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The Taste of India

As more and more Indian chefs move out into the world, it’s being said that London has become the capital of modern Indian food. But the future of Indian food lies in the same place as its past – in India itself. Vir Sanghvi writes...

india Updated: May 21, 2011 20:07 IST
Vir Sanghvi

As more and more Indian chefs move out into the world, it’s being said that London has become the capital of modern Indian food. But the future of Indian food lies in the same place as its past – in India itself.

When most Indians go to restaurants it is either because we have no choice or because we want the kind of food we cannot get at home (either foreign food or the kind that requires tandoors etc.). Rarely do we go to a restaurant to see what a great chef can do with Indian food.

This means that we have, in effect, no restaurant tradition. If you look at the oldest Indian restaurants, they were usually created for people who were unable to eat at home and had no alternative but to eat out. The Udupi restaurants of Bombay, for instance, catered to South Indians working in the city who had left their families behind. The Muslim restaurants of Calcutta were frequented by working men.

When the middle class did go out to eat and chose an Indian option (especially in the post-Independence phase) it either went tandoori (the Moti Mahal rip-offs or the Pandara Road places in Delhi) or preferred a bastardised Punjabi cuisine (Kwality, Gaylord, Volga, Amber etc.) that no self-respecting Punjabi ate at home. In no case was the chef’s imagination rewarded and in nearly every case, nobody even knew who the chef was.

Bombay BrasserieSo how does a cuisine with no restaurant tradition and no respect for the vision of the chef adapt itself to the restaurant-focused and chef-crazy twenty-first century? Good question. Only I am not sure there are any good answers.

Most discussions of modern Indian food lead inexorably to London, often described (by people who live in London, mainly) as the new capital of Indian cuisine. There is a historical reason for this.

The first proper Indian restaurants (not meant for working men far away from home) in the world probably opened in London. They catered mainly to ex-East India company men who had developed a taste for Indian food during their time in the sub-continent. Eventually, they died out (as did their patrons) to be replaced by cheap curry houses run by Bengalis from the Sylhet district of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh).

There were exceptions, of course. In 1966, Gaylord took Kwality-style Indian food (including tandoori chicken) to London and in 1973, Shezan, a Pakistani restaurant in Knightsbridge, was Egon Ronay’s Restaurant of the Year, an unprecedented honour for an Indian restaurant in that era.

But Indian food did not go properly upmarket and trendy till the Taj group (in the shape of Camellia Panjabi, then executive director of the Taj), opened the Bombay Brasserie in 1982. As good as the food at the Brasserie was, nobody (not even the Taj) claimed that it was a breakthrough in cuisine terms. This was simply good Indian food, reproducing authentic flavours with a few twists in presentation.

All that began to change in the Nineties. Till then, a successful upmarket Indian restaurant in London (as distinct from a Sylheti curry house) tried to do no more than imitate the food and ambience of a restaurant at a five star hotel in India.

In many ways the breakthrough was Chutney Mary, opened in London in 1996 by Namita Panjabi (sister of Camellia who would eventually leave the Taj to join Namita in London) which dared to experiment with Western-style presentation and introduced unusual flavours (such as lots of Goan and Anglo-Indian food) to London.

The success of Chutney Mary and the Brasserie led to a flood of upmarket Indian restaurants, some with Indian owners (Tamarind), some owned by big London groups (Zaika) and some with an entirely British clientele (The Cinnamon Club). As the cult of the celebrity chef finally caught on in Britain, these restaurants began pushing their chefs forward. Some argued that the Michelin guide followed the French tradition of recognising chefs rather than restaurants and so it made sense to promote the chefs.

A variety of Indian chefs, many of them drawn, bizarrely enough, from the Oberoi group which has no great reputation for Indian food in India, and some of whom were only coffee shop chefs, began to be launched by PR consultants as great Indian chefs: Vivek Singh (The Cinnamon Club), Atul Kochhar (Tamarind), Vineet Bhatia (Zaika), Cyrus Todiwala (a well-regarded Taj chef who made his name with Café Spice Namaste) etc.

BenaresIt was the emergence of the super-chefs that led London restaurants to claim that their city was now the capital of Indian food. The first to get a Michelin star was Atul Kochhar who got one for Tamarind. He then moved to Benares and got a star there too. Vineet Bhatia got a star for Zaika, moved to his own Rasoi, got a star for the new place, opened another restaurant in Geneva and got yet another star. Sriram, a chef venerated in India for his work at Karavali in Bangalore, opened Quilon and finally got a star. And Camellia and Namita Panjabi’s Amaya (chef Karunesh Khanna) not only got a star but was also Restaurant of the Year when it opened.

