Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Why are so many Indian restaurants in the US so pretentious?

 ….he is not a man obsessed with the freshness of quality of his ingredients.  Cooking for him is a craft of spice and oil.  His food burns the tongue, and clogs the arteries.   The Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid’s description of a cook in “The Third Born” aptly describes more than 90% of the cooking done at Indian restaurants in the United States.  These are blunt instruments that downsample Indian food into a monochrome of caricatures.  And they do so in restaurants named after the India of the princes and the India of the British, an ambiance desperate for an illusion of what was an illusion to start with.

Evoking grandeur and the exotic is an old formula. Here is the Indian writer R. K. Narayan, describing his experience at an Indian restaurant in the San Francisco of 1956: “Its elaborate and self-consciously planned Indian atmosphere, dim light, long coats, bogus Indian tunes out of gramophones hidden in the arras, more bogus bric-a-brac are deliberate, but I suppose, commercially successful.  Chappati and Indian curry are genuine and are not bogus.  A waitress clad in a sari, an usher in a long coat buttoned to the neck, create an Indian atmosphere, which seems to appeal to San Franciscans as I find all tables booked, and women dressed in caps and gowns, which outdo Fifth Avenue style, sit with an air of facing an impending adventure, while reading the menu card, and utter little cries of ‘delicious, delicious’, when they sample a curry.

This could be a restaurant in Los Angeles today.  Gentle sitar music, can make it easier to chew on a tough naan.

Credit for this brand image has to be given to the first Indian restaurateur in the US, Prince Ranji Smile, a minor social character in the New York of the early 1900s, and a man of uncertain orgins and tall claims.  Ranji came to New York and spent several years as an Indian chef who held visiting appointments at some of the big restaurants of the day.  While he was never able to fulfil his dream of opening his own restaurant, he, more than any other, brought the message of Indian food as being something exotic, something brushing royalty, that—as he advertised—would make women more beautiful.

To be sure, Indian food is not considered highbrow.  Inglis and Gimlin give an interesting statistic in The Globalization of Food.  In the hierarchy of Zagat 2006 check averages, a measure of the “exclusivity” of the food,  Indian check averages stand at $33.85, below French ($47.81), Japanese (46.72), Italian (42.27), Greek (38.71), and Spanish (37.73).

Starting about 5 years ago, a new theme emerged in Indian restaurants—desi chic, inspired by Bollywood and the folksy color combinations promoted by Indian ad agencies.  The developments were apparent to me in the tale of two restaurants, almost next to one another, in Mt. Kisco, NY.  One of them is A Passage to India, straight out of E. M. Forster, a member of the old colonial genre that—as far as I could see—had been languishing for years.  Then came the impulsive upstart, a colorful chunky little joint called The Little Kebab Place, with remixed disasters of 70s Hindi classics thumping on its speakers, and truck art on its walls--nobody would trace its genes to Rajput royalty.  And this restaurant was packed.  So packed, that its owner bought out the two adjacent stores and expanded out into a couple of other restaurants.  The three places burst at the seams, while the old brand languishes.

There is a lesson to be learnt there.

And then there are the contemporary east-west fusion experiences in upscale Manhattan that will charge you the price of your first born for Indian street food presented as if it were French.  These are the places that get various assorted stars, from assorted city newspapers, from assorted critics who know Indian food like Indians know rock music. 

Indian food has always had to put on an act, the projection of an image that isn’t.  As if the food simply wasn't enough.  And, in many cases, it isn't.  There are exceptions to this hypothesis.  One is Shalimar in San Francisco, a rough-hewn Punjabi-Pakistani place that my friend C thinks could be a transplanted truck stop from India.  Mallu Cafe in Philadelphia, has the kind of unashamed originality that makes you want to throw back your collar and shove a handkerchief in it to soak in the heat. A third is Saravana Bhavan on Mary Road in San Jose, part of a successful international restaurant chain, that has maintained its stainless steel and tubelight like lighting innocence of a dosa place, where no means yes with a headshake.  And finally there is Neerob, in the Bronx, a Bangladeshi place, so original in its speech, being, and sounds that I find myself speaking in the rounded English of the Bengali when I am there, as in “nayeen owan phor” area code.  These are places that give you the ambiance of the original because—as far as I can see—there has been no attempt at gaming this.


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