Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
Food : April 30, 2000
The author was former editor, Femina, and lives in Mumbai.
A hundred years ago, India was divided into hundreds of riyasats ruled over by maharajas and nawabs under the protection of the British imperial rulers. The rest of India, where there were no nawabs or rajas, was directly under the British yoke. The huge sub-continent had only a skeletal communications system by road and rail. Telegraphic services and trunk telephone lines were available only in selected areas where the British needed administrative or security services to govern and control the country. The era of national highways for the convenience of the general public and super-fast trains or buses for tourists and travellers was far away. The general mode of travel for the rich was horse-drawn carriages and for the poor, walking was probably the only option. Naturally, without a fast and widespread communication system, the people of India had little, if any, contact. Regionalism, casteism and religious differences prevailed and in the matter of food, clothes, customs and language, there was hardly any meeting ground. Diversity was then a separating factor, not a unifying force as it is today. Food, clothes and lifestyles were Madrasi, Bengali or Punjabi, rather than Indian.
Added to this was the fact that Indian food, whether the robust fare of Punjab and the North East Frontier or the delicate, light flavours of the South Indian cuisine, remained essentially the "food of the natives" who, according to the foreign rulers, ate pungent, chilli-spiked curries and rice or rotis like some uncivilised pagans. The British were not in India to learn. They, as well as other Europeans, were here to "civilise" the backward masses of India and their looking down on the food of India was but a natural corollary. The memsahibs, whether they were British, French or Portuguese, employed Indian khansamas, cooks and bearers but taught them their own cuisines rather than eat Indian meals at their innumerable parties or in their family meals. Most British officers and civil administrators who came to India, looked upon the native cuisines of India as unhygienic and unpalatable because of the high content of spices and herbs.
The only concession they made was when they attended the shikar feasts of the maharajas or ceremonial royal meals in the opulent, chandeliered dining halls of the riyasatis where food was served by turbaned waiters from gem-studded gold or silver vessels. Throughout the colonial period too many new, hybrid cuisines developed because the khansamas of the memsahibs innovated food which combined some of the flavours of India with those of Britain, France or Portugal. Thus, as a legacy of the Raj era, we have the remnants of an Anglo-Indian, Indo-French or Indo-Portuguese cuisine. These flourish in parts of India and in Britain or Europe where nostalgic memories of the Raj linger on.
In the British Raj, mini revolutions occurred in food and eating habits in the higher echelons of Indian society. Affluent, Westernised Indian families ate at dining tables with forks and knives and added to their menus, at least some western goodies such as baked dishes, cakes, puddings and ice cream. Their food,though cooked in their own style, also included a few acceptable western items in their daily diet. However, the large mass of the highly caste and-religion-riddled Indian society continued to maintain its original food barriers and ate community or regional food which was their legacy for generations. Caste and religion were the main dividing partitions of society and food and eating habits reflected these divisions clearly.
Only when Independence came, did Indians realise that they were one nation and that they would have to work above all towards a homogenous culture, lifestyle and national awareness. The divide and rule days of the British were at last over. The French had vacated Pondicherry, Mahe and Karaikal and the Portuguese were soon to be forced out of Goa, Diu and Daman. The first signs of the imminent, massive food revolution were visible when Mumbai, the most cosmopolitan city of India, welcomed hordes of Sindhi and Punjabi refugees who migrated to the city. They entered the building and film industries and began to assert their culture in the metropolis. Because of their large presence in Mumbai and the affluence they acquired within a few years, Punjabi dhaba food from the North West Frontier became popular in Mumbai in the Sixties. Mumbaites, who had hitherto relished non-vegetarian food in the many street-corner Irani restaurants and khanawals serving the fish and meat dishes of the Konkan coast and Goa, pounced on the luscious kebab and tandoori cuisine which was new and exciting.
Restaurants like Khyber opened to a gala reception and the matinee idols of those decades - Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand, all being Punjabis - patronised the eateries to give them exclusive status. Tandoori and Punjabi cuisine fast became the new identity of Independent India. The tandoori fever spread into the western and southern states, then in the east and even to other countries like Britain and the U.S. World War I and II had already whetted the British army men's appetite for spicy curries and parathas. When the war was over and British soldiers left India en masse after Independence, they literally took Indian cuisine back home with them. Suddenly, tandoori eateries sprouted in every city of India and Britain. Butter chicken, rogan josh, chicken tikka masala, tandoori kebabs, seekh kebabs, naans, kulchas and rotis became the most favoured party and restaurant cuisine in both countries. In the proliferation of north Indian food in India, the influence of centuries of Moghul rule was distinctly evident. Moghlai feasts, earlier fit only for the kings, now became available to the average citizens of India through mushrooming restaurants and dhabas.
By the Seventies, communication improved in India. Highway traffic increased and so did eating places. If tandoori and Punjabi food had become a national passion before, the stage was now cleared for the idli-dosa revolution from the South. Vegetarians, health freaks and hygiene-finicky eaters found the simpler, oil-free cuisine of South India a welcome change. Udipi restaurants flourished from Badrinath to Kanyakumari.
