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Chefs: London vs India

Indian chefs working in the West should always do what works for their customers. But they should not fool themselves into believing that theirs is the only way forward. Vir Sanghvi writes...

india Updated: Apr 25, 2011 12:41 IST

A couple of months ago, I wandered off a Bangkok street (Soi Luang San) to a new Indian restaurant called Gaggan. The restaurant was full but the chef (the eponymous Gaggan) was kind enough to promise me a table if I came back in half an hour. Normally, I would have moved on – Bangkok is full of great eating options – but something about the restaurant seemed appealing. So I went to a bar, had a drink, and returned half an hour later.

It was the right decision. Gaggan Anand is an Indian chef who grew up in Calcutta, was fascinated by Ferran Adrià and El Bulli and went off to work at Adrià’s Spanish academy for a few months. He came back with a new take on cuisine and tried to reinterpret Indian flavours using some of Adrià’s techniques.

My meal began with a dish that looked like an egg but was actually yoghurt that had been spherified to resemble an egg. Gaggan called it papdi chaat and there was no doubt that it recalled the flavours of that dish. A goat cheese salad got its Indian flavour from Indian mangoes (not the Thai ones which taste quite different) which had been freeze-dried to concentrate the flavour and a balsamico dressing spiced with garam masala.

Then, there were the airs and foams that you would expect from a disciple of Ferran Adrià. The oysters had a delicious nimbu pani foam, the chicken tikka was elevated by a dhania chutney foam and so on. Even classic Western dishes were given an Indian touch. The foie gras came with an Indian berry chutney.

The shorshe maachh gained from being cooked consistently at 60 degrees. In the chicken tikka masala, the makhni curry was turned into an air. And the single-best dish was the simple bhuna mutton, the texture of which had been transformed by cooking it sous vide (a chefly term for vacuum packing something in a plastic container and letting it cook for a long time).

MeatI was astonished by the meal. Not just because of the imagination required to transpose Adrià’s techniques to Indian cooking but because I actually enjoyed the food. These days, molecular gastronomy has become a tired joke and I often feel that chefs should be made to pass a basic cooking test before they are allowed near the liquid nitrogen. But while Gaggan’s food had its share of gimmicks (inevitable with molecular gastronomy; Adrià is the king of the culinary gimmick) it retained the flavours of traditional Indian cooking.

I thought back to Gaggan and that wonderful meal in Bangkok when I saw that his restaurant had been written about by no less a critic than John Krich – a man who knows his Indian food – in Time magazine. Even though the restaurant has only been around for a few months, it has already begun to have a global impact.

By some coincidence, I read Bruce Palling’s piece on modern Indian food in the Wall Street Journal shortly after I ate at Gaggan’s. Bruce is what they call an Asia hand in the trade. He covered the Vietnam War as a very young man, spent several years in Delhi in the 1980s as correspondent for The Independent, and is one of the few Western journalists (I use the term Western loosely; Bruce is an Australian) I know who understands India, its people and its cuisine. He has many strings to his bow but his food and travel writing is always a joy to read.

So, when Bruce Palling writes about Indian food, we are obliged to take him seriously. Bruce’s theme in his Journal piece is that there is now a clash between Indian food as cooked in London restaurants and Indian food as cooked in India. Indians will not be surprised by this distinction. The vast majority of Indians I know who go to high-end Indian restaurants in London come away complaining that the food is either not very good or not very Indian.

Bruce says that "Indian food critics have seized on this culinary cross-pollination as ‘Frenchification’ which is barely code for inauthentic rubbish".

CurryBy ‘Indian food critics’, I suspect he means me. And certainly, he goes on to say that ‘this storm in a curry pot’ has been sparked off by a piece I did in the Brunch Quarterly. Bruce paraphrases my argument to suggest that the fame of some modern Indian chefs in Britain "rests predominantly on their toning down the spiciness of traditional Indian fare to literally make it more palatable for European sensibilities".

He quotes me as saying that while modern Indian chefs may be mimicking Western presentation, "they are keeping the flavours more or less intact whereas in London, they are merely appealing to Western sensibilities".

Then there are responses from Indian chefs in London. Essentially, their defence is as follows: Indians want to eat too many chillies and don’t know how to treat ingredients. One chef, who formerly worked in a coffee-shop in an Indian hotel, is quoted as saying, "Indian cooks end up killing the animals they serve twice – firstly, when the animals are slaughtered and secondly, when they cook them. They need to wake up and learn how meat should be treated and then how to cook it with respect."

There is also the suggestion that we are poor people who don’t really understand the environment because we are too busy coping with the problems of our very existence: "The available produce in India has not caught up and people have no idea about caring for the environment. I realise, though, there are bigger questions to deal with in India rather than pushing culinary boundaries."

I won’t waste your time with a full-fledged rebuttal of these arguments. How arrogant do you have to be to believe that nobody in India knows how to cook and that we all have to wake up and learn about caring for the environment – to say nothing of the proper cooking of meat – from chefs in London who serve the kind of food that few Indians would regard as notable?

To see the statement in context, imagine that it was not made about Indian food. How would British critics respond if a Japanese chef who had opened up in the West End announced, "The problem with Japanese cooks is that they don’t know anything. Only I know how to treat the ingredients with respect."?

How would British critics respond if London’s Chinese restaurateurs said it didn’t matter if all the Chinese people who came to their restaurants hated the food because basically, the Chinese didn’t know anything about cooking? Would any Italian restaurant in London be regarded as authentic if all the Italians who ate there said that the food was inauthentic?

I make no value judgements – or generalisations, for that matter – about Indian restaurants in London. I have enormous respect for many of the chefs who have made their reputations in that city. Nobody can question the Michelin stars awarded to the likes of Sriram or Vineet Bhatia. Nor can anyone deny that Namita Panjabi’s restaurants (Amaya, Chutney Mary, etc.) are outstanding.

My point is simple. Of course chefs at Indian restaurants in London must cook to the tastes of their clients and for the palates of British food critics. This is commercial common sense. But

a) don’t expect Indians to necessarily like the food that is made for European palates and

b) why be so dismissive about the standards of cuisine in your own country?

The suggestion that nobody in India knows how to cook ("They need to wake up and learn how meat should be treated and then cook it with respect") is so silly as to be faintly ridiculous. It says something about the way in which Indian food is treated in the West (despite the hype and the Michelin stars) that chefs can still get away with saying these things. (Would Nobu say ‘Japanese cooks need me to teach them how to cook’? Would Giorgio Locatelli say that the trouble with Italians is that they know nothing about pasta?)

The truth is that Indian food is like India itself: vast, diverse, and open to interpretation. Purists may be horrified by Vineet Bhatia’s makhni sauce ice-cream but I think it’s a valid innovation and a great dish. Similarly, the things that Gaggan Anand is doing in Bangkok are welcome riffs on old Indian traditions.

So, what’s the difference? Well, here’s my view: chefs should always do what makes them happy and what works for their customers. But they should not fool themselves into believing that theirs is the only way forward or that everybody else is an idiot. For instance, I doubt if Gaggan would claim that his food represents the future of Indian cuisine and that all chefs in India should follow his lead.

Bruce quotes me as saying that "no cuisine can advance on the basis of food made for foreigners, so the real evolution must happen in India and it must appeal to Indians."

That’s a view that I am prepared to stand by. Cook what you want, how you want, where you want. Just don’t tell us that your way is the best and that all Indian chefs are idiots.

- From HT Brunch, April 24

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