India’s food scene is getting hip, but restaurants are co-opting cuisines while ignoring techniques

We sprinkle our menus with terms from international cuisine to appear more sophisticated without understanding what these terms mean

We sprinkle our menus with terms from international cuisine to appear more sophisticated without understanding what these terms mean

My Eggs Benedict at one of the fancy new cafes that have sprung up in Kolkata came with a description: English muffin, mushrooms/chicken/bacon salami, poached egg and Hollandaise sauce.

The sauce was more Hollandaise than Hollandaise and a bit rare. And the eggs arrived on a pad of sweet white bread, not an English muffin from any angle.

I realized then that for the restaurant English muffin is just a word that goes with eggs Benedict. They might actually serve pav, or a hamburger bun, but almost never a true English muffin which is a round, flat, sourdough bun, often sourdough, and not to be confused with sweet and floury cupcakes no more. Soon some Kolkatan will go abroad and complain when they find a real English muffin in their Benedict eggs.

Eggs benedict with bacon and hollandaise sauce.

Eggs benedict with bacon and hollandaise sauce. | Photo credit: Getty Images/iStock

The culinary scene in India has become much more cosmopolitan, but sometimes it just adopts words without paying attention to their meaning.

Writer and chef Rajyasree Sen says she ordered shepherd’s pie and was served a “strange minced meat thing with no potatoes on top”. She asked for a pavlova and got a “normal pie with meringue on it”. The pavlova is made like a meringue but it is not a fruit pie with meringue on top. Except on some Indian menus.

It sounds cooler

My problem is not a picky obsession with authenticity. I’m all for the Manchurian gobi even though it’s never been near Manchuria. Kitchens evolve to capture local flavors. Tex-Mex is a classic example of a cuisine that started as an American version of Mexican cuisine and is now its own specialty.

But what we see here is something different. It’s like cooking chicken pulao and passing it off as biryani just because the biryani looks cooler. We pepper our menus with terms from international cuisine to make them sound more worldly and sophisticated without understanding what those terms mean. A nasi goreng becomes regular fried rice with a fried egg on top.

At one point, we were none the wiser. I remember when my parent’s club bakery in Kolkata started stocking pizza. We had never even been to a Pizza Hut then, so we happily ate rectangular pieces of club pizza and felt very cool. Now I realize we were basically eating pieces of focaccia bread topped with tomato sauce, pieces of chicken breast, and strips of bell pepper.

But that was the ignorance of island India where every hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant dubbed Hunan, Szechuan and Mandarin dishes simply by varying levels of soy sauce and chili sauce. (The only “authentic” dish was the Calcutta Chili Chicken, a no-frills affair with black soy and green chili.)

Indochinese cuisine is ubiquitous in Indian towns and villages.

Indochinese cuisine is ubiquitous in Indian towns and villages. | Photo credit: Getty Images

slippery slope

Of course, the fetishism of authenticity can be problematic. In our hodgepodge, melting pot culture, authenticity is a slippery eel. As Todd Kliman wrote in the former Quarterly Food Diary lucky peachauthenticity is “a purely arbitrary, purely subjective supposition of a purely impure thing”.

Authenticity must not become an end in itself where the value of a thing is no longer measured by its appearance, its touch or its taste but by its certificate of authenticity. Worse still, we often measure authenticity by the miles traveled to get to our table. Shalini Krishan and Anumitra Ghosh Dastidar of Edible Archives restaurant in Goa point out that “people are always looking for the label rather than the quality that comes with the label”.

So they will be enthusiastic about low quality sushi rice as long as it is imported from Japan while ignoring the fact that there are rice variants from Nagaland and Bengal which can be excellent as sushi rice. A relentless obsession with authenticity can be a straightjacket when it comes to anything – food or morals.

But what’s happening in the nascent Indian restaurant scene isn’t some kind of post-authenticity movement trying to cross cultural boundaries by putting hilsa in momos (although the thought makes me shudder). They are now removing the very meaning of words like sushi, quesadilla, nasi goreng and English muffin.

They co-opt terms but ignore technique. It’s not just lazy. It’s literally in bad taste.

The writer is the author of ‘Don’t Let Him Know’ and loves to make his opinions known to everyone, whether they are interviewed or not.

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