Death by sauce
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Death by sauce

Hairy Navel? is now a drink, not the undepilitated gazing-point of George Fernandes. Or of Dom Moraes, M.F. Husain, V.S. Gaitonde, Manohar Shetty or even JRD, Jinnah and Ambedkar who once reportedly frequented a quaint hostelry at Mumbai?s Kala Ghoda.

india Updated: Jun 29, 2002 20:08 IST

Hairy Navel’ is now a drink, not the undepilitated gazing-point of George Fernandes. Or of Dom Moraes, M.F. Husain, V.S. Gaitonde, Manohar Shetty or even JRD, Jinnah and Ambedkar who once reportedly frequented a quaint hostelry at Mumbai’s Kala Ghoda.
Last week, ‘The Wayside Inn’ metamorphosed into a ‘restobar’ named ‘Silk Route’, and, in one move, changed from a place of repose to a symbol of mobility. The makeover marks the death of civilization as we’d known it, a decline which began when soup stopped being served in plates, and began to be sloshed into Chinese bowls.

The Wayside Inn may have been on its way out for a decade, but it could claim an authenticity that its satin-finished stainless-steel avatar will arguably fail to summon. The clientele will change from scruffy seekers of stolid stews to the smart set ever in search of newer, neon-lit nirvanas. They’ll get what they want — and deserve. For the Silk Route genre is as flashy as a Bangkok bar-girl’s thighs, and about as genuine as Gobi Manchurian.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a decadence snob hanging on to the virtues of frayed cafes where the waiters are of a greater vintage than the wines, and the cutlets look like the leftovers from Lord Kitchener’s last dinner. On a lean day, I can be as wonton in my tastes as the next customer of the sacked Nepali watchman masquerading as an out-of-wok Chinese cook. But I do feel as outraged as an over-fried pomfret each time a bite of the city’s original gastronomic soul is swallowed up by an ersatz, one-burp-fits-all imposter of internationalism.

Delhi dhaba-food has had a marginally better deal. It may have got gentrified in places called Paratha, Handi or Charpoy, where the uniforms have switched from stained Haryanvi to spurious Durazi , but the fare is still much the same. The capital may now have a surfeit of restaurants where the parvenu can pretend they are dining with ‘Michelin-ji’ himself, but, with a little effort, its natives can still satisfy their more visceral yearnings.

Mumbai has fallen faster into a globalised uniformity. The Wayside Inn is only the latest example. The real body blow to the city’s soul came from the near-extinction of the Irani hotels. Their menus may have been as unvaried as the statement on their owner’s face, but they were still totemic. In their trade-mark brun-maska lay the very heart of Bombay — a city whose crusty exterior could always be made more palatable with a little buttering.

Through their un-doored entrance came the whole populace, warming its butt on eponymous `Irani’ chairs as it braced itself for the world, the 7.14 Fast or even the surly waiter bearing the soggy toast. Thanks to a succession of impecunious geniuses to whom it gave mint chai and succour, the Irani hotel passed the ultimate mythic test: its place in the city’s iconography was far higher than its position in reality.

Irani hotels have reinvented themselves as beer parlours, jazz joints, even Waikiki-beach wannabes. But this simply isn’t about changed signage and menus. Their suddenly unstable persona emblemises a city which has willingly swapped its originality with an identity crisis.

Similarly, Udupis, those other homespun centres of community-bonding, have became cheesey in their smiles and uthapas alike. And, the new popularity of coastal cooking smells fishy because its proponents aren’t deemed successful unless they’ve also netted an impressive catch of celebrity. Ethnic without the chic is, alas, as unviable as a humble squid that hasn’t learnt to spell ‘calamari’.

Naturally these internal weaknesses have thrown the flanks wide open to external invasion. The Chinese conquest of every taste-bud in India is unparalleled in the history of colon-isation, and decidedly more subversive that infiltrations through Bomdila or the flooding of the Indian market with cheap radios. Chinese made way for Thai, and then the more adventurous Japanese, Indonesian and Mongolian cuisines. So much so that you might genuinely wonder whether you are simply eating out, or whether you’ve landed up on the grand Oriental Exotica Tour, conducted by who else but Thomas Cook.

Alec Smart said, “What happened at the England-Brazil match? David couldn’t slay Goaliath”.

First Published: Jun 29, 2002 13:02 IST