Food for thought

A couple of days before Bengali New Year (Poyela Boishakh) my mom expressed her desire to have breakfast at the newly opened Sagar Ratna near our house. For those who are unfamiliar with Sagar Ratna, here is how they introduce themselves on their website: a well known Brand of Restaurant chain in Northern India serving vegetarian cuisine with a speciality in South Indian delicacies.

For the record and from my experience, they did start off being a South Indian speciality restaurant, but in their quest of business they ended up serving all kinds of vegetarian food including Burgers and Noodles. Their start as a specialised South Indian restaurant chain was pretty impactful and it still is the first place that a Delhi-ite thinks of for having a South Indian meal. I reluctantly agreed (why reluctant? - will come to that shortly).

So on New Year’s Day, I took mom to Sagar Ratna. I ordered my last year’s favourite breakfast. My mom, as usual, couldn’t control her greed and ended up ordering much more than what she could have herself (obviously expecting me to take care of the leftovers). This was the third time I was about to have South Indian food since my return from Bangalore (excluding the occasional chomps at the roadside vada vendors), previous two occasions being at Southy (Nehru Place) and Karnataka Bhavan (Shanti Niketan). Each time my experience has been unsatisfactory and I have sworn not to have South Indian food again in Delhi. Not that the quality of South Indian food has degraded over the years in Delhi, just that over the past year and a half I have had awesome Vadas, Dosas, Idlis, Filter Coffee and other popular South Indian food right in South India. I have grown a basic understanding about how it aught to be. I keep expecting the same softness in an idly, the same crunch in a vada, the same aromas in filter coffee. They did not keep us waiting for long. The food arrived within a few minutes. And it strengthened the cause for my reluctance to have South Indian food in North India.

I have had a fantastic time having South Indian food while I was staying in Mysore/Bangalore and while I visited the nearby states. At the same time I have had an equally horrible time searching for North Indian food in South India. On one hand I feel this is good because it makes me want to visit South India. But on the other it is really bad. It induces this false notion, a false perception of the kind of food available in other region.

I believe that good food is not just about taste. I am a strong advocate/believer of relativity. Taste in spite of being important is relative. One’s favourite might be another’s nightmare. In a slightly vague manner the problem can be explained by this example: Imagine an unaware sweet lover who is given a laddo instead of barfi which he ordered at a sweet shop. Even though what he had might be tasty, in reality he did not have what he intended to have. More than taste, good food is about authenticity. It is about “not being cheated”. So when someone who knows little about your South Indian cuisine walks in to a South Indian Restaurant, it is not just about cooking food the way it is written in cook books and serving the same. Instead, it is about making the guests realise how authentic South Indian food is supposed to be. The food must speak out the qualities of food back in South India.

I am not a person who has visited plenty of countries. So I do not know first-hand whether International cuisines available in India are authentic or not. Even if they are not, it is not as big a problem as authentic Indian Cuisines not being available across India. International cuisines may not have a market for selling authentic cuisine in India profitably. There are differences in taste, culture, lack of ingredients and cooks from other countries may not opt to come to India. But these reasons make little sense when we talk about Indian cuisines in India.

Another factor that worsens the problem are the Food Awards that do their round in the market. Here is a page highlighting the awards won by Sagar Ratna. Some new doubts have raised in me. Do these companies assign the job to food-critics taking into the account the region he/she belongs to? i.e. People from South India being sent to evaluate South Indian restaurants. Even if the food-critics belong to North India, are they asked to evaluate a South Indian restaurant after they are made to try out food in South India. While these awards do help businesses woo consumers, at the same time any scope for improvements must be conveyed to the businesses. Unfortunately, as pointed by Rungta in the movie Inside Job, these awards/ratings companies have defence which is both strong and weak in itself: “It’s just our opinion and people are free to not go by it.”

I just can’t accept that South Indian cuisine cannot be authentically reproduced in North India and vice versa. So where does the problem lie?

  • Lack of availability of ingredients locally? Not possibly. Even if some of the ingredients are not available, they can be easily procured from South India. And, I am not paying less for the food. I pay nearly double the amount charged at the best places in South India and get something which is not even half as well made. Procuring authentic ingredients should not add much to the expenses.
  • Unavailability of cooks? I won’t buy that. Most certainly there are enough South Indians who can cook well in North India. Additionally in quest for jobs and better pay thousands migrate in both directions. We are not talking about speciality dishes whose recipes remain secret to generations of a family.

Sharing one of my food-related experiences I have had in Bangalore. I once went to Tunday’s Tunday Kababi outlet in Bangalore which serves the famous Tunday Kebabs (Galouti Kababs) from Lucknow. One of my Punjabi friend ordered a parantha, which turned out to be made from flour and was very different from usual Punjabi paranthas. He asked “What kind of parantha is this?” “Sir, Lucknow mein aisa hi banta hai”. By the way, the kebabs were delicious. About a month later, I took my mom to the same place. Aside from the kebabs, we order a preparation of Chicken. The moment I tasted the gravy I got the pungent smoky taste of a burnt gravy. I called the waiter to complain. “Chicken ki gravy jal gayi hai” “Sir, Lucknow mein aisa hi banta hai”. Heights of denial. I immediately snapped back “Kuch din pehle tak to aisa nahi banta tha”. He called the manager and we were served a different preparation as the entire stock of that preparation for the day was bad.

I think the problem lies in the intent. There are very few businesses in the food industry that intend to do things right, serve authentic food and sell the right experience. It’s sad.