Modern Indian food was a global movement first, and then eventually percolated to India. One wonders why the motherland experienced the revolution later and why it did not originate on our soil. Given the incredible diversity of the Indian cuisine, taking things to the next level should have been an obvious next step, surprisingly it wasn’t. Perhaps that was a reflection of us, ourselves as a community, sticklers for terms like ‘authentic’ and the romantic nostalgia of ‘maa ke haath ka khaana’. Maybe, this fierce sense of preserving the original had a role to play in the sluggish metamorphosis of Indian cuisine.
Diversity in India is not limited to culture & language but its topography, the climate, its food, cooking techniques and so much more. Every few kilometres where one variable changes, it creates something unique. But at any urban eating establishment Indian referred to a very narrow range of dishes – immensely inspired by Punjabi, Mughlai and a smattering of Awadhi sometimes. Another subset existed – the vague generalisation under the umbrella of ‘South Indian’. This was the general scene in major urban Indian centres, the global face of Indian cuisine was of course a reflection of what we were putting forward. Regional cuisines existed too, but just so.
Why and how did the richness of our cuisine get so limited? Perhaps the challenges in finding talented chefs well versed in regional cuisines, the difficulty in finding hyperlocal ingredients, the consistency in the quality of the ingredients, the inability of the Indian eating out audiences to try and appreciate cuisines which were a little similar and a little dissimilar to what they were used to. Were we too eager to lap up international cuisines like Italian because the hang up of the Raj will never get shed, we are almost all by default Anglophiles.
We have to remember the tradition around Indian food eating practices – meals are eaten together with large portion sizes, as sharing meals and our disdain for things that we are capable of cooking ourselves. Et Voila – our favourites become the dal makhani cooked for 12 hours and the tandoori tikka. Or the dosa because we didn’t want to ferment it overnight, etc.
Chefs of Indian heritage who moved offshore shed some of the baggage and embraced the fact that modernising a cuisine that is, quite frankly, very rich and sometimes messy, was imperative. Not to mention the peer pressure of the other cuisines – while the whole global food scene was modernising – where were you? Modern cuisine meant flexibility with techniques and ingredients; interpretations were not bound by laws of fidelity anymore. These Chefs who moved offshores were the first champions of the Modern Indian cuisine. A combination of the aspiration of moving out of the country and the availability of a huge pool of talent waiting to be exported – both factors meant the Modern Indian emissary travelled far and wide bearing the torch.
What really fuelled the modern Indian revolution was the availability of a huge variety of raw materials – with just this, horizons were indefinitely broadened. International audiences with their adventurous palates made it instantly popular. Indian food is inherently, delicious – a bit of repackaging, balancing the spices, adding a dash of modernity and we had a hit in our hands.
Indian food has modernised in waves. The first wave was quite simplistic & mostly seen in upmarket big hotel restaurants. This was merely done by presenting Indian food in a modern, cleaner, sleeker way.
The second wave was the unfortunate ‘Fusion’ wave of merely doing different things with traditional Indian dishes, sometimes with some chemistry involved. Think dal makhani shots, Caviar jalebi, etc. The novelty of such food was easily worn off.
We are now seeing the third wave, the true resurgence of modern Indian food. Food that is pleasing to the eye and the mouth. Dishes are creatively influenced from other popular global cuisines, menus are getting more small-plate centric, sauces are refined, cleaner flavours. Single serve portions instantly elevated Indian food to modernity. Inheriting a huge repertoire of vegetarian dishes has been another shot in the arm – the variety is simply mind boggling. Dishes are centred around vegetables rather than being incidental. Another advantage is that Indian produce is now in the limelight, ingredients and products with a lineage are much in demand.
This wave is here to stay. The world is becoming a smaller place. We now look inward and not outward. Indian soft power is on the rise. Now there is pride in our cuisine, Indian is incredible! Is this the way forward for Indian cuisine? Yes! The diners have spoken.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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