With thirty years and thousands of meals, miles & moilies under her belt, Marryam Reshii shares her eating adventures and the lessons she learnt with every bite. Take a cue from the reigning queen on matters of gastronomy.
Words : Akshita Phoolka | Photography : Azra Sadr
Marryam Reshii has been writing about food for almost 30 years, 17 of which she’s spent being a food critic. And a fine food critic she is. Her word is the gospel for her readers, and her column (in the weekend supplement of the Times of India), and Times City Food Guides exert enough power and influence to send chefs and restaurateurs darting for a mere mention. From once being told that food journalism would land her in the gutter, to becoming one of the most revered voices of the restaurant and food scene in India, Reshii has had plenty on her plate to make hers an exciting, well-traveled, and gastronomically rich life.
What is the sum total of years you’ve been eating for a living?
15 I suppose. No, no I started in 1998, so I have been eating for a living for 17 years.
What role did food play in your early life?
When I was 11, my sister and me were put into boarding school in Nainital, as my father had a transferrable job and we were almost nomadic, moving from city to city across the country. The food we were served in school was—I won’t go as far as to say that it was like dog food because that would be too drastic—but it wasn’t gourmet either. As a result of this deprivation, I started to keep a diary. Incidentally, I still have it with me. This diary was a kind of cheat sheet. It contained all kinds of recipes from my friends. Every time we would return to school after our long winter break I would ask them about the most memorable dishes they ate and carefully note down what they would tell me. And while taking down these recipes, I used to, in my mind’s palate, imagine the taste of all of these amazing meals. So while battling lumpy rice and watery dal at the school diner, I would try and recreate the taste of those recipes in my mind to fool myself.
I think these were my initial beginnings as a food writer and when I grew up and actually became one, identifying flavours and writing about food came very naturally to me because I had been doing it in my childhood.
Did your nomadic childhood give you an understanding of the regional cuisines of India pretty early on?
I wish I could say yes, but actually I feel I just wanted to eat. Boarding school kids are always hungry. And when I was moving around and eating I didn’t realise that keema and matar was a very Punjabi dish, how my mother only taught our cook this in Delhi, and how in Bombay other things were taught and eaten, like seafood and fried fish. All this bounty was there and I just took it for granted, so honestly I didn’t realize. But now I see that thread. We really traveled. We went to Hyderabad, Chennai, all over the place really.
What of your early beginnings in the work force as a food writer?
I used to work at Business Standard. It was a pink paper and there were two feature pages a week and six of us competing to get our stories told in those two pages. So literally, we used to fist fight for our stories to go to print. To make matters worse, there were times I had to cover mundane things like mining exhibitions and that I couldn’t handle. Eventually I got a weekly or fortnightly column called ‘Gut Feeling’ and that’s when I began to take it a bit seriously and everyone was like ‘why are you writing so seriously about food? why don’t you write fun things?’ But I was deep into the bones of cookery and cuisine. And so—this sounds bloody pretentious—I got myself a copy of Larousse Gastronomique with my first earnings. With my second earnings I bought myself a series of books, Culinaria, published by Kohnemann. There’s one volume for every country in Europe and the US. This cost me Rs. 3,000, which in those days was a lot to spend on a bunch of books. Actually it was pretty unheard of. When my husband heard the price he almost kicked me out of the house!
In fact in my early years as a food writer, when I once told one of my bosses that I was going to leave to write more about food, I was told that I would starve in a gutter and that when I did, I’d come crawling back and when that happened they may consider taking me back in. I left them in 2000 and since then I have never had the need to starve in a gutter. But that is by god’s grace.
That’s one way to shut someone up.
(Laughs).. You know I think it was actually like I had a sixth sense of what was going to come. I used to wonder why there wasn’t any fuss over food when I started. Like if you go to Rajasthan, the food of Jodhpur is so different from the food of Jaisalmer, and the food of the Rajputs is so different from the Marwaris and so on… Like everyone has ghatia sev but all the cities have a different way of doing it. But no one was really talking about all this and I felt it needed attention.
