Get real - Risotto cannot taste like Pongal!

Ajit Saldanha

Are restaurants performing the great Indian rope trick of making pasta taste like seviyaan or turning a cauliflower into a Manchurian candidate? Maybe it’s time to stop adding desi tadka to international cuisine, says our columnist

Thai, Mexican, Korean, Pan-Asian, French… a veritable slew of restaurants have opened recently and the dazzling array of culinary choice makes expert advice invaluable. But how do you know whose words to trust?

“When all the world is on the move and people fret and chafe about its fearfulness and uncertainty,” said Fred Inglis, "a fine restaurant is a reassurance that certain antique, necessary values may still be trusted.” That’s all very well, Freddy, but what exactly do you mean by “fine” is a question most millennials are likely to ask.

Actually with restaurants springing up like parthenium, one has to consider an aspect that most newbies flushed with the enthusiasm of ignorance fail to take into account: only 20 percent of all restaurants survive their first year in business.

In Bengaluru last year we had over 500 new offerings and no less than 400 had crashed and burnt: casualties in the never-ending war on bankruptcy. If you have spare cash and a good friend approaches you with a sure-fire, red-hot, guaranteed idea for culinary success, take Nancy Reagan’s advice and 'Just Say No'. In fact, unfriend the person.

Adding chicken tikka masala to every dish can change the flavour of authentic cuisine

Faced with this unnerving attrition rate it's not surprising that fearfulness and uncertainty are often aroused by the experience of going to restaurants, rather than enjoyment.

Which is where the self-appointed foodie comes in by valiantly charting out for the great unfed masses the many hidden gems that would otherwise lurk unseen and waste their sweetness on the desert air of culinary achievement.  

Some food startups follow a model which attaches substantial weightage to diner inputs: based on the premise that the more palates you have on the job, the more likely you are to sift out the vagaries of taste, discernment or honesty. “You can corrupt one man or a couple... You can't bribe an army”, as an old wag once claimed. However as we know to our cost from a practical standpoint, this laudable democratic principle often results in costly confusion. Sometimes, just for a laugh, I amuse myself by reading the messy cat’s-cradle of subjective reviews on social media.

“Splendid', perfectly plated, bit hot,” were some of the comments I saw on a Naga restaurant, which may well have prompted me to return to the noble Naga tradition of head-hunting, had I been the owner. Incidentally the bhut jholakia, used in Naga cuisine, kicks in at 855,000 Scoville heat units and it’s fiery after effects can last for up-to three days. If you have an annoying friend who is always boasting about his ability to handle “Andhra food spice levels”, make him an offer he can’t refuse: while he may not wind up feeding the fishes, the experience will make him a better person.

An annoying trend which makes the few remaining hairs on my head stand like quills upon the fretful porcupine is this ghastly habit of desi-fying food: performing the great Indian rope trick to make pasta taste like seviyaan, turn a cauliflower into the Manchurian Candidate and risotto into pongal. Ok I made the last one up but you have to admit that the tendency, if left unchecked, can descend into total chaos. It’s okay with momos and chutney, ketchup in sweet corn soup and perhaps Veg Hakka noodles in a college canteen, but dumping vast quantities of garam masala into Moroccan Lamb Tagine is a crime and so is boiling spaghetti to an unidentifiable sludge and serving it topped with chicken tikka masala.

Ignorance is not bliss

The other problem faced by restaurateurs is that user ignorance is a constantly moving target. Sometimes people know what they want to eat but not where, occasionally they are in the mood for a type of cuisine but are quite clueless about its nuances.

More unfortunately, the culinarily-ignorant are often the most vociferous when it comes to sharing their silly opinions. This is especially true of regional cuisines where I have watched top chefs smile patiently while some barbarian holds forth on what an authentic “kori gassi” should taste like. It’s usually a man, (women know better) and often all the offender has to lean on in support of his theory is that he has been to a roadside shack with his auto driver who told him it’s where all the locals eat…you get the picture?  A good guide has several roles to play: appetiser, diarist, educator and a navigational chart –steering you away from reefs and riptide. Prioritise any one of these principles over the others and you risk irritating at least some of the users some of the time.

The next time someone says, “Yaar, this pasta is very bland, let’s put dadi-maa’s haath ka tadka on it'' should you reach for the spices? Actually, no, unless you’ve just had taste-bud surgery. In the woods, with a fork.  The only exception to the rule is Tangra style chilli chicken which is a celebrated instance of improving on the original.  

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