Why does restaurant food never taste as good as your grandma's cooking? And does it need to do so?

Tultule (soft) galauti at Manzilat's along with near equally soft mutton pasanda served with
Bandal cheese and chicken boti

Memories of grandma's kitchen

This is not how my grandmother made it. 
The food made in our house was way better. 
The food was too oily or spicy or over-cooked, we don’t do it that way at home. 
My grandmother/ my mother/ my wife/ my father/ my uncle/ aunt/ nanny/ I can make this way it better at home.

Think of the number of times that you might have said any of the above after a restaurant meal. Or have heard others say it.

A pertinent counter-argument to these statements would of course be, “but we do not go to restaurants to eat the food that we get at home do we?”

Which is true in a way. 

Why does one go to eat outside of home in the first place? 

Well at some point in the hoary past, someone must have thought of opening a place to offer food, at a cost, for those who might be on the road or were away from home and who sought food as they were hungry.  And so the first 'restaurants' were born.

This led to the emergence of what I like to term as ‘existential dining out.’ When people go to eateries because they need to fill their stomachs and do not have access to a home kitchen. They could be travellers, those out in the city for work, people living alone or with no access to a kitchen or with no knowledge of cooking, even those who do not feel up to cooking because of poor health or lack of time. In other words, need based eating out.

Then someone must have seen these eateries spring up and said, ‘hey, why don’t we go out to eat. Would be more exciting than being at home and eating the same old boring food.’ And that was the beginning of what I like to call ‘recreational dining out.’ Fans of this would include sulking children being taken out for a pizza treat, foodies in search of food ‘stories’ on the streets, epicures looking for chefs pushing the envelope, or even lovers wanting to spend a few precious moments over a meal in order to figure out whether they would like to spend a lifetime together doing so.

Both of these reasons are very different from what draws one to ones grandmother kitchen. The latter is all about comfort and love isn't? Not just in grandma's kitchen, but often the food one eats at home too is all about that.

In which case, is it fair to expect the food served in restaurants to be the same as that in one grandma's home? That is the question that I have tried to answer through this post.

Home-styled dining...the crossover between home food and restaurant dining 

Inside Manzilat's Kitchen, Kolkata 

Let me tell me you about a meal that I had in Kolkata recently which made me feel that the answer to the question that I raised earlier is a bit nuanced and not as obvious as it seems it is. This is from the time when I had gone to speak at the Times Lit Fest in the city earlier this month. Our hosts had put us up at the JW Marriott Hotel at Kolkata's EM Bypass. I was a bit under the weather the evening I landed and did not feel up to travelling to the south to meet my family. Ordering room service was an option but I did want to make the most of my short visit to Kolkata and room service didn't seem as exciting (I did have chicken clear soup and chicken fried rice from room service the next night). That’s when I decided to take up on a dinner invite from Manzilat Fatima. 

The first time that I had eaten food cooked by Manzilat was in Mumbai when she had come to visit her children and when she had invited me over for biryani and rezala. Manzilat Fatima, as you might know, is one of the descendants of the late Nawab Wajid Ali Shah. Wajid Ali Shah was the nawab of Oudh who had settled in Calcutta once the British took over Oudh (Awadh/ Lucknow). Kolkata is where he spent his final years. 

In the months that followed the lunch that I had at Manzilat's in Mumbai, I saw her take up her role as a food entrepreneur more seriously than before, after having hosted a few pop up meals earlier. From what I gathered from the Internet, she had set up a food home delivery outlet in Kolkata and had later added a small dining space to it too. She called it 'Manzilat's.' Most of the stories and posts that one would read about her, and from her too, on social media seemed to focus as much on her 'legacy' or 'lineage' as it did on her food. If not more, one might add. Words such as 'royalty' would be liberally used.

While this made made for a romantic story no doubt, the food lover in me was keen to know how the food she was putting out was, stripped of the hype and the masala. The only problem was that my Kolkata trips tend to be very short and packed with work and family commitments and I did not get a chance to try out her food during my visits to the city.

When I landed in Kolkata for the Lit Fest this time, I realised that Manzilat's outlet was relatively close to my hotel and I decided to take up on her invite and drop in for a meal. Accompanying me was my friend Debjani Banerji, whom you might remember from my recent College Street outing. She agreed to join me though I had called her at the last minute and had even brought some kosha deem made by her for me and a peper kofta.

