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India has gone burger crazy

We all know that biryani is the most ordered Indian dish during the lockdown.

But what Western dish are people getting delivered? My first guess would be pizza but I am coming around to the view that the burger may now have beaten the pizza. Judging by the enthusiasm I see on social media, India has gone burger crazy.


When we talk about hamburgers anywhere else in the world, we refer to three different categories. The first is the biggie: the fast food burger. This has been popularised globally by such chains as Burger King, Wendy’s and McDonald’s. Traditionally, this kind of burger consists of a thin patty slathered with sauce in a bun. The burger is usually sold at not much above its cost price and the chains make their money from French Fries, milkshakes, etc.


   The second category is the trendy burger. This includes such upmarket chains as In-N-Out Burger in California and New York’s Shake Shack. In the UK, such places as Meat Liquor, which started out a food truck, offer their own versions. These are usually good quality burgers, served in better quality outlets at higher-than-McDonald’s prices.


   The final category is the gourmet burger. In the old days, this used to be a steakhouse burger made from high quality beef (of the kind that goes into a good steak) and was cooked with the care and attention usually reserved for steaks. The toppings were less important because the point of the burger was the meat.


  In India, the situation is complicated by the unwillingness of many of us to eat beef, an unwillingness that now has legal sanction. At first, this made no difference to chefs and restaurants because they made their burgers from buffalo meat (entirely legal and free from any religious prohibition) or even mutton (sometimes lamb but usually goat).


   When McDonald’s first came to India, it tried to sell a mutton patty only to find that Indians had no interest in its fast food mutton burgers. Since then, the general consensus at all levels (even the restaurant burger) has been that the only kind of burger that will really sell in India is a chicken burger.


   Because minced chicken does not easily lend itself to a patty, a chicken burger is usually made by putting a breaded chicken cutlet in a hamburger bun. It is not what the rest of the world calls a hamburger but it is our own domestic favourite.


   And we have our own three categories. The fast food burger in India is usually depressingly poor but a few chains like Burger King have persisted with inventing fresh products for the Indian market that go beyond chicken cutlets.  Their mutton burger has a tang of masala and their chicken burgers have a chicken tikka flavour.


  Restaurant/trendy burgers in India vary in quality. At many mall restaurants, the burgers are actually inferior to fast food burgers. Only a few people get it right. In Delhi, the best delivery burgers I have had have been from Aku’s and from Plats. (In both cases, I steered clear of the chicken burger.)


   There are very few gourmet burgers in India, at least partly because there are no steakhouses. My vote for the best burger in Delhi goes to Tres where Jatin Mallick treats his burger as a labour of love.


   As good as some of these burgers are, here’s my problem: how do you deliver a burger home without it getting soggy?


"When you construct a burger with tomato, lettuce, sauces etc. it becomes too much for the bottom half of the bun to bear."

   The truth is that if you want to order a burger and get it delivered, a fast food burger often arrives in far better shape than those made with more expensive ingredients.


   I asked Rohit Sangwan, India’s best baker and Executive Chef at the Taj Land’s End in Mumbai, why this should be so, and he said that it had to do with the quality of the buns. The ironic, counter-intuitive reality often is that the cheaper the bun, the less soggy the burger.


   At the Land’s End, Sangwan bakes the burger buns in small batches fresh every day because they are rarely usable beyond 36 hours. At Aku’s, the buns are made by a home chef in Defence Colony. At Tres and Plats, they make their own fresh buns every day.


   But, says Sangwan, these artisanal buns work best in burgers that are eaten right away. When you construct a burger with tomato, lettuce, sauces etc. it becomes too much for the bottom half of the bun to bear. It will be okay for 10 minutes or so. But after that it starts collapsing. At the Land’s End, they have changed the construction of the burger (the lettuce, tomato etc. are above the patty leaving the lower half of the bun unburdened) so it lasts a little longer. (But the patty will still keep dripping its juices and wetting the bun.)


   But Sangwan says an industrial bun will use emulsifiers and the like for a longer shelf life. That is the kind of bun fast food chains use. So, their buns will take longer to get soggy than fresh artisanal products.


   Is there a way out? Well, I have tried assembling my own burger. Artisan Meats makes good pork patties, and ITC Foods does easy-to-use frozen chicken burger patties but I went with H’Man, a small Delhi operation which makes excellent buffalo meat patties.


   Buffalo meat can be lean. So clever chefs add different kinds of fat. Some use goat fat and some use pork fat. Even with mutton burgers you need extra fat added to the mince. At ITC Maurya they use suet, the fat that goes into their melt-in-the mouth Kakori kebabs to keep their mutton patties moist and tender. I don’t know what H’Man’s trick is but the buff patties are always juicy.


   The buns were more difficult. I wanted gluten-free, so Delhi’s The Lodhi hotel made me some interesting ones. Sprinng Foods from Mumbai also sent some very good ones. And Delhi’s master-baker, the great Devendra Bungla, made terrific buns from his Bungla bread dough.


   If the patty is good, you don’t need to add very much.


   I cooked the patty steak-style on a cast-iron pan till it was medium rare. I sliced a bun in half, put the patty in the centre and added minimal extra flavour. A little kasundi mustard, some of Veeba’s Truly Tomato ketchup and a round slice of raw onion. It is not my case that I made a burger in the Tres, Plats or Aku’s class. But it was fresh, it was firm. And by God, it was delicious!


   Try it at home. It will end the soggy-bun problem.



Posted On: 03 Oct 2020 11:13 AM
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