Why does Indian food not get the respect it deserves?

  • Vir Sanghvi
  • Updated: Sep 10, 2016 22:16 IST

These are good times for Indian food abroad. A few weeks ago, I wrote about Gaggan Anand, whose eponymous Bangkok restaurant has been voted Asia’s Best Restaurant for a second year in a row. Zorawar Kalra opened Farzi Café in Dubai – a city bursting with Indian restaurants – last month, to rapturous acclaim. (I’ve been there, the praise is well-deserved.) And in London, the big-name Indian chefs now command an impressive standing: Cyrus Todiwala, Sriram Aylur, Vineet Bhatia, Atul Kochhar and many others.

But the best news comes from the United States. Americans have never really taken to Indian food. In the Seventies, the Taj group opened the luxurious Raga in New York to indifferent reviews and commercial failure. (They ended up closing it.) A second Taj initiative, at lower prices, called Shamiana, also failed in the Eighties. Sant Chatwal did okay with his Bombay Palace in a great location (opposite New York’s 21 Club) but nobody regarded it as one of that city’s great restaurants.

The breakthrough was Danny Meyer’s Tabla, with the brilliant Floyd Cardoz as chef, which finally reached out to the kind of upmarket diner that the Taj’s Raga had been aiming for. Tabla was too far ahead of its time, alas, and when the lease ran out (I think) Meyer closed the restaurant.

Since then, the New York critics have struggled to understand Indian food. One notable success has been Rajesh Bhardwaj’s Junoon (with Vikas Khanna as chef) and in Washington, my friend Tom Sietsema of the Washington Post, who understands Indian food, rated Rasika very highly.

Chefs Cyrus Todiwala (left) and Tony Singh have helped popularise Indian food in the West (Getty Images)

But now, there have been many positive developments in quick succession. Srijith Gopinath of Campton Place, the Taj’s San Francisco hotel, has become the only Indian chef in the world to win two Michelin stars. Floyd Cardoz is back with Paowalla, and Indian Accent has finally opened in New York at the Parker Meridien.

I imagine Indian Accent is the name that will resonate most with readers. Critics have never tired of singing the praises of Manish Mehrotra, and a table at Delhi’s Indian Accent is one of the hottest tickets in town. Now the New York outpost is packing them in and introducing Americans to the subtleties of Indian cuisine.

Manish’s success in New York got me thinking. Why is it that, even though there are Indian restaurants all over the world, it has been so difficult for our food to get the respect it deserves?

The answer lies, I suspect, in the spicing. The point of Indian cuisine is the interplay of spices, a concept that is hard for Westerners to grasp. That’s why there are so few really successful Indian restaurants in Europe.

It matters also, I think, that the kids who grew up in Indian immigrant communities in the West seem to have little interest in exploring their culinary heritage.

In the US, Chinese-Americans (Ken Hom, for instance) have done much to educate Americans about the complexities of Chinese cuisine. In Australia, Kylie Kwong has managed to remain entirely Australian while cooking wonderful Chinese food.

In Australia, Kylie Kwong remains entirely Australian while cooking wonderful Chinese food (Getty Images)

But I’m hard pressed to name great Indian chefs from immigrant communities. The most successful British-Indian chef is probably Sat Bains, but his cooking is Modern European. So it is with Tony Singh. Once you get past the novelty of a sardarji in a kilt with a Scottish accent, there is nothing Indian about his food. (He is the guy who partners Cyrus Todiwala on The Incredible Spice Men TV show.)

The only country where Indian food should always

have been regarded as a serious cuisine is Britain. And yet, for many years (and to a large extent, even today), “Indian food” has conjured up images of a cheap curry house. Almost every Indian restaurant that opens in the UK has to fight for the right to charge as much as an Italian or a French restaurant.

It wasn’t always so. There was a time, in the heyday of the Raj, that Indian food was considered so fancy and sophisticated that only French cuisine was regarded as superior. For instance, Queen Victoria employed two Indian cooks whose job it was to make the Indian dishes that were served at lunch every single day. Her husband Prince Albert was so keen on Indian food that during his tour of India in 1877, he went to the Madras Club solely because he wanted to try the club’s famous prawn curry.

