Rude Food by Vir Sanghvi: Never mind the jargon; it’s just food
People who want to sound knowledgeable about food often use specific terms to describe kinds of cuisine. Some of these terms are merely trendy and will not last. For instance, I wrote about dude food (hamburgers, barbecues etc.), the kind of food preferred by cool but macho guys some years ago. The term is already falling into disuse.
Some terms sound new, but are not. Many (if not most) standalones opening these days call themselves ‘multi-cuisine’ as though this is some new category invented by genius chefs who can make excellent sushi rolls while simultaneously turning out chicken tikkas. (In fact, few chefs can actually demonstrate that kind of range but it doesn’t stop them from trying anyway.)
But ‘multi-cuisine’ only sounds new. Back in the 1950s, Kwality’s, Gaylord and hundreds of other restaurants were already serving keema matar and grilled cheese sandwiches on the same menu.
Then, there is ‘Mughlai’, a largely meaningless term. If you were to be specific, then the name should only apply to the cuisine of the Mughal court. Some food historians will argue that the food of the great Mughal emperors was the mother cuisine, which travelled to Lucknow, Hyderabad, etc.
This may or may not be true, but my guess is that while the food of Hyderabad is probably in direct descent from the food of the Mughals (they sent cooks, troops and the Nizam al-Mulk to Hyderabad), the rest of the claims ignore the historical reality that there were many Muslim dynasties that ruled Delhi long before the Mughals got here. (As every schoolboy knows, Babur, the first Mughal, defeated Ibrahim Lodi to capture Delhi). To suggest that the Lodis or the Tughlaqs lived on bread and water alone is silly. Delhi cuisine has many layers of influence; the Mughal court is just one of them.
Moreover, ‘Mughlai ’ now just means ‘greasy Northern Indian curry’. Butter chicken is not Mughlai. And yet, that is the kind of dish you find on so-called Mughlai menus. (You also find chicken manchurian at many ‘Mughlai’ restaurants but let’s not go there.)
A more recent misuse is the term ‘coastal’. This is largely meaningless. India is a peninsula so there are many coasts. Yet, the term applies only to the West coast. As far as I can recall, it was first used to characterise the cuisine at Bangalore’s Karavalli, which (when it opened) was essentially a fish restaurant using local fish cooked to home recipes. Later, the term was hijacked by Shettys and other Mumbai restaurateurs mostly from the Udupi region of Karnataka.
It now signifies nothing. Nor does anyone care where the dishes are from. Though the owners are usually from Mangalore, many of the dishes are from the Malvan region of Maharashtra. At many of these restaurants, some of the dishes are not even from South India, let alone any coast, and the masalas change from day to day because there is little standardisation.
At one of the most famous, tourist-friendly ‘coastal’ restaurants, I have eaten a ‘Hyderabadi’ dal that is unknown in Hyderabad. And the mainstay of these places – the crab butter garlic – started life (as far as I can remember) on the Chinese section of the Trishna menu. It is roughly as authentically South Indian as Jackie Chan.
But why pick only on Indian restaurant categories? Many food terms are also misused abroad. Take ‘molecular gastronomy’. Any chef who says that his cuisine is ‘molecular gastronomy’ is usually as adept at cooking as a 12-year-old with his first chemistry set.
The term was invented by Hervé This for a scientific examination of cooking techniques and ingredients, and every competent chef hates it. Ferran Adrià told me how much he loathed the term. Heston Blumenthal will never use it. Nor will Gaggan Anand or Pierre Gagnaire or any other chef who understands new kitchen technology.
My general rule is that if a restaurateur tells you his place does molecular gastronomy, never go there. If a chef tells you that the food is molecular, cancel your order and go out and eat channa bhatura instead.
Then there is ‘fusion’. It is a term that was much in vogue all over the world till around a decade or so ago; but naturally Indian chefs still use it. And the purists (like the great Ananda Solomon) rail against it, calling it ‘confusion’.
The truth is that all good chefs combine influences from all over the world. Nobu revolutionised Japanese restaurant cooking (and invented modern Japanese cuisine) by using influences from Peru and the Mediterranean. He never called his food ‘fusion’. In 1982, Wolfgang Puck served a pizza with smoked salmon and caviar. In 1983, he opened Chinois On Main in Santa Monica, merging French and Chinese influence. As far back as the 1960s, London’s Mr. Chow served Chinese food Italian-style.
None of these people used the term ‘fusion’! ‘Fusion’ only became a trendy category in the late 1980s, when a chef called Norman Van Aken used it for his combination of Latin, American and African food.
By the 1990s, every semi-talented Indian chef was calling his food ‘fusion’. (“Dekho ji, mera Murgh Malai kebab with the Hollandaise”.) Fortunately, fewer chefs are as much in love with the term ‘fusion’ now. Manish Mehrotra, India’s greatest chef, uses influences from all over (Bacon Kulcha, for instance). So does Vineet Bhatia. Neither of them would use ‘fusion’ to describe their food any more than, say, David Chang, the Korean-American chef would bother with the term.
“Comfort food”, on the other hand, is a term that is still much in vogue. The term became popular in 1978 when the American food writer MFK Fisher wrote a story for Bon Appétit magazine. The headline read “Exclusive: MFK Fisher on Comfort Foods.” Fisher used the term in a specific context: to describe foods that she found soothing while eating alone.
It came into common usage in 1985 but once again, it was used only in a narrow context: to describe childhood favourites (made by mothers, perhaps) that people found comforting because of nostalgia and reassurance.
By 1998, the phrase turned up in the Oxford English Dictionary and was defined in terms of childhood nostalgia, family and reassurance.
It is still used in roughly the same way in America: to describe dishes that were made at home by mothers (not cooks), that did not require huge levels of skill and were not usually available on restaurant menus.
Outside of America, however, the term has taken on a different meaning. There is no sense in which Dal Bukhara or butter chicken are comfort food. Nobody ever made them at home. Butter chicken requires chicken to be cooked in the tandoor and the quantities of dairy product needed for Dal Bukhara were only available to you at home if your mother was a milkmaid.
And yet, anything greasy or heavy is now passed off as comfort food in India. With the exception of khichri, which is real comfort food in Indian homes, most dishes described that way on our menus tend to be restaurant dishes, repackaged so that they can be misleadingly described.
I could go on. But I think I have made my point. When food snobs start using trendy jargon, it is time to turn off.
Eat dal chawal instead. It’s simple. It’s tasty. It’s not molecular or fusion or coastal or God knows what else.
It’s the real taste of India. True comfort on a plate.
From HT Brunch, September 29, 2019
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