The claim that these restaurants (and their chefs) have taken Indian food to the next level is based on several factors. First of all, they are chefs in the French tradition. You do not go to say, Rasoi to eat an authentic regional rogan josh. You go to see what a great chef like Vineet Bhatia can do with the flavours we associate with a rogan josh.

As is true of all great chefs, Bhatia will play around with flavours and presentation. He will drizzle truffle oil on his mushroom naan. He will infuse khichdis with flavour and serve them as side dishes. Most startlingly, he will push his makhni sauce (the gravy for butter chicken) into a gelato machine, turn it into an ice-cream and serve it next to a chicken dish.

At other restaurants, similar innovations abound. One of the tastiest dishes on the Amaya menu consists of fresh oysters with a ginger-coconut gravy. As Indians do not normally eat oysters on the half-shell, this is a first. At Quilon, Sriram does an Indian take on moules marinière, serving mussels with a Kerala gravy. These innovations led to the second claim advanced for these restaurants. At most Indian restaurants (even those in India) the menu seems remarkably similar: the same dishes crop up again and again.

Oyster shellsBut the London chefs have broken through that barrier. No two London Indian restaurants (at least in the premier league) have the same menu. This is a new generation of Indian food with new dishes being invented every day.

And the third and final claim is the simplest of all. A Michelin star is a mark of global recognition. How can we not admire chefs who have been honoured by Michelin and reviewed so favourably by British critics? They are people who have done India proud. It is a powerful case made stronger by the fact that till recently, there has been nothing to compare the food of these chefs to. If you want to see how good Gordon Ramsay’s Royal Hospital Road restaurant is, you can compare it to three star Michelin restaurants in France and make an informed judgement. But given that we have no real restaurant tradition in India, what can you compare the London restaurants to?

And yet, the London chefs have their Indian critics. There is, first of all, the Indian taste factor. The vast majority of Indians I have met who have been to the expensive Indian restaurants in London have come back shaking their heads and refusing to go back. Few of them have liked the food.

The London lobby offers two defences. First of all, it says, because we have no proper restaurant culture in India, we are unwilling to accept any innovation. We want a simple rogan josh, a straightforward mutter-paneer, an ordinary seekh kabab or whatever. We cannot stomach the fact that the London chefs are serving new dishes. When we see something we have not come across before, we immediately conclude that "this is not Indian food" and close our minds. The second defence is that this is Indian food for the London market. It has to reflect the tastes of upmarket Brits who are used to expensive Italian or French restaurants. It is not meant for Indian palates.

Both defences are solid but it is not difficult to see why they do not convince Indians. It is all very well to say that Indian cuisine needs to move forward but at what stage does the food stop being Indian? Here, for instance, are some of the dishes recommended by the Michelin Guide at Benares: Soft shell crab with squid salad; Fried John Dory with peas and tomato chutney; grilled roe deer fillet with yellow pumpkin risotto and chocolate mousse with praline ice-cream.

There is a substantial lobby within the Indian food world which argues that all that the London chefs are doing is Frenchifying the food: plating it in the style of French restaurants so there is a prettiness to the presentation, reducing the spice levels for Western palates, using meats that are more popular in the West than in India (roe fillet, for instance), eliminating watery gravies, and creating food that seems more comprehensible to Western sensibilities.

This may well be a valid and interesting thing to do but it is not the only road forward. On the other hand, an indigenous restaurant tradition is developing in India and domestic chefs are doing many interesting things.

While you cannot call it a restaurant tradition in the strictest sense, there has always been a professional catering tradition in Lucknow and Hyderabad consisting of Muslim cooks who made the food for large weddings or celebrations on a freelance basis.

In 1977, when the Maurya Hotel opened in Delhi, Ajit Haksar, the legendary former chairman of ITC, was determined not to open the standard Kwality-style Indian restaurant that was ubiquitous in that era. He sought out Imtiaz Qureshi, a chef who ran a catering business in Lucknow, and hired him to handle the Indian kitchen at the Maurya.

Eventually, Imtiaz introduced his entire extended family to ITC and most of his sons, brothers-in-law, nephews, sons-in-law etc. were hired to work in the kitchen of the chain. But the breakthrough came in the late 1980s with the opening of the Dum Pukht restaurant.

Dum Pukht BiryaniDum Pukht, a style of steam-cooking, has been a part of North Indian cuisine from medieval times (what was called Dum Poke by the Raj) but Imtiaz (and Manjit Gill, who was then executive chef at the Maurya) refined it for restaurant cooking. Then, they began updating traditional recipes.

