Now that everyone’s experimenting with exotic food, restaurateurs and chefs have to think up newer ingredients and processes to stand out.
Twice I’ve walked past the new (in India) chain restaurant that sells mainly “spicy” chicken — cuts of your choice — and found the queue intriguing but daunting. Last Tuesday there was no queue, so in we walked. What is it about restaurant staff? Even when it’s obvious that the place has several empty tables, they ask us to wait while they check there’s a table. Marketing strategy? Anyway, we were seated and the menu arrived with our server who introduced himself. Broadly the place had chicken, chicken, chicken in burgers and wraps, and some salads and side dishes — potato fries, coleslaw and such. The chicken was barbequed and doused in peri peri sauce, made of African birds eye chillies (“pili pili” in Swahili means “pepper pepper”). You could choose the intensity of the heat. We wanted the “very hot” but were advised to go for the “hot”. “Very hot” was served on the side; bottles of each kind were on sale for Rs.400. The chicken was decent, the potato wedges were really hot — obviously straight out of the fryer. But that is not my point. We were excited by the chicken fillet burger, with Moroccan butternut and grilled vegetables. Butternut squash? For the last couple of years I’ve been hearing about this: grilled, stewed, puréed; in soups, risottos, just roasted, as a side. In short, in everything.
My daughter, who loves gentle, smooth flavours as much as strong, sharp ones, has been describing it to me. And I trust Kadambari’s descriptions for accuracy and feel. She says the colour is amber, like toasted golden honey, the texture is smooth and the taste so buttery that it’s almost sweet. I ask the usual question: is it like kaddu, seetaphal, kumra? Yes, a bit, but not quite. It’s less watery, it’s richer, denser, the colour can be orange if it’s ripe, and this is the time of year when it’s abundant and used in all sorts of dishes. So we asked for the dish. Our man, obviously trained to warn ignorant customers who might be disappointed, said, as at the press of a button. “It’s kaddu”. We asked again, twice, “butternut squash?” “It’s kaddu”.
Ranjana has eaten it, I’ve researched it quite thoroughly, so we have some idea. We described the buff-coloured pear-shaped squash, which turns more orange as it ripens, the texture, its foreign-ness, the unlikeliness of it being real butternut squash. No, he said, it was kaddu. So we asked to see it. He wasn’t allowed to bring raw ingredients out of the kitchen, but he brought us a small bowl of it, cooked. It tasted good, but he was right — it was kaddu. And we were right too, it wasn’t butternut squash. Then he was keen enough to ask exactly what butternut squash should look like and whether it was available in India. But this is the thing. I don’t blame him for not having travelled to the West and ordered a butternut squash dish in a restaurant, or wandered around a farmer’s market or even Tesco’s or Whole Foods, examining unfamiliar vegetables. But should the management try so blatantly to have the customer on? Or do they think no customer could be familiar with the real thing? Would he/she only have heard Nigella and Jamie talk about it? Why couldn’t they say “pumpkin”? Obviously because they understand the appeal of the exotic — why say pumpkin when butternut squash sounds so much cooler, and the heck with truth.
How then does one explain the queue? As Ranjana said, people flock to new restaurants; a year later the name and cuisine are changed; diners flock for another year — and so it goes on. I don’t know if that’s how it works — in this case, I’ll keep a watch.
In 2020 maybe no one will remember butternut squash. Alan Davidson, my God of All Things-food-related, doesn’t even have an entry for it in OUP’s 1999 edition, under either butternut or squash, while he mentions foods that have been around for thousands of years. Including quinoa, the other flavour of the decade. In the Andean region of Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia and Columbia, Chenopodium quinoa was domesticated almost 4,000 years ago and cultivated ever since as a staple. It is a grain-like crop but not considered a real cereal because it isn’t a member of the true grass family. All these centuries, we heard little of it in the West or here. There’s no word for it in Hindi, although some claim that it’s the same as bathua, the leafy green we use either by itself or in sarson ka saag. Today, you can’t look at a restaurant menu or recipe book without quinoa (if not couscous or cracked wheat) in everything, from salads and “pilaf” to mushroom stuffing and banana pudding.
BBC Good Food calls quinoa the all-round wonder ingredient. It’s said to have as much protein content as milk. But is that why it’s so trendy? For serious meat eaters, is protein even a concern? I’m open to discussion, but I think that now that you, me and the chap upstairs are all cooking Chinese and Italian food every other day, restaurateurs and celebrity chefs have to drum up exclusive, “known-only-to-a-select-few” ingredients and complicated processes that set them, the professionals, far above and away from the hoi polloi. Thence the halloumi and quinoa salad, the butternut squash crisps, the apple caviar with banana foam, the spicy cinnamon puff filled with foie gras.