Cuisines - But that's not how it's done!

There is no doubt that India is becoming a melting pot of international cuisines with well-travelled Indians increasingly demanding them. Chefs, however, who are trying to bring innovative dishes and new cuisines, don't realise that they are playing with fire, till they get the wagging finger from an Indian customer. Oops!

By: Karishma Parkash

Posted on: November 10, 2010

There is no doubt that India is becoming a melting pot of international cuisines with well-travelled Indians increasingly demanding them. Chefs, however, who are trying to bring innovative dishes and new cuisines, don’t realise that they are playing with fire, till they get the wagging finger from an Indian customer. Oops!

Walk into a restaurant and you will observe the diners laughing and having a good time. The clank of the wine glasses and buzz of their chatter is proof of that. Move closer and you will notice the man wagging his finger at the dish and requesting for the chef. Fine tune your eye sight and eavesdropping skills a little bit and you will overhear statements like “You call this food?” or “Isn’t this dish too bland?” Even more strict questions are put to chefs, but we are listing the comparatively polite ones.

Indians, these days, are extremely well-travelled, and most are food lovers with a developed taste palette, welcoming innovative dishes and new cuisines. The talent pool in the Indian hospitality industry boasts of a vast number of Indian and international talented chefs who love creating dishes that are pleasing to all five senses.

Most chefs in India, whether they like it or not, have to modify international cuisines to suit the Indian palette. Those who claim to serve 100 per cent authentic dishes to their patrons have been lucky to survive as long as they have because the Indian consumer is a unique one with specific likes and tastes. With the growing number of cuisines making their entry into India and Indians being exposed to a variety of flavours, the enthusiasm to attempt fusion cooking and bring forth creative culinary endeavours is growing with each passing day. At the end of the day, one wants their food to taste good, provide good nutrition and experience different cuisines.  What more can one ask for? Apparently a lot more.

The famed Indian cuisine is a flavourful mix of good food, tasty dishes, and healthy beverages that Indians believe help attain a sound, well-balanced spiritual, physical and emotional state. Many have learnt the hard way about what tickles the Indian taste buds and localised their standard fare. If you are a chef and haven’t yet learned the ABC of the Indian consumer and his/her unique palette, a millions of customers in your restaurant will be more than happy to teach and educate.

We have no traditional Indian cuisine as such. Pizzas and pastas from Italy, noodles and dumplings from China and hummus pita bread from the Middle East are all extremely well known, but India has no specific cuisine associated with it. Chef Manu Chandra, Executive Chef, Olive, said, “When we say traditional Indian cuisine, what are we implying? Tandoori Chicken is not popular in Chennai, but dosas and idlis sell out in Delhi and Kolkata. There is no singular Indian cuisine, and neither is there an international cuisine. Chinese is pretty international too, and it has been ‘Indianised’. Clearly the next big thing after Chinese will be Italian, and yes it will be Indianised a whole lot. But these scales of popularity will not go to any other cuisine.” On the other hand, Chef Kato Toshikazu, Japanese Sous Chef at Four Seasons Mumbai pointed out that the Japanese cuisine was completely different from the Indian palette. For most Indians, the taste of the Japanese cuisine was an acquired one because most of the food is raw compared to the Indian cuisine which is properly cooked and spiced. He also added that Indian consumers who were seasoned travellers seemed to enjoy Japanese and liked to promote it as compared to non-travelled Indians.

The ever so popular Indian Pallete
“I like to call it the popular palette. If we don’t pep up the food from the kitchen, the diner will ask for chili flakes and do it themselves. I have tried to keep some flavour packed and authentic dishes on the menu to make the popular palette appreciate traditional flavours,” said Chef Chandra.

Needless to say, some modifications may have to be made to a particular dish keeping in mind the Indian palette. Appreciating the authenticity of the dish aside, Indians are used to a particular taste even in international cuisines and will modify their dishes till the familiar taste is achieved. Indians may not accept it but notice how they pinpoint small flaws in the dish and ask for a modification. Spice it up, turn up the heat and it’s the best dish ever! Traditional Japanese food is raw and fresh and mostly has not more than 2 - 3 ingredients. “In India we add a little more, so that guests can get accustomed to the taste easily,” said Chef Tokikazu.

Chef Tokikazu continued, “Initially most of our guests used to ask us to put some gravy on top as they find Japanese food dry. They also asked us to make it spicy.” Chef Chandra reminisced that he had once made a ‘curry leaf and mustard seed pasta aglio olio’ as a dare from a customer which turned out to be yummy! “Not on the menu, and won’t get there either, but I wouldn’t mind making it again,” he chuckled.

Indians are well-travelled and have tasted cuisines around the world. Some chefs do get complaints about the cuisine not being perfectly authentic and or being too modified for the Indian taste. Frivolity aside, the chef’s job is a tough one because they are catering to a variety of audiences and palettes. According to Chef Chandra this was a funny but true state. “Yes all chefs get that a lot. Someone who sailed past the coast of Morocco suddenly becomes an ‘expert’ in Moroccan food. Everyone knows Italy like the back of their hand and so on and so forth. Ninety per cent of our experts reach out for the chili and oregano flakes and sometimes even tomato ketchup to authenticate the ‘inauthenticity’ of a pizza. Funnily enough, a majority of travelling Indians, look for the first Indian restaurant to satiate their hunger. Our flavours are ingrained in us, partly due to religious reasons too”.

All in all, chefs have to be capable and daring enough to perfectly balance the customers needs, innovation and authenticity of a dish. So if you are a chef, keep in mind that there’s a long road ahead of you to understand the unique Indian diner. And if you are a gastronome snacking at one of the restaurants serving international cuisine, then please remember that the chefs know their cuisine, but they are trying to cater to an Indian at the end of the day!

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