Two obvious aspects stand-out about eating-out in Delhi: one, the almost overwhelming inclination among its restaurateurs to “cast food to their own taste” (here: notice the terrifying resemblance with E’lohim, the Hebrew-God of Genesis); two, the act of eating-out is just that: an act, which has less to do with the relatively simple pleasures of gastronomic-gratification, and is significantly more concerned with being seen- and heard- at the right places. Naturally, both these aspects tend to “feed-on”, if the expression can be merited, each other.
Since Delhi’s diners aren’t really concerned with what they dine-on so much as who they are seen dining with, restaurateurs remain more focused on getting the right kind of people than procuring the right kind of ingredients: with perhaps one or two notable exceptions, most of the exotic fare- Oyster Rockefeller, for instance- listed on menus are, on the rare occasion that they are called for, conspicuously absent. Not that Delhiites seem to mind one bit: the “Punjabification”- if the term can be applied- of their palate is now, more than ever before, a fiat accompli, and chefs all over town are, with remarkable dexterity and imagination, happily adapting spaghetti bolognaise or even a Peking-duck to meet the boisterous flavors of say, a chicken-tandoori (incidentally post-colonial India’s most famous contribution to world cuisine). Subtle hints of flavoring that more often than not constitute the epicurean’s ecstasy, are being revised- perhaps ‘intensified’ is a more appropriate term- to meet the challenges of the native taste-bud, which has, over long centuries of dominating the world’s fiery spice-trade, grown rather accustomed to full-blown onslaughts; the result, of course, is neither here nor there. Quite by accident, Delhi has entered into that most fashionable era of “fusion-foods”, which is now something of a rage in the West. Well, come to think of it, it’s not so much a fusion of foods as it is outright-domination of one kind of food (the Punjabi kind, in this instance) over another kind of food: the nationalist-historian’s postulate that “Delhi culturally conquers her political conquerors” holds true for much of the so-called foreign fare available in the city.
Contrast this with Mumbai- that “other” city on India’s west coast- where diners’ zeal to sample world cuisine, no doubt a manifestation of their more adventurous spirit, has propelled eating-establishments to procure ever-more novel ingredients to create “authentic” and ever-expanding menus in what has now metamorphosed into a veritable kaleidoscope of the global food-market. The rampant mushrooming of specialty-restaurants all over Town- and in her numerous exciting suburbs- bears quaint testimony to this most happy phenomenon. In the past two years or so, there have been rudimentary indications of prototypical-exodus by some of the more enterprising Mumbai restaurateurs to Delhi, but this has done little to alter the latter’s dining culture. Delhi-diners’ resistance to embrace change of any sort remains adamantly unabated. The only silver-lining, if one can call it that, is that this resistance is somewhat diluted when applied to spirits: while the city reportedly continues to consume more bottles of Black Label than are actually produced in all of Johnnie Walker distilleries in Scotland, there has been a slight shift towards niche-alcohols, the most notable of which is “single-malts” and of course, cocktails. Wines, especially the full-bodied reds, which one presumed went-down rather well with traditional Indian fare, have, for some inexplicable reason, not caught-on. Perhaps, it doesn’t fit-in with the “macho” sensibility of the capital’s dining-culture: Wine, after all, is for Women?
Well, it isn’t quite as simple as that. In Delhi, more than anywhere else in India, eating-out is infused with a sense of- some might call it misplaced- machismo. With the exception of weekly “kitty-parties”, women don’t dine-out on their own; when they do, most of them are accompanied- “taken-out” is more appropriate- by men. This might be due to a variety of reasons: the persistence of patriarchal inertia- the traditional demarcation of gender-roles- coupled with the perception that women don’t feel quite as ‘safe’ in Delhi as they might in Mumbai are the two most prominent. However, the city’s conservative dining-culture is not due to its domination by men- who since they don’t usually cook might tend to be less susceptible to the subtleties of gourmet-cookery but compensate this relative lack of appreciation by being, on the whole, more adventurous in trying out new kinds of cuisine- but merely its symptom. If anything, the further proliferation of “metrosexual” men in the city’s restaurants might well have become an instrument of transformation of a more fundamental sort: eating-out, paradoxically, isn’t about eating anymore; in Delhi, it had seldom been, but now, even the pretence is vanishing. The “happening joints” of today aren’t really focused on food at all: they are all about aplomb, glamour- a bit risqué, perhaps- and mightily glitzy. It’s where one gets hitched, or hooked, or- with an air of a succes de scandale- booked. To put it differently: it’s the unabashed worship of the Cult of Machismo: the brandishing of the phallus- whether in terms of irreverent power, vulgar displays of wealth, or even the not-so-subtle hunger for social aggrandizement- to which both the contemporary man and woman aspire. Yet the question remains, like an enigma: does brandishing of phallus necessarily imply the banishment of food? One might think the contrary: sex and food, experience informs, have always been two-sides of the same coin. In much of the literature available, the act of consumption has been compared to the act of copulation. Why then this dichotomy?
