Tequila ‘chaas’ and patriotic ‘chaat’
A conversation with chef Manish Mehrotra about the meaning of global Indian food clarifies the modern meaning of global itself
In any city outside the subcontinent, when I pass by an Indian restaurant and see Indians inside, I feel we will not get along, even if they are not social activists. To me they look like villagers who hold on to home and tradition, from which all dangerous ideas come. So, when it is my own time to run to the lap of Indian food, I walk into the restaurant sheepishly, maybe with mild shame for being enticed by mere food, and with unnecessary discretion, as though I am about to do something illicit. This is unreasonable because I know it is instinctive for most Indians, after a period of time in Western civilization—the length of time decided by an individual’s capacity for being a cultural orphan—to rush to a place called Taj Mahal or some such thing to relish even fake Indian food over authentic foreign cuisine.
I didn’t need any cultural justification a few weeks ago, though, when I walked into Indian Accent in London, a highly regarded fine-dining restaurant. It was work. The Lounge editor had asked me to eat there and meet chef Manish Mehrotra, who was visiting the city for two weeks to change the menu.
Like most chefs, he is an amiable man who is mildly amused when you appear to have dietary restrictions, suspiciously with a fitness motive. After telling him that I don’t eat red meat, and I thought his eyes said “imbecile", I couldn’t find the courage to tell him that for the frivolous reason of living beyond 100, I (usually) choose to avoid any grains, or the type of sugar that is called sugar, or milk. In any case, a good look at the chef lured me to be decadent for an afternoon.
The first thing I ordered was a cocktail that I would have thought not possible—tequila in a common Tamil drink, which the restaurant correctly calls neer more and is generally wrongly termed buttermilk (it is diluted yogurt). Even in the interpretation of the drink, the restaurant does not use buttermilk on the menu and that, on a scale of authenticity, is of an order higher than the common Indian English novel. Neer More—Mustard Tequila, Fresh Yogurt, Kummel is what the menu says, and that is what it is.
A long trail of tasters follows, like chaat and green pea bhel, and Kolhapuri chicken and soy keema. All familiar, yet different. Like Hollywood’s humanoid aliens.
When, at the end of it all, Mehrotra finally arrives to have a chat, he says he doesn’t try to achieve “authenticity" because after a point authenticity seems ridiculous. There is such a thing as “original", though, and “fake". Most curries in London restaurants, he says, are fake Indian food. There is such a thing as authentic mayonnaise, he says, but not authentic Indian food. “The ancient French have put things on record, on how to make mayonnaise. You can say this is sacred to many people. There is no Indian food that has a sacred recipe. We don’t do stuff like that. But there is a certain soul to Indian food." The soul, he says, is in the assembly of ingredients, from where they come, the process and the reasons, though forgotten, why things are the way they are.
Mehrotra lays out what his ultimate goal is, which is also the objective, he says, of several top Indian global chefs—to give Indian food the global respect it deserves. “We are not just curry and naan. And we are the land of spices, not chillies. There is a difference. And masala chai doesn’t mean adding masala powder to chai. And Indians don’t have mango lassi with their dinner. And what is mango lassi anyway? Also, what is this vindaloo? Who eats vindaloo in India? And Indian food is not something that is meant to make you bloat and go off to sleep. Also, India is not north India. There is south India, which has the best breakfast in the world."
He is, naturally, an endearing man to a South Indian even though at one point when he comments on the hundreds of types of sambhar, he recognizes sugary dal, the Gujarati-influenced abomination in Mumbai’s fake Udupi restaurants, as sambhar.
Mehrotra says that the perception of what exactly is “Indian food" is changing in London. “Now people know what Bangaldeshi Indian food is, and what Indian Indian food is. Maybe not in the interiors of the UK. Maybe not in Glasgow. But in London, there is an awareness. People know the difference between curry houses and restaurants like us. But even other high-end restaurants like Gymkhana still have to carry some curry. But not in my restaurant."
It will be a mistake to read too much into tequila chaas, but the cocktail, and everything that followed, do have something to say about the contemporary meaning of the term “global" in an age where people disenchanted with capitalism are claiming that globalization is nothing but the local culture of a colonizer. But what Mehrotra points out and shows through his food is that the modern global is not the triumph of a single culture, it simply cannot be. Rather, the modern global is a confederation of tweaked local cultures. Capitalism, as a good restaurant demonstrates, has no choice but to respect diversity, while it is sanctimonious idealism that is the true monoculture of our times. The new global, it appears, is the profitable cosmopolitization of the local. The Londoners see in his food something deeply familiar to them, yet foreign. Like the “Asian literature" they are supplied by resident South Asians.
Manu Joseph is a journalist and a novelist, most recently of Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous.
He tweets @manujosephsan