Mar 02, 2016
What does ‘let’s eat Indian’ mean?
Last week I caught up with a food journalist from Delhi over lunch at the newly-opened restaurant, NRI or Not Really Indian at BKC in Mumbai.
We tried an array of dishes, but what I enjoyed the most were the pork curlies, the mutton bunny chow, the Caribbean goat curry, the South African piripiri chicken wings and the Karara Kekda (soft shell crabs from London’s Benares restaurant menu). The dishes served here are enjoyed by the Indian diaspora across the world, and have been introduced by twice Michelin starred chef, Atul Kochhar.
Friends, whose tastes often match mine, praise the chicken tikka pie at NRI. They don’t like the pork curlies and the bunny chow though showing how food preferences can be subjective. Or, hinting at consistency issues at the new restaurant.
However, this article is not about NRI.
The journalist and I were exchanging stories over lunch, and I told her about an article I had written on my favourite Indian restaurants in the city.
“Indian restaurants in Mumbai?” she asked. “Where do you get good Indian food here? What made it to your list?”
“Ideal Corner, Apoorva, Deluxe, Aaswad, Bhojohori Manna are a few,” I said.
“But those are Parsi, South Indian, Maharashtrian, Bengali.” she replied. She went on to say that “by Indian, one thinks of Punjabi or north Indian and puhleez, I don’t think you get good north Indian food in Mumbai!”
Her response got me thinking about our motto, “Let’s Eat Indian” at India Food Network. What does this mean in the context of restaurants?
The fact is that for most, ‘eating Indian’ has become synonymous with north Indian or Punjab food. As Zamir Khan of Massive Restaurants (Farzi Café, Masala Library, PaPaYa) says on Adda With Kalyan, eating Indian meant going to classic restaurants with one’s family for heavy curries like butter chicken and roganjosh.
So, the market researcher in me, did a quick Twitter poll to get some answers.
The answers overwhelmingly pointed to the universal association of north Indian food with Indian restaurants. This confirmed a hypothesis that I had. The reason why I didn’t put any other specific region (east, west, north-east, central, south) in the poll was because I knew it would be a landslide vote for the north.
Some of the comments around the poll were pretty interesting and sort of sums up the Indian restaurant story till now.
@euphoRHEA: NI/Punjabi coz that’s what u find on the menu. Most other cuisines r mentioned separately. Bengali, Gujj
@mkamdar_5: North Indian…bec. rest tends to be served more frequently in small specialty joints/fast food places or at home
@bombaygyrl: that’s the cuisine which is the most popular over the years, in & outside India. It’s ingrained, Indian = Mughlai
@zestandleisure: Unfortunately option 1. Here in US, most Indian restaurant means Punjabi food (sometimes south indian). It’s close to impossible to not only find authentic Bengali restaurant, but also maharashtrian/gujarati/ north eastern cuisine. But i have also noticed not all people are ready to try new cuisines, they are mostly happy with Punjabi food.
@ananyadg: Punjabi. Think 1. they migrated for work in large numbers 2 setup eating joints w/ became popular/came to define “Indian” food
It’s a bit intriguing that while there were other communities such as Bengalis, Gujaratis, Malayalis and Tamils among others who moved out of India, it’s the Punjabis who defined ‘Indian food’ to the rest of the world. The only exception would perhaps be Malaysia and Singapore and its Tamil Mamak cuisine.
Here’s possibly an answer to why this happened.
@ananyadg: I can think of 2 things: Punjabi food was adapted to foreign tastes & was non-veg was also available.
As someone who lived in a vegetarian Punjabi house as a paying guest during my early years in Mumbai, I would agree with Ananya. The homely vegetarian food served at the PG was comparatively more neutral in taste (not too spicy, sweet, sour, coconut or peanut packed) and easily acceptable to my Bengali palate than Gujarati, Maharashtrian or Tamil food would have been for example. Just like I wouldn’t advise a non-Bengali to try shorshe ilish (bony fish with pungent sauce) if he/she was to eat Bengali food for the first time, and was not used to the flavours. Though I missed my fish and meat in those days.
At India Food Network, we like to celebrate the diversity of Indian food and thankfully there are restaurants coming up these days, which remind us that India has 29 states and 7 union territories.
I will give the last word on the topic to Sridhar Varma, whose father Laxman Varma had come to Mumbai from Hyderabad and set up a small canteen, which they converted into a restaurant called Grant House near the CST station. You get arguably Mumbai’s best kheema pav here.
When I asked Sridhar if they served Hyderabadi food, he replied in the negative saying that they served Indian food. I asked him for his definition of Indian food and Varma replied:
“Indian food to us means that regardless of whether you are from Calcutta or Hyderabad, Mumbai or Delhi…you should feel a sense of familiarity when you taste the food here…you should be able to recognise it as your own…it should make you feel at home.”
That sounds like a good definition to me.
Kalyan is a Mumbai-based food blogger and columnist who loves to travel in search of local tastes. He is at his happiest when eating at small, family-run places. His blog Finely Chopped won the Best Food Blog Award in 2013, 2014 and 2015 at the Food Bloggers Association of India awards. He is the lead critic for Mumbai at EazyDiner and is a columnist for Femina. He is also the Chief Chowzter for Mumbai, and conducts food walks in the city.
Follow Kalyan on Twitter @finelychopped