I have just finished a large meal built around duck. The amuse-bouche consisted of variations of a foie gras terrine with apple, dark chocolate and raspberry. The next course was caramelised foie gras with tomato powder. Then came slow cooked duck confit with truffle risotto with slices of summer truffle.
After that came a roast Chinese duck barbequed in a style that reminded one of Peking duck and served with a smear of hoisin sauce. Next came slow cooked leg of duck with a parmentier of duck breast with mashed potatoes.
Where did I eat this meal? At Mezza Luna, probably Bangkok’s finest European restaurant. And the duck was washed down with large quantities of Dom Perignon and vintage red Burgundy.
It was serious food, the sort of thing that would get Michelin stars, if Bangkok had a Michelin guide. Many chefs came together to create this meal. Two of them were from Michelin three star restaurants in Rome. Two were from Michelin two star restaurants in Paris and one was a Chinese Master Chef.
So why am I complaining?
Surely I should be grateful to be eating food of this calibre? Well, yes I am. Don’t get me wrong. All of the food at Lebua where I now stay when I am in Bangkok is excellent. But there are still times when I miss the very ordinary food I used to eat in Bangkok in the days when I had no money at all. And I often feel that I am letting myself down by eating such great Michelin-quality food in Bangkok.
For much of my life, I have followed a simple policy. I try and eat the local food of the place I am in. Sometimes this seems glamorous. When I am in Shanghai or Hong Kong, there is a certain glamour attached to seeking out the best local chefs and asking them to make dishes you would never find elsewhere. And sometimes this seems pointless. You would have to be an idiot to eat the local cuisine while you were in England.
But mostly, it makes a lot of sense. Today, for instance we went for lunch to the Greyhound café, a vaguely trendy local chain of restaurants that has branches all over Bangkok. Greyhound is justly famous for its Elvis burger and its Litchi shake. But this time I ate its barbequed beef, its fried spareribs and its bacon and egg fried rice. These are simple dishes that should be easy to reproduce. But for reasons I can never explain, they always taste much better in Thailand than they do anywhere else.
My friend, the British food critic, Paul Levy has a theory that all food begins to deteriorate once you move away from the country of origin. I am not entirely sure that this is true. You can have great French meals in New York. And many – including Namita Panjabi, the award winning owner of London’s Amaya – would argue that London is the capital of Indian restaurant food.
But I do think that Paul is right about most food. Chinese restaurants can now be found all over the world. But never is the average standard of even the quality Chinese restaurants in Europe or America anywhere near as good as the standard of the average dhaba in Hong Kong.
Some of it has to do with the street culture, or even the local ambience of each city. On most New York avenues you will find a vendor, frequently of Middle-Eastern origin, selling a hot dog. The hot dogs are made from commercial bread and sausages that cost no more than a few cents. And yet something about their taste instantly suggests the typical Manhattan experience. Looking back, I doubt very much if it has anything to do with the quality of the food. I suspect it is only the ambience that sucks us in.
But sometimes, I do think that it is a question of quality. No matter what anybody may tell you, the quality of the hamburgers in America (outside of the chain hamburgers) is vastly superior to hamburgers elsewhere in the world. So it is with fried chicken or Chili Con Carne.
That’s as true of Indian food as well. Bhel puri is not a terribly difficult dish to master. But show me a place outside of Bombay where you get decent bhel puri and I will give you the biggest hug possible. Puchkas exist all over India, in their many variations – from Delhi’s gol gappas to Bombay’s pani puri – but you will never get the real thing outside of Calcutta. So it is with the roll. The kathi kebab has now become a staple of most menus. But nothing is the equal of Calcutta’s Nizam’s or its many local imitators.
This holds true for all of India. Lucknow food seems to be so difficult to reproduce that we struggle to find it elsewhere while every dhaba in Lucknow seems to be able to churn out decent kebabs and biryanis. As for Lucknow chaat, you can abandon all hope of finding it elsewhere. This is as true of South Indian food. You will find reasonable idlis and dosas in North India but it is extremely difficult to locate good chutneys or sambhar outside of South India.
I am told that the pizza of Naples can never be reproduced outside of the city, not even in the rest of Italy. It is almost impossible to get good tapas outside of Spain. And all sushi, no matter how good, outside of Japan, runs the risk of being described as “too Americanised”.
Why should this be so? Why should it be so difficult to reproduce the authentic taste of dishes away from their places of origin?
The frank answer is that I don’t know. In the old days one could have argued that this is because the ingredients and chefs do not travel well. But this is no longer true. In this day and age, the beans you buy in your supermarket in London were probably grown in Kenya, while the ginger we buy in Defence Colony may well have come from Bangkok.
Chefs are also more mobile than ever before. The top Indian restaurants in London hire some of India’s top cooks. Almost every Thai restaurant in India has Thai cooks. (It is instructive however that India’s best Thai restaurant, Bombay’s Thai Pavilion, has Indian chefs.)
Nevertheless, ingredients do come into it. So do packaging materials. I can think of two examples from the ITC chain. Because water is so important to the quality of dal, many of their restaurants used bottled water in preference to over-chlorinated tap water. Similarly when they canned Dal Bukhara, they were startled to discover that the canned dal had a completely different taste from the fresh one.
After researching the subject, ITC came to the conclusion that the metal in the cans was reacting with the dal. So the Dal Bukhara you can now buy in the shops is packaged in pouches and not in cans.
I don’t know enough about the subject to come to too many firm conclusions but for many years now I have followed a simple policy: I eat the local food as much as possible no matter where I am.
This is not to say that you can’t get Chinese food of high quality outside of China or that the best dosas are in Udupi. It just seems to me to be a waste to travel all around India, let alone the world, and eat international cuisine when you could be eating the stuff that the locals enjoy.
Which is not to say that I will not enjoy great French food in Bangkok if it is available – only to say that while such French food may be hard to find, the local cuisine is cheap and easily available.
And most times it is far tastier.