Is Indian food ready for the global bow?
If Japanese cuisine makes you think of sushi, the discovery of washoku is a must. As the traditional Japanese cooking form enters the UNESCO Cultural Heritage List, giving company to French cuisine, Kanika Sharma invited Indian chefs and restaurateurs to discuss India's impact on the global culinary map and if it could figure in the same league
From pots and pans to aping Indian cuisine overseas, their debate stirred several issues
A certifying body is needed
First of all, Indian cuisine is underplayed in our own country. If you look around even in this city, 80% of new restaurants are not Indian. When it comes to this cuisine overseas, you’ll see different versions of perhaps not Indian, but Pakistani or Bangladeshi cooking; thoroughbred Indian cuisine restaurants don’t exist anywhere in that format.
Non-Indians who open these restaurants fuse the Indian cuisine in various ways.
It will be good to form a national body that will represent India by certifying specific restaurants that are actually serving authentic Indian cuisine. The Japanese have earned it. They don’t change or shift their cuisine but maintain identical standards. You will get versions of Japanese food but you won’t come across restaurants serving French fusion Japanese or Japanese food from Malaysia.
I wonder how proud are we of Indian food. How many Indian restaurants in the city are of good standard? Most non-Indians drop by restaurants like Khyber.
How is it possible that our city has just one restaurant dedicated to Indian food for foreign tourists? Nobody talks about developing the local cuisines of Maharashtra. Why can’t we open upscale restaurants of that nature? Like the French or Japanese do. If we take pride in our country’s cuisine, I am sure we will get there.
The mother of all food
I remember the day I was about to open Junoon restaurant in New York, and I had to pick the main show plate. My manager kept on suggesting brass plates but I wanted the Michelin-star show plate, which was white with a golden rim. You see, in Indian restaurants, people don’t appreciate Indian elements. If you look at the world food history, ours is one of the oldest. In the last five years, not a single Japanese restaurant has opened in New York and only one in eight major French restaurant is to be seen.
The beauty of our cuisine is that it is not stagnant. No cuisine speaks so much about a journey, for it was the spices that led America to be discovered. In 10 years, Indian cuisine has become the frontrunner in the US. We have Arab, Portuguese and French — every kind of characteristic in ours. Our heritage is fantastic at home. The best Indian cuisine is at home that cannot be rivalled by any restaurant. The influx of chefs going abroad to study and coming here is a healthy trend and this exchange will help in the growth and recognition of Indian cuisine.
Protect our ‘grandfather cuisines’
It is true that we have rich, diverse Indian cuisines coming. But you have to be careful while labelling it as Indian. Is it only heavy Mughlai Punjabi food?
Japanese cuisine is very distinct but we have Bengali, Lucknowi, Mangalorean, Maharashtrian and so many others. Our food needs to be taken to places and accord status where it doesn’t get diluted. Japan is highly developed, but here, ironically, with our poverty, traditional methods aren’t dying out in any way.
We have so many ‘grandfather cuisines’ such as Awadhi of which perhaps Punjabi is an offshoot, where we have adapted the tandoor as a way of cooking.
But we need to push our cuisines now, excite palates of diners. The problem in India is that it has stayed stagnant and there is this great belief about authenticity.
In 1993–’94, I went to the first All India Chef Congress where the debate was about how Indian food was getting bastardised by Bangladeshi cooks in London where the chat was about standardised recipes. But I had to tell them that nobody standardises recipes. The beauty of food is in diversity,
Why need external approval?
If you look at the top 10 cuisines in the world, India does fit in there. But you’ve got other cuisines like Thai, Japanese, Mexican, Italian, French and Chinese. I am surprised that Chinese in not there in the UNESCO heritage list. Chinese is more popular around the world.
At this point, Indian cuisine is very strong. India has many different regions. I don’t believe that countries or people can influence our cuisine to that extent.
Indian cuisine be it in the South, in Bengal and in North India, doesn’t seem to be getting affected. Why do we need an external agency to label it to declare that this is how the cuisine is made or this is the way it’s documented? It is popular around the world, and it has different interpretations.
If London wants to make Chicken Tikka Masala in a certain way, that pleases English palates — that’s fine. I don’t think a cuisine should be limited to be cooked in a particular way. Today’s world is constantly changing and so is the customer; people prefer it in different forms. Personally, I like my food the way it is. But for the world, I don’t see that. I see they want innovation and experimentation.
Blessed, but hardly documented
There’s 100% depth in Indian food especially when compared to the French. I’ve been around Rajasthan, Srinagar, Himachal and Punjab — and there are so many cuisines to discover. All of our utensils being natural, our cuisine also uses natural means of cooking. In all recipes, nobody has ever described the flame and how to contain it but the way we cook it, there are various temperatures. One knew basic things like how to take care of pots. For instance, in the South, urli is used which is a cast that is composed of two to three metals put together to get the right temperature.
The wares to make desserts and rice are different as for the former the utensil has a wider mouth but for rice, it’s narrow. So, surface area has been considered, since the ancient times. Even objects that we used to stir food with are considered.
Our raw produce was organic before fertilisers came in because farmers only relied on rain and natural fertilisers. Plus, Indian cooking survives extreme weather and even the fact that when a wedding feast has to be cooked (at least for 1,000 people in the villages) consistent taste is prepared. Also, our variety of colour is tremendous which is just not red and white. Our rotis have a wide range, we must be having at least 20 to 25 kinds of rice and with our lentils, pulses, fruits and vegetables — we are a blessed country. Unfortunately, our cooking is not well-documented in a structured manner.