The answer lies in contemporary norms of the body-beautiful: the historical bias towards voluptuousness has given way- over the past century or so of systematic bombardment in mass-media of a particular notion of homogenous anorexic-beauty, applicable equally to both sexes- to its exact opposite. The very act of eating has taken on psycho-sociological undertones; while Dante might have condemned gluttony to Purgatory in the after-life, modern society has taken a surprisingly liberal view towards what constitutes gluttony (virtually everything does) coupled with a rather sinister view of purgatory (which begins here, in this life, as a social-outcast). Low-fat high-roughage diets, calorie counters and fat-free cooking, while pretending to be a celebration of New Food, have infact done more damage to the culture of eating-out than anything else. From time immemorial, civilization had sought to elevate eating from being a crude, necessary act of sustenance into a form of high-art, something people might even feel happy about. Over the past half-century, the reverse has happened: eating suddenly became associated with guilt. The fragmentation of society has meant that it is no longer a communal- or even a familial- ritual, as it once was, but instead something that individuals do, alone and often in front of their TV monitors.
Indeed, it would appear that the capital’s relationship with food is in a flux; it’s uneasy, at best. A majority of Delhi restaurants have a remarkably functional- perhaps even baser- existence: they cater to the contemporary nuclear-family’s need for sustenance. With both parents working, who has the time to cook at home? Take-out is the new mantra, and as always, our restaurateurs are fast to catch-on. Food is factory-produced: people pay more to eat less. Thankfully, Delhi has been more resistant to the homogenization overtures of global food corporations: there is no doubt that tandoori-chicken will survive the attack of the Big Mac. (Last heard, the Big Mac was posing as the Maharaja Burger, minus the beef; and Curry had replaced fish-and-chips as The UK’s staple.) The point however is this: it’s not about the battle of desi vs. foreign foods; it’s most definitely not about a post-modern feminist reclamation of public-dining spaces from machismo’s stranglehold; it’s not even about rescuing food from pangs of community-enforced psycho-sexual guilt; what eating-out is about, then, is the conflagration, co-existence, commingling and celebration of every conceivable kind of food mankind- and womankind- has endeavored to create, all within the confines of one city, one community: D’illi.
In the previous section on “Eating Out in D’illi”, I made certain not-so-generous observations on what can broadly be labeled as the capital’s dining-culture; expectedly, the response has been furious. Among other things, I’ve been charged with deliberately avoiding illustrations of these observations with real-life examples. Unfortunately, that accusation is not entirely incorrect: frankly, picking-on particular establishments for the sake of illustrating a point seems a bit- forgive the expression- distasteful. Infact, if anything, I believe the capital, despite the general downswing in its dining-culture, does indeed have remarkably fine eating establishments (restaurants), although these are more in the nature of exceptions than norms. After careful deliberation, I venture to submit, for the kind consideration of the epicurean-reader, a definitive List of the top five eating establishments in India’s capital.
In arriving at the List, the following three points have been taken into consideration:
(1) Above all else, the quality of food based on authenticity of cuisine, freshness of ingredients used and overall presentation
(2) Ambience: décor that compliments- and not takes-away from- the food
(3) Hospitality defined in terms of (a) willingness to adapt food to individual tastes of customers; (b) whether the person(s) taking the Order are sufficiently knowledgeable about the food; (c) promptness of service
The List (Definitive):
1. Karim, Jama Masjid
2. The Tea House of the August Moon, Taj Palace Hotel
3. Swagath, Defence Colony Market
4. The Big Chill, Khan Market
5. Punjabi By Nature, Vasant Vihar, N-Block Market
Sunday, June 04, 2006
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