Read: Gaggan Anand is breaking the restaurant chain formula

He loved it so much that he made the Indian cooks teach his French chef, M Bonnemain, to make it so that he could enjoy prawn curry on his voyage home. Sadly, M Bonnemain, like all good Frenchmen, never quite got it, because “the French intelligence, fine and keen as it is, does not penetrate the depths of curry”.

Nor did this interest in curry die out with Victoria and Albert. King George V loved Indian food so much that he ate curry almost every day for lunch, showing little interest in anything else. (These royal stories come from David Burton’s excellent The Raj At Table).

With Floyd Cardoz as chef, Tabla reached out to upmarket New York diners from 1998 to 2010 (Getty Images)

George V’s successors showed little interest in Indian food, sadly, and English food was served at Buckingham Palace (the poor dears!), though the chefs were often French or Swiss. But large numbers of the aristocracy, many of whom had Raj links, and associated Indian food with the good life or banquets thrown by nawabs and maharajahs, continued to hunger for curry.

One such aristocrat was Edward Palmer, the great grandson of General William Palmer, the military secretary to Warren Hastings. Edward Palmer’s grandfather was a general in the Nizam of Hyderabad’s army and one of Palmer’s ancestors was a Mughal princess called Faisan Nissa Begum.

Palmer founded what was to become the most fashionable Indian restaurant in London in 1926. He called it Veerasawmy, and took to using the nom de plume EP Veerasawmy in his own food writings. In 1934, Palmer sold it to Sir William Steward, MP, an Indophile who travelled often to the subcontinent. So great was Steward’s understanding of Indian food trends that in the early 1950s, just as tandoori chicken began to gain popularity in north India, Steward went to India and bought a tandoor. So a London restaurant served tandoori chicken long before most restaurants in Bombay had put it on their menus!

Steward ran Veerasawmy for 30 years. Except that it didn’t stay Veerasawmy for very long. A printer made a mistake and called it Veeraswamy. Most people found this easier to pronounce and the name stuck.

Steward sold out to the owners of Bombay’s Ritz Hotel in 1967. They sold to others and the restaurant languished till its current owners, Namita and Ranjit Mathrani, bought it. Namita’s sister, Camellia Panjabi, is a director at Veeraswamy’s and to mark the restaurant’s 90th anniversary this year, she sent me some old menus and bits of history.

Junoon, with Vikas Khanna as chef, has managed to get New York critics to appreciate Indian food (Getty Images)

The first thing that struck me was the kind of clientele it used to get. The Prince of Wales (whose coat of arms was hung outside the door) was a regular. The King of Denmark brought his own Carlsberg beer. Charlie Chaplin, other movie stars and many members of the aristocracy were frequent visitors. The food itself went from Indian (‘bhendi curry, tikka kabab’, etc) to quite sophisticated European (Escargot Bourgogne, Sole Colbert, lobster salad, etc) and the wine list (in 1947) included nine different clarets and five different champagnes.

So how did Indian food in England get the downmarket curry-house image, which has haunted all Indian restaurants abroad ever since?

There must be a long and complicated answer. But there is also a short one: Bangladeshis.

There is a region in Bangladesh called Sylhet, which relied, for years, on river transport. Sylhetis later became sailors on the ships that would ply between Calcutta and London. And as London was far more glamorous (and opportunity-filled) than Sylhet, many of these sailors never bothered to go back home.

Instead, they stayed on in England, first opening boarding houses for other Bengali sailors and then, opening cheap restaurants.

Sylhet probably has a great cuisine of its own but the Sylheti restaurateurs did not put it on their menus. Instead they made two basic curries and then improvised around them. If chicken went into the curry, it became a chicken korma. If they put chilli, they called it a Madras curry.

Read: An appetite for foreign shores: Offering food India eats to the world

I do not grudge the Sylhetis their right to make a living. But let us also accept that they are primarily responsible for the terrible image that Indian food has had, starting with the UK and then spreading to the rest of Europe. At one stage they owned something like 90 per cent of all Indian restaurants in the UK. And each time they served a curry, the reputation of Indian food fell further.

Fortunately that is changing. As more and more genuine Indian restaurants open abroad, Indian cuisine is finally beginning to get the respect it deserves. But it will be a long battle. And so, every time a Floyd or a Manish succeeds in a foreign capital, we should let out a cheer!

From HT Brunch, May 8, 2016

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