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What is authentic Indian cuisine?

Authenticity, diversity or innovation – what makes a five-star hotel restaurant successful in the Indian food space?

brunch Updated: Jan 04, 2015 17:19 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times
Oberoi,Vineet Bhatia,Atul Kochhar

I was invited, a few weeks ago, by the Oberoi chain of hotels to a culinary conclave attended by their top Indian cuisine chefs. As most foodies know, the Oberois have no great tradition of Indian food. (Can you name two famous Indian food chefs from the Oberoi Group? I thought not. Though at least two Michelin-starred chefs – Vineet Bhatia and Atul Kochhar – started out in Oberoi kitchens.)

But now, the Oberoi senses a gap in the market. Because ITC tends to roll out the same restaurant brands (Peshawri, Dum Pukht, Dakshin and Kebabs & Kurries) at its hotels, the Oberoi knows what to expect from the leaders in the Indian food market.

And because the Taj Group which did so much for Indian food in the ’70s and ’80s has slowly but surely abandoned that space, the Oberoi senses a clear gap in the market.

So the conclave was an opportunity for the chefs to talk about possible directions the group could take, to watch experts from outside cooking authentic dishes from Lucknow, Hyderabad, Old Delhi and Punjabi dhabhas, and to discuss their concerns.

I could have predicted at least one of those concerns. For years and years, whenever Taj chefs gathered to discuss Indian food, they obsessed about authenticity. When the Taj opened the (now defunct) Apollo Room in Bombay, the group made a conscious decision to move away from Kwality-Volga cuisine and to serve authentic ‘dishes’. (ITC made a similar decision in 1978 when it opened Mayur at the Maurya.)

But what is authentic Indian cuisine? The Taj took a decision that real Indian food was the stuff we cooked at home and not the kind of thing that appeared on restaurant menus. This made a certain amount of sense at an intuitive level and so all the great Taj Indian restaurants (Haveli, Handi, Karavali, Southern Spice, Konkan Café, The Raintree, etc) were based on home recipes.

Breaking the rules: Sambhar is a dish that spans more than one state and even within a single state the recipe for sambhar changes every 20kms or so.

However, just because your mother or my aunt makes a dish a certain way, it does not follow that all other versions of the same dish are inauthentic. In classic French cuisine (which is a court or restaurant cuisine), it is possible to nail down recipes for the mother sauces (Hollandaise, Béchamel, etc) and insist that everyone learns them. But as even the French discovered, this is hard to do with home cooking: there is no one definitive recipe for a cassoulet, for instance.

And given India’s size, the problems are compounded. How can you have a definitive recipe for sambhar? This is a dish that spans more than one state. Some homes make a different sambhar in the morning and another version in the evening. And even within a single state – say Tamil Nadu – the recipe for sambhar changes every 20km or so.

Eventually, the Taj decided to welcome diversity. So you can order the same dish at say, the Konkan Café, Southern Spice, or Karavali, and get three different versions. As long as the recipe is properly sourced and each restaurant maintains an internal consistency, nobody really cares.

ITC, on the other hand, takes consistency across the chain much more seriously. If you order Dal Bukhara at say, Peshawri in Chennai and it does not taste the same as the original at Delhi’s Bukhara, the chef is in trouble.

I told the Oberoi chefs that it was up to them to decide which approach they preferred. In my view, both are equally valid. ITC has created restaurant brands and values consistency. The Taj opened individual restaurants and allowed each to develop its own character.

But, I also said that it was too easy for hotel chefs to play down their own cooking and get carried away by the claim that only housewives, using ancestral recipes, knew what real Indian food was. I gave the example of the Oberoi chain itself where despite no central policy guidelines, the Indian food was often outstanding.

Everybody raves about Amaranta at the Gurgaon Oberoi (which won my award for Best Modern Indian Hotel Restaurant this year) but I’ve had great North Indian food at many Oberoi properties; a wonderful mutton curry at Threesixtyº, a very good room service biryani at the Bombay Oberoi and an excellent Amritsari meal at Threesixtyoneº.