Friends who come to meet you with kosha deem
Debjani Banerji

The two of us Ubered it and managed to locate Manzilat’s using Google maps and thanks to cheerful locals at the last mile.

“Monjilat. Jei mohila ti biryani banan. Onar dokan kothay?” Where is the shop of the lady who makes biryani, yelled out a panwala to his neighbours earnestly when we asked him for directions at the end. While no one had answers, Google maps did and we were soon at the building where Manzilat’s is located. This is near the Ruby Hospital in the Bypass. An industrial era. Not very Oudh-like for sure!

Both Debjani (who told me that she was already a fan of Manzilat’s galauti kebabs) and Manzilat had forewarned me that I would have to climb a couple of flights to reach her eatery. They were worried about my back. Debjani and I walked up the steps of a building that reminded me of the government office and bank buildings in suburban Kolkata which I remembered from my childhood in the city. We stopped at each landing to catch our breath and managed the climb fairly easily at the end. 

While I might not climb much for a church or a temple or a pagoda, for biryani I will. Food is my religion after all and this was hopefully a good way to calm down ones triglyceride levels after the royal meat fest that was slated to follow once one reached Manzilat's.

Passing us by, as we went up there, were Swiggy and Zomato delivery people as well as young folks who had come to pick up parcels of food that they had ordered. It was a busy night.

At Manzilat's and outside her kitchen

Manzilat's is not really a restaurant in the truest sense of the word. It is an eatery that is situated at the small terrace outside the industrial kitchen that she works out of. She has put a few tables and chairs there with fairy lights lighting up the place for those who would like to eat here. This is where she offers a home-styled dining experience for those who want something more than just taking their food out of white plastic boxes and aluminium foils at home and eating it. Given the sparse seating, you are advised to call and go. Once there, you order from the menu just as you do in a restaurant. It is open for both lunch and dinner.

The concept reminded me of the ‘maushi messes’ of Mumbai  which I had heard of from locals. Eateries set up by Malvani ladies in the early and mid 1900s to feed young men and boys from the Konkan coast of Maharashtra who had come to Mumbai to work in the cloth mills and who lived away from home here. The cloth mills have become malls now, but the spirit of the maushi messes remain in the  form of the humble Malvani eateries of central Mumbai that serve economically priced Malvani food which talks to the soul still.

I am not sure whether Manzilat would kindly to be being called a ‘maushi’ (aunt), but she sure did show the spirit of one as she rushed back and forth between the kitchen and the tables of guests, ensuring that everyone ate well. If one was to do that math, I would say that she spent more time in the kitchen with her staff of two, than with any of us outside. Not that one is complaining about this as that left Debjani and me with ample time to chat away in peace while we ate, the only irritant being the swarm of mosquitoes which is a trademark of Kolkata in the winters and needs work on at Manzilat's.

Feasting at Manzilat's

Beef nahari and dal puri

So, what did we eat at Manzilat's that night?

I started with the beef nahari which was paired with a very Kolkata chaier dokan (road-side tea stall) styled dal puri. She had put up a picture of this combination on Facebook earlier and this had caught my eye in Mumbai. The meat in the nahari was incredibly tender. Possibly the most tender rendition of beef that I have eaten in India. In the states where it is allowed to be served of course. I have had the nahari at Rahim’s in Lucknow as well at Kalu Miya’s and Javed’s in Delhi, and found Manzilat’s to be a lot more soothing, sophisticated and subtle in a sense, even though the dish remains a spice heavy one. The combination of the slow cooked nahari curry, that had taken in the flavours of the meat, and the crunchy deep fried dal puri made for quite the hedonistic indulgence. Mama barir abdar as we say in Bengal.

