A close friend of mine who runs successful restaurants all over India is on the verge of opening something in Delhi. Like most people brought up in Bombay, his feelings towards the Capital are complicated: the usual mixture of envy disguised as contempt and a sense of bafflement about how Delhi really works.
My friend is bemused by the barrage of contradictory advice he is getting about the tastes of the people of Delhi. He has been told that he should Punjabify his food. He's been advised to throw all seafood off the menu or at the very least to reduce it substantially. He has heard that the people of Delhi only eat chicken and so 70 per cent of his menu should be chicken-based. Others have told him to kick keema off the menu because people in Delhi regard keema as meat for the lower classes. And no Gujarati-type sweetness please. It may work in Bombay but not here.
My friend is one of India's greatest chefs so it takes a lot to shake his confidence. Moreover, one of the restaurants he's opening is Thai so if he is to believe what people are telling him, then he might as well close before he starts. Thai food is based on a sour-sweet combination (sugar is an essential ingredient of many of the dishes) so he can hardly dispense with the sweetness. Many classic Thai dishes, including the minced chicken with basil or the laab (minced meat) salad from the north, depend on various kinds of keema, so he has no choice but to use mince. And while the Thais do eat chicken, you can hardly run a Thai restaurant without seafood.
I asked my friend to tell his advisers to take a flying leap. Delhi today is too sophisticated for these kinds of dated generalisations. But afterwards I wondered if I was wrong to be so certain. Perhaps there are regional variations in tastes that you and I do not notice but which restaurateurs are aware of.
So I asked around. I called Rajesh Namby who looks after the Leela's massively successful Delhi restaurants but who has also worked in Bangalore. Did he think that tastes were different between cities? Well, yes and no. Rajesh agreed with me that at the top end of the market, people looked for authenticity. Hotel restaurants could serve pretty much what they liked if it was well made. He gave me the example of Le Cirque, where the best-selling item is a Bistecca (beef steak) closely followed by a steak topped with foie gras. Chicken does move but it is hardly a favourite. In fact, Dover sole easily outsells the chicken dishes.
Out with the bird: At Le Cirque, Delhi, a steak dish – Bistecca – is the best-selling item on the menu, while chicken is hardly a favourite
But, said Rajesh, Le Cirque is at the very top end so he would be wary of generalising on the basis of its experience. On the whole, people in Delhi did like chicken and they preferred tangier food. But they were also ready to experiment and to try new things. So it would be a huge mistake to Punjabify Thai food.
I checked out the middle level of restaurants. Monish Gujral runs Moti Mahals all over India. His view is that there are regional differences in taste but they are mostly self-evident. The Delhi market likes robust flavours. The Bombay market prefers subtler tastes. ("All these Gujaratis…" he said in his best Punjabi manner.) In the south, hotter and spicier food tends to do much better. And though people in Delhi are moving away from oily gravies towards tandoori items, he found that in the east of India (he runs restaurants in Assam and Bengal) they liked kormas and oily food.
Could these differences be a consequence of native food habits? Ananda Solomon thinks that local cuisine is the determining factor. He gives the example of yoghurt which is much less used in north India compared to its status as a staple in south Indian cuisines. He has found, he says, that in Bangalore and Madras, people like dishes made with yoghurt and that if dahi made from cow's milk is used, the items move even faster. (Why cow's milk? Why not buffalo milk of the sort we have in the north? Ananda could only guess but wasn't sure.)
Ananda gave other examples. For instance, he said, Gujaratis understand the use of sweetness in savoury dishes in a way that north Indians often don't. The use of kokum in Gujarat, Goa and other parts of western India has led to an appreciation of sour flavours in the Bombay market. Therefore, Thai food, which is all about chilli-lime and sour-sweet combinations, was a natural favourite in Bombay.
The other differences were commonsensical. Rice is a favourite in the south. Dishes made from wheat hardly move in Bangalore or Madras. On the other hand, north India is very much a naan-roti market. Rice is not a staple. A biryani is ordered only on special occasions. The south loves seafood. You would think, says Ananda, that this is only true of coastal towns but it is as valid all over south India. For instance, Bangalore which is nowhere near the sea, is a huge market for seafood dishes.
In the north, however, there is little appreciation for fish dishes in Indian cuisine (Punjabis will eat fish as part of another cuisine: say golden fried prawns or prawns in garlic sauce) partly because of price (seafood tends to be expensive in Delhi thanks to freight costs) and partly because there are few great fish recipes in north Indian cuisine. (I can only think of Amritsari machchi and that hunk of Styrofoam they call a tandoori prawn.)
Eventually I turned, as I nearly always do, to Manjit Gill, who is a walking encyclopaedia of Indian food. Manjit agreed with Ananda that local cuisines determined public tastes but he had some insights. For example, even people who will eat mutton curry at home will not order mutton when they go to a Chinese or European restaurant. Food preferences do not remain the same across cuisines.
When we say that the people of Delhi like spicy food, said Manjit, we are not talking about the kind of freshly ground masalas popular in Kerala. Spicy food in Delhi terms means a garam masala kind of taste. Nor do many north Indians understand sourness. When you want to add sour flavours to north Indian food, you have to depend on tomatoes, dahi, raw mango and a few other ingredients. Imli is much less used in the north than it is in the rest of India. And most north Indians don't know what kokum is. So that limits the north Indian palate. As for the people of Delhi not liking keema, Manjit was incredulous. They love keema, he said.
They Love oil: While much of India is trying to eat healthily, the east is quite happy with oily gravies and deep-fried foods
But everyone was wary of generalising about north Indian tastes. For instance, Monish Gujral pointed out that the Bihar market loves very spicy curries while Delhi prefers a lower level of spice. In Rajasthan, they love green chillies and spicy chutneys and pickles. And some of the distinctions might have to do with sophistication rather than cuisine traditions. Monish says that the less cosmopolitan the market, the more grease they want in their gravies.
So what conclusions can we derive?
As far as I can tell, the main difference is the one that we would all expect: the food of the north is more robust and wheat-based while the food of the south is subtler, rice-based and makes more inventive use of masalas. The food of the west and some of the south differs from the north because of the love of sour flavours. And while much of India is trying to eat healthily, the east is quite happy with oily gravies and deep-fried foods.
Does this make a difference to restaurateurs?
It depends. At the top end of the market, it doesn't matter at all. And it matters very little anywhere if you are not serving Indian food. But at the middle level, it can matter, especially if you run an Indian restaurant. Even a chain like Moti Mahal which serves roughly the same menu all over the world (they're about to open in London) recognises that the food has to be tweaked for local tastes.
My guess is that these differences will be ironed out as the new generation comes of age. Over the last decade, new restaurants have opened and turned the conventional wisdom on its head. Logic suggests that Japanese food should not do well in north Indian fish-hating markets. But sushi is all the rage because teenagers love it. Similarly, the fast food chains which survive on wheat (pizzas, pasta, hamburger buns etc) should all flop in the rice-loving south. But young people flock to them as much in Bangalore and Madras as they do in Delhi and Ludhiana. The old boundaries are fading.
Ultimately it is our children who will open up the Indian palate.
From HT Brunch, March 17
Follow us on twitter.com/HTBrunch
Connect with us on facebook.com/hindustantimesbrunch