2017 taught us that it is perhaps time that we stop trying to define what constitutes 'Indian Food'

Tandoori roti, kaali dal, butter chicken, piyaz, nimbu, mirchi.
The quintessential 'Indian restaurant' meal at Delhi's Have More Restaurant

  • How does one define Indian food? Should one go by the erstwhile definition of Indian food is equal to Punjabi and Moghlai food?
  • There are modern day restaurants such as Bombay Canteen and Soda Bottle Opener Wala that have showed us that this need not be so
  • Chefs in restaurants such as Toast & Tonic and Amaranta opened one's eyes to the possibilities of what can be done with Indian food
  • Home chef and food historian, Pritha Sen, showed us that there is so much in our backyard that we might not know of
  • Classic eateries such as Andhra Bhavan in Delhi too showed us that they offer a lot of richness that we are yet to acknowledge
  • A video on an Assamese meal that I had which might be of the sort of food which you would never have associated earlier with Indian food
  • Hence the argument, should we be in a hurry to define and box what makes up Indian food?

Back to one’s roots

I was introduced to Indian food, read Bengali food in my case, a bit late in life. This was when I was around 10 years old and after we had moved into India. I can't say that I was very excited about the prospect of eating it back in the day.

It was only after I moved to Mumbai for work that I begin to appreciate Bengali food. The prospect of eating what one knew as 'Indian food' food per se - largely Moghlai and Panjabi fare- didn't excite me still. I would rather spend money on European or Asian food when going out to eat. My point of view on this has changed considerably in the last couple of years though. I still love trying out food from across the world but the difference from the past is that Indian food excites me as much as that these days, if not more. 

At times I wonder what has changed. Is it an age thing? They do say that we begin to appreciate our roots as we grow older after all. 

I do believe that there is more to this though than just the ticking of one's biological clock though. In this (longish) post I will try to look at how the way I look at Indian food has changed over the years and why I feel that a large part of this is due to the changes that have happened in our dining environment of late and also due to my opening my mind to the world of Indian food.

It all started with my beginning to appreciate and enjoying eating in small family run joints when I travelled across India on work in my market research agency days. When I began to leave the comfort of hotel room service fare and sought out simple street food joints and hole in by-lanes of the cities I visited and then did so back home in Mumbai too. The story of these meals formed the backbone of my debut book, The Travelling Belly.

Order link for The Travelling Belly Please so buy it of you haven't already

Restaurants that set the trend

Soon exciting things began to happen in the new age restaurant space too and that's where trends in food are set. Restaurants such as The Bombay Canteen, led by chef Floyd Cardoz and Thomas Zachariah and team in Mumbai, made going out to eat Indian food 'cool' here. They offered an ambiance, service and even dinnerware, yes that's important too, that you would expect to see in an upscale Indian cafe/ restobar/ bristo and not in the 'Indian restaurant' of yore.

It was not just all about the presentation though. The food that one had there stayed on in one's memory. It was the sort of food that made you feel like coming back to it. This started a welcome trend here in Mumbai and across the country too, with more restaurant owners beginning to follow this path. Success, of course, followed only when the chefs and management behind these restaurants were passionate about the cause and  about the food that they served, and were not just rehashing Indian food in order to cash in on a trend. Others opened and shut down soon.

The success story of Soda Bottle Opener Wala, championed by Mohit Balachandran and their chefs such as Anahita Dhondy and chef Danesh and backed by AD Singh, is another example of this. It is near impossible to get a place at Bombay Canteen or at Soda Bottle (especially BKC) at lunch and dinner time.

A reflection of the interest that the new wave of Indian chefs have instilled in Indian food can be seen  in the release of the recent Conde Nast, Top Restaurant Awards 2017 list, of which I had the privilege to be a part of the jury. 

The top 2 restaurants in the list, and I know that this is looking at data rather selectively, are Indian Accent at no 1 and The Bombay Canteen at no 2. Both are restaurants that have showed that Indian restaurants don't have to confirm to the way we have known such restaurants to be from our childhood days. That they can draw inspiration from our day to day food from across the country and not be limited to one region in north India. 

'Free Style Cooking' at Manu Chandra's Toast & Tonic

I have a had a couple of meals this year which really blew me away in terms of how Indian ingredients and flavours had been presented in a format which is different from anything that one has has been exposed to before. And yet, strangely enough, the food seemed so familiar and comforting despite the their novely. The dishes that I had there could have been at home anywhere in the world and very proudly so, and yet had a very Indian heart. Above all, they  tasted great!