Thali meals became fashionable too. Whereas thalis - Gujarati, South Indian, Maharashtrian and Rajasthani - were eaten in small, ethnic restaurants earlier, the adoption of the thali concept by five star hotels such as the Taj, the Ashoka, the Oberoi and so on, made this traditional Indian style of eating fashionable and even opulent in appearance. A decorated silver thali, set out with floral decorations,became the hallmark of many high society occasions. Thali meals were promoted by the media as tourist attractions and sure enough, tourists who came in search of exoticism to India, were enchanted with the vast variety of vegetables and curries laid out in the thali-and-katori meal with aesthetic perfection. In the eyes of foreigners, Indian food became exotic, colourful, aromatic, and breathtakingly varied.
The Eighties saw food acquire an international grandeur. Many high class hotel chains and restaurant entrepreneurs set up Indian restaurants in every world capital. An international traveller could now eat Indian food in Tokyo, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Moscow, Frankfurt, Paris, Rome, London, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and many other cities. Not only Punjabi, but Indo British, Indo French, Goan, Konkani, Gujarati, Bengali and Rajasthani cuisines gradually acquired their own personalities and became distinct attractions in the hospitality and catering industry in India and abroad. With India organising cultural and trade festivals and fairs in many countries during the Seventies and Eighties, Indian food festivals travelled far and wide. An international market for rice, spices, masalas, pickles, poppadums and other goodies was created over the years.
A further development which helped the widespread availability of Indian food and the fascination of a global clientele towards its rich repertoire was the presence of large NRI communities in many countries, specially English speaking, in the post Independence decades.
Side by side, with the establishment of hotel management and catering institutes and training centres all over India, slowly but surely, professionalism gathered momentum in the industry. Young people from educated, upmarket families joined the trade as hotels and restaurants burgeoned. The food industry grew by leaps and bounds as the huge middle class - 350 million people - became affluent enough to eat luxury meals in restaurants. Slowly, fine dining became a familiar concept in cities and there was a search for ever new cuisines to attract the younger clientele.
As business grew, so did the need for entertaining. Home catering, speciality foods, cheeses, wines, champagnes, preserves, cold meats, frozen poultry and meat, fish, spices, masalas, pickles, canned goods, fresh frozen foods - all these received a hefty fillip. With outlets opening in every city, availability was quick and easy. To meet Indian taste, many foreign cuisines such as Italian, Mexican, Greek, Chinese, French and even Tibetan were mixed with local flavours to create fusion cuisines. Vegetables and fruits which were hitherto unfamiliar to Indians were grown on special farms in various regions. Asparagus, broccoli, baby corn, mushrooms, kiwi fruit and other exotica became commonly available in all markets. Speciality caterers multiplied and women, who were looking for a home-based industry, jumped on the band wagon of the catering industry in large numbers with their skills honed to perfection.
The result was that when satellite communications came to India at the start of the Nineties, the ground was already fertile for a revolution in the food and eating habits. With young people being exposed to world cultures through television, the food culture became rapidly internationalised. Simultaneously Indian food became one of the top three popular cuisines of the world - the other two being Chinese and French. Asia became "the continent of the next century" and Asian food, fashion and lifestyles held the world spell-bound. Today, in Britain, according to official surveys, every family, European or Asian, eats an Indian meal at last three times a week and one Indian restaurant meal at least once a week. The shelves of all supermarkets and luxury delicatessens are stacked high with tinned or frozen Indian food.
Bombay potatoes, chicken tikka masala," naan and several other foods are every day items in British homes. They are available in supermarkets and food shops off the rack any day, anytime. Quick heat-and-eat Indian meals are available at airports, railway stations and roadside cafes on the highways. Snacks such as samosas, bhajias and kachories are packed and sold in every food shop or supermarket chain.
London, it is reported, has more than 8000 Indian restaurants and the best restaurant award in 1999 went to La Port des Indes, an Indian restaurant which also offers items from the French colonial cuisine. More than a million packed Indian meals are sold every month to British supermarkets and airlines by just one firm in Britain, headed by Gulam Kader Noon, who was awarded the title "Asian of the Year" title in 1997. Every year, the BBC Food Show proves that more than half of the trade in food in Britain comes from India and the English language itself becomes enriched with the inclusion of more and more food-related words from Indian languages.
No story of Indian food can be complete without a description of the mind-blowing panorama of its luscious sweets and desserts. Bengal's rasagollas, gulab jamuns, sandesh and mishti dhoi have travelled everywhere. So have Punjabi, South Indian and Rajasthani phirnis, kheers, jalebis, barfis and pedhas. Milk, dry fruit, lentils, nuts and fresh fruit and vegetables are the ingredients of thousands of sweets which are sold prepacked or fresh in mithai shops everywhere.
The future holds great promise. Indian food is, by its very nature, exotic, scintillating and immensely varied. Now, at the turn of the new century, with its new, number one position in world popularity, it is poised to conquer the palates of millions of gourmets around the world.
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