The standout dish on their menu was the Dum Pukht biryani, an amalgamation of two different styles of biryani (Lucknow and Hyderabad) with many fresh touches. Each order was finished a la minute in the oven after a sheet of pastry had been placed over the dish to seal in the flavour. The biryani was not terribly authentic (it was certainly not the typical Avadhi pula o) but it became such a hit that its recipe soon became the standard for all upmarket restaurants everywhere in India.

Among Imtiaz’s other innovations was a rum-marinated raan (leg) of lamb also steam cooked under a pastry cover (purdah) along with cocktail onions and other flavourings. This was not a traditional dish but it quickly became a standard recipe.

Indian chefs argue that, away from the public eye and without the benefit of PR consultants, such innovations are constantly taking place. But like all successful innovations, they make their point so subtly that they rarely shock or startle diners. The true proof of their success is the speed with which they are quickly picked up by other chefs.


Among the most famous of these innovations is the black dal. Most North Indian restaurants serve some form of black dal, usually describing it as a traditional Punjabi dish. While it is true that a black dal has been cooked in Punjabi homes for generations, that dal is only a distant ancestor of the modern restaurant black dal.

Today’s black dal is only 50 or 60 years old. Like many of today’s North Indian classics, it was popularised (if not invented) by Delhi’s Moti Mahal restaurant which made tandoori chicken famous. It was at Moti Mahal that the makhni sauce (made with tomatoes, butter and cream) was popularised as a way of turning chicken tikka into a gravy dish (butter chicken or murgh makhni). When people asked for a dal that was as rich as the rest of the food, the makhni sauce was added to standard Punjabi black dal to create the restaurant dal we know today.

So, ask Indian chefs, is that dal an innovation or not? It is certainly more influential than some Michelin-approved kaddu risotto served in London.

Tandoori chickenIf you believe Indian chefs, there are many such unsung innovations in Indian cuisines. For instance, the batter-fried bombil, a dish in which the Bombay duck fish (best known in its sun-dried form) is pounded to a thin fillet, coated in masala and then fried, which is a standard in coastal restaurants all over India, was probably invented by Bombay’s Gajalee restaurant. The crab in butter garlic, a favourite of European food writers on visits to Bombay, started out in the Chinese menu of Trishna restaurant (butter-garlic sauce is unknown on the South Indian coast) before becoming a so-called ‘coastal’ standard.

One of the criticisms Western food critics often make of Indian food is that it all looks the same: bowls of brown goo. This is not an unfair criticism but it stems partly from the fact that Indian food is meant to be shared. At a French or Italian restaurant, each guest orders individually. But an Indian meal usually involves a few dishes which are shared by everyone at the dining table.

Most upmarket Indian restaurants in London now try and plate their food so that each guest orders an individual dish. This has the advantage of helping reduce the brown goo problem because plates can be arranged prettily. But it also means that Indian food has to be reworked to suit the presentation.

A second and entirely valid criticism of Indian food is that it has scant respect for ingredients. Vegetables are cooked to nothingness. And chicken, meat and fish have many of their original flavours sucked out of them in the cooking process.

The point of much of Indian food (though not perhaps of tandoori cuisine which may help explain its popularity in the West) is the spicing. Far more important than the original taste of the ingredients is the way in which they are spiced.

This runs counter to the prevailing philosophy in the West where less is more and high quality ingredients have very little done to them in the cooking process. Chefs cooking for a Western audience make similar adjustments to Indian cuisine. Not only do the chilli levels go down but all spicing is usually reduced. A fish curry will become a piece of fish with a gravy underneath it. A rogan josh may show up as a lamb shank in a puddle of rogan josh curry. And so on.

Indians are prepared to be forgiving of this sort of adjustment in general. But many chefs from India argue that, in the process, the chefs cooking for Western audiences also tamper with Indian flavours. The gravy served below a sea bass may taste nothing like an Indian fish curry. The rogan josh gravy may lack the dish’s distinctive fat content.

The new area of conflict between chefs who cook in India and those who cook abroad is the authenticity of flavours. Are the upmarket London chefs bastardising Indian flavours – along with the presentation – in an effort to please English critics and the Michelin inspectors? Many Indian chefs insist that this is precisely what is going on.

Even as this argument rages, many Indian chefs have opened restaurants in India that marry Western style presentation with authentic Indian flavours. The most successful of these is undoubtedly Varq at Delhi’s Taj Mahal Hotel where Hemant Oberoi, India’s best known chef, mixes Western presentation (a mille-feuille for instance with a South Indian crab between the pastry layers) with Indian dishes though sometimes, when a dish requires traditional presentation, he dispenses with the Western plating. For instance, Oberoi’s Martaban Meat, cooked with pickle spices, comes to the table as a hearty curry in a pickle jar. In London, the dish would have consisted of a piece of lamb placed over a small pond of pickle sauce.

