Decades ago, a mother’s love was famously expressed by ladles full of ghee and butter. There was an open nexus between tasty food and plenty of oil, butter or ghee. Cooking for your son-in-law was virtually synonymous with using vast amounts of butter, literally to “butter him up”. Today, that has completely gone, especially in large cities, where a sedentary life is the norm. Any son-in-law being forced to eat dal with a layer of butter on the surface would be horrified rather than gratified. The corollary to all this is that Public Enemy Number One is cream, animal fat, butter, refined sugar and refined flour. Where dieticians were largely unemployed a decade ago, now they are sought after for their opinions. In the public mind, there is a certain amount of confusion over the part played in a normal diet by fats. Is butter better than refined oil, and is ghee preferred to olive oil? Nobody is completely sure (except trained nutritionists and dieticians of course) but theories abound.
Chicken has moved to the top of the pops, nation-wide. Families that were formerly vegetarian have cautiously graduated to eating boneless chicken. The popularity of this form of non-vegetarianism has reflected on restaurant menus. You can now get Butter Chicken and Butter Chicken B/L, which is short form for boneless. It helps former vegetarians to deal with the rather sanitized taste of boneless chicken and there’s the added advantage that if that is your meat of choice, there are no messy bones to grapple with. When nobody has eaten meat in your family for at least twelve generations that you know of, you will not be able to make the connection between the inherent taste of the stock in the bones. It is rather like a first-timer to Bengali cuisine asking for hilsa without bones: you are unaware that you are not getting to grips with the Real Thing.
These days, families who are avowedly non-vegetarian, are moving to chicken rather than red meat, for health reasons. There is even a brand new category: the occasional non-vegetarian. Says a surprised Delhi-based mother of a six year old, “When my son wanted to celebrate his birthday in McDonald’s, I called up all the parents of the children whom my son had invited for the party to find out whether they were vegetarian or non-vegetarian. After all, I didn’t want mistakes on my conscience. To my surprise, however, all the children from vegetarian families literally lunged for the chicken burgers, leaving the vegetarian options for the non-vegetarian children!”
Long cooking times have gone the way of the dinosaur. Now, if it is not packaged, pre-cut or instant, it cannot be on the daily menu of a family in the metros. Sarson ka saag, that quintessential Punjabi paean to the rustic life, has become no less than haute cuisine. That is because of the lengthy cooking time and the desirability of cooking it over coal. No family living in a metropolitan city would be able to cook it: leaving on the gas range overnight would be too expensive, and procuring coal and letting it blacken the walls is an even more horrendous proposition. It is the reason that packaged pre-cooked food is making its way onto supermarket shelves, but experts say that what is already available is a tiny fraction of what is yet to come. What is undoubtable is that something will have to change. Otherwise, our culinary heritage, one of the greatest in the world, with its long cooking times and skilfull spicing, will become a part of history books.
The rise and rise of regional cuisine. At one time, the term Punjabi food conveyed a great deal. Today, the buzzword is Amritsari food as opposed to just plain Punjabi. After all, in six decades, the city of Amritsar has metamorphosed into a gastronomy centre, where the excellence of dairy products, especially cottage cheese and clarified butter is a byword, and where pulses, be they ever so humble, taste far fresher than they do elsewhere in the country, and where roadside stalls catering to truck drivers have held sway to such an extent that now they are invited to cater to society wedding parties.
It is the same in many other parts of India. Chettinad cuisine, Nellore fish curry, the food of the Moplahs, Naadar spice blends, Guntur pickles, Malwan coastal cuisine, Goan Saraswat feasts, Kashmiri Pandit wedding specialties, Kohlapuri mutton curries, Bengali chingri malai served inside a young coconut – none of these are about the one-size-fits-all food of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, North Kerala, Karnataka, Kashmir or West Bengal: they are about regions within regions. Even two decades ago, no Naadar would have had the confidence to stand up and showcase his cuisine to the rest of the country. Today, he is proud of the difference his cuisine has with the rest of the cuisinescape of Tamil Nadu.
Baby corn, broccoli and mushrooms are virtually Indian vegetables. Once upon a time, cauliflower and carrots used to be referred to as English vegetables. Today, bok choy and Chinese cabbage, to say nothing of basil, is seen in middle-class areas across our metropolitan cities. Olive oil – whether from Syria, Spain, Greece or Italy – is seen in private homes that pride themselves on eating only Indian food. Yes, these days, olive oil is just another cooking ingredient in an Indian kitchen.
It’s not all good news however. Seasonality has gone out of the window. People eat packaged frozen green peas even in winter, and cauliflower is no longer a winter vegetable, just as lady fingers are no more only summer vegetables. Families that eat salad with every meal no longer have to restrict cucumber to the summer: they are available even when it is four degrees Celsius in Delhi. The downside of this is that the source of our food is in danger of becoming more remote from our table, just the way it is in industrialized nations. There is the famous story about a French school teacher who asked her children to draw a chicken. Without exception, they all drew a supermarket frozen bird! We in India may have to face that prospect in the near future as our children draw packets of frozen peas from Mother Dairy or Reliance Fresh because that is all they see around them.
Udit Sarkhel, Vivek Singh, Vineet Bhatia, Atul Kochhar: so far, nouvelle Indian food is the preserve of a handful of young, enthusiastic Indian chefs who chafed at the step-sisterly treatment that Indian food was given in hotels in this country. They worked in London restaurants and suddenly, Indian food has a brand new avatar. Says a chef who has just left for London from New Delhi, “You cannot even tell that they are Indian restaurants. There is no smell of cauliflower and turmeric in the restaurant; there are no pickle bottles on the tables. You could be in a French or Italian restaurant.”
As yet, the trend is confined to London, but because of the runaway success, there is every indication that nouvelle Indian food will eventually make its way to our shores as well.