Why Isn’t India Ever on the World’s 50 Best Restaurant List?


Why Isn’t India Ever on the World’s 50 Best Restaurant List?

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

Last night, we witnessed the Oscars of the food world. The coveted list of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants was announced and were awarded for serving “Green over brown over black: camouflage rice”, “Duck with rhubarb and onion” and other exotic dishes whose names are a mouthful – but portions probably aren’t.

The eateries were awarded for coming up with innovations like an emoji-focused tasting menu. Over the years, the foodie Oscars have evolved and it is not only about what’s on your plate but also about the chef’s philosophy, the restaurant’s hospitality, and sustainability. Since it is 2018, and chefs and food personalities occupy the same space as rock stars like Mick Jagger once did. Ushered by the unbridled growth of social media, food and its purveyors are slowly taking over the world, one plate at a time.

This year, the rankings have a couple of new entrants apart from the usual gastronomic temples. And while lists are odious and meant to be disagreed with, more than a few feathers have been left ruffled: India has zero restaurants on the honours roll.

Our “bada hai toh behtar hai” attitude has turned us into fine dining’s worst enemy.

Zero. Let that sink in. That’s quite a let-down for a country of 1.32 billion people with each corner of each state boasting of a cuisine of its own. Why?

Our food’s pretty fucking good, every corner of the country packs more flavour than a million sachets of Maggi. We’re the OGs of hospitality with our “atithi devo bhava” philosophy. We live to eat, but we’ve never made it to the coveted list. In the Asia equivalent of the list, we’ve had Delhi’s Indian Accent for a couple of years, which is nothing short of spectacular. A magical place that serves galauti kebab topped with foie gras.

But what is it that ails us in the world-class restaurant department?  

As an editor at Buzzfeed so succinctly put it, the answer will shock you. When it comes to the hallowed halls of fine dining, we are our own worst enemy. Our “bada hai toh behtar hai” attitude has turned us into fine dining’s worst enemy.

When fine dining first came to India in the mid-nineties, it usually meant your plates were black instead of the usual white and your chicken tikka masala was topped with a rose of shaved carrot and called “Murg tikka-e-lababdar” to justify its above-median pricing. In the intervening years, we have the odd Bombay Canteen, which attempts to usher in a new, more gentrified approach to some of our much-loved staple foods without relying too much on the gastro-fuckery that is spheres and foams and fluid gels.

But sadly, such restaurants are almost always the bastion of a select few. When the dust settles and the seeti on the pressure cooker stops , supply will always cater to demand. If we’re hell bent on eating nothing but biryani and butter chicken and demand for daal tadka at a restaurant that serves a 12-course modern Indian tasting menu, then little can change. What we fail to understand is those dainty morsels spread over 12 courses are enough to make you loosen your belt by a couple of notches.

There are tastes to be discovered, sensations to be experienced, and textures to tease your teeth beyond butter, cream, and ghee. But fuck all that, roti pe butter thoda jyada daalna boss.

This is not to say that we are a bunch of rudimentary bumpkins – our own complex cuisines are a testament to that. You think biryani is an easy dish to make? What about our complex matrix of masalas that are mixed and melded to make magic? We’ll happily harp about how our mom toasts each ingredient for a chutney separately so as to layer the flavours, resulting in a condiment that’ll make your tastebuds climax.

What, then, happens to us when we venture out to eat? Why don’t we bring the same attitude of experiencing complexity to eating out? Where do we lose the adventurousness?

Over the world, diners hand over their sensory and gustatory reigns to the chef. They step out of their comfort zones, allow another person to guide them through a landscape of taste, texture, sight, and smell, carefully constructed through years of training. It all leads up to this one singular point where it’s just you, your fork and the chef’s philosophy on the plate.

The next time you dine out, lose that packet of sev you travel with. You’ll be richer for it. It’s what that motivational poster you see on Facebook is all about: Send your money on experiences, not things.

Or we can continue the way we’re headed, not giving a fuck about the philosophy or which ecosystem we had to pillage to get strawberries out of season. And this is why we will always be that one country which makes chefs like Gaggan Anand and Floyd Cardoz, who are gods in the game, move overseas. And this is why we are at least a decade away from having a restaurant among the top 50 in the world.