from the way a mother sauce is put together in French cuisine to even tossing a simple salad, everything has some scientific principle involved that we conveniently term as cooking.
So how is this nouveau "molecular" different? Well, for one, the idea here is to play with our senses - to make a dish appear one way but taste another. Imagine something that looks like a banana but tastes like mangoes! Or an omelette prepared by coagulating it in 95? proof alcohol. Or, how about ice cream made fresh by putting it in a liquid nitrogen bath! Come to think of it, molecular gastronomy can be quite the Willy Wonka's factory for our uninitiated senses.
So can Indian food be, to coin a term, molecular-ised? Surely. But will it then be truly Indian? For a cooking culture that believes in the harmony of many spices, would this focused approach not take away more than mere appearance, changing the very innate nature of the way a dish is made or, more relevantly, meant to be eaten?
As Sriram Aylur, the prolific chef behind the Michelin-starred eatery in London once shared with me, he much preferred the term "evolutionary Indian cuisine" rather than terms like molecular and fusion which often get thrown around in culinary circles. Manish Mehrotra might concur; at Indian Accent he does more than mere tawdry tricks to entertain the diners. The food is researched, the recipes authentic, and the presentation tries to keep the service and savouring style as true to tradition as possible. But he isn't as much about molecular as about reinventing classics. True Indian molecular can be found at Gaggan, the eponymous restaurant by Gaggan Anand, the young chef par excellence who has the world's critics eating out of his hands for the moment. Course after course he regales with ideas that incite curiosity and flavours that spellbind. Nothing is left untouched by his molecular creativity and the result is a meal that may be as contemporarily western as any place in London and yet leaves a distinctively Indian flavour on the palate.
So if molecular can be so many things why do critics pan it, why do foodies consider it as a non-food? Is it worth revisiting a restaurant that does such "playful" food? Well, like it or not, molecular is a form of cooking and if you don't wish to consider it mainstream you have to allow it the adjective, progressive. And like with all things progressive, there is never a static definition for just when you think you've seen it all tried it twice, along comes someone who redefines it all over again!