Ethnology

Ethnic is always an interesting challenge. Dictionaries blithely define 'ethnic' as belonging to a shared cultural, linguistic or racial identity - which unfortunately means that the world is full of 'ethnic' restaurants. Nearly every restaurant in New York or Tokyo or London is, by that definition, ethinc - they just belong to the ethnic majority rather than some exotic minority. Italian, Sushi, New American, French...et al.

Here again, India saves the day. In a world full of ethnic restaurants, India is overloaded with that unique label - multicuisine. South Indian thali with paneer butter masala, chicken tandoori with chowmein, Russian salad with schezwan soup, its all here, only in India. Armed with the information that Indians when eating out order (that uniquely Indian version of) Chinese food more often than any other kind, eateries in India went about arming their menus with lots of words starting with chow. Then, as tandoori chicken and paneer butter masala spread its tentacles, restaurant owners quickly augmented their already long list of choices with generous helpings of all things out of clay ovens.

The amazing part of multi-cuisine is that it is not an uncontrolled jumble of foods and dishes. No, any self-respecting multi-cuisine must follow some very clear rules. The first rule: what is included in this whole multi business. There must be a smattering of soups, mostly of approximately Chinese origin but at least one cream of tomato and/or chicken for those with the Raj hangover. The rest of the menu must represent with reasonable flair three key cuisines - North Indian (including dals,curries and tandoori) South Indian (dosa, idli, and variants) and Chinese (of the Manchurian/Shezwan variety). Optionals are a section of chaats, a kids menu with pizza and burgers, and a half-hearted dessert section.

And here's the key; all the stuff must be cooked in the same kitchen with the same set of cooks. There's no place for specialists here. Versatility is the buzzword - the same cook must turn out dal tadka and chicken noodles with equal facility. The dosa guy may be a specialist, but merely because making dosas takes up all his time - the same for the tandoor guy.

One should not confuse multi-cuisine with that silly Western fad for fusion. In fact, every such restaurant tries for the opposite - each dish claims to be completely authentic. Dosa the way a Tamil amma does it, tandoori that could have been flown in from Amritsar, Chinese that everyone in Manchuria eats every day - thats the promise here. All the fusion here is accidental, probably because the cook making your Schezwan has eaten dal tadka all his life.

Multi-cuisine is, I would put it, the REAL Indian ethnic restaurant. This is restaurant food that we have all grown up with, before we started turning our noses up and heading to sings proclaiming South Italian or Chitpat Brahmin food. Distinct, hearty, universally popular and unhealthy enough to be our version of the pizza parlour - this should be the considered the true 'Indian' flagship.

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