The first meal, coincidentally, was on India's Independence Day earlier this year. This is when K and I had gone to the Toast and Tonic at Mumbai's BKC for lunch. We had four very nice dishes that afternoon which pushed the boundaries of flavour, format and texture, and yet seemed so much like comfort food. 

Toast and Tonic is Chef Manu Chandra's baby. I caught up with him recently during the voting for the Living Foodz Epicurean Awards where he was the chairman of the jury which I was a part of too. I asked Manu Chandra  about whether he would slot Toast and Tonic under 'modern Indian' or 'freestyle cooking,' which were two of the many categories at the awards. Chandra replied, 'freestyle cooking' without evidently having to think much. Clearly a man with a clear point of view and vision.

There were two dishes Toast and Tonic which really excited me in terms of how local Indian ingredients were used. Dishes, which to me were very Indian at heart, even if international in their appearance.

Kokum and coconut prawns at the Toast & Tonic

The first was the poached kokum shrimps with papad and pickle. Buttery and juicy shrimps, served on a kokum and coconut broth bed, with prawn crackers and pickle on the side. Kokum and coconut, of course, are ingredients core to coastal Konkani cooking. You would find them paired with prawns in traditional restaurants such as Sadichha and Highway Gomantak at Kalanagar which is next door to BKC where the Toast & Tonic is located. Yet, the dish at Toast and Tonic was so different from what one was used to even though the ingredients brought in a sense of familiarity and shared memory. The use of the local ingredients in the dish seemed so seamless, natural and well thought through, and yet not gimmicky at all.

'Gimmicky' is a trap modern Indian/ Fusion cooking can often fall into with the rush for example, to add bacon or foam, or bacon foam (!!), to everything. Or micro greens for that matter, which seems to have become the answer of the new generation of chefs to the dhaniya/ kothmir (coriander leaf) garnish that was prevalent across India. There were plenty of micro greens in the Toast & Tonic dishes too but I think that we can look beyond that given the exquisite quality of the dishes that we had there.

Soft eggs with Bandel cheese & sourdough bread and sausage at Toast & Tonic

The other dish that we loved at Toast & Tonic, was one with soft eggs on sourdough bread with cream cheese and andouille sausage from the Mediterranean, AND green mustard and Bandel cheese. The later two, mustard and Bandel cheese, are flavours from my home town of Kolkata. We never used it back home when I lived there, though Bandel Cheese was available at New Market in Kolkata. And here I was, polishing it off in the middle of Mumbai wowed by the intensity of the flavours and the complex congruence of the textures in the dish. Lavash in Delhi is another restaurant  that uses Bandel cheese from what I gather.

There's a reason I has written, 'coincidentally on Independence Day,' when I begun talking of Toast & Tonic earlier on.  The thing is, that what the meal at the Toast & Tonic seemed to tell me is that there is no reason to put limits on our imagination about what's possible in the world of Indian food.

It's a journey which could lead to any direction and it is up to you to be alert to it. The critical factor being of course whether the food talked to you and made you happy. Was the food good?

Saluting the federal nature of the Indian Republic at the Amaranta 

Let me now tell you about another restaurant meal which made think in a fresh way about Indian food.

This was one was an lunch at the Amaranta in the Oberoi Gurgaon. This restaurant, earlier dedicated to seafood and coastal Indian food, has been repositioned as a regional Indian restaurant and what I ate showed that have put their money where their mouth is.

I tried out the tasting menu at Amarant, dubbed as 'Power Play, recently. The theme centres around the game of chess. Each dish in the meal drew inspiration from the characters on a chess board, said the chef. What is just all talk and substance. Let me give you a few examples to tell you what I thought of the meal and why it excited me so.

Salmon and hamachi with mustard cream at Amaranta

For the pawn who is a foot soldier, and who needs lots of energy said the chef, there was fatty salmon and hamachi served with a beautifully restrained and yet flavourful, mustard and gondhoraj lebu cream. The ingredients used were very Bengali (mustard and gondhoraj lebu) were typical of a Bengali Kitchen. They were presented with the pungency toned down to make them (the mustard specifically) more globally acceptable. I enjoyed the balance of the sharpness of the mustard and the tanginess of the lime and how they cut through the fatty flavours of the fish.

Bengali mustard fish curries or shorsherer jhols can get too strong for those not used to them. The mustard cream at Amaranta was a nice way of capturing these very piquant Bengali flavours  in a manner more likely to not scare beginners.

