A Chronicle of a Culinary Clusterfuck

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A Chronicle of a Culinary Clusterfuck

I

didn’t really know about the Great Indian Buffet until I went to the United States. In Silicon Valley, that land of kale, quinoa salad, and artisanal toast, I discovered that for as little as $12.99, you could gorge alongside Indian techies and their non-Indian co-workers on coma-inducing lunches: all-you-can-eat saag paneer, chicken tikka masala, and lamb biryani. Back then, I would fall upon this all-Indian (OK, all-Punjabi-Mughlai) buffet in deep gratitude. But now that I’m home, I can’t help cringing at the sight of that assembly-line bastardised food.

The multi-cuisine buffet is the pride of modern India. It is also the bane of good dining. It takes several perfectly good, culturally sound, and clearly differentiated cuisines and mashes them to unrecognisable pulp. There is no Chinese-Mughlai-Italian, people. Just like there is no chef in the world who specialises in Bengali-Lebanese-Thai. A certificate on a restaurant wall bragging about awards for multi-cuisine offerings is not a badge of honour. It is a culinary tramp stamp. It’s like putting “Jack of all trades” on your CV. You will never get hired, I assure you.

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I remember a Kolkata restaurant that prided itself on serving authentic Bangladeshi food, as distinct from its West Bengal cousin. For me, this was the epitome of culinary nuance, Bengali-style: One side’s prawn malaikari stacked up against the other side’s lyata-fish bharta. The next time I looked at their menu, half of it was proudly offering crispy baby corn and the works. It was like they were terrified that a customer might come in, see there was no Manchurian chicken on the menu, and bolt out of the door.

Recently, I went to a Sachin Tendulkar-themed restaurant where we were presented with multi-cuisine sizzlers with your choice of continental brown sauce and garlic toast, Chinese bang bang sauce and noodles, and Indian masala sauce and baby kulcha. Just for the heck of it, I wanted to ask for Chinese bang bang sauce with baby kulchas. I didn’t. Mainly because I fear they would have cheerfully served it. There is no sin, they believe, in mixing the unmixable.

The multi-cuisine restaurant has become a symbol of “new India”, where you can have it all. A restaurant that serves only one type of food seems outdated to us, a throwback to an old India where you basically had one kind of car, one kind of chocolate, and one television channel. Now we have choices and we want all of them laid out in front of us. Multi-cuisine is the culinary manifestation of what we have always aspired to be in post-socialist India – to be spoilt for choice.

Multi-cuisine, many believe, is the bedrock of the happy Indian family. It remains true to our proclivity for collectivism, where no one has to sacrifice their food choices for the sake of the other. But hey, can’t we take turns satisfying one family member on each night out? Can’t we commit to one cuisine for one night? Is that too much to ask for? Let’s have Chinese tonight, Dad. Tomorrow we will have Italian. Bittu, shut up, there’s nothing like chicken chilly masala noodles. It’s not that difficult to say; try it one night. It might even help build your conflict-resolution skill that will be useful in your life.

A multi-cuisine restaurant might sound like it is serving diversity on a plate, but it’s not. It’s a spineless hack. It reeks of the establishment’s little faith in its core competency. It’s like a multiple-choice question that desperately tries to assure you that at least one of the answers is the correct one. I have more respect for my shabby little teashop across the street. For half a century now, it has been selling mutton stew, mutton korma, and chicken roast by the quarter plate. It still has the same fish fry and chicken cutlets it sold when we were children. Everything runs out by 7:30 pm, and it’s never short of business. Its clientele is loyal and keeps coming back, even though it refuses to branch out into biryanis and momos. Now that’s what I call a backbone.

Multi-cuisine is the culinary manifestation of what we have always aspired to be in post-socialist India – to be spoilt for choice.

This is not to say multi-cuisine menus have not done anything for the evolution of food. A food blogger tells me that it’s a baby step into trying new things like broccoli and baby corn (we just can’t get away from the baby corn, can we?). But that is the weird paradox of the multi-cuisine restaurant. It seems to be about embracing the world, pushing our food frontiers, but it’s really much more about playing it safe, allowing diners to never really venture out of their comfort zone.

The customer gets to be king but in a dumbed-down kingdom of boneless chicken breast, basa fillets, and paneer cubes, all tossed with varying permutations and combinations of coconut milk, tomato purée, and soy sauce in the name of Thai or Italian or Chinese. Even as multi-cuisine offerings, they become mere approximations of the cultures they are supposed to represent – a babyfoodification of world cuisine.

But no matter how much I rant and rail against it, I fear this is a losing battle. In a world where consumer choice is deified, multi-cuisine establishments’ stock keeps going up, no matter its quality. According to my restaurant directory, it has become a bona fide cuisine type on its own, just like Tandoori or Italian or Chinese. My spellcheck still does not recognise it, but it will eventually. Multi-cuisine is here to stay. After all, nothing else says “sab ka saath, sab ka vikaas” like an all-in-one plate.

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