And do you think your body of personal work and your contribution to the Times of India has done that? Shine the spotlight on our restaurant scene?
Yes I think so. You know at the Times of India it’s like you’re given a Rolls Royce to ride and you’re expected to maintain it in a certain running condition and if you don’t, then the management will step in. But it’s a Rolls Royce and it will give a certain amount of service. What I mean, is that our readers are numbered in the lakhs. People wake up in London and the first thing they do is to get online and read you on the e-paper. On the other hand there is no bigger high than when you meet a chef who tells me that he missed reading my story because it didn’t come out, or was so happy to read a story that did come out. Or when readers tell you that the column told them about this restaurant that they didn’t know existed. It’s exciting stuff. You know then that people really track you and what you say. Nobody will come to you and tell you they read your latest piece and walk off. They’ll tell you things like, “I hated that place and you were the only one who was able to pick it up”. They follow you closely. And then a certain amount of objectivity is expected of you. If you are happy with everything you see and eat, as a lot of the food bloggers these days are, then you’ve sort of lost the plot!
And what of the Times Food Awards? How influential have they been?
You should see my messages, you know. Everybody and their uncles, they ring me, sms me, mail me and say—listen I hope we are going to get a Times Food Award this year? And some of them are not even on the edge of, forget excellence, but not even on the edge of being average. You can’t do this and you cant jockey around. You can’t say I’m the best look at me. I have to tell you that!
So people come and say we are doing better food and this one time I asked this restaurant owner very randomly about the Times award making a difference to him and he just stared at me and said, “Are you mad! People have been coming to us with offers for franchising all over Delhi and north India because of the award.” So yes it definitely goes a long way for people in the industry.
Were you instrumental in the making of these awards?
I wish I could say yes, but no I haven’t.
Is it necessary for a food critic to have some kind of training?
It would be lovely to do so. It’s lovely to know how a sauce is made, or how many types of sauces there are—hollandaise, béarnaise, mayonnaise, or what are the ingredients in a brown sauce and so on. But if you don’t have formal training then don’t sweat it. When you start off, in the first say five or seven years, you just taste a sauce and say this is good. It happens. But after some time as you pay attention to what you eat and when your palate takes over, you start to understand why something is good or bad.
A month ago I was in Darjeeling and some of my friends told me to eat at Glenary’s. So I went there and had this mixed grill and the sauce that was served was just HP sauce. You can’t do that!
I always actively think about what I eat. When I go to any restaurant, specially the big 5 stars, they think that how can this poor old lady sit down with her notebook and be comfortable. But when you keep me company and when you barrage me with questions and information about your kids etc you’re taking me away from what I have come for. It’s distracting. And nobody gets it. So if you ever see me alone in a restaurant it’s not because I don’t have any friends at my age. It is because I need to be alone. To write and feel what I’m eating. So please leave me alone!
And how often do you eat out?
Well during the food guide at least 10 times a week! Monday to Friday lunch and dinner are booked. And as exciting as it may sound, it is extremely exhausting.
What do you eat when you’re not eating for work?
When I am at home I eat rice and dal and dal and rice. I’ve turned my family into complete maniacs. But you know when you are at home and you don’t have to think of what you’re eating and it doesn’t have to make sense to you and you don’t have to dissect it minutely, you just want something that fills you up. You don’t want something that is in the realm of very fine food because after some time you just can’t handle it.
What are the things you love about restaurants?
Every time I go to a new restaurant my heart beats just a little bit faster out of excitement and anticipation about what I’ll find. When this feeling goes away, I will know it’s time for me to stop doing what I’m doing. So the other day I had gone to ITC Grand Bharat Hotel just outside of Gurgaon and they had this jeweled clamp clasped to the edge of the table so women can hang their bags on it. So these little details excite me disproportionately.
And what do you love to hate about restaurants?
Pretentiousness. Oh my goodness! When they say we are going to give you an authentic Italian pizza and some ‘peeja’ comes along with raw capsicum on it, it just grates on my nerves. Don’t call it a real Italian pizza. Call it a ‘Dilli estyle’ pizza and serve it with pride. Don’t make an idiot out of your customers. I’m sorry that just doesn’t work.