Tortellini stuffed with kadhi, served with finely chopped goat meat
and ker sangri at Amaranta

Rajasthani flavours made an appearance in the tortellini which was stuffed with the yogurt based Rajasthani kadhi and which was served on a bed of the desert shrub, the kair sangri, along with bits of goat meat served on a laal maas gravy. This combination was inspired by the Bishop, we were told, as the latter is represented by a camel in Indian chess boards and Rajasthan is known for its deserts and camels. The chef's skill was displayed beautifully in the way the combination worked. I am referring specifically to the pleasantly thin and non-chewy pasta casing and the burst of kadhi that popped out when one bit into it and the robustness of texture that the meat added to it.

Millets two ways at the Amaranta

For the Knight, represented by the hard working horse, was a plate of superfoods. Quinoa, Oats, Kale, you are thinking I am sure? 

No,  you have got it wrong. The dish had 'Indian superfoods' such as pearl millets, amaranth and lentils. The grains were cooked two ways and served in the same plate with a shard of goat meat reduced to glass placed on top. Half the plate had a hot khichdi made with millets and dals and amaranth which was packed with goat meat and lots of spices. In the other half of the plate, was a dry, chiwda like dish, made again with millets and amaranth and which gave a great textural counter point to the khichdi. The combination of hot and moist khichdi and the crunch of the chiwda was reminiscent of the textural contrast of the misal pav of Maharashtra to me.

With chef Tejas Sovani of Amaranta

This, perhaps, was understandable as the chef at Amaranta, Tejas Sovani, is a Maharashtrian originally from Mumbai and then Pune. I think that this background seeped into the diversity of Indian regional flavours that one saw in the plate.  Unlike most five star hotel chefs that I have come across in India so far, Tejas is not Punjabi or not even North Indian for that matter. I feel that this background has helped him develop a pan Indian perspective, and one different from the mishmash of Punjabi, North western frontier and Awadhi cuisine, which today defines 'India' food even in fine dining circles. He has worked in the legendary restaurant Noma before, and evidently brought in some of his training there into giving Indian food a new dimension at the Amaranta.

Sugary rice crisps, raw mango, pea mash and chhana at the Amaranta 

The freshness of the approach of the food at the Amaranta, was best portrayed by my favourite dish of the afternoon. This was dedicated to the 'queen'. The dish was all about the sharpness of flavours that represent the power which the queen stands for, I was told.

The dish was served at room temperature and offered a combination of the tanginess os sliced raw mango (often used in bhel in Mumbai in summer), Bengali moa-like (which my granny recently made for my brother) rice crisps rolled in sugar syrup ball ( Moa is usually made with jaggery in Bengal but the taste was similar), cottage cheese or chhana (my mother's choice of super food) and green pea mash. The combination turned out the be one of the most wonderful flavour and texture bursts that I've had in a long time. It broke every  restaurant cliche of Indian food so far which had made us believe that Indian food has to be always served piping hot, has to be brown in colour, soaking in oil and doused with chilli powder.

Chef Manish, executive chef of the Oberoi Gurgaon, and Chef Tejas at the Amaranta seemed to tell us, 'think again,' through the food that they served.

A short lesson on the vastness of Bengali food by Pritha Sen

Pritha Sen and her Bengali home cooked meal that
she served me at Gurugram

So, are new discoveries in Indian food dependant on the work done by our globally exposed, trained and talented professional chefs, such as Manu Chandra and chef Mitesh and Tejas?

Not really, if you ask me. There's so much more in the world of Indian food that is out there, waiting patiently for us to open our eyes to its charms. To make my case, let me refer to another meal that I  had earlier in the year in Gurugram.

This was a meal prepared by 'home chef', Pritha Sen, if we can call her that. She is after all a  a journalist, writer, researcher and a development consultant, whose work in sustainable livelihoods has led her to explore food history and culinary traditions in India in general and Bengal in particular. In her home chef avatar, Pritha takes catering orders for a select few food lovers. 'To keep my skills honed and hand active," as she once told me when I asked her about what motivates her to take catering orders. She is also the consultant for the Bengali side of the menu at Mustard, the Franco Bengali restaurant in Goa.

I had the good fortune of being invited home by her to have a Bengali meal in Gurugram sometime back. Bengali food is my native cuisine of course and it would not be fair to expect any surprises in the meal right?

And yet, during the lunch at Pritha's, I came across Bengali dishes that I had never heard of before and even got to know about strains of rice which I had not heard of before. Let me tell you about some of what I ate.

The rice that she had used as a base for the meal was an indigenous rice from Bengal called kalo nuniya  which had a texture and flavour which was most distinct and of whose existence I was unaware of till that afternoon.

