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Feb 11, 2012 08:44 AM

London the capital of Indian restaurants? [moved from UK board]

Here is an interesting article by Vir Sanghvi

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  1. Vir Sanghvi is Da Man when it comes to Indian food writing! Thanks for the link, howler.

    1. A very good and interesting article, I have eaten at quite a number of the Delhi restaurants (and will add Varq during the next visit in March) and have also tried most of the ones mentioned in London and think this paragraph that makes a lot of sense:

      "The truth is that there is no one way forward and no one capital of Indian cuisine. Those who claim that the London chefs are showing the way forward tend to underestimate the innovations taking place within India and make the mistake of arguing that Frenchification is the only route ahead. Equally, those who run down the London restaurants, saying that their food is not genuinely Indian, make the error of defining authentic Indian food too narrowly."

      9 Replies
      1. re: PhilD

        ha ha - vir is trying to have his cake and eat it too. he doesn't state (but surely agrees) that innovation from evolution is wonderful, but the absurd pretentious fare served up by london chefs is about as indian as the eiffel tower - just note the references to the many indians who find rasoi vineet and its ilk bewildering and unenjoyable.

        1. re: howler

          I must have read it differently. Whilst he disagreed that London was the future but i thought he concluded Indian food woud evolve and would maintain its traditions as it is such a vast cuisine it can accomodate many styles - including frenchification. As he says "At any given time, there is a lot happening in India – and to its cuisine – that may not be immediately obvious."

          1. re: PhilD

            Uh, he also said this:
            "There is, first of all, the Indian taste factor. The vast majority of Indians I have met who have been to the expensive Indian restaurants in London have come back shaking their heads and refusing to go back. Few of them have liked the food."

            1. re: huiray

              i can confirm that.

              i - and almost every indian i know - find this frenchified stuff repulsive. there is a lot of black money in india, which combined with aspersions to european mores encourages this nonsense.

              1. re: huiray

                Huiray, in his article he positions a number of arguements before coming to his conclusion (which what I qouted), isn't it slightly disingenuous to pick out and focus on one of the arguments rather than debate his conclusion? As he says it isn't a narrow cuisine and it has room for lots of styles - even the panipuri's with tequila shots rather than tamarind water we were served at a recent wedding in Delhi - an interesting example of the evolution of traditional food.

                1. re: PhilD

                  'even the panipuri's with tequila shots rather than tamarind water we were served at a recent wedding in Delhi'

                  Deep sigh. Punjabis will be Punjabis.

                  1. re: howler

                    Even if the they are from UP and Rajastan...?

                    1. re: PhilD

                      that was meant to be a joke - punjabis are world famous in india for extravagance etc. it got lost in translation.

                  2. re: PhilD

                    Certainly. Yet pausing but briefly over statements like the one I quoted runs the risk of not giving full weight to the opinions of those who presumably know their cuisine best, even if one agrees with the writer's overall conclusion. In my opinion. I don't think it is disingenuous at all to consider that paragraph of his I quoted as having more weight than arguments about the native practitioners of said cuisine being narrow-minded.

          2. Good article, thanks for posting this.

            I find that similar things, or at least things in an analogous vein, could be said about Chinese cuisines abroad; or even about many other non-Western cuisines shoehorned into styles palatable to Western/non-native clientele. The inverse may be just as true too.

            23 Replies
            1. re: huiray

              London these days is awash with places serving small plates of food. Often it is called "tapas" style, but does this style have more in common with standing in a crowded bar snacking on bite size morsels whilst sipping sherry; or with a succession of small baskets served in random order (dim sum); or with lots of plates of dips and fried morsels (meze)? So is the East following the West or has the East (near or far) snuck in under the radar disguised as a friendly Spanish snack?

              It will be interesting to watch the evolution of both Cjinese and Indian restaurant food. Both cultures coming to restaurant dining quite recently, and both countries seeing massive demographic changes. Will the multi-generational large tables so common in Chinese restaurants survive the one child policy? Will the aspirations of the emerging middle classes (in both countries) drive different expectations (as the article says)? Who knows, I think the only certainty will be innovation, evolution and a respect for tradition co-existing in a broad range of restaurants and food styles.

              1. re: PhilD

                Erm...there's been restaurants in China for at least a thousand years. Restaurant dining isn't a recent social phenomenon there.

                1. re: limster

                  True, in Chinese history, there's been records of restaurant/tavern menus since the Song Dynasty (960 and 1279) - thereby the long-standing Chinese food dichotomy: restaurant/celebratory dishes versus home-style dishes, and different cooking and serving practices for the 2 types of dining styles.

                  1. re: limster

                    Sorry should have been more precise about China. The last sixty years saw the loss of much culinary restaurant tradition. The closure of cooking schools, closure if most restaurants during the cultural revolution, and re-tasking of chefs from kitchens to factories. As a result restaurant culture in China is rebuiding, i think it was Ferran Adria who said if it had not been for this hiatus Chinese cuisine would have been much more influencial and thought of much more highly in the west. So to be more accurate it isa re-emergence of restaurants in mainland china.

