Roll over Beethoven

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One of the most useful words in German - or at least the word I found most use for after the usual hellos and thankyous - was frühstück. This double-barrel umlaut of a word is a key ingredient of a successful B&B stay - it being the second of the B's and to my latearrival earlydeparture ways, the more important of the two. Last, not least, that sort of thing.

Now I had taken German lessons in college, but my focus was much more on lunch in those days (the classes were usually just before noon). Frühstück, on the other hand, is breakfast - lots of heavy-duty german-style snorting required to get the right sound - and it is a glorious thing in Germany. I used to be a frequent visitor to Deutschland, and my B&B hostess would wake up at the crack of dawn to buy bread for me (and her family). The smell of fresh bread would often be what I woke up to - fist-sized buns of sesame, multi-grain, poppyseed, pumpernickel all ready to be my friends for the day.

Not every culture has a big breakfast tradition. New yorkers gulp black coffee, the French dress it up a little bit more and throw in a croissant, America makes Kellogs happy and India just minimizes lunches or serves idlis. The Germans and the English, however, load up their plates early, and in somewhat different ways.

English breakfasts are all about sausage and bacon, sideshowed by eggs, bread, tea, sweetened with those wonderful jams and marmalades. Germans on the other hand, meat and potatoes at all other times, like their bread for breakfast. I personally think the Germans are the best breadmakers in the world, and breakfast (double umlaut and all) is when they choose to show it off. Bakeries open really early and fresh-baked rolls of different kinds  soon land up at your table. Every family seems to buy its bread daily, and some minimal brushing with butter, honey, cheese or a cold cut is all that is required for a satisfying wake-up call.

Frühstück. A big tonguetwister of a word; I miss it.

Not made in china

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A few days ago, while wading through a reliably satisfying meal at one of the many Mainland Chinas of Mumbai, I was asked The Question again. No doubt you have asked this many times yourselves, in your head or to your friends or the occasional visitor from the real mainland of China - how different is Chinese food in India from real Chinese food?

The short, maggi-sauce answer is easy (its different) but the longer answer - like all longer answers to Great Questions - is complicated. The first twist is in defining what one means by "Chinese" food. China, after all, is a really huge number of people and many different food cultures - and contrary to popular opinion they don’t all eat fried rice with kung pao chicken. In fact, food from one province can verge on the inedible for another, much like my soundly Bengali grandmother's opinion of a dosa. Indian Chinese food is heavily influenced by the first wave of Chinese immigrants who came to India from Canton province, and from the areas in and around Hong Kong. They settled originally in Kolkata and fuelled by the voracious Bengali belly soon childbirthed Indian Chinese. A couple of hundred years later, chefs like Nelson Wang were feeding the masses exotica like Veg Manchurian and Chilly Chicken, and we had a new cuisine.

The other complication is that even back in our own land, Indian Chinese is hardly the monolithic cuisine we pretend it is. Every place in India from roadside stall to five star sells the stuff. Chinese is possibly the most ubiquitous exotic (as in, not native) cuisine worldwide, but nowhere have I seen it as heavily localised as in India. The average roadside cook in India has taken his idea of Chinese food and made it his own in different ways. . Roadside chinese in India is basically Indian food with soya sauce, those characteristic soup spoons and the occasional noodle; there’s no real point looking there for references to anything more chinese than these three. Mumbai's chinese bhel or Bangalore's manjari chicken - comparing them to each other is hard enough, trying to cross the himalayas with them is impossible. Chinese food adapts to local tastes everywhere, but India has adopted it in ways that I’ve never seen anywhere. Usually, the people who cook these foods are of Chinese descent but India is different. Originally a whole generation of Nepalis were employed to ease the illusion but now you’ll even find sardars doling the stuff out of every crack in the wall. Desi chinese is proudly desi.

Which brings us back to the original question - with some modifications. What I think people want to know is – how do the fancy “authentic” chinese restaurants compare to the real deal? How authentic is “authentic”. The short answer – it is not particularly authentic at all. Unlike roadside chinese – this food clearly originates from Chinese food and uses many of the ingredients, techniques and combinations (including imported sauces and oddities like bok choy) but food is not just about techniques and ingredients. Cuisine, finally, is about individual dishes, the classic recipes that survive generations and come to represent the collective body called a cuisine. Tandoori chicken is Punjabi, tandoori salmon is merely a western chef trying his hand at bhangra. And this is where the fortune cookie crumbles.

Chinese cooking, depending on how far you dig into Wikipedia, is four or eight or nine grand traditions of cooking - they’re all characterized (like any cuisine) by particular recipes and dishes. Indian chinese is primarily Cantonese or Shichuan in origin, but if you look at almost any of the aforementioned restaurants – pretty much every one of these representative dishes is off the menu. Most Indian restaurants will not serve pork, beef or dried seafood, which leaves out the majority of Chinese dishes anyway. Most chinese vegetables are off the shelves (no, bok choy is not the only veggie they eat). Stickyrice the Indians will not eat. Tofu they find inedible. That does not leave much room for “authentic”. Even the five stars dumb it down – and with good sense; most Indians find authentic Chinese food as unattractive as chopsticks.

