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There’s more than one way to look at Indian food

Goan food is not for everyone. And there is no such thing as ‘Goan food’ anyway.

The state has many different cuisines including the excellent vegetarian food of the Saraswats. But when we talk about ‘Goan food’ in the rest of India, what we usually mean is the cuisine of the Catholics.


This is popular all over the Western part of India because of the uniqueness of its flavours. It is like the cuisine of the rest of India because it includes masalas. But it is also different because it uses vinegar, an ingredient that does not play a major role in most other Indian cuisines. (In fact, the original Goan vinegar is so crucial to the flavour that the great Cyrus Todiwala of London’s Café Spice Namaste struggled to find substitutes when his supply was restricted during the lockdown.)


   I am an unabashed lover of all kinds of Goan cooking. My go-to dish at home, when I am too tired to make anything too complicated, is a simple chorise pulao or a keema curry made on a base of collapsing, melting chorise. At any given time, you can be sure to find lots of chorise in my fridge.


   Like most people who love Goan Catholic food, I tend to stick to the real thing. There are great chefs in Goa like Urbano Rego who used to head the Taj’s food operations till he retired a few years ago, and Julia Carmen D’Sa, who has now moved to Delhi. A new generation of Goan chefs like Avinash Martins and Rahul Gomes Pereira is now starting to make waves. (Though Gresham Fernandes, one of the greatest chefs of his generation, now lives in Goa but sadly, hardly cooks!)


   Goan food purists are always a little surprised when I say that my favourite Goan restaurant in the world is not in Goa but in Mumbai. It is O Pedro, which was set up by the legendary Goan chef, the late Floyd Cardoz. Floyd wanted it to be a love letter to Goa. He wanted to capture its sense of fun and the joy that Goans took in their food.


   Floyd was fortunate to have two great chefs with him when he set up The Bombay Canteen: Thomas Zacharias and Hussain Shahzad. Thomas shone at The Bombay Canteen and Hussain guided O Pedro to huge culinary success. Since Floyd’s tragic passing and Thomas’s departure from the group, it is Hussain who has kept Floyd’s legacy alive.


   I went to O Pedro for dinner last week, with the Italian chef Massimo Bottura. Massimo loved it, and I thought the food has never been better. Judging by that night’s experience, Hussain is the best chef currently cooking in Mumbai.


   What intrigued me about Hussain’s Goan food (he is not a Goan; he is of Gujarati origin but was born and brought up in Chennai) is the way in which he took Goan food further than I had ever thought possible. The standout dish of the evening was a whole suckling pig that had been stuffed with rice and roasted. Hussain served it with an intense vindaloo gravy. It was, I guess, a pork vindaloo but not the kind you would normally find in Goa.


   So, was it authentic? Or was it, as judgmental Indian chefs like saying, ‘fusion’?


   I asked Massimo Bottura what he thought. Indian and Italian cuisines have certain parallels. French cuisine is a collection of techniques and not just a bunch of recipes, and chefs are judged by the quality of the new dishes that they create. But Indian and Italian food used to be recipe-driven. Any deviation from the norm was always frowned on.


 "The best known Indian dish in the world, Gaggan Anand’s Yoghurt Explosion, did not exist before Gaggan invented it."

   Before Bottura came along, most top Italian chefs stuck to traditional dishes and pretended that they were doing something new and different by plating them in the French style. The same sort of thing happened in India too where the first generation of modern chefs believed that if they Frenchified the presentation, then they had created a nouvelle Indian cuisine.


   Bottura helped overturn that consensus in Italy by drawing on his knowledge of Italian culinary history and ingredients to create dishes that were recognisably Italian but different. For instance, he took Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, which till that time had only been used around the world (as ‘Parmesan’) to top pasta and make simple dishes. Bottura created one of his most famous dishes, The Five Ages of Parmigiano, to teach people how the cheese changed with age and how versatile it was, creating a soufflé, a wafer, a mousse etc.


   He has kept this up. On his current menu, there is a dish called Fiorentina, which brings to mind the famous Florentine steak. Except that there is no beef in Bottura’s version. He uses vegetables to brilliantly convey a sense of the dish.


   Watching Bottura enjoy Hussain’s food, which relies on taking Goan flavours forward (a chorise taco, made with a rice flour wrapping, for instance), it became clear to me that we are going the way of modern Italian food in the post-Massimo era.


   The best known Indian dish in the world, Gaggan Anand’s Yoghurt Explosion, did not exist before Gaggan invented it. But anybody who tried it would immediately recognise the flavours of the Indian street as they filled the mouth.


   When Vineet Bhatia created the chocolate samosa, the idea seemed absurd: chocolate is not an Indian ingredient and anyway, a sweet samosa? But the dish worked so well that it is now copied by dessert chefs and halwais everywhere. Within a generation, people will begin to think that it has always been around and is a traditional dish.


   So it is with Manish Mehrotra’s food. Who had ever thought of rubbing sweet pickle on spare ribs before? Were spare ribs even a part of Indian cuisine? And yet, nobody can doubt that the dish tastes completely Indian.


   We may think that these are new developments. But they are not. It is just that we don’t always realise it. If I had told you, way back in the 1960s, that it was time to create a cheap new street snack patterned on the hamburger, one that used industrial buns and a potato patty, you would have been startled. And yet, by the 1970s, the vada pav had arrived.


   How about this: had I predicted, even in the 1990s, that a popular ingredient in street food would be cheese, would you have believed me? And yet street vendors all over India use Amul cheese in everything now. Or: that we would take a Tibetan snack and put it in the tandoor? But that’s what we do with tandoori momos.


   There are lots of other examples. When I was growing up in Mumbai, pizzas were hard to come by. Today, we have Jain pizzas and even ‘Chinese’ pizzas with noodles at roadside places.


   In fact, I venture to suggest that we have been more adventurous with Indian food than the Italians have been with their cuisine. All we need to accept now is that this is a perfectly legitimate way of taking any cuisine forward and for chefs to stop using terms like ‘fusion’.


   There is more than one way to serve a vindaloo. And more than one way to look at Indian food.



Posted On: 22 Apr 2022 09:10 AM
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