                    1. re: PhilD

                      I wouldn't say exactly the last sixty years. While the cultural revolution had its effects, the re-emergence from that probably occurred >20 years ago. And it wasn't as if they had to start from scratch; some restaurants that have been around for over a century in mainland China are still in operation today.

                      1. re: limster

                        The Songhelou in Suzhou, for example.

                        1. re: buttertart

                          I actually had Louwailou in mind, which I think is in Hangzhou. *grin* Was on my mind mostly because someone told me that it was where dragonwell prawns were invented. Any confirmation or denials?

                          Quanjude is another one, but friends who have been to Beijing don't think too highly of it.

                          1. re: limster

                            Louwailou is indeed in Hangzhou, but I've never eaten there and don't know the origin of that prawn dish (a lovely one). However, in SZ you can eat biluochun prawns, which are even better (of course...).

                            (Qianlong is said to have eaten at Songhelou on at least one of his imperial visits -- which were in 1751, 1757, 1762, 1765, 1780, and 1784.)

                            1. re: buttertart

                              buttertart - how was Songhelou? I made a trip to Suzhou specifically to eat there back in 2008 but was careless not to call ahead (I was in Shanghai then) and found out that the whole restaurant was closed (for renovation?) when we got there.

                              Louwailou - it's very typical "Mainland Chinese" restaurant: large, bustling with chain-smoking local tourists. I'd recommend the high-ceilinged airy dining hall upstairs with expansive view of West Lake. I liked the Dongpo Pork there very much (my Shanghai-based uncle & aunt didn't think highly of it, but some HK friends who were fussy eaters absolutely loved it). I'd been back to Louwailou 3 times in 5 years, and went away satisfied (though not "bowled over") each time - maybe my expectations (vis-a-vis Mainland Chinese/government-run restaurants) were not that high in the first place. I'd certainly have different expectations if I was to dine in a top-notch restaurant in Shanghai.

                              I'm not sure if the "prawns stir-fried with Longjing (Dragon Well) tea leaves" dish was invented there, but I didn't quite enjoy the dish that much - it was salty & one can hardly discern the scent from the famous tea leaves.

                              The little freshwater shrimps harvested from West Lake, are apparently so delicate, they'd break apart if you try to peel off the shells when they're raw/uncooked. Hence, the cooks will remove the shrimp-heads, then gently squeeze the delicate flesh out of the shells.

                              Quanjude - I first dined at the original Qianmen outlet back in 1999, when the streets of Beijing were full of cyclists in Mao suits & hats, and vehicles were mainly public buses or trucks. The whole restaurant exuded the atmosphere of a bygone era. Its walls were full of old, official-looking photos of Communist Party leaders toasting visiting Soviet or Cuban leaders during dinners at the restaurant.

                              In 1999, I was lucky to be able to visit Quanjude when they'd changed their policy and allowed a lone (foreign) visitor to have a small table all to myself, order a portion of Peking duck (with accompaniments - you pay for pancakes, condiments like hoisin sauce, and even the leeks, separately) for myself. When my Singaporean cousins visited Quanjude just a few years earlier, they had to share a table (and one large Peking duck) with 8 other strangers at one single table: the idea was that a duck must be shared between 8-10 people to prevent wastage, and you share the costs for the meal equitably (not a bad idea forlone travellers actually).

                              Of course, in the intervening years, much better Peking ducks restaurants had come to the fore: Da Dong, Made in China (Grand Hyatt), Duck de Chine, etc. Dining in Beijing had also made an incredible quantum leap within a mere 5-10 years, and bore no resemblance at all to the 90s.

                              I'd been back to Beijing numerous times since that first visit in 1999, but I still had fond memories of that first visit to Quanjude. I'd recommend any first-time visitor to Beijing to dine at Quanjude in Qianmen - not so much for the actual taste of their duck (though they were the ones who first popularised the dish back in 1864), but to partake of an indelible part of Chinese culinary history.

                              1. re: klyeoh

                                klyeoh - this post is too good to languish here - why don'y you re-post under china?

                                1. re: howler

                                  Start a separate thread? When the opportunity arises, I guess. Maybe when I finally visit Songhelou in Suzhou.
                                  But at the moment, India beckons as I prepare for my end-Mar/beginning-April visit to Bangalore and Chennai.

                                  1. re: klyeoh

                                    I like Songhelou a lot (their Biluochun prawns are lovely) -- they make an amazing lotus root stuffed with glutinous rice and simmered in sugar syrup (SZ food tends to the sweet, of course) but the place I really love is the Wang Si (on the same lane as Songhelou and the De Yue Lou, where the service last time we were there was very old-school PRC, but where I ate a minced fish with pine nut dish I still muse about happily 4 years later). The Wang Si is my favorite restaurant in the world.

                                      1. re: huiray

                                        That certainly looked like the one, huiray :-)

                                        Suzhou has numerous classic Chinese gardens which one can visit for a fee - the most famous one was Wang Shi Yuan (Master of the Nets Garden) - interesting to visit it, then dine at Wang Shi restaurant afterwards, huh?

