There was a time — maybe 20 or so years ago — when there was no Indian food writing to speak of, so whatever appeared was greedily devoured. The Statesman had a column by “NRB”, about restaurants visited. Descriptions were purely functional to recreate from memory, “... there were two pieces of chicken of a generous size, accompanied by three four-inch-long pieces of carrots and an equal number of green beans… the sauce was adequately salted and the potatoes were baked in a reasonable amount of cheese…” and so on.
He (or she) gave you the facts, but no texture. Flavour, therefore, there was none. But you got an accurate idea of the price and contents. Possibly there was little choice when eating out; it had to be Indian, Chinese or Continental, and all of us readers were less exposed and informed.
Designed to impress
Now, of course, it's all about ambience and flourishes, the signature stamp of celebrity chefs and famous interior designers. The description of food is designed to impress and if you don't recognise the name of the chef or of the designer who only, always, uses glass bottles to decorate restaurant walls, well, you don't count.
Who says “cheese” any more? Scamorza, maybe if it's smoked; but forget processed cheddar and Parmesan (sorry, Parmigiano). Mozzarella only if it's bocconcini. But Haloumi works. Hummus is out, unless zatar is in. Which is fine; the choices available to us eaters-out have grown, and the reviews have kept up with the proliferation of pan-Asian and Mediterranean restaurants.
I only wish that the descriptions were real. Most reviews seem to be cut and paste jobs from promotional handouts, without benefit of assimilation. Avant-garde, luxurious and eclectic, perfectly serviceable words when appropriately used; do little to describe food. This parroting is particularly true of recipes.
I read one for Chicken Shepherd's Pie and the moment I saw ingredients measured in ounces my radar went “beep”. The only time I come across ounce measures is when I'm using old hand-written recipes of my mother's, and spend hours converting them first to grams and litres and then to cups and spoons.
Sure enough, the author had lifted the recipe straight from a foreign source because, although the title said chicken, the ingredient listed further down was beef chuck.
Foreign food, apart from pizza and chow mien, which are now household words, is, well, foreign. So if an Indian can't tell the difference between a Savarin and a bundt, who cares. But when every curry in the North is royal or Mughlai or anything spicy from the South is Chettinad, then I care.
I came across a manuscript for an Indian cookbook, describing the swaying palms, the traditions of hospitality handed down for generations, from mother to daughter. A bit mawkish, but not offensive. But when it went on to describe the jhinga pardanasheen, prawns cooked inside tender green coconuts, as typical of Rajasthan it was hard to decide which was the more offensive: placing prawns in landlocked Rajasthan or the vulgar drama of the restaurant-style name.
Testing reader's patience
Last week I saw some recipes for summer in a Sunday paper. Not the usual watermelon sorbets and gazpachos, but Indian; specifically Bengali. Including one for lau chingri, lauki(bottle gourd) and shrimp.
I have to put in a disclaimer right here: no recipe is sacrosanct, each home – let alone a district – has its own variation. So there can be no one correct, authentic recipe for a generic dish. But this one tested the powers of credulousness.
It started with a short description of how Bengalis love this dish in summer, blah blah blah – basically stating that this was a traditional Bengali dish, not some fusion confusion. And then it went on to describe the ingredients and method. Onions, garlic and ginger were to be puréed. Then they were to be fried till brown. Tomato purée came in at this stage, followed by prawns, pepper and garam masala. Maybe cream as well.
Sounded about right for the neighbourhood dhaba's chicken curry, but quite odd for Bangla ranna. So I looked up my trusty Chitrita Banerji and, sure enough, in her version, nary onion nor garlic.
Vasundhara Chauhan is based in Delhi and works with Pratham's ASER (Annual Status of Education Report).