Rude Food by Vir Sanghvi: Authenticity is over-rated

Ramen and Pad Thai are not part of any traditional cuisine. They were made up relatively recently. Like Butter Chicken and Chicken 65
Along with sushi and sashimi, the one Japanese dish popular all over the world is Ramen. But till the 1950s, hardly anybody in Japan ate ramen. It’s a Chinese dish that became popular because of American occupation
Along with sushi and sashimi, the one Japanese dish popular all over the world is Ramen. But till the 1950s, hardly anybody in Japan ate ramen. It’s a Chinese dish that became popular because of American occupation
Published on Dec 26, 2021 10:27 AM IST
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Given the current obsession with authenticity in food, I often wonder if we realise how much of the food we eat is newly invented and part of no authentic tradition. Many of the ingredients that we regard as integral to Indian food came from South America and only reached us when Europeans brought them here: tomatoes, potatoes, corn, chillis etc.

And so many of the dishes that we regard as being part of the ancient Indian tradition are restaurant creations from the 20th century. Butter Chicken, Masala Dosa, Chicken 65, Vada Pav, Chicken Tikka, and so many others.

This should not surprise us. It is true of all cuisines everywhere in the world. Spaghetti Bolognese was not created in Bologna but in England. Chicken Kiev was not invented in Kiev or anywhere in Ukraine. It was invented in New York. Pepperoni is not a traditional Italian topping for pizza. It is an American creation.

This is as true of the food of Asia. Along with sushi and sashimi, the one Japanese dish that has found popularity all over the world is Ramen. The sight of a Ramen house with diners loudly slurping their Ramen and soup strikes us as being quintessentially Japanese. And so it may be—but only now. Till the 1950s, hardly anybody in Japan ate Ramen.

Till then, the Japanese called Ramen Shina Soba or Chinese soba because the dish was regarded as being part of Chinese cuisine. All that changed after Japan’s defeat in the Second World War. The victorious American occupiers tried to feed the defeated Japanese masses, only to find that the country recorded its worst rice harvest in 42 years in 1945. The Japanese were then (and still are, in many ways) a predominantly rice-eating population, so there was a terrible food shortage and people went hungry.

The Americans responded by flooding the country with US wheat, hoping that the Japanese would eat bread. They did—bread consumption in Japan more than doubled between 1948 to 1951. But much of the American wheat went into making Chinese-style wheat noodles, which eventually became an urban staple under the name of Ramen.

So, Ramen is hardly a traditional food in Japan. It is a Chinese dish that has become popular because of American occupation.

Noodle dishes boomed all over Asia after the Second World War. Take Pad Thai, perhaps the most popular Thai dish in the world. One story suggests that it was only invented in the 1930s by the Thai government to foster nation-building, and called Pad Thai to give it a patriotic character. (Pad means stir-fry, so ‘Thai Stir-fry’ or something like that.)

The dish only took off in the 1950s and that is attributed to rice shortages during the Second World War. The Thais discovered that you could make two kilograms of rice noodles from a kilo of rice (no, I am not sure how this works either) so, they used their precious rice supplies for noodle-making. The Pad Thai recipe was already around so, the noodles went into Pad Thai, which became a way of feeding the nation. By the 1950s it had become a staple.

You can argue about the historicity of the stories but what is clear is that both Pad Thai and Ramen only took off after the Second World War and are relatively recent dishes, which are far from traditional in their own cuisines.

We went through a similar transformation in India. Till the 1950s, Indians did not really drink tea. It had been planted by the British using saplings brought from China, but the production was meant mainly for export. Tea drinking only took off in India in the fifties after a campaign by the Tea Board to get Indians to drink tea.

Because the taste of fine tea was alien to our palates, the Tea Board promoted inexpensive teas (made by a process called CTC) which could be cooked with milk and sugar to create the tea we now associate with every chai shop. You can judge the success of the Tea Board’s campaign in India by looking at Sri Lanka where CTC consumption is low (they drink the real thing—or orthodox, to use the technical term) and our kind of cooked tea is not the norm.

We recognise now that tandoori chicken and chicken tikka were popularised only in the 1950s by a restaurant called Moti Mahal in Delhi. But we also need to acknowledge that the tomato and butter-rich black dal that is served in all Indian restaurants around the world with such names as Dal Bukhara and Dal Makhni was also created at the same time. There were no tomatoes in Punjabi black dal when it was a home-made dish.

The original Moti Mahal in Daryaganj is no longer run by the families of the founders and there are at least three sets of people who use variations of the Moti Mahal trademark. So far, they have been content to serve Butter Chicken, saying that the dish was invented in Moti Mahal (which it was).

But now, there is a new battle between the descendants of Kundan Lal Gujral, who was the face of the original Moti Mahal, and the descendants of Kundan Lal Jaggi, who was one of the partners. Jaggi’s descendants say that Gujral looked after the front of the house but Jaggi was in the kitchen creating such dishes as Butter Chicken. Their own restaurant chain, Daryaganj, says it is run by “the inventors of Butter Chicken”, which makes Gujral’s descendants see red because they dispute Jaggi’s role.

In the case of Butter Chicken, we know where it was invented and when. All that is in dispute is the identity of the man who thought it up.

But other dishes present their own mysteries. Take Chicken 65. We still don’t know how it got its name. According to the Buhari restaurant in Chennai, which claims to have invented it, the dish went on the menu in 1965 and was called Chicken 65 after the year of its introduction. Well, may be. But Bangalore claims to have invented it, too. And there are other theories about its name: the chicken had to be 65 days old, it used 65 different spices, it was dish number 65 on the menu and so on.

Though there are no clear answers, we can be sure that the dish is a relatively recent invention (mid-1960s) and that it is not part of any culinary tradition: somebody just made it up.

Another southern favourite is Gobi Manchurian (though the name varies slightly depending on which state you are in). The dish is a variation on Chicken Manchurian, which was invented in Mumbai in the mid-seventies in response to customers who asked for ‘spicy Chinese dishes.’ The invention is usually credited to restaurateur Nelson Wang, especially after he claimed the dish as his own in a show I did nearly two decades ago. But there are others who say that they, not Nelson, created it. And even Nelson did not, even in his worst nightmares, conceive of Gobi Manchurian.

So, let’s give this authenticity thing a rest. Cuisines evolve. Dishes are created. Some are good. Some are terrible. But each dish finds its own market. And as time goes on, it begins to be regarded as ‘authentic’.

From HT Brunch, December 26, 2021

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Why hide the papers? Why keep the conspiracy theories related to Netaji Subhas Bose’s death alive? And why deny India the truth about the death of one of its great freedom fighters?

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