History on our plate: how India started enjoying food

  • Vir Sanghvi
  • Updated: Oct 02, 2014 15:14 IST

Who knows what the food scene in India was like 90 years ago? We have some accounts of the eating habits of the Raj. We know that the British, proud possessors of one of the worst cuisines in the world, tried very hard to eat in India just as they ate at home. Department stores sold English-style food out of tin cans and bottles. So, the Raj housewife had access to sardines, kippers, luncheon meat and various other foods that reminded the colonialists of the dire cuisine they had left behind. Only the English could be so nostalgic for something so nasty!

But we also know that for every English housewife who refused to mix with the natives and dreamt of steak and kidney pudding, there were adventurous Brits who experimented with Indian food. Its complexities were beyond their comprehension. So the delicate masalas of Indian cooking were compressed into curry powder that was crammed into tins. And when the Brits wanted to feel particularly virile, they chose a curry powder with more chillies and called it Madras curry powder.

Nearly a century later, it is amusing to note that India had a far greater influence on the British palate than the Brits had on our eating habits. The English still regard the ability to swallow a very hot curry as a test of their virility - a view that Indians find entirely risible. And every high street in Britain boasts of a few curry houses, usually run by Bangladeshis, serving food that no self-respecting Indian would dream of eating. Over a decade ago, the then British foreign secretary, Robin Cook, even claimed that chicken tikka masala - a curry house variation of butter chicken - was the national dish of Britain.

But, while we have extensive accounts of how the Raj ate, we know very little about the food of the majority of Indians. The little information that we have access to by way of records suggests that rich families used traditional cooks (or maharajs) to make elaborate meals for 20 to 30 family members at a time. The middle class was tiny but all the evidence suggests that except for the Parsis, the rest of us ate Indian food at home. And as for the poor, well they ate whatever they could get.

There are, however, some interesting sidelights. We can be certain that Indians ate much less meat a century ago than we do today. It sounds politically incorrect to admit this but there was a communal divide. Muslims ate lots of meat (and lots of eggs, oddly enough) while Hindus were largely vegetarian. Even communities that we regard as being non-vegetarian, ate very little meat. In Punjabi Hindu households, meat was cooked twice or thrice a week. And even when there was a meat curry on the table, it was supplemented by two vegetables and a dal. In Bengal, they ate more fish. But otherwise, Hindus were essentially vegetarian - the roots of the Pakistani caricature of Hindus as 'grass-eaters'.

There were few restaurants. The Raj preferred its clubs and, ideally, it liked clubs such as the Royal Bombay Yacht Club and the various gymkhanas to which Indians were denied entry. A couple of decades after the Hindustan Times was founded, Lord Willingdon, the Viceroy, decided that it was time for the rulers to meet a couple of these native chaps. And so the Willingdon Club in Bombay, which allowed white people to mingle with Indians, was founded. At the time, nobody thought this was at all odd. Even the upper middle classes regarded this arrangement as being entirely understandable. The few people who were offended, however, responded in a manner that the British would come to regret. The colour bar in Allahabad contributed to Jawaharlal Nehru's disenchantment with the Raj. And in Bombay, Jamsetji Tata was so angered by the refusal of the Yacht Club to let him in that he founded the Taj Mahal Hotel, a stone's throw away, vowing that the splendour of that hotel would overshadow the Yacht Club. (He was right. How many people even know where the Yacht Club is?)

It is a strange thing to imagine but the reality is that not only was there no restaurant culture in India, there probably would never have been one for several decades more, had it not been for one of Raj's more controversial decisions: the inexcusable hurry to partition India and Pakistan in a manner that left millions homeless and thousands dead.

By 1948, Delhi was full of Punjabi refugees from West Pakistan. Most had lost everything. Determined to make a new life for themselves, some of the refugees took to the food business. Kundan Lal Gujral opened Moti Mahal in Daryaganj, popularised tandoori chicken, and invented butter chicken. Other refugees set up small food stalls in such areas as Pandara Road, where they had been resettled. The more prosperous ones opened such restaurants as Kwality and Gaylord. The hard work and initiative of these refugees created India's first restaurant revolution. Soon, tandoori chicken was the most famous Indian dish in the world and there was a Kwality in every Indian city.

