Last night we ate out at an Indian restaurant. What’s the big deal, you may ask.
Well, this was an Indian restaurant outside India; in the UK to be more specific and we were going there purely because they serve absolutely authentic biryani. That was reason enough for me and my husband to go seeking it out.
Being an Indian outside India, one cannot help but hunt out good Indian food and venture out of the way to sample it. So there we were, sitting in an Indian restaurant, which by the way also happens to have a few Michelin stars to it’s credit.
On browsing through the menu some really interesting dishes jumped out. First things first, who can resist chaat, so although we were there for biryani, but the tantalising chaat in the starters section beckoned.
We ordered a plate of mixed chaat. A while later, the waiter came in carrying a large white rectangular plate of beautiful concoctions- works of pure edible art. The ensemble in the centre was all creamy, with brown swirls flowing through. Wow! Someone’s dessert order, I thought. I was almost about to tell the waiter that we had ordered chaat and not the dessert. And then my myopic eyes focussed a bit and to my horror I found myself staring at three, teeny tiny portions of chaat sitting pretty on a huge, largely empty white plate.
We decided to look at it as a half-full plate and managed to smile a feeble, polite smile of thanks to the waiter. I am sure he was laughing inwardly.
A few selfies and unabashed food photos later, we sat to admire our plate of molecular gastronomy.
On my extreme right, sat a single, crunchy poori filled with a teaspoon of spiced dahi, sprinkled with a bit of sev and topped with a solitary pomegranate seed, sparkling like a jewel. At the price that we were paying, I was hoping it would be red ruby in disguise.
Next, occupying pride of place in the centre was a fluffy aloo tikki, smothered with half a cup of spiced yoghurt[ dahi], a brownish-purple tamarind sauce spread over the dahi in the form of streaks running artistically across. A drop of green chutney, sorry, sauce completed the creation. Must say the chef was an artist in more forms than one, not to mention a wee bit miserly. Okay, I tried to control my middle class thinking. This is fine dining. This is how it’s supposed to be in the upper echleons of society. But since when did chaat become upper class? Or fine dining?
Anyway, the third item was the piece de resistance- a cylindrical neatly compacted mass of bhel sitting upright and proud with a lonely flat poori angled into it’s top. Phew.
Just describing this piece of art has taken my breath away.
This is not how I’m used to seeing or eating chaat.
The pooris always need the company of atleast a team of 5-6 pooris to be comfy and safe in the plate, the sev needs to be plentiful, lavishly spread all over the place, almost spilling off the plate; the chutneys need to be in generous dollops,not just little streaks that tease the brain, but leave the rest to imagination. But hey , this was fine dining and this was after all a Michelin starred place. How could I argue with that. So before deconstructing and destroying the mini sculptures, we took a few minutes of silence to take in the sight of this culinary marvel. It also took a few minutes to figure out how to use a fork and knife to dine elegantly on the lone dahi poori.
Now as this chaat was costing us a mini fortune, we decided to share the plate between us. I know, how miserly. So to be fair, we dissected the poori and tikki into halves. Even the bhel cylinder got evenly divided. I magnanimously allowed the husband to have the entire flat poori from the bhel. After all, he let me have the pomegranate seed. We were determined to enjoy this experience to its fullest.
So instead of chomping and stuffing our faces greedily with chaat as we usually do, we let each bite linger in the mouth for a little bit longer, allowing the palate to partake of this wondrous moment for a few seconds more, delaying the gratification, making it last. Yes, for full paisa-vasool [ getting money’s worth]of this fine dining.
Okay they give you very little. But why? At the price they charge,why couldn’t they throw in few more pooris or at least a few more teaspoons of chutney?
I am trying to understand why they do that. Most people who eat at such places come from an affluent background- you know, ‘khatey-peetey ghar ke log’[ well-fed people, to translate loosely]. So I suppose the already well-fed folks need little by way of nutrition and eat at these places mostly for the social interaction and the genteel pursuit of stimulating the taste buds. The palate scores over the stomach.
