SMOKED turkey with goat cheese and roasted tomato dosa? Chicken tikka masala pizza? These are some of the new twists that Indian food has taken in the United States and in Britain as the popularity of Indian food keeps on growing. Eating out at Indian restaurants and even cooking some Indian dishes at home has now become commonplace for people with no personal connection to India. Indian cookbooks are published at an astonishing rate and increasingly they are venturing beyond the standard set of North Indian dishes to explore regional ones. Cookbook authors now assume that their readers can find most of the necessary ingredients and that they are already familiar with many dishes. Tourism and migration have helped to make people realize that the richness of Indian cuisine overflows the limits of so-called Mughlai restaurants. People crave more in-depth knowledge of specific Indian culinary traditions and a new breed of specialized restaurants and regional cookbook writers is ready to oblige them.
In India cuisine has moved outside of the kitchen to conquer the world of print and audiovisual media. There is a growing number of celebrity chefs, restaurant critics and cookbook authors. Cuisine is avidly discussed on television, newspapers and magazines as more and more people choose to eat out or to try new dishes at home in search of new and sophisticated eating experiences beyond the predictability of the menu of dhabas, wedding banquets and domestic cooks. There is also a renewed interest in all kinds of regional and local cuisines which has prompted attempts to recover a very rich culinary heritage that many fear is getting lost. These are indeed exciting times for anybody interested in the development of Indian cuisine. However, the direction of such development is still not clear.
At the level of fast-food and mid-range restaurants Indian food is among the big players of global cuisine. The transformation of fast food for the Indian market is remarkable. Maggi has developed a masala version of their instant noodles which are normally quite plain. Even McDonalds, which many chastise for homogenizing taste worldwide, developed a thoroughly Indianized menu and established separate vegetarian and non-vegetarian cooking and serving guidelines. McDonalds in India are so different from their western counterparts that they are almost unrecognizable. The Indianized McDonalds is limited to the Indian market but I wouldnt be surprised to find McAloo Tikki burgers in New York in the near future. Indian snacks are increasingly popular in western cities where rolls and dosas are considered the new sandwich and are served with all kinds of fillings.
The most established presence of Indian cuisine outside of India is to be found in low to mid-level restaurants. In this kind of restaurant, immigrants have been reproducing home and dhaba food with variable degrees of skill and innovation for decades. Thanks to these restaurants English speakers talk about tandoori chicken, raita and naan without the mediation of inaccurate translations like Indian barbecue, seasoned yoghurt or Indian flat bread. These restaurants performed a real education of western palates and created the conditions of possibility for upscale Indian restaurants.
But is Indian food finally moving out of the exotic or ethnic niche into the realm of high cuisine? The success of a few high-end Indian restaurants in Delhi, Mumbai, London and New York City would make us think that it is. But if we take a closer look at the food that they serve we might want to be a little more cautious. High-end Indian restaurants are ironically more likely than their humble predecessors to cater to the taste of a clientele whose ideas about fine dining are shaped by the French model which dominates in western countries. This makes good business sense but it also subordinates Indian culinary knowledge. For Indian cuisine to be an equal partner in the world of fine dining it will have to influence as much as it is influenced by other high cuisines. Instead of serving kebabs medium-rare following the western rules for cooking steaks, Indian restaurants should showcase the many Indian techniques for producing tender and flavourful meat. Similarly, they should resist the pressure to treat curry as French sauces to dress meat or vegetables that have been cooked separately. Fortunately, an increasing number of high-end Indian restaurants are not following western patterns so unthinkingly. As Indian cuisine claims its rightful position as a world-class cuisine we should expect to see its impact on other cuisines at the highest levels.