It’s been only 14 months since Ekaa, a restaurant inspired by ingredients, people and cultures (as they love to call it) opened its doors to patrons in Mumbai, and it’s already ranked at number 93 in Asia’s 50 Best 2023 list. Not to mention, it’s a remarkable achievement for such a young restaurant to make its presence felt in the top 100 of the most coveted culinary honour. With a core belief of being matchless and unique, Ekaa’s unconventional menu is an ode to the bold and flavourful ingredients that our motherland has provided us.
The Elephant Room x Ekaa: A culinary delight like no other
At the exclusive two-day bar takeover at Ekaa, chef Niyati Rao created the finest selection of tapas to go with the brilliant tipples by mixologist Yugnes Susela, co-founder of Singapore’s The Elephant Room. From baby corn glazed with gochujang and served with a soy emulsion, grana and garlic panko best paired with a delicious concoction of whisky, lacto mango and ginger to grilled local tomatoes served in different textures, with a tomato vinaigrette, jasmine tea jelly and house focaccia best paired with Pina Rasam - a delightful blend of gin, rasam, clarified tomatoes and pineapple, the duo is here to take your mouth on a ride of a life.
Chef Niyati Rao on what it takes to be on Asia’s 50 Best
Did they see it coming? We ask head chef Niyati Rao, co-founder and chef at Ekaa, she says, “Honestly, no. It’s like a dream come true. I have always seen the awards and been following it. Did we want it? Did we desire it? Absolutely. Were we always working towards it? Yes.” However, they didn’t open the restaurant with the intention to do it. Niyati continues, “The fact that we were chosen by the legends and gods of the culinary world, shows and talks a lot about what we do.” But then what got Ekaa on the Asia's 50 Best list? “Perhaps, the fact that we are really pushing Indian ingredients forward, the kind of respect and love that we are showing to our diversity and motherland got us noticed. I always wanted to make India really proud in terms of food, and that’s exactly what we are trying to accomplish at Ekaa,” Niyati shares.
An ingredient-forward restuarant in the truest sense
Not many know that chef Niyati who introduced sea urchins in India, involved tremendous research and months of painstaking effort. Niyati takes pride in introducing and putting sea urchins in the light they truly deserve, “We were the first to introduce sea urchin in India. We always had it, but had to look for it. It’s sourced from a remote fishing village of southern India and are hand caught by local divers.”
Niyati is committed to explore the endless possibilities is moving one step closer to recognising the produce and farmers than importing it from outside. “If we think of a particular ingredient that we don’t get in India, our effort is to find it in India, It makes a big impact in the longer run. The food we do is extremely ingredient-centric. All our dishes are actually named on ingredients and not on a particular dish. It has different components and we focus on different textures and methods of cooking.”
She believes all ingredients are equal, “Something that takes a longer time to find, doesn’t become higher in value than what you already get in the market. When people start understanding that all ingredients are different, but equal, that’s when you evolve.”
Food is beyond boundaries
Niyati’s food philosophy is uncomplicated. She believes, “Food is beyond boundaries and is too pure and beautiful to ever come in the middle of social or religious boundaries. Food is supposed to fill your stomach and make you mentally stress free and happy. Food doesn’t just nourish you physically, but emotionally and mentally as well, and that’s really important to me. Food is the only thing in the world that you need all your senses for. Imagine how powerful this little thing is.”
Sometimes, the chef feels people don’t give enough importance to food. She stresses how we need to go beyond stereotypes and stop judging people for their food choices to evolve. Niyati says, “For instance, something like Durian, it’s a stinky food. It’s someone’s favourite food. There is no good food, bad food. It’s very subjective.”
Niyati’s love for seasonal produce
Niyati who’s currently obsessed with sea urchins, is planning to source macadamia nuts next, but Indian grown. “I love working with seasonal produce, in winters we work with mogri- you can make a salad or a pickle or anything of your choice. Now we are working with karonda. One ingredient I can’t do without is soya sauce - an A grade Japanese well brewed soy sauce.”
Her culinary journey kickstarted with the Taj Group followed by an internship at the world renown Noma in Copenhagen. She recounts, “It was eye opening. Something that Noma has made me realise the value of ingredients and respect your own produce and your own country, the world is going to respect that. Transforming simple ingredients to mind blowing. It’s not just the ingredients, it’s the thought of the chef that matters. At Noma I realise, I belong to a diverse nation, where every 100 kms, food keeps changing.”