Given the culinary variety across India, it’s strange how all you get at most places is just butter chicken and dal makhani.
The chief pleasure of travel is to eat. To coin a cliché, India is a continent; there is as much culinary variety between Arunachal and Karnataka as there is between Norway and Portugal. And yet.
You go to the remotest places, hoping for a taste of local ingredients, cooked with local spices. I look forward to being away from the metros, with their big city fare. Homes and restaurants in smaller towns should be serving the cuisine of the region, and sometimes they do. The big hotel chains usually have one restaurant that stylishly serves the cuisine of the region. Smaller hostelries often serve simple no-frills meals, almost what one would cook at home. But the more up-market they get, it seems that “hospitality” dictates a certain menu.
Some years back a niece was born. To celebrate, there were many poojas, culminating in a massive dinner party for all of Chennai. I knew there would be no meat, and blessed the fact that we were in the best city for a vegetarian dinner. Hundreds of people came, chucked the baby under her chin, drank many Pepsis, and finally proceeded to dinner. Dozens of buffet tables, scores of dishes. Obviously we were to sit at tables, so no squatting on coir mats with food served on banana leaves. But I was still hoping for rice and a soupy sambar, thin, intense, rasam, a light kootu, some cool and refreshing thayir, a hot, sweet payasam, crisp papads, hot-and-sour pickles. And what was on offer? Gobi Manchurian, tandoori roti, butter paneer and dal makhani. Had it not been an auspicious occasion, I have no doubt there would have been butter chicken.
Someone went to a resort near Pune recently, famous for its open spaces, landscaping and elegant design. Usually I ask what the food was like, but this time I didn’t need to. He came home bewildered and upset, bursting with outrage. Each and every meal was routine North Indian fare, and since this was expensive hospitality, they served the best dishes: dal makhani and butter chicken. Forget bhakri and a bhaaji with Goda masala, there was nary a puran poli or batata wada.
And another time we went to a beautiful spa hotel in Jaipur. Not having learnt my lesson, I was waiting for dinner with some serious anticipation. Here comes the bajre ki roti and lal maas, here comes the gatte ki sabzi. Ha. To be fair, there was a nod to Rajasthan: one day the vegetable was ker sangri, and another, the mutton was lal maas. It tasted just like a regular Punj mutton curry, specifically Gyan Chand’s “meat” from my childhood, but at least they had tried. But three days, six meals, we were served dal makhani and butter chicken.
Smaller places are less ambitious. I went to Hyderabad some months ago and stayed at a low-cost hotel, along with a several colleagues. We worked all day and ate all our meals right there. Every meal was delightful. The cuisine didn’t vary; it was Andhra food at every meal. But the management had taken care to change the dishes for every meal. One morning breakfast was small, crisp dosai, brought out two or three at a time, accompanied by fresh coconut chutney, and delicately spiced potatoes served separately. The next day there were snow white idlis, soft and steaming. And crisp brown vadai, fresh from the frying pan, speckled with the occasional bit of onion, with two chutneys to dip them in: one hot, red and garlicky, and the other cool, green and aromatic with fresh coriander and green chillies. Lunch and dinner were the standard rice, pooris, sambar, rasam and two vegetables, and achar and chutney, but at each meal not only were the vegetables different, so were the pickle and fresh chutney. I ate so much of a red one of peanuts and garlic that they noticed and pressed a large portion on me to carry home, with the guarantee that their packing was “U.S. style”. I’m very touched, but even more, I’m grateful that their breakfast wasn’t alu parathas and their dal makhani.
In Kolkata I once stayed in a hostel in a shabby, run-down neighbourhood about an hour outside the city. For a few days, I didn’t step out, and ate in. No surprise, the food was excellent. No surprise, no d.makhani or b.chicken. Every meal was simple, traditional Bengali. The dal was moong, the vegetables different every day: cabbage, parwal, alu, the fish fried crisp in mustard oil, or a thin jhol. And as a balance to that savoury bounty, there would be a sweet chutney, once of dates and raisins, and at another time of an unfamiliar oval fruit with a hard stone. I was told it was Jalpai, while at the same time a helpful translator said “olives”. I really don’t think so, but the chutney was delicious.
I’m really glad I ate there for several days, because, on the last, the tyranny of butter chicken caught up with us. Sukhmani, a young colleague, wanted to go into town and check out the lights. So we crawled through rain soaked streets and diesel-choked air to Park Street, to a highly recommended old restaurant. Sukhmani was hell-bent on prawns, so we asked how they did them. “In a curry”. What kind of curry, Bangla? Malai chingdi? “Bangla? We don’t serve Bengali food here. Punjabi curry, just like butter chicken.”
Vasundhara Chauhan is based in Delhi and works with Pratham's ASER (Annual Status of Education Report).