Rude Food by Vir Sanghvi: Going to the dogs

Published on Aug 12, 2022 07:11 PM IST

The hot dog is the one great American snack food that has not travelled well. But it’s easy to make at home

Though the sausages are made with the cheapest meat and the bun is industrial, something about eating a hot dog on the street is an important part of the New York experience
Though the sausages are made with the cheapest meat and the bun is industrial, something about eating a hot dog on the street is an important part of the New York experience

You can never predict how food will travel or which dish will become popular in which country. Who would have thought 20 years ago, that sushi would become a rage in India? And what about the poor Italians and their food? So many globally popular dishes sound Italian but bear little relation to the Italian originals. The pizzas we like are American in origin. Spaghetti Bolognaise, which turns up on nearly every menu, was not invented in Bologna but in the UK.

On the whole, the Americans have it better. The hamburger has conquered the world. Even southern fried chicken, which I thought would remain a US-only thing, is a global favourite.

Should a hot dog have ketchup? No, say many purists. A slice of pickle? Sometimes. Cheese? Only if it is described as a Cheese Dog
Should a hot dog have ketchup? No, say many purists. A slice of pickle? Sometimes. Cheese? Only if it is described as a Cheese Dog

But, there is one American snack food that has never travelled well. And though we can find it in India, the hot dog is losing popularity. There was a time when most hotel coffee shops had both hot dogs and hamburgers on the menu. Now, the hot dog has been jettisoned in favour of various versions of the hamburger (made with chicken, with aloo tikkis and God knows what else!).

If you are not familiar with a hot dog, here is what it is: it is a sausage (usually a frankfurter) encased in a long bun. The condiments are up to you and vary from city to city in America, but, some form of onions and a slash of yellow mustard are commonly preferred.

Daniel Humm’s Humm Dog, which he created for his hot dog stall pop-up by the lake in Zurich, used Hebrew National beef frankfurters, wrapped in a slice of bacon
Daniel Humm’s Humm Dog, which he created for his hot dog stall pop-up by the lake in Zurich, used Hebrew National beef frankfurters, wrapped in a slice of bacon

The ‘Frankfurt’ in frankfurter comes from the German city of that name where the sausage may have been invented. But the idea of putting the sausages in a bun is American as is the name. (Though a version of the hot dog, usually with a different sausage, is now popular in Germany.)

You get hot dogs of varying quality all over America. On the streets of New York, a vendor will sell you an inexpensive hot dog from a cart. And though the sausages (usually boiled or poached) will be made with the cheapest meat (beef usually) and the bun will be industrial, something about eating a hot dog on the street is an important part of the New York experience. In Chicago, the hot dog is so popular that there are more hot dog stands than Wendy’s, McDonald’s and Burger King locations put together.

There is no consensus on the exact recipe for a hot dog. Boiling the frankfurter seems to be the natural way, but, many people barbecue or grill it. Likewise with the bun. Do you serve it plain? Or do you toast it or steam it? Even the condiments are the subject of controversy. Should a hot dog have ketchup? No, say many purists. A slice of pickle? Sometimes. Cheese? Again, only sometimes and only if it is described as a Cheese Dog. And then there are the variations. A chilli dog, for instance, is a hot dog with chilli con carne slathered on the frank.

You get hot dogs in India. But you have to buy the ingredients and put them together
You get hot dogs in India. But you have to buy the ingredients and put them together

While the world’s chefs are fascinated by the hamburger, the hot dog has evoked relatively little interest. The most notable gourmet version of a hot dog I can think of is the Humm Dog which Daniel Humm invented for a hot dog stall he did at a pop-up by the lake in Zurich. (This later turned up on the menu of NoMad, a restaurant he used to own.) He used Hebrew National beef frankfurters, rolled a slice of bacon around each frank and fried it till the bacon was crisp. Naturally, he used a bespoke high quality bun and spread a mayonnaise made with black truffle on the inside. Each hot dog was topped with a slice of Gruyere cheese and placed in the oven till the cheese melted. The relish had more truffle, mustard seeds, white balsamic, sliced pickles and celery root.

Ever since Humm gave up on meat, I have wondered if anybody else makes an interesting gourmet version. Oddly enough, the most unusual and best hot dogs I have found have been made in Bangkok. The Suhrings, who run the eponymous two Michelin star restaurant, make a hot dog with currywurst, a homage to a Berlin street food favourite. They call it Curry 32 and it consists of a high quality sausage topped with a spicy tomato sauce and curry masala. Also in Bangkok, Chalee Kader does a Northern Thai hot dog made with spicy Northern sausage and uses eggplant paste as a condiment at his 100 Mahaseth.

Sahil Mehta of Paris My Love makes fancy and delicious brioche buns
Sahil Mehta of Paris My Love makes fancy and delicious brioche buns

Given that the original American hot dog has largely fallen out of favour in the rest of the world, I wondered if Indian chefs would follow the example of Chalee and the Suhrings and create Indian hot dogs.

But our chefs have a problem: we have no real sausage tradition in India. Our Goan chorizo collapses as it is cooked so it lends itself to Chorise Pao, which is not really a hot dog.

Hman offers chunky, slightly smoked sausages and sturdy buns that work for DIY hot dogs
Hman offers chunky, slightly smoked sausages and sturdy buns that work for DIY hot dogs

So, chefs have to fall back on extra fillings and condiments. Vanshika Bhatia, one of Culinary Culture’s Top 30 Indian chefs, runs a hot dog delivery service called Doggy Style (this is a family publication so don’t expect any jokes about the name). I enjoyed her range of hot dogs but her Indian contributions could only be limited to the add-ons.

Because (Vanshika excepted) it is so hard to get a good hot dog, I decided to make them at home. I cheated when it came to the sausage and bought my franks from abroad. The buns were made by Devinder Bungla from the Hyatt Regency who also made a gluten-free version.

Vanshika serves a wide range of hot dogs but her Indian contributions can only be limited to the add-ons
Vanshika serves a wide range of hot dogs but her Indian contributions can only be limited to the add-ons

I first made three hot dogs. One was classic: slowly sautéed onion and mustard. The second had ketchup and Veeba’s Bhut Jolokia sauce. (Plus onion). And the third had Indian Kasundi mustard with the Bhut Jolokia sauce. I liked all (this is not surprising as I am usually the only person who likes my cooking; well, somebody has to!) but I thought that the Kasundi and the Bhut Jolokia added something.

Then, Sahil Mehta of Paris My Love saw my hot dogs on Instagram and sent me his very fancy brioche buns. Of course, they were delicious but I wondered if they were too fancy for my supermarket franks. I decided that I was anyway cheating by not using Indian franks so I ordered some from Hman. They sent me chunky, slightly smoked sausages with their own sturdy buns and cheese sauce.

Vanshika Bhatia, one of Culinary Culture’s Top 30 Indian chefs, runs a hot dog outlet
Vanshika Bhatia, one of Culinary Culture’s Top 30 Indian chefs, runs a hot dog outlet

So, I made new variations. Hman sausages with Sahil’s buns (a little like trying to fit a pahelwan into a tutu). Also: Hman’s buns with European franks, Kasundi, fried onions and aioli. (Okay, but the aioli did not work. ) Then the full Hman package: their buns, their sausage and their cheese sauce with onions. Very nice but it needed a touch of chilli or Kasundi.

And on and on I went till I worked it out. Yes, you can get hot dogs in India. But you have to buy the ingredients and then put them together yourself. That way, you can customise them to your taste.

Because there is no hot dog like a house-trained dog of your own!

The views expressed by the columnist are personal

From HT Brunch, August 13, 2022

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