Eat out, eat in

ASHOK MALIK

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JUST over a year ago, a friend and I were in Rajkot, the bustling business city in Gujarat’s Saurashtra region, on work and ended up staying overnight. It was a Saturday evening and, accompanied by a local contact, we set out for a meal in what appeared to be the city’s fashionable, leisure district.

We tried about three restaurants (‘Sorry sir, full house today… You will have to wait 45 minutes’) before finally squeezing our way to a table arranged for us in a corner of one of the multiple floors of what was obviously a marquee Rajkot establishment. Every other chair was taken, business was booming. India’s ‘eating out’ binge had evidently touched distant towns, far beyond Delhi and Mumbai.

The restaurant introduced itself as a ‘multi-cuisine’ outlet; indeed the menu had ‘Gujarati’, ‘North Indian’, ‘Chinese’ and ‘Continental’ options. We ordered a mix of the first two and waited for dinner to arrive, a little curious about whether the quality of food would match up to the fortune that had been spent on the restaurant’s interiors.

As the evening progressed, two things struck us loud and clear. One, irrespective of the niceties of food and nuanced cultural differentiators, all the ‘North Indian’ dishes we’d ordered seemed to belong to the same ‘dollop of greasy masala’ school of culinary sciences. The Gujarati food – the restaurant served ‘Gujarati’ as opposed to the local ‘Kathiawadi’ – tasted, well, dissimilar and was presumably more authentic.

Two, everyone around us – all good Gujaratis no doubt – at each table, was eating Gujarati, with occasional add-ons in the form of, say, Gujarati-fied vegetable chowmein. ‘Typical,’ muttered my friend as he shook his head, ‘Coming out to eat the same food you eat at home… Why come to a restaurant at all?’

I laughed at the comment but couldn’t entirely disagree. It took me back to the restaurants of Connaught Place, in the heart of New Delhi, old bastions of the Indian capital’s social life, such as it once was, and places and names that been around seemingly forever.

For six years, I worked in an office in Connaught Place and had numerous lunches and dinners at its many restaurants. Some opened and vanished within months, the hardy perennials stayed on and on: they’d been flourishing before I was born and are still feeding people even if one hungry customer has moved office.

Each time I went down to ‘Embassy’ or ‘United Coffee House’ or ‘Host’ for a meal, I noticed the same thing. At dinner-time, whole families would be disgorged from a big car and invade the restaurant, grandparents to grandchildren, with everybody from the generation in between.

 

The loud, happy Punjabi – well, usually Punjabi – family would eat together. It would order dal makhani, chicken in a red sauce, mixed vegetables and roti. With allowances for minor variations here and there, the menu never changed. The families came out to pay and eat food they usually cooked at home! As my little evening out in Rajkot confirmed, nothing much had changed, not in middle India.

So is this great Indian experiment with various types of food, this increasing embracing of new types of cuisine from, well, Vietnam to Venice that is splashed all over the supplements of Delhi’s and Mumbai’s newspapers and which, in a sense, has triggered the special issue you’re reading, a hoax?

That would perhaps be a trifle unfair. Take the past year itself: the success, at least in restaurants in the bigger hotels, of sushi in Delhi has been an eye-opener to veteran foodies and older watchers of old India. The idea of raw fish being swallowed by eager Dilliwallas sounded absolutely dead on arrival. Yet hundreds, maybe thousands, were and are doing it. True, some are expatriates but many are Indians, younger, more alive to global food trends, having travelled or lived abroad and walked in and out of sushi bars.

I had first-hand experience of this a few months ago in a new Greek restaurant where the food was, frankly, passable. As a professional voyeur – the polite term is ‘journalist’ – I was soon too busy to pay attention to my plate and engrossed in over-hearing the conversation at the adjoining table.

Six young people, all Indian, three of either sex, were seated there. They discussed the food, came to the near unanimous conclusion that they’d had better Greek food and proceeded to talk of – in a most matter-of-fact tone – where one could find good Greek food in London.

 

Most of the group had clearly spent time in the city, whether studying, working or visiting. They made suggestions, drew inferences and came to conclusions about what they were eating and what they had eaten elsewhere with a practised, unconscious ease. It wasn’t the sort of conversation you could have heard – overheard – easily in India maybe 10 or certainly 20 years ago. These days, in certain restaurants in Delhi – and in my limited experience Mumbai and even Chennai – it is that much more common.

Yet, is it widespread enough to be called a trend, much more a revolution? Is a quantum jump in the number of people eating out synonymous with a greater acceptance of and openness to types of food other than their own? The Greek food buffs – and they’re many like them – represented the apex of the pyramid; what are taste buds like as you move down, to middle India, middle class India if you prefer?

Before we tackle that, let’s study the context. Indians are notoriously bad travellers when it comes to a gastronomical tour abroad – or even another state in their own country. Indeed, the food habits of Indians can be infuriatingly complex to the uninitiated. Examples may be elucidative here.

One travel company in Kolkata made its millions by promising Bengali tourists that it would take them anywhere – from Shimla to Sriharikota to Switzerland – accompanied by cooks, spices and essential ingredients from home, promising a Bengali breakfast, lunch and dinner, presumably lots of tea breaks with glucose biscuits as well.