Kebab platter at Manzilat's. Paratha. In the tray: chicken
boti, mutton pasanda, mutton galuti. Beef boti in the bowl

Then there was her kebab platter. Chicken boti kebab... soft chunks of chicken draped in a slightly creamy and dare I say korma-like delicious sauce. A tava tossed chicken handi kebab which I did not take too that much in comparison to the other dishes I must confess as I found it a tad dry. Then there was the rather symphonic Galauti kebab. The galauti (gala hua or melted) kebabs had the same pate like texture which had first made fall in love with galauti kebabs when I first had them from Kakori House in Mumbai and then later from Tunday's in Lucknow. Manzilat’s galautis were made with goat meat and not beef. They were less greasy than the Tunday kebabs and did not have the chilli kick which I have seen some galautis to have, which was good for me as I do not have a high tolerance level for chillies. The platter also had a mutton pasanda made with soft textured shredded goat meat which was delightfully decadent in its taste. The pasanda had slices of smoked Bandel cheese in it which I frankly felt were made redundant by the heavy meaty flavours of the kebab.

Kolkatta mutton biryani at Manzilat's

And then, there was the biryani. I could not but come to Kolkata and not have the biryani could I? I am glad that Manzilat served it, even though her invite was for the nahari and kebabs.

So, was the biryani from the descendant of Wajid Ali Shah any different from what one gets in the restaurants of Kolkata? Did it have any 'royal ' trappings? Did it have pearls strewn in the rice you ask? Was it wrapped in the finest Murshidabad silk and sent out from the kitchen on the back of an elephant? Served by nautch girls? To the tune of soulful ghazals?

Not really! Manzilat's biryani was the same old Kolkata biryani that I love and thank God for that. There were a few things that distinguished it though. Each piece of mutton in the biryanis that I had from Manzilat (I had more than one over the next two days) was cooked to sublime tenderness. It is usually a case of hit and miss when it comes to the quality of meat in the Kolkata biryani restaurants in my experience. No such problem here. The long grained rice in the biryani was slightly less greasy when compared to the restaurant ones. That made the biryani a tad less moist too, but yet anything but dry. There were potatoes in this biryani as well, but not as soft as the restaurant ones and that is something that I missed. I wished the potatoes were softer and had taken in the flavours of the meat better. The alu (potato) in the biryani showed that Manzilat's was the 'Kokatta' biryani (Manzilat spells Kolkata in the 'Hindustani' AKA north Indian and non-Bengali way in her menu card) and not the Awadhi biryani. As the oft repeated story goes, Kolkata is where the potato was first added to Awadhi biryani though there are debates on whether this was done due to budgetary constraints or to add a touch of exotica to the dish. The answer to which will remain a mystery if you ask me and frankly I am a bit tired of this debate by now.

Did the biryani at Manzilat’s make me happy? It did. It made me look up at the skies with gratitude and thank the people of Kolkata for pampering me whenever I returned like a prodigal son, no questions asked.

Is this the 'best Kolkata biryani' that I have ever had? Will I not go back to Aminia's and the Shiraz's and the Zeeshan's of the world again after eating at Manzilat's?

The answer to the latter, is a resounding no. I love the biryani house Mughlai restaurant experience of Kolkata too and will continue to frequent these places. Best biryani? Given that I had three servings of them in the next couple of days, it is fair to say that I liked Manzilat's biryani quite a bit and that I would love to have it again and would recommend it too.

Three biryanis? Do not worry. It was not in one night. Turned out that I was in for a pleasant surprise the next day. I got a call from the hotel reception just as I was about to leave for the airport. Manzilat had sent two boxes of Kebabs for K for me to take home. And two boxes of biryani for me too!

Pampered in Kolkata
My Jamesh Bong moment, flanked by Manzilat and Debjani

 When granny smiled

I ate both biryanis from Manzilat's within twelve hours of my returning to Mumbai. And a quite a bit of the chicken boti too and the mutton pasanda and some of the galauti and therein lay the 'problem' that I had with Manzilat’s food. 

Unlike what happens at times with restaurant fare, Manzilat's food did not make me feel gassy or heavy after eating it. It was neither too spicy nor too oily. It did not give me the dreaded heartburn.

This made me forget the fact that I am not supposed to have too much of white rice or red meat due to health reasons now. I actually binged on both the care packs that Manzilat had packed for us. In retrospect, I wish that the food at Manzilat's was a bit less soothing and mellow. I would not have finished it all then! 

If one leaves talks of 'royalty' and 'lineage' and all aside for a moment, it is safe to say that Manzilat is on the way to making her own legacy as a successful and independent food entrepreneur, and at the end, that is what counts the most. That she is a woman, makes this even more admirable.