Varq is the most successful of the new wave of Indian restaurants but there are many others. Indian Accent, also in Delhi, is run by Manish Mehrotra, a chef who originally specialised in Thai food and who has lived in London. Mehrotra’s food is authentically Indian but his style is as smart as anything the London chefs can dish out.

At the Meridien Hotel in Delhi’s Connaught Place, Davinder Kumar, a chef trained in the French tradition, runs Monsoon which combines French cooking techniques with deliciously robust and earthy Indian flavours. Marut Sikka, a TV chef and food entrepreneur, owns Kainoosh at the DLF Mall in Delhi, and does a brilliant job of mixing classical Indian cuisine with more innovative dishes.

Bombay has been slower to catch on to the trend but ironically, it is London’s Michelin-starred Vineet Bhatia who runs the city’s most innovative restaurant. Bhatia’s Ziya is located at the exact same spot in the Oberoi Hotel where he once toiled as the chef at the Oberoi’s Indian restaurant. After some early hesitation, Bhatia decided not to compromise with Indian habits (no sharing portions of butter chicken for the whole table, for instance) and serves only plated food.

Even if you take the line that Westernised presentation is the future of Indian food – and there is no reason why we should accept that position – it is no longer necessary to go to London to find that kind of food. It is now readily available in India and most of the new restaurants serve a cuisine that is far more authentic than the UK version. After all, it is one thing to sell something to Brits as Indian food, quite another to sell it to Indians, who know their own cuisine.

When Brits go out to eat Indian food in London, they are eating a foreign cuisine just as Indians who go to an Italian restaurant in Delhi are eating something exotic. It is valid for the chef at the Indian Italian restaurant to tinker with the flavours to suit Indian palates. And it is as valid for the Indian chef to change his cuisine for Westerners.

But no cuisine can advance on the basis of food made for foreigners. The real evolution must happen in India and it must appeal to Indians. Fortunately, there is more of that going on than we may recognise at first.

At one level, there are the dishes created by restaurateurs over the years: tandoori chicken, black dal etc. These are more plentiful than we may realise. Even in the South, it’s not just coastal food that has been re-invented for restaurant guests. Even the medu vada, the staple of every south Indian canteen all over the country, is not a traditional dish. It was invented at the launch of a railway line near the town of Mettur.

At another, there is the assimilation of regional traditions into a new kind of north Indian cuisine. The Dum Pukht biryani which is neither entirely Lucknowi nor entirely Hyderabadi is one example. Most Indian restaurants – even those with no avant garde pretensions – serve a cuisine that is significantly different from the kind of restaurant food available three decades ago. The new dishes have emerged out of a synthesis of regional cooking styles.

And then of course there is the Frenchified school of Indian cooking. It may have started in London but it has many branches in India now. You can argue about whether the prettiness of plated presentation is against Indian tradition or whether the chefs necessarily respect the authenticity of Indian flavours. What you can’t dispute is that such restaurants do well all over the world and cannot be ignored. Some may serve food that causes self-respecting Indians to throw up. But equally, many are run by talented chefs who are genuinely innovative.

The truth is that there is no one way forward and no one capital of Indian cuisine. Those who claim that the London chefs are showing the way forward tend to underestimate the innovations taking place within India and make the mistake of arguing that Frenchification is the only route ahead. Equally, those who run down the London restaurants, saying that their food is not genuinely Indian, make the error of defining authentic Indian food too narrowly. At the start of the 20th century, 99 per cent of Indians had never heard of tandoori chicken. Does that mean that it is not an authentic Indian dish? Obviously it doesn’t: a great cuisine evolves over the years.

The important things to remember are (a) India is not a country like France. It is a sub-continent on par with Europe. Therefore, it does not lend itself to easy generalisations or classifications. At any given time, there is a lot happening in India – and to its cuisine – that may not be immediately obvious.

And (b) let’s never forget that the Indian middle class – the chief consumers of any restaurant cuisine – is only now coming of age. As the middle class grows in prosperity and influence, it will demand newer restaurants, better food and greater innovations in cuisine.
Is it likely that a handful of restaurants in a single British city can compete with the vastness of India and the affluence of the growing Indian middle class? London may have had a historical importance in the development of Indian food. And its chefs may have made some valid contributions.

But the future of Indian food lies in the same place as its past – in India itself.

This story appeared in the Brunch Quarterly, the new lifestyle magazine from Hindustan Times. Out on stands now.