Mainland, Aromas, Royal, China Garden, Lings Pavilion are all restaurants that we love; luckily none of us are born chinese.

More foodwriting

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Food blogs are gaining some prominence. In the last few days, two people have posted on my blog, one offering to send me Danone yoghurt to taste and write about, and another a missive from Sweden on food products planning to enter the Indian market. Which brings me to an interesting thought - Busybee and Vir Sanghvi notwithstanding, India does not have much of a culture of mainstream food journalism. No major newspaper has a food editor or even a dedicated food section. Food magazines are at best Femina supplements, while A Michelin-like guide is as distant a dream as many of the cars that sport those tires.

In contrast, The New York Times gives its (daily) food section prominence equal to the sports pages, while Europe worships its many food guides (chefs have committed suicide for failing to get the desired stars). The food press worldwide is massive - innumerable magazines with names like Gourmet or Restaurant (we're not even talking wine mags) sell lakhs of issues; they've successfully replaced grandma or next-door-aunty as the source recipes and kitchen tips. Similarly, cookbook sales in India are tepid, Sanjiv Kapur or Tarla Dalal never seriously challenging a Nigella Lawson or Madhur Jaffrey. Even Masterchef India is more about crying than cooking.

Part of this may be to do with the average Indian's inherent suspicion about any food that is not his own. When Raj or Kesari Travels advertises proudly never having to touch Italian food when taking tours to Rome (or French food in Paris), you start to get the message. Take me to Pisa but feed me no pizza, the average Indian traveller might say. Yes, vegetarian plays a role, but its hard to see how German breads, French jams or Italian cheeses - all of which these tours scrupulously avoid - can offend religious sensibilities. Nor is this phenomenon restricted to Mumbai Gujaratis; Bengalis are intrepid travellers but carrying food from home so that you will have something to eat on your travels has been a constant refrain. Indians travel to see the world, only through the eyes - the mouth is strictly reserved for noisy opinions on what has been seen.

Its not that India has no eat-out culture - the dhabas, the udipis, the chaat, mithai and kabab stalls have all been flourishing for centuries - but the focus is firmly on familiarity. For most of India, wife-knows-best is less an expression of marital subjugation; more an inability to accept any kind of dietary flutter.

This is a huge pity, really. India is one of the world's great culinary destinations, stuffing at least a dozen of it's greatest cuisines into a relatively small diamond of land. And yet, less is written about all this than the perfect way to boil an egg.

Flying High

about Mumbai Airport 1 comment:

If one expects little of airline food, one expects even less if hunger pangs strike at the airport. A decade ago, Indian airports were places where famine victims would feel at home – even coffee usually came in steel containers on the back of a cycle. International airports were better, but only if your tastes ran to McDonalds or Sbarro.

Things have changed in the last decade. Flier numbers increased, airlines stopped serving even peanuts, but most importantly Osama’s antics led to a lot of people stewing long hours away between security and boarding. Nothing induces food cravings as much as boredom, and where there is demand supply will catch up.

I’ve written earlier about airport food – sandwiches at Milan’s Malpensa, American at Madhuri Dixit’s Denver and more recently goose and dim sum in Hong Kong. A few days ago another airport restaurant caught my attention; this time much closer - homechi Mumbai. Just outside the newly prettied arrivals area of the Indian Airlines domestic terminal is a place that advertises all the right words – foodie and bar.

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I spent a little while there recently, waiting for Sunanda to come back from a flight. Plagued with a cold, I asked the bartender for a cocktail that was hot and not sweet – did he know what a Hot Toddy was? A certain amount of tizzied discussion happened, and just as I was about to turn away with disappointment the head bartender appeared and furiously nodded his head at my request. My hopes were’nt high – its hard to get a respectable hot toddy anywhere in Mumbai, even more so at a place that’s next to nescafe booth in an Indian airport.

Imagine my surprise, therefore, when faced with a brandy snifter full of a steaming brown liquid; fragrant, hot, delicious stuff that immediately dispatched my cold to the departures lounge. Hot Toddy is at its heart any kind of strong alchohol mixed with hot water, honey and lemon – but this was no ordinary one. No no, this one sported Hennessey cognac, came with a perfect little cinnamon stick and gave off undeniably luxury airs (at 600 rupees a pop, it should). Look at the discovery - not only do I find a bartender who knows what a hot toddy is, I'm also in a bar that sports decent cognac – is that hot or what?

The place has decent food too. Nothing exceptional, but definitely adequate while toddying up. Best of all, its in arrivals. No risk of missing your flight, and all those brownie points from girfriends for sudden enthusiasm about waiting for them.

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