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Diplomacy On The Menu: Govt Should Use Indian Food To Promote National Interests

Anoothi Vishal New Delhi 1 June 2019

The spread of Indian gastronomy is the spread of India’s soft power. But is Indian gastronomy wooing palates and minds internationally? The answer is, very inadequately. The interest in India’s food culture is high—but understanding about it is still dismally low, internationally.

New Indian restaurants that are different from the “curry houses” of old and focussed on gentrified street foods or regional flavours are coming up in markets such as London (thought to be the most sophisticated for Indian food globally), San Francisco and New York, Singapore, Australia and Canada.

But for a majority of global consumers, our food is still some mysterious alchemy of spices. Chicken tikka masala, not even an Indian dish, is still the stereotype most associated with Indian food and despite the popularity of turmeric lattes and turmeric in cocktails, Indian ingredients, the diversity of our cuisines, the underpinnings of Ayurveda in creation of tastes, seasonality, home-style or heritage food cultures, as well as inventive modern Indian food are not really well known.

In contrast, you have cuisines from Peru, Argentina, Taiwan, even Sri Lanka that are better known and understood globally. Part of the problem is how desi restaurants abroad were content to peddle curry and play to Western stereotypes and palates. That image of brown gooey sauces is hard to shake off. Some Indian restaurateurs are challenging that, particularly in markets like London, where we now have the highest concentration of quality Indian restaurants outside India. However, even a restaurant like Indian Accent, the poster boy for modern Indian food and the only Indian restaurant on Asia’s 50 Best List, that has outposts in London and New York faces a challenge when it comes to staffing its overseas branches. With visas for chefs hard to come by, even a luxury restaurant has to “manage” with local hires.

The tandoor chef at Indian Accent in London is French; many of its other chefs in London and New York are non-Indians too. Foreigners can cook Indian food, just as Indians can quite competently cook French food. However, regional Indian cuisines do have complexity and nuances that are hard to understand for someone not rooted in these traditions. Anyone who cooks at home in India, realises this – how intuitive our cooking tends to be, relying on spice combinations that have never come out of pre-mixed packets, on andaaz of ingredients, on slow cooking techniques like bhunna, dum and braising, the knowledge of which is passed down generations though not codified.

Very few foreigners can be competent Cantonese chefs, which is another complex cuisine of the world. Even a sushi chef needs to train for several years in Japan to understand the nuances—though Delhi’s kitty party circuit does take classes at The Oberoi and replicates the lessons for parties at home. Regional Indian food needs an immersion into that particular culture.

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Hemamalini Maiyya, the third-generation co-owner of Bangalore’s MTR, is in fact candid in how the chain only hires people from Maiyya’s village near Udupi, as key chefs in her restaurants to maintain the authenticity of cooking. In south Indian Brahmin eateries, the sambhar chef, for instance, is of critical importance, the senior most in the kitchen hierarchy. To teach his skills is very tough to someone not part of the same culture. The chain therefore is cautious about expansion—and will not go into markets where these village chefs cannot be hired, Maiyya tells me.

To promote regional Indian food in authentic ways, we need chefs who are rooted in Indian traditions going out and being our ambassadors. Encouraging this needs a more proactive approach on part of the government and industry.

On the other hand, it’s a different story when it comes to international cuisine entering desi markets. Recently I got a breathless call from a PR person in Bengaluru: “Please come down to Bangalore for dinner, Marco is cooking himself…a five-course meal.”

For those of you who are not foodies, Marco is Marco Pierre White, the British celebrity chef, better known in recent years for his appearances on the television series Masterchef than for restaurant cooking (though in the late 1990s, when he was at the top of his game, he had famously “returned” three Michelin stars bestowed on his restaurant). He will be in India early June, cooking up a promotional dinner, to which the country’s cognoscenti and food influencers are being invited. I, however, decline politely. The chef was in India just this January too, giving bleary-eyed interviews that were splashed across the food press. There is something as too much promotion.

Pierre White is not the only celebrity chef to have discovered a new market in India even as more mature markets in the world show a tapering off of consumption. In the last one-and-half years, many Indian high-end consumers have been meeting, greeting and sometimes eating meals cooked by top international chefs with great regularity.

Personages as well-known and varied as Massimo Bottura, the Italian top chef and restaurateur of Osteria Francescana, Daniel Humm of New York’s Eleven Madison Park, Andoni Aduriz of the Basque restaurant Mugaritz, Heston Blumenthal of The Fat Duck in Bray have all descended upon Delhi or Mumbai, not to mention multiple visits by Masterchef Australia judges Gary Mehigan, and George Calombaris, who seem to have discovered a second home in India with multiple endorsements, including one for an Indie home-products designer!

Despite the hullabaloo surrounding each of these visits, the food served at any of the lunches and dinners these chefs preside over is certainly not close to what their restaurants serve. There are many stories of dismal dinners I could tell you: Bottura, who came at the invitation of the now fugitive diamond merchant Nirav Modi, had reportedly brought in mostly pre-cooked food from Italy; Andoni served a ghastly course with Indian red onions instead of milder Spanish white ones; Calombaris tried a disastrous mix of Greek and Indian food at another dinner I attended; Blumenthal left the majority of the cooking to chefs at the Marriott that had invited him to India et al.

But the point is not the lack of taste. What these sustained visits are doing (apart from furthering the business interest of the chefs) is to obviously give a section of middle class Indians a taste for international fine dining. While many of the richest Indians do travel and spend a lot of money ($300-400 per person, per meal) at coveted restaurants abroad, the large middle class is aspirational but not exposed. Now, that aspiration seems to be getting better fed.

The generations before the millennials, were thought of as conservative in their dining choices—we still find that the category of food that sells the most in India is Indian (and not Chinese or Italian) and the per person spends while eating out are still modest. As per the last India Food Services Report 2016 by the National Restaurant Association of India and retail consultancy Technopak, average per person spend in premium casual restaurants is Rs 500-1000, while in the affordable casual segment is Rs 300-500. Indians are generally cautious about their choices and spending on food. However, that is changing.

Millennials today are driving food retail—their choices are influenced by Instagram and there is a willingness to experiment. We can see this from the inordinate popularity of foods such as quinoa, avocado, macaroons, which are now regular fixtures on restaurant/café menus in Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore in harmony with international trends. Then, there are Indian chefs who are heavily influenced by international restaurants and chefs. Many are trying to replicate globally influential trends within their own restaurants in India. Molecular gastronomy that started with El Bulli in Spain as a result of Ferran Adria’s attempt to disrupt conventional Spanish food, has so many takers in India that we are now literally fed up of foams and airs on plates even in small towns.

Local gastronomy, experiments with fermented foods are newer trends that are currently ruling chic restaurant dining in India. These too are mostly because of international influences and cooking philosophies of top chefs in Scandinavia, California, Australia and so forth. Chefs indeed are global ambassadors whose influence goes way beyond just their limited pool of diners. In the social media
world, the impact of Noma in Copenhagen may be felt in Kanpur.

India is being courted by international chefs but India is yet to get its act together when it comes to marketing its diverse tastes. Diplomats are not the only ambassadors for India, food (like Bollywood) has the potential to transform attitudes and shape thinking. Chinese momos being consumed on Chennai’s streets adds depth and flavour to China’s image in this country. Italian spaghetti prepared and eaten in Indian homes is great for tourism promotion.

South Block needs to do some out of the box thinking and throw diplomatic muscle in the cause of Indian food. Indian cooks especially of the regional variety, need to go out and conquer and South Block’s vaunted diplomatic muscle must be the flag bearer!

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