Lau malai curry

Two of the dishes that I started the meal with were the lau'er malai curry (lauki in a coconut milk based curry) and the mulo shorshe kucho chingri diye paturi (grated radish and tiny shrimps, steamed with a mustard paste). Both dishes tasted sublime, were novel as I had never had them before, and yet seemed so familiar.  Both involved vegetables, bottle gourd and radish,  that I rarely touch. Yet, if I were to have had these these dishes at a restaurant, then I would have returned and ordered them again. That's how good they were.

Now, here's the funny thing. Malai curry, as a you might know already is a classic Bengali dish. It is a Malay inspired, coconut milk based curry in which prawns are cooked. I had never heard of anyone do it with lauki/ bottle gourd before! 

The same sense of surprise and discovery applied to the patoori too. One is used to patooris where with betki fish is steamed in a mustard paste in banana leaved. One had never come across a grated radish patoori before. At the most, one has had patooris with mocha or finely chopped banana blossoms recently at restaurants such as Bhojohori Manna and chhanar patoori at Peetuk aimed at non-Bengalis in Mumbai.

Don't tell anyone  this, but I liked Pritha's version of the patoori made with grated radish better than the conventional bhetki patoori that one has at restaurants! 

Mulo patri by Pritha Sen

Then there was a fulkopir mudi ghonto too which was once again a surprise element. Cauliflower, cooked by Pritha, with another indigenous rice from Bengal called 'radhuni pagol' which translates literally into ' rice that drives the cook mad'. The name was apt as both the rice and the mudi ghonto had me intoxicated too. The style of cooking the cauliflower with rice in a thickish curry, which is called mudi ghonto, was something which till that day I had known as a way for cooking fish head with. No-one had told me that cauliflowers could be cooked this way too!

These were Bengali dishes which a Bengali like me, whose knowledge of Bengali food is shaped largely by what restaurants offer and what my mother, a working woman who had grown up in Delhi, had exposed me to, had never even heard of before. I owed my discovery of them to Pritha's quest to research our  cuisine and find our more about it and to tell the world about it. My lunch with her showed to me that there is so much more in my native Bengali cuisine itself that I am yet to experience.

This experience came to my mind when I saw some of the comments which came up in response to a post that recently I shared on Facebook about an Assamese pop up meal that I had enjoyed in Delhi  and which was hosted by Plavaneeta Borah. Questions were raised about whether certain dishes such as begun bhaaja (brinjal fry) that she made are truly 'Assamese.' Her response was that this was the food that she had grown up on in an Assamese family, 

This exchange made made me wonder, should we be in a hurry to define the authenticity of our food, given the variety that exists from kitchen to kitchen, house to house, even within the same community. Perhaps there's merit in leaving things a bit fluid. What do you feel?

Fulkopir mudi ghonto by Pritha Sen

At the end of the Bengali feast from Pritha, came a delectable Khasi black sesame seed paste flavoured pork dish from the north east of India. Pritha told me that this is her signature dish and I am not surprised that it is so. It was one of the best pork dishes I've ever had is all I can say, and I've had many across the world. 

While I marvelled at the gourmet splendour of the pork, Pritha put on her food historian hat and pointed out that Assam, and what is now Bangladesh, were once a part of Undivided Bengal and which explains the similarity in the cooking philosophies that she finds in Bengal and in what she comes across in her travels across the north east of India.

Pritha Sen's Khasi pork wth black sesame

Let's hear it for our friendly, neighbourhood canteen food. Specifically Delhi's Andhra Bhavan

My meal at Delhi's Andhra Bhavan

Is innovation and new discoveries in India food restricted to the work of the accomplished chefs and passionate home cooks then?

Not really. There is so much to be learn even in the by-lanes or the traditional eateries of our country. These too often offer food which is meant to feted and not hidden away. To make my point, I will again go back to Delhi, and this time to my most recent trip. I am talking of my meal at the Andhra Bhavan canteen in New Delhi  

Delhi has a number of state Bhavans/ head quarters which provide lodging to those visiting from the state. They often have canteens (eateries) which are usually open to all and which offer food native to the state. Some of the popular ones are Goa Bhavan, Bengal Bhavan (with food catered by Bijoli Grill) and Assam Bhavan which I am told is shut right now. Andhra Bhavan is the most famous of the lot though and I managed to go there this time after meaning to so for a while. 

The way it works at Andhra Bhavan, is that you order a vegetarian Andhra thali and then order non-vegetarian Andhra dishes that you want on the side. We went for the mutton curry, the prawn curry and the chicken fry with our thalis. Each of the dishes put in front of us seemed to confirm to the all the cliches associated with 'Indian food'. They were brown and red in colour, were loaded with spices (though not too hot on chilli levels) and looked rather oily and anything but gourmet fare. An example of the no-fuss food that India runs on as was evident from the packed and happy tables at the restaurant. 