But sorry, but we who were were brought up middle class in India are used to eating until our tummies are nicely full. There is a certain satisfaction in having a fully inflated stomach at the end of a meal, trying to suppress a burp but failing to suppress a yawn. I mean, isnt that the true test of a happy tummy? A soporific feeling after a meal is what gratfication is about about for us. So when someone dishes out 2 millilitres of the purest nectar embellished with a few Michelin stars, one has to pretend really hard to feel satisfied. Even if the eyes have feasted lustily and the tongue has indulged indolently, until the poor stomach is satiated, I’m sorry but for people like me, the brain remains dissatisfied and disappointed.
Chaat is traditionally eaten off a haath–gaadi, a roadside cart. Our guts may not always be able to stomach the bugs that come off the chaat vendor’s hands and his cart. So we eat chaat in a restaurant that uses hygienic mineral water and other means to serve up a chaat sans germs. But the charm of chaat lies in it’s informality, it’s basic simplicity, it’s tangy-spicy, eyes and mouth-watering chutneys and masala laced liquids, it’s anti-social onion-laden piquancy and of course the fact that you cannot stop at just ONE measly poori….you need lots until you feel satisfied. That is what chaat is to me and those like me.
So although some of us can afford to go and indulge in a restaurant that serves Indian food in a non-Indian fashion, we just cannot bring ourselves to pretend that what we are being served in atomic proportions is real food. A sample- yes.
I suppose, for those unfamiliar with Indian food, this is a brilliant way to sample Indian food, including chaat. That explains the miniscule portions- perhaps it is for preventing food wastage. Chaat and other spicy food may not be to everyone’s taste. So, yes I understand the size zero chaat portions. But then my middle class mentality starts mentally calculating how many packets of pani puris one can buy at that price, how many plates of chaat could be bought at an unpretentious Indian restaurant in the UK at the same price and then the mind wildly guesses how many haath-gaadis of chaat one could buy out for that price!
I know, I know, people like me are not meant to go for fine dining experiences. To get value for money, why not just go to a basic Indian restaurant which dishes out Indian food the way it should served- there are plenty of those in the UK.
But then I ask what is so special about the fine dining chaat? It’s all about the ambience, you see. The way the food is presented, the way the cutlery is arranged, the way the server speaks to you , explains what is being served. I am still not convinced why it is called fine dining. I mean, apart from the frills mentioned, if they threw in a free foot massage, that would make it fine dining. My scientific mind thinks that if we closed our eyes and tasted Chaat from a dining place and one from a regular no-frills place, could we tell the difference?
Now, to be fair, fine dining places like the one where I had this very interesting chaat experience do have some authentic dishes on the menu, where the portions may be stingy but the dish scores on the taste front. Yes, the biryani lived up to it’s reputation, albeit at a steep price.
Also, some very innovative creations come out of these kitchens. For instance, the same restaurant had desserts like the crème brulee in rose and garam masala flavours. Yes, they were fantastic Indo-French culinary fusions and well worthy of the ‘fine dining’ label. Or the time we had something called a ‘Paan shot’ which is a drink made by blending paan[ betel leaf] with cream and a few spices, served in a shot glass, to be had after a meal. This was in a restaurant desperately trying for a Michelin star and hope they get one soon, but please, oh please do not increase your prices and slash your portion sizes further. Also , can we not serve Indian food like it is French food? Why does a single coriander leaf have to sit atop the food? Why can’t the coriander be chopped fine and sprinkled over liberally as a garnish instead of mimicking French cuisine with its parsley sprig?
I am dreading the day some clever restaurateur starts serving Indian food imitating Japanese sushi and lays out chopsticks to delicately pick up dhokla or idli or dosa and dip it into the sambar dipping sauce. Or is that taking fine dining a little too far?