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Why are we so scoffing of foreigners who try and cook Indian food?

A friend of mine who is among India’s most famous chefs told this story while addressing a Chef’s Conference.

My friend went to a celebrated Indian restaurant in New York, he told the conference, to see why it had a Michelin star. When the food arrived, he was surprised because it wasn’t very good.


Nevertheless, he thought he ought to do the chef at the restaurant the courtesy of saying hello. When the chef emerged from the kitchen, my friend was horrified to discover that he wasn’t even an Indian. He was a Russian.


   Suddenly it all made sense, my friend told the conference. He realised why the food had been so underwhelming. How could a Russian be expected to turn out decent Indian food? That sort of food might work in the New York market but it would never pass muster with Indians. We know our own food. And we know that foreigners can’t cook it.


   The audience at the conference loved the story. My friend was cheered and applauded for his view that only Indians knew how to cook Indian food.


   I was the only person in the room not to laugh at the story’s punchline (“the chef turned out to be a Russian”) and did not join the assembled chefs in applauding the conclusion that only Indians can cook Indian food.


   In fact, I believed that my friend and the chefs were wrong. As long as we see Indian food as the sort of thing that only Indians can cook, our cuisine will always remain a second-rate cuisine, good only for restaurants in the ethnic sector.


   Let’s turn the story around. Suppose a French chef had been addressing his own countrymen. Suppose that his story had been about going to a French restaurant in India, say the excellent Orient Express at Delhi’s Taj Palace (no, I’m not going to use the hotel’s silly new name) and the punchline of his story was, “And, you know, the chef was not even French! He was Indian!”


   Suppose he had told the same sort of story about Mumbai’s Zodiac Grill (which was still around when my friend addressed the Chef’s Conference)? Would his countrymen have laughed when he got to the punchline: “And the restaurant is the brainchild, not of a Frenchman, but of a Punjabi?”


   I suspect that not only would the French chefs have not laughed, but we Indians would have taken offence. Accusations of chauvinism – if not outright racism – would have been flung around.


   So why are we so scoffing of foreigners who try and cook Indian food? Why can’t we be like the French who take pride in the spread of their cuisine?


   It is because – at some subliminal level – we believe that Indian is not one of the world’s great cuisines.


   Nearly everybody who goes to catering college is taught the basics of French cuisine. We see nothing wrong with this. Why shouldn’t they learn how to make the great French sauces? Why shouldn’t they learn to bake like the great French patissiers?


   The basis of much (if not all) kitchen training is that French is the great cuisine and that, to function in a professional kitchen, you need to understand its basic principles. Consequently, no chef, anywhere in the world, feels any awkwardness or embarrassment at making a mayonnaise, roasting a chicken or putting together a ham and cheese sandwich.


 "One reason why Indian food has never reached the level of a global cuisine is because we have treated it as some secret cuisine that only Indians can cook."

   Something similar has happened to Italian food over the last two decades. Ninety-five per cent of Italian restaurants in India do not have Italian chefs. What’s more, the restaurants take the line that they don’t need to hire expats. An Indian can make a perfectly good pizza or a pasta with tomato sauce.


   Why do they take this line? Well, because Italian has now been accepted as a great global cuisine. Anybody can learn to cook basic Italian dishes. It is only if you want to reach some super-haute cuisine level that you need an Italian in the kitchen.


   Likewise with modern Japanese. I reckon that 99 per cent of sushi places in India do not have Japanese chefs. The few places that do use expatriate chefs often rely on Filipinos. (In fact, you can make the case that the father of the sushi revolution in India is Augusto Cabrera, a Filipino who made his name at Threesixty and now runs the wonderful Town Hall in Delhi’s Khan Market.)


   Even at the top Japanese restaurants in the country (say Wasabi or Megu), there will rarely be more than one (or possibly two) Japanese chefs. Nearly all of the actual cooking will be done by Indians.


   One reason why Indian food has never reached the level of a global cuisine is because we have treated it as some secret cuisine that only Indians can cook. Whenever anybody from anywhere else in the world (especially the West) tries to cook Indian food, we sneer and act as though we carry the secrets of Indian cuisine in our DNA and that nobody who is not genetically Indian can even understand the complexities of Indian food.


   Frankly, this is a load of cobblers. Yes, Indian food is complex but it is hardly so complex that only Indians can grasp its subtleties. Besides, we clearly have no genetic disposition to cook it. I can name you hundreds of Indian chefs who make really bad Indian food despite possessing 100 per cent Indian DNA.


   But this is not just an Indian thing. David Thompson is an Australian who came to Thailand, loved the food and taught himself how to cook it. He went back to Sydney, opened the much-praised Darley Street Thai and eventually ended up opening Nahm in London. When Nahm became the first Thai restaurant anywhere in the world to win a Michelin star, Thais were ambivalent. When Thomson took Nahm to Bangkok, he was greeted with outright hostility and suspicion. How dare an Australian open a Thai restaurant in Thailand?


   As Nahm settled down to rave reviews (it has consistently been rated as one of Asia’s best restaurants and just won a star in Bangkok’s first Michelin guide), Thais came to terms with the idea that a foreigner could cook their food well.


   Indians may take a little longer to accept that idea. But there are some hopeful signs. At Gaggan, Asia’s best restaurant and the only Indian restaurant in the world with two Michelin stars, the kitchen is fully international: 23 nationalities are represented. And Rydo, Gaggan’s second-in-command, who has helped in creating many of the dishes, is an Indonesian.


   Manish Mehrotra has just opened Indian Accent in London and has hired three British chefs for his kitchen. He hired them on merit because he felt they could cook Indian food as well as any Indian chef.


   And now, there is a new wave of restaurants in London run by Brits who have travelled to Asia. The Smoking Goat (which does Thai food) has received raves but the real breakthrough is Kricket (which I wrote about here a month ago), which serves wonderful modern Indian food even though there isn’t a single Indian in the kitchen.


   All this gives me reason for hope. We need the world to realise that like French and Japanese food, Indian is a global cuisine, one that any good chef can master.


   Only when we emerge from our ghetto mentality and stop claiming that only Indians know how to make sabzi or dal, will our cuisine get the global recognition it deserves.




  • Rao 30 Dec 2017

    I completely agree with Vir. Anybody can cook butter chicken & dal makhni, but the truly inspiring modern Indian cuisine has to come from chefs like Mehrotra & Gaggan. At the Junoon in NYC with 1 michelin star, the food was totally rubbish. I kept telling myself that I should have eaten at Eataly on the next street. Although was recently pleasantly surprised with an Indian restaurant in Cancun, Mexico.

  • Upnworld 28 Dec 2017

    You make a very important point here. It would have been nice though if you had found a chance in that conference to publicly air your views. I think a lot of Indians overseas do accept Indian cuisine as a global one , going by how widely accepted it has visibly become but you do make that crucial point about how others can train themselves to do it just as well as us.

Posted On: 23 Dec 2017 07:00 PM
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