Some foods are more or less universal: meat, fish, vegetables, wheat, rice, fruit etc. No matter where in the world you go, you will find that they play some role in the local cuisine. Some cooked foods are as ubiquitous. In nearly all of the world, they cook rice in much the same sort of way (boiling in water). Fish tends to be fried, in one way or the other, all over the world.
After that however, it gets more complicated. Is bread a universal food? You find it in the West, in the Middle East and in Indian cuisine. But it is largely absent from the cuisines of the Far East.The Chinese steamed bun is a Western import. The Japanese have no real bread tradition. Nor do the Thais.
And what of noodles?
There is a tendency, among Western food writers, to regard noodles as a global food, as the one dish that unites both East and West. The Italians have pasta. The Chinese have noodles and everybody else has some variation of those two dishes.
In fact, a persistent legend has it that the Italians got their pasta from China. According to this version, Marco Polo arrived in China, ate a bowl of chow mein, was so thrilled that he rushed back to Florence and Italian pasta was born.
Like most culinary legends, this is rubbish. First of all, there is some dispute over whether Marco Polo actually made it to China at all. (Did he just make it all up?) Secondly, Italians were eating pasta long before Marco sat down to his chow mein or chop suey or whatever. Thirdly, the Italians were actually ahead of the Chinese in the noodle-pasta game. The Chinese only knew how to make fresh noodles which had to be consumed soon after they were made. The Italians, on the other hand, had started making pasta with durum wheat (what we call sooji in India), which allowed them to keep the pasta for a long time before they cooked it. (Through the winter, for instance.)
Nevertheless, the-world-eats-noodles is a superficially attractive thesis. Of how many foods can you find so many global varieties? You can eat pasta with pesto in Italy, macaroni cheese in America, chow mein in any Chinese restaurant in the world, noodle soup in Thailand and soba noodles in Japan. The problem with the global noodles hypothesis is that one of the world’s greatest cuisines has no real room for noodles. And that is Indian cuisine.Think about it. Rice may well be the food that links South Asia and the Far East. But surely that’s not true of noodles? Can you come up with any great noodle dish from an Indian cuisine? I’ve been racking my brains and the best I can conjure up is the idi-appam of Kerala which becomes a sort of noodle-like tangle when it is cooked. But even there, the Malayalis do not see it as a noodle dish. They see it as a broken-up variation of the appam, which is essentially a pancake.
Some Indian desserts do use vermicelli (seviyan) especially in Muslim cuisines. But these are not staples (they are cooked usually on festive occasions) and the use of vermicelli is not Indian in origin. These desserts come from the Middle East where there has been trading contact with Europe for centuries and where vermicelli probably was first imported from Italy.
Other than that: zilch.
It is not as though we do not like playing around with our staples. We make hundreds of dishes with wheat. Rice turns up in everything from khichdi to the idli. But somehow, the noodle has never entered our consciousness.
So, here’s my next question: even though noodles are not part of our culinary tradition, could we be on the verge of introducing them into our cuisine? This is not as strange as it sounds. Dishes often find fame and popularity far from their original homes. The noodle is now a Thai staple – go to any street in Bangkok and you will find vendors selling bowls of a flavourful soup containing noodles, herbs and (probably) fish balls. And yet, all the evidence suggests that noodles came to Thailand from China and are not indigenous to that country.
It is the same with Italian food. Pizza may have originated in Naples, but it is America that is the real home of pizza today. Spaghetti Bolognaise was created in England and became such a global phenomenon that restaurants in Bologna are now forced to put it on their menus. The American home staple of macaroni cheese has an Italian origin but most people think of it as being as American as apple pie. (And anyway, apple pie originated in Europe...)
So, are we going to get Indian pasta or noodles?
For a long time I would have said no. Despite the best efforts of restaurateurs, pasta has never caught on in India as anything other than an Italian dish. There was a stage when I thought that a masala-keema version of Spaghetti Bolognaise might work but the truth is that if Indians want to eat keema they will eat it with naan, roti, rice or even white bread. Spaghetti just does not go with Indian flavours. That is why the Indian-isation of the pizza (at the upper end, the Chicken Tikka Pizza and at a mass level, the so-called Jain Pizza) has never been extended to pasta. But now I am more optimistic about noodles than I ever was about pasta. It is not the number of noodle houses that are opening all over our cities (with such names as Tasty Tangles) that make me re-assess my position. These are successful and popular restaurants but their menus are determinedly non-Indian and distinctively Far Eastern in character.
My optimism is based on the home and the street. Though they never get the credit that is their due, there is no doubt that instant noodles (whether loaded with trans fats or not) have had a significant influence on the quick home-cooked Indian meal.
If people want a relatively cheap snack between meals (or even a light meal), they often use noodles cooked vaguely Indian-style with garlic, onions, masala etc. It is a filling option and it involves a minimum of effort. Some noodle manufacturers now offer ready-made Indian flavours to feed into this trend.
Those of us who take the instant-noodle option know that we are not cooking an Indian dish even if the flavours seem Indian. But do our children know this? This new generation lacks the kind of grounding in Indian food that older people have. It is entirely possible that when these kids grow up they will associate noodles with home cooking and not see them as a foreign food in the way that we do. The second factor is the street. Despite all the romanticisation of the dabba-wallah tradition and the caricature of the devoted wife who wakes up early to cook her husband’s lunch before he goes to office, the reality is that fewer and fewer people are getting lunch from home. Instead, they buy something to eat near the office.
If you examine office areas in Bombay and Calcutta (I’m not so sure about Delhi – but it will happen), you will find that roadside stalls, small restaurants and canteens are turning increasingly to instant noodles (and in some cases, proper noodles). There was a time when these dishes were dressed up as ‘Chinese food’ (to the horror of the Chinese). But now there is less and less pressure to do so. Indians are quite happy to eat masala noodles without pretending that they are experimenting with Chinese food.
So, will noodles become an Indian staple? Will we finally join the rest of Asia? I’m not sure. But I think that there is a chance that it could happen in this century.