The other example is personal. In 2000, I travelled with eight other Indians to China on a programme hosted by a Chinese government agency. As we climbed into the bus outside Beijing airport, our chaperone – ‘minder’ may be a better expression – smiled that inscrutable Chinese smile and asked us a simple question: ‘Any Muslim?’ As it happened, not one of us was, though the question did take us aback. ‘Ah,’ smiled our new friend, ‘so all Hindu… No beef but pork is okay…’ There was instant pandemonium.

 

Completely bewildered by the contrary and contradictory responses being thrown at him, the hapless Chinese official reached for his pockets, took out some paper and began taking notes. Three of the nine were ‘non-vegetarian all seven days of the week’; two of these three ate all meat, one of them avoided beef. Two of the other six were ‘non-vegetarian but only if the meat was chicken.’ One ate mutton/lamb and chicken but not pork, and had no meat on Tuesdays. Three remained: all vegetarian. One of them, however, also ate ‘fish but not any other sea-food.’

The little Chinese man shook his head. Over the next 14 days, it was his job to order for the group at restaurants. He never failed to consult his little notebook, occasionally cross-checking the calendar just in case it was Tuesday.

Of course, some of his efforts were quite unnecessary because, taken by surprise by the Chinese food they were served, most of the visitors resorted to asking for huge helpings of soya sauce or tomato ketchup or just any piquant condiment, much to the bemusement of the waiters and restaurant staff. As the trip wound up, one of the group members thumped our Chinese guide on the back, smiled indulgently and said, ‘You must come to India. Our Chinese food is much better than your Chinese food.’

 

That final remark betrays a larger story: Indians want to ‘globalise’ – to use an omnibus if somewhat awkward expression that is current – but on their own terms. This is particularly true of food preferences. To be fair this is scarcely a revelation or even unique. The American tourist looking for ‘home-style food’ wherever he goes is a well-known stereotype. The French make a fetish of the italicised and often unpronounceable expressions that they insist on calling high food. The Japanese, methodical to a fault, set up Japanese hotels and restaurants in any country in which they invest to – what else? – go out to pay to eat food that they eat at home.

Yet Indians are somewhat singular in Indianising not just Indian food – which is a tautology, really, unless it’s a reference to Delhi restaurant owners North Indianising the rest of India’s food, in which case it’s a subtle art form – but food from other lands, other countries.

This adoption, adaptation, corruption, import substitution – call it what you will – can sometimes take almost vile forms. Starting in the 1990s, this phenomenon acquired an iconic superstar in Sanjeev Kapoor, best-selling author, television celebrity and the cordon bleu of chutney cooking.

I first realised just how big Kapoor was when, returning from a vacation in New Zealand five odd years ago, my sister told me she had spotted Sanjeev Kapoor at the Auckland airport. Since my sister lives in Indonesia and only visits India occasionally, I was astounded. How had she recognised him? ‘Easy,’ she said, ‘he’s all over the Indian television channels that we catch in Jakarta. Besides, every other Indian house there has his books.’

I’ve tried Kapoor’s recipes – rather, had others make them for me. Without claiming to be an expert and without going into convulsions trying to explain my point, his food is – how do I put it best? – ‘Foreign food made easy and palatable for Indians who want to eat Indian food but pretend it’s something else.’

 

The contribution of television to Kapoor’s greater glory is apposite. In many ways, he’s the culinary analogue of the soap operas on Indian networks – the ‘Saas-Bahu serials’ as they are called, after the most successful one of them all, Kyunki Saas bhi kabhi Bahu thi (Because the Mother-in-law was a Daughter-in-law Once).

Just as these soaps give their viewers a somewhat faux – it is tempting but probably cruel to use the word ‘warped’ – sense of ‘modernity’ and ‘cosmopolitanism’ (whatever those contested terms may mean), Kapoor, his television tutorials and his recipes inculcate in their adherents an exaggerated perception of being able to appreciate exotic cuisine. Actually, all they’re eating is Indian by any other name.

If one were to stretch the logic further, it would be possible to detect the same middle-brow sensibility that informs so much of contemporary discourse in India, from what constitutes an English fry-up breakfast – my wife and I did a round of some of Delhi’s five-star hotels, not one produced the real thing though many claimed to – to overstated self-conceptions of imminent superpowerdom.

 

Let’s move back to the meat of the story, and how and why Indians adapt and reject. The restaurateur Camellia Panjabi has been known to remark that Indians haven’t quite taken to European food because it has the protein-carbohydrate ratio all wrong. Indians like lots of carbohydrates (a large portion of rice) with protein supplements (a bowl of dal). Western food tends to be just the opposite: a big chunk of meat on a small bed of mashed potatoes, for instance.

The only exception among major European cuisines is Italian, which has the carbohydrate-protein combination just right for the Indian palate, notes Panjabi. This argument may explain why east Asian food – Thai, Indonesian and, of course, Indian Chinese – is more popular in India than, say, east European. Even when they’re looking for authentic foreign food, Indians are subconsciously seeking something Indian.

The determined unwillingness to step out of the box is best reflected in Indians’ treatment of Indian food. No Indian restaurant in India can afford radical experiment; that’s for Indian restaurants to do elsewhere. Vineet Bhatia, the Rolls-Royce of London’s new breed of Indian chefs, tried to introduce Indian food in courses, rather than the traditional ‘all together’ format. It worked in the United Kingdom but flopped when Bhatia opened his doors in India.

So where does this leave India: wannabe world food capital, epicentre of fusion food or still largely a culinary autarky? Actually, consider where its economy is at the moment, and you’ll get your answer.

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