” If you ever see me alone in a restaurant it’s not because I don’t have any friends at my age. It is because I need to be alone. To write and feel what I’m eating. So please leave me alone! “
If you had one thing to say to restaurant owners what would it be?
I have one thing to say to restaurant owners. You are not the cat’s whiskers. Many of you (especially this new breed that’s come up in the last five years) don’t know food. What you do know is balance sheets. And that doesn’t really cut it.
What’s you approach to food criticism?
I always look for a spark. Let it be a restaurant in Mukherjee Nagar run by a Sardar father and son, which only serves chicken tikka or a five star hotel such as the one we are sitting in right now (The Imperial Hotel). I want a spark. I want to see something where they’ve thought out of the box. I want novelty in their menu or some glimmer of excellence or some glimmer of wanting to break the mould.
What makes a dish memorable?
So I’ll tell you a little story here. I went to this place called Masala House in Sunder Nagar the other day. It seemed nice enough. Formulaic almost. I noticed on the menu a dish called Silbate ka Shammi Kebab. So I though to myself, yeah right! Because nothing about the place suggested that they would even know what a silbata (stone grinder) is. The shammi kebab is basically cooked very gently with minimum spices and then ground on a silbata to keep the reshams of the meat intact. Most people just serve it as a minced meat which is not what a shammi kebab is. And shammi kebab happens to be my favourite dish when made well, in its authentic preparation. And to my surprise, what they served me at Masala House was surprisingly the real deal. They had actually prepared it on a silbata. And I almost hugged the chef for his honesty. This kind of thing really gets me and is exactly the kind of thing that makes a dish memorable.
What are your favourite places to eat at?
My favourites are almost always the little hole-in-the-walls. There’s a place called Paragon in Calicut and it only serves North Kerala food. Karimbeen Kaala outside Kottayam in Kerala is an actual toddy shop. In Bombay, there is a place in the paper market that serves a Gujarati thali—Shree Thaker Bhojanalaya, Kalbadevi. It is owned by someone who’s probably crossed 100 years. In Kashmir it has to be Adhoos. It is an absolute delight. And in Delhi I rather like Big Chill. I think they’ve done a superb job in whatever they do. You see a college kid and grandfather there—whole generations of people have eaten there and continue to eat there. You know the service will be lousy, but the food never disappoints.
Any restaurants that don’t live up to the hype in Delhi?
You can say almost the whole of Haus Khas village is a complete rip-off . Barring one or two establishment like the terrace at Social, Yeti, and also The Toddy Shop.
Why do you think there’s such a dearth of regional Indian cuisine served in restaurants? Do chefs look down upon the cuisine?
I don’t think it’s the chefs at all. It’s the whole market. In 2000, when I had done the first-ever food guide, it was common wisdom that if a family went out to eat twice in a month, then one of those meals would be Indian, mainly North Indian and the other would be continental—mainly Italian or Chinese. But now there is a whole generation of people, specifically the younger generation, who on principle don’t eat Indian food when they go out. That is shocking!
And then there are also the restaurant owners to blame. I once went to a place called xxx Café, only to find it wasn’t a café at all, and when I asked the server why is this place called café, he told me that the owner said everyone’s opening cafes so we’ll call ours a café too. So this kind of thing, I find to be exceedingly dumb and it should not be encouraged.
What’s your one hope for the restaurant scene in India?
You know, we have Indian food in our DNA. So really, I hope that one day we will have a clear idea about who we are, what our background is, and what we want in food. And I think when we have this clarity is when regional Indian food will come into its own. I can’t wait for that.
And what of your dreams for the future?
I would love to help people in getting to explore a tiny little bit of the country either through my writing or by taking people on food journeys. For example, if you haven’t been to Gujarat, then you haven’t had a chance to savour the brilliance of their vegetarian food. It’s beyond this world and I want people to have these experiences.