We keep telling foreigners that there is no such thing as ‘Indian’ food. India is a subcontinent, we say, with as much gastronomic variety as Europe. So India has a family of cuisines, some of them similar to each other and some entirely different. So yes, tandoori chicken may well be the most famous Indian dish in the world, but it is a north Indian restaurant creation which nobody really eats at home.
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But the more I’ve travelled around India in the last two or three years, the more convinced I’ve become that – at the restaurant level, at least – a pan-Indian cuisine is in the process of evolving. At picturesque resorts in Kerala, for instance, I’m always appalled to find butter chicken on the menu. When I complain to the chefs about ignoring one of India’s greatest cuisines (Malayali) in favour of poor renditions of Punjabi restaurant food, the answer is always the same: but this is what people want.
I sat down and compiled a list of what I found to be the most common dishes of pan-Indian restaurant cuisine. Sadly, the south and east get short shrift and it is the north that dominates the menus. It is possible I’ve forgotten some dishes. If you feel that, then mail us at Brunch or tweet to me directly.
But for what it is worth, here’s my list.
Butter chicken: No argument here. You’ll find butter chicken all over India. I’ve seen it on menus in Shillong, in Cochin and Coimbatore. It is the most common restaurant gravy.
Tandoori food: A tandoor has now become a standard fixture in every medium-sized restaurant kitchen. So the popularity of tandoori dishes has grown to the extent that they are ubiquitous. Oddly enough I find that it is not tandoori chicken that is most ordered, but variations on chicken tikka. Tandoori mutton dishes seem less popular.
Chicken Manchurian: Yes, yes, I know. It is a so-called Chinese dish. But let me ask you two questions. First, is there anywhere in India where you don’t find some kind of Manchurian dish, even if it is Gobhi Manchurian? Second, wasn’t it invented entirely in India and isn’t it unknown in China? If you answered ‘yes’ to both questions – which I think you’d have to, then there’s no doubt that Manchurian is one of the great pan-Indian dishes. Who would have thought it? But then, that’s 21st century India. Full of surprises!
Naan: This is the great Indian restaurant bread. Few places bother to make phulkas any longer. When it comes to parathas, yes, you do find them at many places but I’m not sure they constitute a single pan-Indian dish because there are too many regional variations: the Bihari parathas you find in Calcutta are very different from the Malabar parathas of Kerala, for instance.
Black dal: We eat many dals at home all over India. But increasingly, I find that people who go to restaurants only order black dal – perhaps they feel they get enough yellow dal at home. This is not the black dal of Punjabi home cooking but the version invented by Moti Mahal and perfected by Bukhara. (On some menus it is even called Dal Bukhara!)
Paneer: Until I went to school in North India, I did not know what paneer was. Gujaratis never ate paneer and it was hard to find in Bombay. But now paneer is ubiquitous. At restaurants in the south, I find variations on paneer makhani, matar paneer, paneer masala and the like regularly featured. My sister-in-law who is the restaurant queen of Ahmedabad, tells me that Gujaratis have now discovered paneer and it is one of the most ordered items on her menu.
Dum aloo: Don’t ask me why but I’ve seen this dish on so many south Indian menus and at wedding functions in Gujarat or even West Bengal, where a version of this Kashmiri dish turns up. The explanation I’ve been given is that vegetarians want something rich and heavy when they go out to eat and a simple aloo sabzi does not cut it. Hence this rich potato dish!
Biryani: I thought long and hard about including this because biryani has always been a pan-Indian dish. Wherever you find a Muslim community, you’ll find some kind of biryani or pulao. And the biryanis of such Gujarati Muslims as the Bohras differ greatly from the biryanis served at Calcutta’s restaurants which, in turn differ from the Moplah biryanis of Kerala. So even if you do find biryani all over India, does that make it a pan-Indian dish? Or are there just too many variations? I’m still not sure about the answer to that one. But what I’ve noticed is that restaurants are increasingly moving away from delicious regional biryanis and are trying to create a uniform biryani based on the Dum Pukht recipe with the same style of presentation – a pot with its lid sealed with a roll of dough. I yield to nobody in my admiration for the Dum Pukht biryani. But it would be a shame if we were to sacrifice the diversity of India’s biryanis and focus on just one version.
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Samosa: It is not even Indian in origin – it comes from the sambusak of the Middle East. But Indians have adopted it as our own: the fat Punjabi samosas of the north; the shingara of the east (with a more complex spicing to the filling); the patti samosas of Bombay (smaller, thinner and crisper) and the many variations on these themes that you now find all over the south.
Bhelpuri: I’d like to be able to say that the wonderful chaat of UP has travelled to every corner of India but it has not. You get a slight variation in Calcutta (epitomised by the famous puchkas), and you find it all over the North. But, forget about the South; you don’t even find it in Bombay. What has travelled is Bhelpuri and the Bombay versions of north Indian chaat: paani puri, dahi batata puri, etc. So, when it comes to chaat, the origin is not Lucknow; it is Chowpatty.
Rasgulla: I feel bad about saying this (and slightly apprehensive) given the domination of angry Bongs on Twitter) but the truth is that Bengali food, though it is one of India’s great cuisines, has simply not travelled. I thought of including Kosha Mangsho but so few non-Bengalis had even heard of it. Then, I thought about Chingri Malai Curry, which is more ubiquitous. But many South Indians I asked it had no clue what it was. But nobody can deny that Bengal’s gift to Indian cuisine is the rasgulla. (Sorry, I’m not going to use a Bengali-type spelling). No matter where you go in India you’ll find rasgullas. I once did a TV show on how KC Das perfected the rasgulla and how Europeans introduced Bengalis to the art of splitting milk to create the milk solids that go into their desserts. And it is true: without Bengal India would not have what we call a sweetmeat tradition.
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Udupi snacks: Tamilians like to say that the dosa is their contribution to a pan-Indian cuisine. And of course they are right. But they are also wrong. The masala dosas that so many of us devour at lunchtime in our offices or go to restaurants for are not really Tamilian. They were popularised by restaurateurs from the Udupi region of Karnataka who opened “Udupi eating houses” all over Bombay in the 1950s. They also brought idlis, medu vadas, sambhar and many other dishes to national attention.I would wager that today there is not a single small town in India where you cannot find a masala dosa. And that is really pan-Indian.
Vindaloo? This is a tough one. Most Indians know what a vindaloo is. (So do most Brits, strangely enough). But can you actually find a Goan-style vindaloo all over India. Perhaps you can but I’m still not entirely convinced which is why I’ve put a question mark in front of it. You could argue that Goan fish and prawn curries have become popular all over India. And perhaps they have. But how many restaurants in Delhi would serve a Goan fish curry? And in the South, wouldn’t they prefer their own curries? But I’m including it anyway because of the fame of the term Vindaloo.
From HT Brunch, August 17
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