This is roughly how things would have remained were it not for two or three events. The first was the mass migration of Calcutta's Chinese community to other Indian cities. The Chinese, many of them Hakka, knew that Indians had no palate for their cuisine. So, they served a menu of Cantonese-based dishes heavily influenced by the menus of American Chinese restaurants. (Sometimes, the names said it all. Why should a Chinese restaurant serve American chop suey?) In 1974-75, when Sichaun cuisine arrived in India, the Chinese decided to add chillies to their food, created such bastardised dishes as Chicken Manchurian and laid the foundations for the cuisine we know today as Sino-Ludhianvi.

The second major event was the steady migration of south Indians to the city of Bombay in search of jobs. Many of these men came without their families and longed for a taste of the vegetarian flavours of their home states. Their needs were met by a new breed of restaurants run by entrepreneurs from Karnataka and called Udupi restaurants after the region that many of the restaurateurs came from. The Udupi places began by serving large meals with a heap of rice at their centre ('Rice plate is ready', the signs outside the restaurants would read) but soon discovered that they could reach a non-south Indian audience if they specialised in snacks: dosas, vadas, and idlis. By the late 1970s, such places had spread to every corner of India. (One way of judging the relative novelty of the dosa's rise to national popularity is to ask Pakistanis if they know what a masala dosa is. The chances are that they will have no idea. The dish was unknown outside of the south at the time of Partition.)

The third major event was the growth of international hotels from the mid-1970s onwards. Because these hotels, often with foreign management or partners, aspired to international standards, they tried to serve cuisines that were world class. They didn't always succeed. But many Indians had their first taste of French, Italian or Thai food in the restaurants of these hotels.

And what about today? Well, it is probably fair to say that the Indian food scene has broken with the past. Even the clubs that were once so proud of serving the disgusting menus of Raj food are now struggling to open Chinese restaurants. Nobody cares about the British or their cuisine, such as it was. Even the Punjabi restaurants of old now seem past their sell-by date. Indians are more adventurous and less willing to be fobbed off with a chicken tikka or a keema mutter.

India's current food scene dates its origins not to the Raj or to Partition but to the globalisation and liberalisation that began in 1991. From that point on, more Indians began travelling abroad (it is worth noting that we send more tourists to other countries than the number of foreign tourists we welcome to our shores) and trying exotic cuisines. When they came back, they refused to eat a Punjabi rehash of the real thing. Moreover, a liberalised regime made it easier for foreign chains to set up shop here and serve the fast foods that they sold all over the world. Domino's, Pizza Hut, McDonald's, KFC, and Dunkin' Donuts have all arrived in the post-liberalisation era and contributed to the change in the way we eat.

But there have been other influences as well. Satellite television is a key determinant of what people regard as trendy and sophisticated food. So is the internet. An enthusiastic amateur cook who follows recipes on YouTube or takes notes during MasterChef or Top Chef is probably better informed than the average graduate of a catering college, who is at the mercy of old-fashioned teachers and ancient textbooks.

Today, India's food scene is not very different from, say, Singapore's or Bangkok's. Yes, we have problems of our own: real estate is hard to come by, licensing authorities are crooks, and excise officials are often corrupt. Even so, the innate entrepreneurship of the Indian restaurateur has allowed our food scene to rise above these restrictions and handicaps. Plus, there is a demographic dividend. Young people today are free of the preconceptions and prejudices of their parents. They will order sushi to go even as their mothers profess astonishment at the thought of eating raw fish.

So, what of the future? Well, the road ahead is clear. Experience has shown us that India will follow the same path as the rest of the world. As of now, we may be on a par with Asian capitals but in the decades ahead, there is no reason why we cannot follow the example of London, San Francisco or New York. Unlike most Asian cities, we have the advantage of a vast young middle class whose numbers are growing. These are people with disposable incomes who are hungry for world-class experiences.

Speaking for myself, I am particularly grateful for one significant break with the past. We went from Raj-type food to Punjabi restaurant food in the decades after Independence. But now, a true pan-Indian cuisine is developing. Fifteen years ago, if you went looking for a good kosha mangsho in Mumbai, you would be disappointed. Hardly anybody in Delhi knew what an appam was. And in Madras, they had no clue how to approach a dhokla or a khandvi.

All that has changed. We may be more familiar with tacos or sushi than we were a decade ago. But the best thing is that Indians are discovering our own cuisines. We are no longer at the mercy of restaurateurs and their standard menus. We may be much more international in our tastes. But we are also much more Indian. And thank God for that!

(Vir Sanghvi is editorial adviser, Hindustan Times)

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