*** MOVED ***

NOTE: I have merged the contents of this blog with my web-site. I will not be updating this blog any more.


Indian Cuisine

The latest issue of The Week has an article titled "The Taste of India" by Vir Sanghvi, where he tries to explain why most foreigners do not appreciate Indian cuisine. Apart from being a famous journalist and a television interviewer here in India, Vir Sanghvi has also been writing about food for some time. He also hosts the show "A Matter of Taste" on Discovery Travel & Living. In this article he argues that what the foreigners normally get to taste is not the real Indian cuisine and that Indian cuisine is far too varied and subtle when compared to other cuisines.

Many of us realise that Indian cuisine is not considered in the same league as, say, French or Italian cuisine by most foreigners.
All Indian dishes look the same, a sort of brown mess; the level of spices is so high that you can never taste the flavour of the original ingredients; the cuisine has not evolved over the decades unlike French food; and Indians have no understanding of texture.

Why does our food invite this epicurean derision? More importantly, have these foreigners had a chance to taste the real Indian cuisine?
First of all, most of the so-called 'experts' who are sniffy about Indian food haven't actually eaten it in India. They rely on British-Indian cuisine, a bastard school of cooking invented by Bangladeshis tinkering around with the Punjabi menu. Secondly, even those who have eaten in India have never experienced the diversity of our nation's cuisine. Foreign foodies like countries such as Thailand where they can tour the length and breadth of the whole nation in one week and declare themselves 'experts' on Thai cuisine.
Foreigners rarely recognise this unique characteristic of Indian cuisine because they either eat their meals in Indian restaurants abroad or stick to hotel restaurants where chefs faithfully reproduce the standard recipes they were taught at catering college.
That is a tough one because when most people talk about great cuisines they talk about restaurant food. And, let's face it; there aren't many great Indian restaurants. If you want amazing south Indian food, you need to go to people's homes. If you want good Lucknawi cuisine your best bet is still one of the wedding caterers from an old Muslim family. Rarely, if ever, will you get food of that calibre at restaurants.

This is something that I have noticed as well. The food that you get in the restaurants, even here in India, rarely comes close to what people actually prepare in their homes. Restaurants in five-star hotels are particularly pathetic in that they serve utterly bland dishes for exorbitant prices and call it Indian cuisine. On the few occasions that I have travelled abroad and eaten in an "Indian" restaurant, the dishes didn't even come close to what we Indians would recognise as our cuisine. I am told that the same problem plagues the Chinese cuisine - what we get in "Chinese" restaurants, especially here in India, is far from what the Chinese actually eat in their homes. You really must eat in an Indian's home to get a feel for Indian food.

There are also some nice titbits about the evolution of Indian cuisine in the article.
But if we are talking about adaptability, then consider this: until the European colonists got to India, we had never heard of the chilli and had never seen a potato. Can anybody imagine modern Indian cuisine without these ingredients?
The tandoori chicken is now the world's most famous Indian dish. But how many people recognise that tandoori chicken, its cousin the chicken tikka and their ill-begotten offspring the butter chicken, were all invented in the 1940s and sprang to fame only in the 1950s and 1960s. If that is not culinary evolution, then what is?


IIT Kanpur

I had a chance recently to visit my alma mater IIT Kanpur. It has been over 11 years since I graduated from that place. This is the first time in all these years that I got to visit the place, though I had been yearning to do so all the while. It turned out to be a mixed experience - I found IIT Kanpur to be familiar and estranging at the same time.


The Golden Compass

Some days back, I saw the trailer for the film "The Golden Compass". I am eagerly looking forward to watching this film, as it is based on the eponymous book that is the first in the fantastic "His Dark Materials" trilogy by Philip Pullman.

"His Dark Materials" sadly does not seem to have achieved as much popularity as some of the other less-deserving sagas. I for one didn't even know that such a series existed until Ananth had pointed it out to me and given me his copies of the books to read. Once I had read it though, I liked it immensely (my review of the series on Amazon.com; the same on my web-site). I some times even use the names "Lyra" and "Pantalaimon" in my code and scripts instead of the prosaic "foo" and "bar", much to the bewilderment of the reviewers.

Ananth is so excited about watching the film and its sequels that he has already re-read the books to refresh his memory. He plans to watch the first show of the first day for the film. He eagerly laps up articles about Dakota Blue Richards, the young girl who will play the role of "Lyra", the charming protagonist of the books.

I always have a mixture of excitement and dread when I learn of a film based on a book that I have liked - for me, the Lord of the Rings trilogy of films are the only such films that haven't left me disappointed. When you read a book, you imagine the characters and the scenes in a certain way that might not be shared by the director of a film. A film is also constrained by a limit on the duration of the film, which might not be enough to develop all the characters to the extent the book has done. When those who have not read the book watch the film, they usually either get confused or miss a lot of (what you consider) important references in the dialogues. You still look forward to watching the films because you want to see how the directors have realised the books as films, because you want to revisit the characters and the story and because you hope that the films will get more people interested in reading the respective books.

I will keep my fingers and my toes crossed.