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The top newcomers to the Indian restaurant cuisine

What do you think are the two most important ingredients that have been introduced to Indian restaurant cooking over the last half century or so?

One obvious candidate for that distinction is the industrial broiler chicken. Entire generations of Indians have forgotten that taste of chicken because everyone now uses broilers which can be large but taste of nothing.


When people say chicken is a meat with no flavour, they are wrong. What they should say is: The chicken used by restaurants in India has no flavour.

   The industrial egg, the child of the mass-reared chicken, is the other related candidate. Most people have forgotten that eggs used to have bright yolks, the colour of sunshine. They think it is normal for the white to be a watery mess. In recent years, there has been an attempt to go back to basics and to sell eggs from chickens which are not raised in cages. But this is still a niche market. The egg you will be served for breakfast —even at the average five-star hotel —will be disgusting.
   I could go on. Noodles mark an important shift in our culinary habits but I think their real influence has been less in the restaurant sector and more in our homes where instant noodles (made by brands like Maggi) have become an important part of the cuisine.
   You could also make out a case for mayonnaise which I have written about at length before. We never used mayo at home when I was growing up. But now, many middle-class households regularly buy bottles of mayo made by such Indian brands as Veeba and Cremica. Usually, the most popular mayos are the flavoured ones--- with things like chilli and butter chicken masala. But, they are mayonnaise nevertheless.
   The mayo boom is still a home thing. Restaurants always used mayo and they continue to do it: No change there. A stronger case should be made out for soya sauce which is a restaurant favourite. We always had soya sauce in India but we ate it only when we went to old style Chinese restaurants, which were not quite as popular then as they became after the 1990s.
   But now soya sauce is ubiquitous. Partly this is because of the boom in Indian Chinese food, a local cuisine in which any masaledaar dish can become Chinese once soya sauce has been added. The sushi boom is also based on the popularity of the marriage between rice and soya sauce. When Indians eat sushi, it is nearly always an American-style sushi roll which is first dunked into a bowl of soya sauce. It is the rice-soya hit that is the key to the soya boom. Serve sushi without soya and most people will find it too dry.
 "So yes, cheese is one of the two most important ingredients to enter the Indian kitchen over the last few decades."
   I hesitated about including soya sauce in my list of the ingredients that have transformed restaurant cuisine in the last half-century because most Indians will argue that it is only popular at a certain kind of restaurant. I hesitate also to include monosodium glutamate, better known under the Ajinomoto brand name because chefs will flatly deny using it though we all know that they do.
   Ajinomoto was first used in Chinese restaurants in India (though the Ajinomoto Company is Japanese) as a flavour enhancer. This meant, Chinese cooks said, that it did not alter the flavour of the dish but that it sharpened the flavours. In no time at all, chefs at Indian restaurants also started adding Ajinomoto to their curries. The packaged food industry began to use it extensively too.
   Then, Ajinomoto came under a cloud after American doctors said that it could lead to headaches or tremors in those who ate it. The claim was overstated: Yes, a few people do have an intolerance to Ajinomoto, but many more people are allergic to peanuts. Do you also ban peanuts then?
   It is now clear that Ajinomoto is not the villain it was made out to be but chefs are still reluctant to admit they use it (though it turns up everywhere) and packaged food companies try to conceal how much monosodium glutamate their products contain. So yes, Ajinomoto has become a constant presence in restaurant kitchens, but it is the one ingredient that does not dare speak its name.
   So, what would I pick as the top two newcomers to Indian restaurant cuisine?
   Well, cheese would certainly be one. It is not just processed cheese. It is also paneer. Till about 30 years ago, paneer was mainly a North Indian thing. Now its popularity has spread all over India. It is not unusual to find paneer masala or paneer mutter on a menu in South India. Even Gujaratis who have such a well-developed vegetarian cuisine of their own are forsaking fresh vegetables for paneer.
   And then, there is processed cheese, a complete stranger to Indian cuisine. But restaurants now use cheese in all sorts of things. You will find processed cheese in murgh malai kababs. Street food guys will grate it over dosas, uttapams and even pav bhaji, dishes that clearly don’t need it. A cheese naan made with Amul cheese cannot be more than a couple of decades old and yet, you now find it everywhere.
   So yes, cheese is one of the two most important ingredients to enter the Indian kitchen over the last few decades.
   The second is the more surprising one. The tomato. We all know that the tomato was discovered in South America and made its way to India by way of European traders and colonists. But frankly, that is not so unusual. The chilli and the potato followed the same route and took no time at all to become an integral part of Indian cuisines.
   The tomato, on the other hand, took much longer. Think of the great restaurant dishes that use tomatoes --- butter chicken or dal Bukhara. Both were invented only in the mid to late 20th century and they were restaurant creations. The traditional Punjabi black dal does not have tomatoes. Butter chicken was invented in the 1950s. The British chicken tikka masala was created in the 1970s.
   Ask your grandmother for her recipes. You will find that no matter which part of India you are from, there were hardly any tomatoes in the food that your grandmother’s generation ate. Even now, the great cuisines of India depend on tomatoes much less than they do on, say, the chilli.
   As you may have guessed, the reason I mention cheese, tomatoes, soya sauce and Ajinomoto is because I have a theory about how Indian tastes have developed over the last few decades. My theory is that most recent developments in Indian restaurant cuisine have been caused by the subcontinent’s discovery of umami flavours.
   I have written about this before and I think more work needs to be done to knock my theory into shape. But even intuitively, I think you will agree that the flavours we like now are not necessarily the flavours your grandparents enjoyed.
   But then, isn’t that how cuisine develops?


  • Uttam 13 Aug 2022

    Contrary to what you say "Gujarat has a well-developed vegetarian cuisine" - it doesn't have one. You find well-developed veg cuisines in Bengal, Odisha and the north-east. Thanx.

Posted On: 08 Aug 2022 04:30 PM
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