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Sunanda K Datta-Ray: Conservative tastes

Indians, even the well-travelled and wealthy ones, are loath to try out the cuisine of other countries and regions

Sunanda K Datta-Ray 

Sunanda K Datta-Ray

Are there any Nepalese restaurants in India? I can't think of any to compare with the one in Singapore's smart Holland Village or the one I saw in Lisbon the other day, which served Nepalese as well as Italian food. Now, the owner of a Nepalese restaurant in London with the unlikely name of Monty's complains immigration restrictions prevent him from importing good chefs.

Mahanta Shrestha, Monty's owner, can't cater only to a handful of British army Gurkhas. His clients include locals, who have moved beyond sausages and boiled cabbage to more exotic fare, even if chicken tikka masala is a myth invented by the politician, Robin Cook. An open attitude to food usually goes hand in hand with freedom from other traditional constraints, and Nirad C Chaudhuri was probably justified in attributing his Anglicism to having scaled the dizzy heights of Gorgonzola. The £48-million float of a Lebanese restaurant chain confirms the catholicity of British taste.

It wasn't always so. I remember a North Country Englishman telling me in the 1950s that the meat had to be "a bit off" for anyone to disguise it in curry. Echoes of that provincialism resonated in Maggie Smith's assertion in the film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel that she wouldn't eat anything she couldn't pronounce.

It's a different Britain now. India is also changing but at a glacial pace that makes me wonder about P V Narasimha Rao's boast in Singapore that India had absorbed every foreign invader except the British. Our cuisine does, of course, betray Mughal, Afghan, Portuguese and British influences but these are people who lived among us and imported previously unknown fruits and vegetables. We still don't have Indian names for some of them, calling tomato belaiti baigun, for instance.

But why don't Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Bengaluru and Hyderabad have more restaurants serving food from countries that have not directly impacted on India? Money is the obvious reason, of course, for India is a poorer nation than readers of this newspaper might imagine. That sure index of economic buoyancy - settlers from abroad - is missing. Kolkata once boasted Jews, Armenians, Iranians and sundry European residents. The best restaurant was Italian; you could order Greek and Burmese takeaway meals.

Calcutta doesn't attract foreigners any longer. Delhi's foreign residents don't count because diplomats keep themselves to themselves, rarely contributing anything to the overall ambience. The young French and Germans in Mumbai's Bandra have made some difference to eating out but not as much as might be expected for, eating Indian is also part of the adventure for them. Import restrictions are also still a drawback, though not as severe as during those years when sharkskin soup was a casualty of the defeat at Bomdila.

All these difficulties would disappear if well-to-do Indians acquired a taste for foreign fare. That hasn't happened because even the richest are often prisoners of religion, caste and community. India is a village; society is essentially dehati. Village-level leaders, who have been catapulted to the national capital, haven't become cosmopolitan on the way. Cultural conditioning is not directly political.

A clerical-level official once kindly gave me a lift in his government jeep on a seven-hour drive from the airport to our destination in the hills. With him was his 12-year-old son. I stopped on the way for lunch at a restaurant I knew but my host refused to eat or drink anything. He wouldn't let his son do so either, rebuffing my invitations with an adamantly polite, "We are not habituated". Father and son remained hungry for those seven tedious hours while I ate and drank. Yet, they had lived in Mexico. How had they managed there? "His mother cooked," the man explained.

What is eaten, how it's eaten and when it's eaten can all be social indicators. Expecting Australia to be provincial English, I was surprised on my first visit when my socially ambitious hostess in Perth served cheese before the pudding. Later I learnt she had telexed Canberra's mission in Delhi about my eating habits and been told "cosmopolitan".

That couldn't be said of either the governor of a north-eastern state or the Communist Party of India (CPI) leader with whom I once visited Gujarat. Asked if he had sampled the local fare, the governor replied uncompromisingly, "Chaul-dal is always there". More Bengali than Communist, my CPI friend just couldn't eat food cooked in coconut oil. His frailty convinced me that the revolution - if it ever comes - will founder on the rock of India's culinary conservatism.

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First Published: Fri, June 24 2016. 21:45 IST