In June end, when cricket and the bright London midsummer were still drawing thousands of long-staying visitors from India and the Arabic countries to the city of the Queen, I collaborated on a lunch with top Indian chef Manish Mehrotra.
Mehrotra, as those of you who eat out even infrequently may know, is the presiding deity at Indian Accent, the superlative modern Indian restaurant in New Delhi, with branches in New York and London.
At the Mayfair outlet of the restaurant that day, it was an unusual feast that we were presenting. As London’s movers and shakers walked in, I introduced them to Kayasth Khatirdari, hospitality in the style of the medieval community of scribes who have been India’s best-known epicures (apart from being its best-known bureaucrats) for almost 500 years.
This is the community that I was born into and about whose distinctive culture I wrote a book on two years ago. Mrs LC’s Table: Stories about Kayasth food and culture (Hachette India) is anecdotal and views the syncretic living of the Kayasths with its accent on khana, peena and gana(food, alcohol and music), on education and the liberal arts, through the prism of my indomitable grandmother’s life. “Mrs LC”, as she was popularly called by her friends and my bureaucrat grandfather’s friends, was a classically trained singer, a lady of great will, imperious and a reluctant gourmet.
She instilled in me a great many values, passing down a cultural heritage in the way, only indulgent grandparents were known to do in great Indian joint families. It wasn’t, however, until I started writing on food in deeper ways and started looking at it not merely as consumption but part of a larger and valuable cultural context, that the significance of all that I had grown up eating at home dawned on me: Yakhni pulao, one of the oldest rice-with-meat dishes in India, predating the biryani, shami kebab, badam pasande, a luxurious rich dish of the Delhi Mathurs, vegetarian dishes like khoya-matar, takey paise, tahiri, kulle ki chaat, where vegetables are scooped out and filled with chickpeas, a dash of lime and ginger, and faux meat dishes such as kale chane ke kebab, kele ki machhli or kaleji ki subzi made with moong dal, the most ancient of grains in the subcontinent.
All these disappearing dishes are part of a unique composite culture of the Kayasths, scribes to the Mughals, lawyers, accountants, members of the judiciary, whose culture absorbed both Mughal and British colonial influences while retaining its own local primarily Vaishnavite underpinnings. Their food reflects this culture, as I explain in my book. It was this food of my ancestors that the chef and I were presenting at Indian Accent in London that day.
What Manish did was to cook my family recipes and present them in an elevated way so that what has always been homely was elevated to top class restaurant cooking, the kind global gourmands are paying top dollar or pound for in the best restaurants of the world today.
The kayasth pop-up then represented an interesting and significant shift from the way most Indian restaurant food is presented internationally. Here was food, rooted in a very old culture, dished out in a modern way to London’s evolved diners —in short, food to beat the curry stereotype.
Though regional Indian food has been on the rise both domestically and internationally within restaurants, a majority of global diners still look for certain stereotypes when they eat Indian food—chicken tikka masala, samosas, tandoori food, the heavy greasy meat “curries” of Punjabi or Pakistani/Bangladeshi-influenced restaurants.
Primarily, this is what connotes “Indian” food abroad. In the UK, where there are 10,000 Indian restaurants, including the many curry houses, Indian food is consumed mostly as a cheap takeaway, according to various industry analysis reports. It’s a British conditioning that goes back to the British-Indian curry, popularised by Anglo Indians and sahibs– the former “India-hands”, who craved for something “hot” but not necessarily nuanced.
A cookery account originally written by a memsahib in the 1890s that I have in my possession, gives recipes for various “curry powders”—an entity unknown in any Indian kitchen, and bung-it-all-in recipes for various curries like “koormah curry”. We all know that curry does not exist in Indian cuisines. Various gravies, traditionally slow cooked, are specific recipes and you could hence have a qaliya, qorma, rase ki subzi, sookah, iguru, pulusu, kosha mangsho or whatever but not a generic “curry”.
The idea of curry, or indistinctly spiced “hot” food, is thus the result of the Western gaze on Indian food—memsahibs and Victorian Indophiles with scant understanding of the subcontinent’s numerous and diverse cuisines concocted this genre of cooking and took it to the world as “Indian”.
In London, it is possible to see the evolution of this curry stereotype—from the Bangladeshi run curry houses to Pakistani dhabas serving food from the northwest. This is the most common Indian food outside India. In India, at home and at modern Indian restaurants, we obviously eat differently. However, even when quality Indian restaurants open in London, the most important international market for Indian food, restaurants have to contend with the idea of curry and are forced to include dishes such as the chicken tikka masala (a British invention) or its Indian equivalent butter chicken on their menus. Like Manish confessed to me it is very hard even for top Indian chefs not to pander to these stereotypes in London.
Slowly, some chefs and restaurants are now changing that and bringing more genuinely Indian and Indian regional food into restaurants. However, it is a long battle of perception. What my pop-up did was to challenge this western gaze on Indian food and present a more authentic cultural experience via food to an audience, whose most gratifying reaction to me that day was, “but this does not taste like Indian food”.