Which brings me to the topic that I had started the post with. Did Manzilat’s cooking remind me of my grandma’s cooking? 

Not really. My grandmother has never made a biryani. Nor kebabs for that matter! 

However, in its great quality, taste and the joy that it gave, the food at Manzilat's captured the essence of what one means by ‘grandma’s kitchen' in my books.

Food that makes one happy
With Manzilat at Manzilat's

Decoding the spirit of grandma's kitchen

The experience made me think of some of the restaurants in Mumbai that I keep going back to.

Take Ling’s Pavilion in Colaba for example where Baba Ling says that the recipes on the menu are his grandma’s and were taught to him by his daddy (as he fondly calls his father) once upon a time. Or Candies in Bandra that started years back as a place where the food served was based on recipes from the owner’s wife’s kitchen. Their spread has expanded over the years but its owner Alan Pereira still ensures that every dish added to the menu passes his approval first. Soam in Babulnath was born more than a decade back after Pinky Dixit Chandran came back to India after studying in Le Cordon Bleau and wanted to offer food from her family's Kutchi heritage to diners. At Aaswad, the Maharashtrian restaurant in Dadar, the new introductions made to the menu are from owner Suryakant Sarjoshi’s wife's experiments in the kitchen. Then there is Pervez Irani who decided to shut his motorcycle repair shop more than a quarter of a century back and open Ideal Corner in Fort instead so that he cook and serve the Parsi dishes that his aunts used to feed him and that he loved as a child. At La Folie back in Bandra, the food is obviously not from owner Sanjana Patel’s childhood, but she is passionate and particular about what is put out in her cafĂ© and it shows in the quality of her food. Pooja Dhingra’s Le 15 Patisserie started off as her dream to recreate the macarons she fell in love with when studying in Paris in Mumbai and her desserts are the talk of the town today. There are many more examples of course but these are the ones that are top of mind for me from the restaurants that I love. None of the dishes offered in these places were ever cooked by my grandmother and yet they give me the same sort of comfort that I felt in my grandma's kitchen.

Which brings me back to the question of whether one should expect the sort of food that one’s grandmother made, in a restaurant.

One should not, I would say. Not literally at least.

What we should look for though is whether the food served in a restaurant encapsulates the spirit of a grandmother's love. Her desire to spoil one’s grandchildren silly and her doing everything that she can do to make this happen. To give them food that makes them happy. Food that is good for them. 

Have a committed restaurant owner at the helm, whether a chef or a businessperson, and you can be rest assured that the food served in restaurant will be like that in grandma’s kitchen. Figuratively at least,  as the restaurants whose examples I have quoted here and Manzilat's have shown. 

The food there might not taste like food cooked by your grandmother. But like someone’s grandmother for sure. 

Your best friend’s perhaps.

If you have been patient and have read on till now, then I have one favour to ask from you. I am sure that you have come across restaurants run by truly passionate and good hearted souls that remind you of a grandma’s kitchen. Please tell me about them in the comments section of the blog or on the Finely Chopped social media pages. Let’s share their wonderful stories with the world. Have a great Sunday.

The boxes for Mumbai packed by Manzilat which sparked off this post

Address to Manzilat's Kitchen:

AddressRubi Enterprise, Plot-1 Phase-3, Kasba Industrial Estate, Near Bank of Maharashtra, Anandapur, East Kolkata Township, Kolkata, West Bengal 700107

My meal at Manzilat's was hosted by her

Talking of Sundays, here’s my latest from the Times Kitchen Tales in the Sunday Times today. Hope you like it.

Also of interest:

2. Post on the Times Lit Fest Kolkata which had got me to Kolkata this time
4. Post from when Debjani Banerji accompanied me on my food nostalgia walk at Kolkata's College street
5. Post from when I returned to Lucknow and had the nahari at Rahim's and biryani at Idris and the kebabs at Tunday (once again). 

To read stories from the time when I first went to Tunday's in Lucknow or from when I went on a mission to discover the differences between the Awadhi and the Kolkata biryani or to know more about my favourite biryani joints in Kolkata, or the time when I had nahari in both Old Delhi and Jamia in Delhi, do look up my book, The Travelling Belly. This is where you can place an order for it.