My view on ‘authenticity’ – whatever that means – is that while nobody respects a man who puts gunpowder in his butter chicken, the truth is that all cuisines evolve and new dishes are constantly being created. At present I reckon that Manish Mehrotra, Gaggan Anand and Zorawar Kalra will have more influence on the way that Indian restaurant menus are written than any recipe passed down by your or my grandmother.

I gave them the example of butter chicken itself. As far as we know, tandoori chicken was probably invented in Peshawar as recently as the 1930s. It only became popular after Moti Mahal started serving it in Delhi in the 1950s.

The origins: Butter chicken (above) was invented in the 1950s as a way of rehydrating leftover chicken tikka and tandoori chicken.

Butter chicken was invented in the 1950s at Moti Mahal as a way of rehydrating leftover chicken tikka and tandoori chicken. When the dish caught on, the same butter chicken sauce found its way into home-style Punjabi dal to create the black dal you see on most restaurant menus.

The reason ITC is so careful about the consistency of its Dal Bukhara is because that dish (a refinement of the Moti Mahal version) was actually invented in the kitchen of the Maurya.

Are these dishes inauthentic because my grandmother had never heard of them? Is tandoori chicken any less authentic because it is a restaurant dish that few of us will cook at home?

In fact, all of Indian cuisine was inauthentic at some point in time because so much has changed over the years. Is the piri piri masala that is the basis of so many Goan dishes not authentic because the Portuguese introduced the piri piri chilli to Goa? (And to their African colonies which is why it turns up in places like Nando’s.)

Nor is this true only of Indian cuisine. It is the same with nearly every cuisine. The Scots pride themselves on their Scotch eggs which are hard-boiled eggs, encased in minced meat and then fried after being coated in breadcrumbs.

We have something similar in India called a Nargisi kofta and for years and years I believed that it was the Indian adaptation of that Scottish dish. Perhaps some enterprising khansama who was taught to make the dish by his colonial masters decided that he would create a masaledar Indian version, I imagined.

In fact it looks like I got that the wrong way around.

According to Alan Davidson, one of the greatest food historians of the 20th century, the original Nargisi kofta was made in India with keema and eggs and served in a tomato gravy.

When British soldiers returned home, they tried to recreate the dish. As time went on, they abandoned the tomato gravy, choosing to use a bottled hot sauce instead. Then, as the dish entered the mainstream, the Brits replaced the spicy keema with sausage meat.

The earliest recipe for this allegedly traditional Scottish dish only turns up in 1826, when it was first called Scotch eggs. (One outlandish theory is that Sir Walter Scott, author of Ivanhoe, wrote down the recipe, hence the name of the dish!) But even that recipe calls for the dish to be eaten hot with gravy. It wasn’t till many decades later that Scotch eggs became a dry dish served cold and sold in petrol stations and supermarkets.

Indian connection: The Scots pride themselves on their Scotch eggs – hard-boiled eggs encased in minced meat. In fact, they probably originated from our own Nargisi kofta.

It is for all of these reasons that while I believe that it is important to retain flavours, it is foolish to stick too closely to so-called traditional recipes because what is traditional today was new a few generations ago and what is called authentic today was probably a bastardisation when it was created.

I’m not sure the Oberoi chefs all agreed with me. But I left them with one of their own greatest hits. The single best dish at Amaranta is the bacon fried rice. Because the restaurant’s first chef was a Syrian Christian, most people assumed it was a dish from Kerala.

In fact, as executive chef Ravitej Nath explained to us, they made it up in the Amaranta kitchen. And the inspiration did not come from God’s Own Country. According to Ravi, they were playing around at Indianising the flavours of spaghetti carbonara!

So is this terrific Indian dish based on a traditional Italian favourite? Well actually, no. Because spaghetti carbonara is not traditional either. It was only invented after the Second World War.

But that’s another story for another column!

From HT Brunch, January 4, 2015

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First Published: Jan 03, 2015 15:50 IST