25 March 2012

You know what would make this hummus ten times better? Put some butter into it!

If thou thinkest that butter maketh the hummus... then I'm the ultimate snob and will offend you no end over the next few paragraphs.

One of the best things about London is that you get people from all parts of the world. And they bring their food with them. You can get a hearty Italian meal cooked by Italians in places like Il Bordelo, fresh Chinese stir fries (and a smattering of Chinese service) in Wong Kei in Chinatown, Punjabi food in Tayyab's, Bangladeshi food in Brick Lane, Ethiopian food on Caledonian Road, and all this and more in one of London's many street markets. Brick Lane Sunday Up Market... how I miss you. While I lived in London, week I was a boring health freak on weekdays and a massive foodie on the weekends.

Any Indian who's been to the UK cannot help but notice how all Indian food is clubbed under one umbrella term: 'curry'. Anyone who's spent any time there will have been asked 'oh, so you speak Indian?' and 'oh, so you can make curry?'. 'Curry houses' are associated with a particular sort of clientele. Drunk football and rugby fans, out to prove to each other that they can bear unbelievable amounts of chilly and are thus somehow manlier than the rest. Curry must always be accompanied by beer. Why? Because every western cuisine is designed to be had with some form of alcohol. So it would be unnatural to have a 'curry' without some form of alcohol too.

(As an aside, this is a particularly fun sketch about usual curry house clientele: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x4LHLM4WIw0. And here's a very famous role reversal sketch: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xdo79znnHl8)

Be that as it may, I find that things have got a lot better in recent times. You can get authentic food in the UK now. I once had a conversation in Punjabi with a portly lady who ran a restaurant in a small and remote suburb of Glasgow, and she assured me that all the food was personally supervised by her, tightly quality controlled to follow her family recipes. Hooligans aside, the foodie can get what he wants there.

Not quite so in Mumbai.

When I go to Cafe Mocha and am informed that they don't grind their own coffee beans but use pre-ground powder, my heart skips a beat. When they tell me they do not have a french press to give me coffee in, I almost punch someone in the face. When Olive, apparently a 'five star' eatery tell me that they make their pizzas in industrial style metal ovens instead of wood ovens, my jaw drops and breaks a floor tile. When Mia Cucina serves me a pasta dish with so much garlic and spice that Dracula wouldn't come within five miles of me, I start inventing imaginary Indian vampires that do not mind garlic and invite them to sink their fangs deep into me. Okay, really hot Indian vampires. With perfect bodies. And beautiful faces. And clean fangs.

Look, I don't mind fusion cuisine at all. But it's the same as with music. In order to fuse A and B, you first need a deep understanding and appreciation of both A and B. And sometimes, I want to listen to have just A or B. Sometimes I just want to have good, honest, authentic pizza baked the way the Italians do it, in a wood oven. Sometimes I want to be able to choose a coffee, have it roasted just the way I like it, have it ground and then brew it to the strength I like. Sometimes, I want to be transported to a different culture, a different life through authentic food. Sometimes, I just want simple flour-yeast-salt-water bread. Sometimes I just want some chickpea-tahini-garlic-lemon-olive oil hummus. Is that too much to ask?

The food tragedy of our country is that we are not open to try new things. We have family recipes and we defend them till kingdom come. We do not experiment with food like in the west. In India, if you want pasta, you have a choice of three (four if you're lucky) shapes of pasta, and two sauces - red and white. That's a grand total of eight dishes (if you're lucky). That, for a food that is the most versatile in the world. You can do anything with pasta. Make it hot, cold, dry, wet, plain, complicated... whatever you want. Pasta originated as the poor man's food; a convenient way to store flour for long periods without it rotting. Yet, it can be part of a Michelin Star menu. Run a search on BBC food for pasta recipes, and you'll be amazed at what you can do with it.

The food tragedy of our country is that we want to desify all the food that we come across. Which is very strange, because we adopt western clothes and music no questions asked.

I say, recognize the goodness of world cuisine for what it is first, and then go on and do whatever fusion you want to do. We spice our food so much because historically, India is where so many spices come from. That doesn't mean we can't enjoy food from other parts of the world that aren't spice based. Enjoy your ultra spicy butter chicken, but also appreciate the humble hummus with pita bread (also flour-yeast-salt-water). Variety, as they say, is the spice of life.

Imagine my surprise when I make some lovely caramelized onion hummus, and am told by the biggest Indian foodie I know to add butter to it. 'I had it at Chai Coffee... it tastes amazing'.


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