I wonder if you’ve ever paid close attention to your dining experience in a restaurant in India. I’m talking of the average restaurant, the kind spread across the metros and towns. For a start, many of these are called “Paradise”. I always thought it was a place for those with sinless lives, but now I realise it’s also a place where you get aloo bondas for Rs. 25.
Anyway, now that you are here there’s the hassle of getting a table, especially at peak hours. If you’re experienced enough, then it’s easy: just hang around tables occupied by those who are about to finish, looking like a vulture descending on the kill. Having ‘captured’ a place, the next thing to do is to get the waiter’s attention. This is the man who will pass by your table a zillion times before you resort to the age-old calling signals like raising your arms or waving lustily at him with a loud accompanying ‘hello’. At which point he will finally acknowledge you by appearing at your table with one menu card for the six of you.
Look at it and you’ll notice there are at least 300 dishes, all printed on a card swaddled in heaps of plastic. I might be exaggerating a bit, but there usually are enough dishes to make the last supper seem like a takeaway. The menu usually starts with a ‘Juice’ section. The choices usually are grape, orange, watermelon, a paradise special, and anything that’s ‘in season’.
On to ‘starters and soups’ — of which there’s a choice of at least 20 each. The classics here are sweet corn vegetable soup and paneer tikka. The former usually tastes like diluted gum in the post offices, so you’re better off with paneer tikka.
Now for the main stuff. There’s usually Indian, Chinese, North Indian, South Indian and somewhere between all these regions on these menus. You’ll also see permutations and combinations of dosas and uthappams, enough to defy the rules of mathematics: plain dosa, butter masala, masala dosa, onion rava masala, mysore masala, coconut rava masala, ghee roast plain, family dosa — do you really want this list?
I won’t go into the details but would limit myself to saying there are more Chinese dishes here than there are in China. Also there are dishes here that the Chinese themselves would have never heard of.
Now, my all-time favourite (and I’ll bet it is of a million others too) is Manchurian. Judging by the number of dishes with this surname it’s easily the most popular. There’s bound to be a paneer Manchurian, a mushroom Manchurian, and the ever-popular Gobi Manchurian — all to be had of course with the 20 varieties of fried rice or 15 varieties of noodles that have their origins in Singapore (Singapore fried rice!) or, are ‘paradise specials’ (vegetarian paradise special fried rice!)
You are finally ready to order. With 300 dishes it should be easy you think. But soon you discover that 275 out of those dishes aren’t available on any given day. Therefore, it’s likely you’ll have conversations with the waiter like the ones I have often had.
Me: ‘Yeh paradise special juice hai?’
Waiter: ‘Nahi hai’
Me: ‘Seasonal fresh juice?’
Waiter: ‘Woh bhi nahi hai.’
At which point you’ll just ask, kya hai? In return, your waiter will recite a list from his memory. This is when you invariably do to the nice Indian thing, that is, order a thali.