Never did I imagine that I’d ever equate Mexican food with the cuisine of Pakistan, but in the last fortnight, that’s exactly what happened. Taj Hotel invited me to a Mexican food festival where celebrity chef cum TV food show hostess cum restaurateur Monica Patiño was showcasing the food of her country. (Today is the last day of the festival at Shamiana, Taj Mahal Hotel, Mumbai).
Perhaps I was subconsciously steeling myself for the cuisine of TGI Friday: chimichangas, burritos and fajitas, but there was not a single point of reference between what I was expecting and what I was served. The smokiness of the giant chilli pepper that encased seafood, the encasing of cheese baked to golden puffiness, the balancing of the tomato-based sauce that unified all the elements – why, oh why did our home-grown Mexican restaurants and the Tex-Mex variants from the US of A get it so wrong? The chicken mole that was deep, dark and mysterious had a hint of familiarity about it: chocolate. And no, it’s not a chocolate sauce as in vanilla ice-cream with chocolate sauce, but a distilled essence of five kinds of roasted and ground chillies, cinnamon, cloves, sesame seed, coriander, almonds, peanuts and fried tortilla, lightly tempered with just enough chocolate to douse the fires of all those chillies. And no, you can’t use Indian chillies in place of the Mexican ones any more than you can attempt a biryani with only jalapenos!
I’ve eaten Chinese food at vans all over India, and while you cringe at the vast difference between Chinese street food in Beijing and its variant in Ahmedabad, it is at least identifiable as being on the same continuum. My taste buds scrambled to find a common denominator between the octopus and potato stew that the Taj served and the version of Mexican food as interpreted by local restaurateurs, but to no avail.
Before my taste buds were quite recovered from their previous workout, The Park invited me to a festival of Pakistani food. Done in collaboration with Avari Hotel of Lahore, the food was an unfamiliar variant of our own cuisine. Once again, my taste buds were thrown into a tizzy. All the names of dishes were familiar to me; none of the preparations were. Indian food plays with spicing; Pakistani food plays with texture. Meat with vegetables featured boneless chunks of lamb (in honour of Indian sensibilities) cooked with tori left surprisingly al dente; paneer kebab was a novel spin: paneer was mashed and mixed with flour and spices before being formed into patties and fried. Nothing looked red or angry, but the presence of chillies made itself felt all right. Why, even the qorma was creamy rather than tart.
Visiting Chef M. Shafiq who put the festival together swears that he used no spice that is not an integral part of an Indian kitchen. So what was the difference in the two parallel yet dissimilar cuisines? My taste buds haven’t yet worked that one out yet.
Hot tip: If all you want to do is taste one Pakistani dish, let it be Chapli kebabs, made with minced lamb and griddle-fried with a clutch of familiar yet unfamiliar spices.