The kingdoms of times past had ‘high cuisines’ composed of refined and exclusive dishes created by highly skilled cooks using ingredients and techniques from a multitude of regions. Unfortunately, not much is left of such grand dining in Southasia. There are indeed countless regional and ethnic cuisines, from Newari to Malabari to the newly popularised dishes of royal India. These are a delight to explore, but a true high cuisine needs to be different from daily fare in the quality of the ingredients and in the sophistication of the techniques employed in preparation.
It has been argued that a high cuisine only exists in societies that are very stratified. Southasian societies are as stratified as societies can be, but they still lack such a cuisine. I would suggest that it may in fact be the extreme level of stratification that explains this absence. While it is common for Southasia’s educated and professional classes to employ cooks at home, the overwhelming majority of such cooks receive no formal education or training. They prepare a limited range of dishes that they learned in their own homes or under the instruction of their employers. The elites depend on their cooks for their daily meals, and are used to eating whatever these cooks set on the table. The convenience of having somebody prepare their meals seems to have significantly more weight than the householder’s interest in cultivating their own tastes and their employee’s skills. This means that the elites end up eating pretty much the same food as everybody else.
Southasia’s privileged differentiate their food from the food of the masses not by building on the old royal cuisines, but by eating foreign dishes, predominantly Western. When it comes to the culture of food, colonialism seems to have been passively accepted. By leaving local and regional cuisines out of the realm of fine dining, the elites mark their difference from the common folk, while also accepting a status of cultural inferiority at the international level.
With a few notable exceptions, the relatively rare ‘fine’ restaurants in Southasia that actually offer Southasian food serve either a weakened or a mummified version of the local cuisine. The weakened version is often the result of trying to cater to what is perceived to be the tastes of foreigners or clientele from other parts. Restaurants that favour this strategy make good business but not very good food. They seem to be ashamed to serve local food as it really exists, and they also lack the confidence to refine it according to a region’s own taste paradigms.
Other restaurants do serve unadulterated local foods but they behave like museums, collecting and displaying dishes of a long-dead or endangered tradition. In high-end Nepali restaurants in Kathmandu the food is good and the atmosphere elegant, but the local food culture is not presented as either alive or vibrant. Eating in these establishments feels like attending a funeral. Delhi restaurants, meanwhile, pretend to be museums of Mughlai cuisine, and serve a predictable set of uninspired versions of old dishes. Butter chicken and toxic-red-coloured tandoori chicken have little similarity to the royal dishes that are described in historical records. Where does one have to go to savour apricot-flavoured lamb or duck stuffed with walnuts and cherries? There are fewer and fewer cooks who know the old royal cuisines firsthand, and their knowledge is likely to die with them. Meanwhile, some of their invaluable learning has become the patented property of big hotel chains. The search for high Southasian cuisine seems to be a job better suited for archaeologists and historians than for gourmet food lovers.
The problem is not that traditional dishes have been changed. On the contrary, for a cuisine to be alive its fare must be constantly evolving. The problem occurs when the changes that are effected come from the desire to make the cuisine palatable to outsiders, instead of from within the logic of the cuisine itself and according to the taste preferences of the people who cook and eat it regularly. To reclaim the gourmet repertoires of the past, a new Southasian high cuisine must start by respecting their logic, aesthetics and epistemology, instead of submitting to the standards of Western cuisines. Foreigners, for their part, should train their palates and learn to appreciate real Southasian cooking.
The mutilation and subordination of local cuisines in the fine-restaurant scenario is even more shameful when we consider that their rightful place is taken by second-rate renditions of Western and other foreign cookery. Kathmandu stands out as an exception in Southasia, because there you can find excellent cooking in a variety of international cuisines. But elsewhere, to have a ‘Western’ meal means to eat either fast food at a McDonalds or a Pizza Hut, or outdated French dishes at an expensive hotel restaurant.
Those preparing Western cuisines in Southasia are unlikely to have had any direct knowledge of the dishes that they prepare. They also have little access to crucial ingredients such double-cream butter, cheese or wine. Their knowledge comes almost entirely from the manuals that the French painstakingly put together in the 1970s in an effort to standardise their cuisine and present it to the world as a model for emulation. As has been the case in other realms, the written word is vanquishing orally transmitted knowledge.
There does need to be a systematic effort underway to put Southasia’s culinary knowledge into writing. Writing down recipes, and writing about food preparation and consumption, has been a fundamental part of the creation of high cuisines elsewhere. It is important to systematise recipes and techniques, but this need not be prescriptive. Such documentation is rather intended to give a solid culinary foundation on which new dishes can be built.
At the moment, the status of writing about food in the Subcontinent is quite rudimentary. Food shows and cookbooks present traditional recipes that have not benefited from professional testing or development. There is a growing trend of food writing in newspapers, composed mostly of general information and restaurant reviews. These are a start, but a few distinct and confident voices are needed to help launch a revival of Southasian cuisines as high cuisine. There is no such voice right now.
Currently, the most recognised food writer in India is probably Vir Sanghvi of the Hindustan Times, who has recently published a book of collected food columns titled Rude Food. Unfortunately, Sanghvi’s desire to be considered a man of the world turns his essays into little more than pretentious lessons in Western high dining. Out of 65 essays, only seven are devoted to what he calls “desi delights”. The rest rave about foods alien to Indian cuisine, from hot dogs and risotto to the most prized ingredients of French cuisine (foie gras, caviar, truffles, oysters). His book reinforces the idea that fine dining can only be Western. Indian cuisine is treated as an attachment that you need to outgrow in order to prove your food-expert credentials. There is no need to point out that this is the exact opposite of what is required for us to overcome the colonisation of Southasian culinary knowledge.
Southasians have successfully contested the colonial myth of the superiority of Western culture, so why are they accepting a second-rate status in the realm of fine dining? Why are they not bothering to stimulate the continuous development of local and regional cuisines towards a high-cuisine level? Where are the artists of Southasian cuisine? How are they to be trained and sustained, with neither the old apprenticeship system nor the professional schools that have taken its place elsewhere? Is Southasian high cuisine going to be extinct, like so many other languages and cultural expressions apparently incompatible with the modern world?
The next time I visit Nepal I want to see Nepali dishes served with pride at my hotel restaurant. I want to listen to my friends enthusiastically discuss the menu at the newest Nepali eatery, and debate the merits of its interpretation of classic dishes. I want to see cooks who use Western ingredients and techniques as only one more tool for their creativity. I want to eat at a fashionable momo shop with a menu of over 20 kinds of dumplings. I want to see foreign chefs traveling to Nepal and India, Pakistan and Bangladesh to learn how to prepare their cuisines properly. Only then will Southasia again have a high cuisine.