Sunday, January 18, 2009

Authentic Indian Food?

Indian CuisineOn being offered a keema masala dosa at a lunch buffet in Pune recently, I thought,"Damn! I can't even order a dosa any longer and expect the authentic version on my plate". Having spent my childhood days in Mysore, where idlis and dosas were staple fare, I find myself in the role of a purist. I expect the dosa with a filling of mashed potatoes with the uniquely South Indian seasoning of mustard seeds and curry leaves, and nothing else.

At other times, I remember arguments over drinks with friends on 'authentic' biryani: both Hyderabad and Lucknow claim this popular Indian dish as theirs, each pooh-poohing the other's biryani as being a pale imitation. It is another matter that the biryani has evolved further into further different versions, each uniquely delicious.

Indian CuisineHowever, if you look at the history of India you will realize there is no such thing as authentic Indian cuisine. In its long history, India has never discarded a foreign cuisine that entered its shores; instead, it was made Indian and became part of its rich cuisine. Kababs and samosas came along with the Mughals from Persia. Over the years, they were made our own.

While the samosa is related to the sambousek, in India they are now filled with spiced potato instead of minced meat or dry fruits like the original. Kababs and biryanis were recreated in the alleys and royal kitchens of Lucknow, Delhi and Hyderabad. The famous Kakori Kababs and the Dum Pukht Biryani are Indian creations crafted from the 'authentic' Persian pilafs and kebabs the Mughals brought into this country.

Indian foods considerably differ from state to state. Madhur Jaffrey in A Taste of India is at her evocative best as she describes the variety of ingredients, cooking techniques, and dishes native to every region in Indian. South Indian cooking uses steaming and fermentation, while the North rarely uses steam. Chapatis are made on griddles in the North, while tandoors are a relatively recent import from the North-West. Even within States, some foods are cooked only by special communities: the Moplars of Kerala, the Parsis in Gujarat, and the Chettiars of Tamil Nadu come to mind. For a period of time, recipes were passed from one generation to the other without change. Then came Independence.

Indian CuisineAs these princely states came together to become India, foods began to slowly percolate across regions. They were adapted to suit local tastes, especially when served in restaurants in other States. Which probably explains the keema dosa for meat-loving patrons! In any case, the masala dosa can't have been in its current form for long. Remember the potato itself is a recent import and came into India only after the British. What did they fill inside the samosa and the dosa before that?

Indian CuisineI also wonder how mutton curry was made before tomatoes and chillies reached our shores from the Americas. Did the hot Kolhapuri fare start with the bags of hot chillies that reached the Konkan shores on trading ships? Did they all use black pepper instead?

Right now, Balti Chicken and Chicken Tikka Masala are popular examples of Indian food in the UK; yet neither is native. While inspired from Indian cuisine, these dishes have been invented by South Asian chefs in Britain. We have returned the favor by Indianizing foriegn imports such as tea, coffee, and Chinese food. The ubiquitous 'Manchurian' on the menu of every street-side Chinese restaurant in India is an Indian invention. And, of course, no one boils tea with milk and sugar like we do to create chai!

The British in India enjoyed their Devilled Eggs, helped create the Masala Omlette, and started their day with an ample serving of Kedgeree. While the devilled eggs disappeared from our menus when the British left, the masala omlette continues on. The Kedgeree was an Anglo-Indian adaptation of the Indian khichri made of boiled rice, chopped boiled eggs, minced fish, and a lump of butter, all mashed together with salt, pepper, fresh coriander. This dish is rarely found outside history books now (Jennifer Brennan's Curries and Bugles provides a wonderful culinary tour through those days).

Indian CuisineThis evolution continues today, even in the Italian, French and Mexican restaurants that have begun showing up in increasing numbers in our cities and towns. My advice? Enjoy each dish for what it brings to your palate. Like almost everything else, our food has been undergoing constant change. What we think as 'authentic' is only defined by our childhood memories or what mom cooked. Don't frown upon the chicken tikka burger or the pasta with a distinct Indian taste! Your grand-children will probably grow up thinking of these as local food, no less Indian than pani-puri.

As for me, I am headed out to the new restaurant in town: Zara promises to serve 'authentic' Spanish food. Who can resist that? :-)

PS: Zara recently opened in Viman Nagar, right next to Symbiosis College, and boasts a terrific tapas menu (Ph: 4015911). Viman Nagar is turning out to be the new destination in Pune for foodies!

27 comments:

Jennifer said...

Love this post!!
Curious about Mexican food in India.. where can we find it? I am always surprised that places like Pizza Hut and Subway are in India but not Taco Bell!!

But you have bought up a good question- what makes food authentic and ethnic? I think we all strive for this so we can feel connected to something real. It's interesting that even finding authentic and ethnic Indian food in India itself is hard!! Do you think it's because you're in Pune, a more cosmopolitan city? For instance in Kerala, I have found it it hard to find non-South Indian and for that matter good non-Kerala food in hotels...

Cuckoo said...

Oh, I sometimes hate these hybrid food. Like you, for me dosa is something with that typical south inidan taste & flavour. Chinese dosa & Schezwan pizza somehow don't appeal to me.
Sorry, I can't follow your advice willingly. :-)

Aathira said...

I am an ardent fan of Chicken Dosa.

This is a spicy diced chicken gravy topped on a nice crisp dosa.

Rogan Ghosht and Dosa is also a very yumm combination.

Both are available at Empire and Paramount, Bangalore.

sra said...