Interestingly, each dish had a spice palette which was distinct from the other. The mutton curry, for example, had the coconut flavour typical of coastal food. The prawn curry had a slightly tangy feel to it. The chicken fry spoke of curry leaves and crushed black pepper. There was a lot of variety in this humble meal too if you were ready to look for it. 

One more thing about the meal was this while this was mass produced, caterer cooked food, meant to be sold at low prices to fill hungry tummies, the tenderness of the mutton and the very balanced cooking of the prawns (neither raw nor overcooked and rubbery), spoke of admirable talent and passion in the kitchen which one would never have expected in such a no-frills and no hang ups place. Added to this, was the warmth and enthusiasm of service, would put the weariest of travellers feel at home and which made the meal most memorable.

So are we ready to define Indian food yet and do we know how to do so?

This brings me to my argument of why we should not be in a hurry to define what constitutes 'Indian food'. 

To start with, as we have seen even by just a few examples, it is not possible for most of us to even comprehend the vastness and diversity of food that India has to offer

Then, as my meals at the Amaranta and the Toast & Tonic showed, you can't slot Indian food into boxes either as the possibilities here are so immense and near infinite.   

I would like to know if you feel otherwise. 

There's a bit more to this post though, so do read on and you will get to know about one more meal that I had and which you might not have thought of being something to expect under Indian food. It's an Assamese meal in this case.

Madhur Jaffrey cheering for Indian Food
at the Tasting India symposium 2017 held in Delhi

Appendix: Some thoughts from the Tasting India Symposium and the tale of an Assamese meal back home

I had gone to Delhi last week, primarily to take part in the Tasting Indian Symposium organised by Sourish Bhattacharya and Sanjoo Malhotra. The discussions there, which involved stakeholders from various sides of the food industry - the government, the private sector, food writers, bloggers, historian and academics, chefs and hoteliers, farmers and entrepreneurs - centred around issues such as avoiding food waste, using local produce and grains which are intrinsic to India, building on the culinary traditions of our grandmoms and about the merits in eating local, seasonal and regional, and  in celebrating Indian food. 

While, I will write more about what happened in the symposium in another post, let me leave you with a video of a lunch that I came back and had back home in Mumbai. It tells you the story of a superb rural Assamese harvest festival winter food/ Na Khoowa Bhooj meal. It was prepared & sent home to us in Mumbai by celebrated home chef Gitika Saikia yesterday. She was the one who first introduced me to Assamese food a few years back.

Clockwise: rice, dad dal, til paste, pork with mustard greens.
duck with ash gourd, duck intestines

The menu featured duck cooked with ashgourd (chalkumro in Bengali) and potatoes. Served with that was the customary combination of black udad dal cooked with khaar (ash of banana peels/ leaves and there are variations of it too). There was pork, slow cooked with mustard greens (sarson ke saag in Punjab). Then there were duck intestines sourced from Assam, tossed with brinjals, onion and cumin powder. Duck intestines, I am told, are so coveted that you get them only if you are in the good books of the women in an Assamese kitchen. Having been one of Gitika’s first ever pop up client years back hopefully qualifies me for that. The rice served was that of the winter harvest and is high on gluten and hence sticky and is combined with the til (sesame) chutney for the latter’s heatiness. Duck and pork are favoured in winter in Assam too for the same reason.

Now tell me honestly, was the meal that I just described conform with the sort of food that you would traditionally associate with Indian food?

No right, and yet it is so.

Chances are that even if you are Assamese, to you the definition of an 'Indian restaurant' would be one that serves black dal, tandoori chicken, butter chicken, paneer labrad, mutton rogan josh and Hyderabadi biryani.

And so, I rest my case!

If you have read on so far then please accept my thanks and compliments and please do let me know about your thoughts on the topic in the comments box.

The question is, it even possible to have one definition of Indian food, and if so, what could it be.

The video of the Assamese Winter Harvest Meal by Gitika Saikia

The video of my Assam Bhavan meal

Happy meal pics

At Amaranta with my mom joining us and Sourish Bhattacharya too
with Mallika Dasgupta, exec chef Manish and chef Tejas Sovani from the hotel

Enjoying the feast at Pritha's

The Toast &Tonic meal which made me smile so much,
 that it has become my profile pic

With Avantika at Assam Bhavan

With Plavaneeta Borah after the Assamese meal at her pop up

Wiping my plate clean  at Toast & Tonic, as I did
after the other meals mentioned in the story

Some pics from the Conde Nast Awards 

Jury Swag