The Tonka take on Indian cuisine

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Celebrity chef Adam D’Sylva tells Alys Francis why his menu is different to what people expect

Dishing up rich Indian flavours without a drop of ghee in sight, Tonka restaurant has changed the way Melbournians think about Indian food—from stodgy takeaway to fine dining fare. The Indian Sun spoke to the owner of Tonka, celebrity chef Adam D’Sylva, about how he’s taking Indian to a whole new level.

First, lets clear up any confusion: Tonka is not an Indian restaurant, as Australians have come to know them. As D’Sylva puts it, it’s “more Indian inspired”. This means customers walking in expecting to find the typical mix of curries, daal and naan, will be somewhat surprised. “It’s different to what people expect,” D’Sylva notes.

Think the balance and freshness of Asian cuisine with Indian flavours, and made using top quality seasonal produce, like Tasmanian ocean trout and lamb from Gippsland. The ingredients contribute to another point of different between Tonka and the average Indian diner. “When you’re doing premium produce, by that means we have to charge slightly more than what your average Indian takeaway or local Indian restaurant may charge,” D’Sylva says.

Another difference, “the biggest and most important” according to D’Sylva, is the lack of ghee. “The Australian palate doesn’t like stodgy and heavy food,” he explained, which is why Tonka’s dishes are more similar to lighter Asian cuisines than rich North Indian fare. “It is a big point of difference from what the local Indian community is used to,” D’Sylva says.

D’Sylva doesn’t compare himself with famous Indian chefs like KunalKapoor, saying, “I’m not modernising traditional things, I’m actually just drawing on the culture and the heritage [of India].”

“I feel like I’m pioneering Indian because of the way I’m doing it,” D’Sylvasays.“It’s forward thinking, not traditional.”

On top of the food, Tonka offers diners fine wines and elegant cocktails, a designer dining room inspired by the blue city of Jodphur, art installations by Naomi Troski adorning the ceiling, and sweeping views of the Yarra River. All together, the concept is “more of a dining experience rather than an eating place,” D’Sylva says.

When you learn about D’Sylva’s background, you begin to understand how he has the imagination and culinary mastery to take Indian food to such a dramatically different place.

Born with an Italian mother and Indian father, D’Sylva grew up in Australia eating pasta and curry on most nights. He was encouraged to get his hands dirty in the kitchen from a young age by his grandmother and after deciding to make a career of it, took up an apprenticeship at the Hilton on the Park.

He went on to work overseas and for a number of Australia’s top dining establishments, including Cosi in South Yarra and Pearl, when the highly respected chef Geoff Lindsey headed the kitchen. He was then nabbed to become the first head chef at Longrain, helping build its reputation for mouth-watering fresh dishes inspired by South East Asian flavours, before leaving to open his first restaurant Coda in 2009, focusing this time on French and Vietnamese cuisine. The gamble paid off, with Coda taking home a coveted Age Good Food Guide Hat award every year.

In 2013, D’Sylva opened Tonka, alongside business partners Mykal and Kate Bartholomew, with the aim to explore Indian flavours and techniques without being restricted by tradition.

Today, D’Sylva finds it difficult to list Tonka’s most popular items. There are “many popular dishes,” he laughs. But the yellow fin tuna tartar with rice pappadum, pomegranate, ginger and fresh wasabi; Avani’s lamb curry with roasted coconut, black cardamom and white poppy seeds, and Petuna ocean trout from the tandoor are much loved staples.

As a regular on TV cooking shows like Masterchef, D’Sylva has often been called to cook in India to showcase Australian produce and talent, which throws up some unexpected challenges. “I struggle to mirror my produce cooking in Indian,” D’Sylva says, simply because the variety and quality is often not readily available.

And at the end of the day he feels “very, very fortunate” to be in Australia. Not just for the quality produce, but being a multicultural country, “we do cater for all cuisines and cultures, and we do it quite well”.

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