I've known of kheema dosa for quite a while now - it was manna in canteen for us hostelites. As odd as it sounded then, it was great to have around.

I still can't get used to the idea of a chocolate dosa, though!

Selba said...

I've been craving for Indian food, too bad that here in Jakarta, there're not many Indian restaurants.

shakester said...

enjoyable read, that! besides making me hungry before I have even started readying dinner, it was interesting. My dosas were sacrosanct till quite recently, when Cheese dhaniya dosas yummed their way in.

and the 'authentic' question, particularly in India, is fascinating.

Mumbai Weekend Break said...

Your Blog is indeed very informative to be followed

kyh said...

A very informative post. I love the many variations of Indian cuisine and I find them very interesting. I haven't really had the chance to try Northern Indian food (i yearn for as long as i can!). I only tried naans, rotis and dhal before. Heh.

MEGalomaniac said...

Thoroughly enjoyed your authentic argument and the way you dissected how Indian food has been shaped and altered thanks to colonisation and invasasion.

Very interesting questions you raise with regard to import of potatoes. Chillies and tomatoes is a point I have pondered over for some time now!

Shantanu said...

@Jennifer: Exactly my thoughts too! I always thought Mexican would easy appeal to spice-loving Indians. However, the only places you get Mexican cuisine is still in five-star hotels, etc.

@Cuckoo: Heh! Schezwan dosa doesn't do it for me either.

@Aathira: If they had served it as a chicken-filled crepe, I guess everyone would have liked it. Dosa sets a different expectation. :)

@sra: Choco-dosa? Goodness...haven't seen that one.

@Selba: Thankfully for us, we now do have places to enjoy Nasi Goreng and a few other delicacies from your land!

@shakester: Haha, cheese-dhaniya dosa! Must be a North Indian spin on the dosa.

@kyh: Interestingly, only the South East Asian countries know South Indian food better than the North Indian variety. In the US and Europe it is the other way around.

Megalomaniac: Welcome here! And thanks.

Lakshmi Mareddy said...

Shantanu,
I remember leaving my parents untainted street in 2002, only to notice a push cart selling "Chinese Dishes" with a definite Andhra flavour in 2005.

Like you said, melting pot and "pot luck" best describes current food scenario.

What makes me see red [no pun intended] is when after all the presentation and hype, the food sucks. So when i visit star hotels, I double check and triple check against reports from foodie friends of mine, before I even visit :)

And sometimes what food habits you trained in your childhood stand the test of time..

And on an off note, have you ever eaten at Dosa Camp vans in and around Chennai? They have quite a spin on dosas!

GMG said...

I thought I knew someting about Indian Food; now the only thing I know is that I know nothing... ;))
Have a great weekend, and thanks for your comments at Blogtrotter, still posting on Delhi! Enjoy!

beaverboosh said...

S, This has bbc serious writted all over it. A history of food! Shall I contact them?... brill!

Shantanu said...

@Lakshmi: Welcome back here! No, I haven't come across the Dosa Camp vans. But Chennai usually has the best idli-dosas.

@GMG: There is a lot more to Indian food than is apparent from the food in 'Indian' restaurants. :)

@beaverboosh: Haha! :)

shooting star said...

quite an interesting post......and i love the pics u have put up....

Sandeepa said...

Really what is authentic Indian food, a very nice read

And lovely food

Shantanu said...

@shooting star, @sandeepa: Thank you.

Kate said...

gr8 now i'm craving some Dosas, yup masala dosa, the crispy one, just like your little angel is having :)
This post is very informative and i really enjoyed reading it. Keema dosa ... hmmm have you ever tried Dosa Diner in Mumbai ? I ate there like 8 yrs ago n back then they had prawn masala dosa ... n basically every possible meat in dosa's. I still love my Mysore Masala. The best i believe i got outside Sophia college ! I used to eat that stuff everyday ! Though i must offer you a taste of my biryani before you reach a verdict of which one is more authentic :p
And i couldn't agree more with you on, there is no longer any such thing as authentic Indian. Have you seen Jaime Oliver trying to make a curry with pineaapples in it, and a tablespoon of haldi ! Who puts a tablespoon of haldi !!??!!
Food has evolved with the Portuguese n East India Company trades, with different influences from all over the world. Just a few years ago, getting coloured peppers and herbs was so difficult, n now thanks to companies like Trikaya everything you can think of is available in the fresh markets. Its nice to see how food is changing, but sometimes you really do miss the original stuff :)

Shantanu said...

@Kate: Thank you for sharing your thoughts and memories of Mumbai. And I never say no to a biryani, so if I am ever in Kenya I will keep your offer in mind. :)

we are never full said...

wow, what a post. you totally "schooled" me. really comprehensive, intellectual and easy read. thank you!

easy indian food said...

It's nice to read an article by somebody who knows even more than me about Indian food.

I have fond memories if Mysore unless my memory is confused. Is that where they have the 1000 steps?

Indian food is simply delicious!

Shantanu said...

@we are never full: Thank you! You have a great blog too.

@easy indian food: 1000 steps? If you are climbing Chamundi Hills, then yes. :)

Lakshmi said...

what an elaborate post and I couldnt help smiling when u spoke abt authentic food ..I keep arguing abt where the authentic sambar came from :)

Shantanu said...

@Lakshmi: Sambhar? Hmm...Pulses ought to have been native to India for quite a while. Only the tomatoes and chillies that we now put in may have been recent.

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Mendy said...

Yummy!
My favourite is Masala Dosa.
Especially, Masala Dosa and Onion Dosa.
It is mouth watering food.