World on your platter

World on your platter

World on your platter

Indian diners have never had it so good. There’s been a culinary awakening —a self-assured India is deliciously connecting with its gastronomic past and relishing its flavoursome present. Brinda Suri offers a dekko...

Red and white chequered tablecloths. High ceiling. Tiled floor. Antique wall-clock. Stained glass windows. Salli boti on your table. Paani kum, akuri-pao and brun maska on the neighbouring table. Mawa cake and kheema samosa in old wooden cabinets. Large glass jars filled with freshly-baked biscuits, macaroons and toffees. A genial face behind the cash counter... Sounds familiar and nostalgic? Does it tingle your taste-buds? Ah! Those classic Irani cafes do you say, and reminisce your days in good ol’ Bombay when hanging out meant tucking into scrumptious fare at Britannia & Company in Ballard Estate or B Merwan & Company on Grant Road? Their fare was a mix of Parsi-Irani-European styles and appealed wholeheartedly. Although most have shut shop, the existing handful still reminds visitors of the more genteel times, when food was cooked with a soul and served with heart.

These iconic Irani cafes were essentially synonymous with Bombay, and to a slight extent Pune and Hyderabad. They never stepped out of their locations, but were endearingly spoken about across the country. That’s the way it stayed till last year when Soda Bottle Openerwala opened in DLF Cyber City, Gurgaon. A take on Irani cafe menu and ambience, it’s the first illustration of such fare being served outside its original environs. Though the characteristic, lovable chaos of an Irani outfit and its generous warmth cannot be replicated, the endeavour is significant and the results are on display: patrons are arriving in large numbers, spreading the good word and ensuring it’s a thumbs up for the cuisine.

It’s an example of catering to the growing demand for genuine regional and community food, a trend that’s being increasingly witnessed across the country. “Preferences are changing. People want authentic flavours now. It’s about going back to your roots and sinking your teeth into the sort of food prepared by your grandmother,” says Anahita Dhondy, Chef Manager at Soda Bottle Openerwala, who often taps into the culinary craft of her Parsi family to fine-tune dishes she prepares at the restaurant. 

Beyond the ‘dosa’

Till a few years back, for most in the North, cuisine from the southern states of India almost always meant dosa-idli. No longer. Specialised restaurants have ensured you know the bisibelebhath from the vaangibhath and the idiyappam from the appam. This culinary awakening can be linked to many factors, for instance, migration of young professionals from mofussil towns to cities, disposable incomes, domestic travel, food shows on satellite channels and, most significantly, a sense of pride in your culture. Food is a great connect and a self-assured India is deliciously connecting with its gastronomic past and relishing its flavoursome present.

What’s more, it’s not merely selected dishes from a state that have gained in popularity; cuisine from a particular region or community has a lot more interested takers today. A case in point is the Kayastha cuisine.

This lesser-known cuisine has an absorbing history. The Kayasthas occupied important positions in royal courts across the country. Wherever a Kayastha settled, influence of the region’s cuisine crept into the cooking. This gave birth to many a new variation that accepted the regional twists but remained true to the fundamental. Kayastha food, thus, cannot be simply bracketed with Uttar Pradesh where the community largely hails from. “It’s cuisine that can’t be defined geographically or linguistically,” says A P Saxsena, senior journalist, and a foodie like most Kayasthas. “I recall, in my childhood, I was intrigued by how the food in our house was always different from that in our neighbours’. The ingredients were similar, but our flavours were incredible, and the appearance of the dish, even the simplest one, was always very attractive. Each recipe had to be made in a particular style and there were no compromises. Mutton preparations were an important part of the meal.”

The buzz the cuisine has generated can be gauged from the interest in food columnist Preeta Mathur’s well-researched The Courtly Cuisine: Kayastha Kitchens Through India. The book focuses on food from the pan-India kitchens of the Kayasthas.

 In a similar fashion, Lathika George’s definitive work, The Suriani Kitchen: Recipes and Recollections from the Syrian Christians of Kerala, has become a must-have on your shelf. Food in India has been influenced by numerous cultures, and Suriani is an incorporation of Portuguese, Dutch, Chinese, Arabic flavours into the richness of coastal Kerala’s indigenous Hindu and Muslim cuisines.

More are stepping out of the shadows of home kitchens and spreading their wonderful aromas, some of these include the Saraswat Brahmin, Pahari, Kathiawad, Dogri, Kutchi, Bhojpuri, Rampur and Coorgi schools of cooking. Incidentally, Indian Army mess food is also staking claim as a style unto itself!

If Dak Bungalow’s khansama’s ‘khaana’ has all ingredients to whip up nostalgia, the Army mess Havaldar’s fare, with a gentle mix of sweet and spice, British and desi, can definitely do the same, if not better. India’s diversity has given us this vast inventory of cuisines, and assorted cooking styles are now beginning to get their fair share of recognition. Though politically and culturally caste/community barriers need to be erased, it appears from a gourmet perspective it’s more the merrier!

Survival of the tastiest

Regional cuisine has arrived on the foodie horizon at a time when there is stiff competition from global giants and foreign flavours. It’s staking its claim in a crowded market and doing reasonably well. For, classic fare will always have takers. And it definitely does not have to be Michelin-star-certified to be hailed and relished. The typical tiffin menu of small, unfussy joints as Brahmin’s Coffee Bar in Bangalore or Jyoti Vihar in Kolkata has serpentine queues most times of the day. It’s characteristic regional fare that has been wolfed down by generations. No MNC fast-food chain has been able to dislodge their popularity.

The strength of food lies in its delicate or robust flavours. A little tweak is all that’s required to make it appeal to different palates. A generation of Indians had relished the ‘masalisation’ of regional food. Now they delve deep into the mysteries of light coconut gravies and want to unravel the secrets of succulent kebabs. Fitness worries have altered some cooking ingredients, but again, the fundamental technique remains untouched. It still is “just the way mother prepared it”, except the ghee has been replaced with healthier oil, and the spices have been toned down.

Street food too holds more than its own in the culinary world. Many a restaurant decor and menu has replicated the bylanes of Chandni Chowk. Bombay street food is iconic too. Newbie Soda Bottle Openerwala celebrates that, and on its menu, the vada pav and its comrades share space alongside fragrant Parsi delights as Berry Pulao. What’s led to this gastronomic revolution? Travellers and gourmands have eternally been on the food path, but it’s the uninitiated who are getting adventurous and wanting to try a host of flavours which has lead to the mushrooming of eateries, catering service as well as take-away joints. Food channels and televised cooking competitions have also done their bit in promoting an interest in cuisines.

 Furthermore, social media networking too has presented itself as a remarkable platform to launch many a cooking career. Who would know it better than 54-year-old Noida-based homemaker Nisha Madhulika, whose eponymous website with step-by-step videos of Indian vegetarian recipes has over 40k subscribers. Or young Mumbai resident Perzen Patel whose, dedicated to home-style Parsi recipes, is enthusiastically browsed and her Facebook page has notched up more than 3,200 followers in less than a year.

With global — Lebanese, Moroccan, Turkish, Thai, Spanish Vietnamese — and local flavours making all-out attempts to tempt the palate, these are delicious times for the Indian diner.