                                        1. re: klyeoh

                                          The restaurant is the Wang Si (as in 4), actually. Master of Nets is too commercialized, you want to go to the Liuyuan (Lingering Garden, my favorite) or Zhuozhengyuan (Humble Administrator's, my husband's).

                                      2. re: buttertart

                                        Thanks, buttertart. Those syrupy lotus root seemed an indispensable starter option in all Shanghainese-style restaurants. I had a beautifully decorated one at Fu1088 the last time - crowned by sugar floss, no less (pic below) ;-)

                                        Looks like any trip I make in future to Suzhou will also include Wang Shi, besides Songhelou!

                                        1. re: klyeoh

                                          That's gorgeous, and I love Fu1088 too. Heavenly place.

                    2. re: PhilD

                      Hasn't there been independent development of the major cuisines before the more recent Rise of Western mores?

                      I'm not sure if co-development or melding of culinary traditions from disparate backgrounds can ever be fully harmonious. The attempts to meld French-derived viniculture with Chinese cuisine, for example, is another area I find both problematic and objectionable. All these pages and pages of arguments and discussions in the Occident (mostly) about which wine is the best match for fiery Sichuan dishes or Thai food - or various regional Indian foods, for that matter - and so on and so forth constantly strike me as trying to squeeze square pegs into round holes. Why not dispense with the wine and enjoy the food for itself, or drink the beverages developed by the native cuisines for enjoying with said cuisines? But many Westerners, culturally conditioned to expect Westernized wine, continue to insist on drinking wine or Western-style alcohol with their meals, whatever they may be eating, in my view. There may well be *some* felicitous matches - but the insistence of some folks for matching Western *wine* with every dish they eat in non-Western cuisines always makes me shake my head a bit.

                      1. re: huiray

                        Some of the biggest spenders on wine these days are Asians, particularly the Chinese. The wine auctions in Hong Kong sees serious money spent.

                        The rise of a large and affluent middle/upper class in the non-western parts of the world means that with more money and increased exposure to other cuisines, including various European cuisines, the new middle classes are also changing their approach to their local cuisines. It's a two-way street, and to be frank the exchange of food ingredients and cooking styles has been going on as long as humans have been around. Many ingredients now common in Asian cuisines were originally from the New World and didn't exist in Asia before the 16th century.

                        The food habits and diets of Western countries has changed tremendously in the past few decades as we became more and more aware of other cuisines across the world. It seems presumptuous to say that the non-Western regions shouldn't be allowed to have their cuisines evolve in order to satisfy our demands for "authenticity."

                        1. re: Roland Parker

                          Nowhere did I say that "the non-Western regions shouldn't be allowed to have their cuisines evolve in order to satisfy our demands for "authenticity." ". That is your projection onto me.

                          P.s.: "evolution of the cuisine" involves more than Western-wine drinking.

                          The question is how and from where should directions for such evolution be derived from; and BTW "authenticity" is a slippery term to use casually. Of course both Western and Eastern cuisines, Occidental & Oriental, if you will, have developed and absorbed influences (and ingredients) from each other. OTOH, Chinese-American cuisine for example is almost a separate cuisine, with many tasty and delicious dishes - but it is not quite "Chinese-Chinese" cuisine. In my opinion I would say the same about Anglo-Indian cuisine versus "Indian-Indian" cuisine. Certainly dishes from the now-separate cuisines appear with increasing frequency on each other's home turf nowadays, but the two can be distinguished, at least for the present.

                          1. re: huiray

                            well said huiray.

                            the point i keep trying to get across is that innovation that comes from the accumulation of a thousand small changes is very welcome and to be sought after, but the completely-nothing-do-with-anything-but-michelin-will-like-it-and-i-can-even-sell-poncy-wine creations leave me saddened that instead of discovering, say ismaili cooking, we make atul kochar a celebrity.

                            there is SOO much undiscovered stuff from india - our present state of knowledge and appreciation for its cuisines probably is that of columbus's knowledge of the american continent the first time he stepped onto the windies. its just going to get depressingly difficult to get at this stuff the more people associate 'fine dining' with this repulsive freinchified nonsense.

                            1. re: howler

                              I think a related (if not completely overlapping) point is the difference between different goals of innovation:

                              1. To make things more delicious, at least to the chef who is making the changes.
                              2. To make things more marketable and hype-able to a bigger market without regard to whether it is (more) delicious, to exploit folks less familiar with the depth of certain cuisines. Often causes one to pay more for something that is better packaged, but not necessarily as nuanced or mature as a dish.

                              1 is certainly very possible and we celebrate those, whether it's a small or big.

                              2 is unfortunately more common and perhaps quite a number of the examples cited fall into that category. Not saying that some of these Frenchified Indian cuisines aren't delicious; to some they might very well be, but the key issue is whether they are more or less delicious than the dishes they were derived from (if that's recognisable). We should also consider whether the excitement is over novelty rather than actual merit. It could be "interesting" merely because it is different, but is it delicious?

                              What's important is that we learn to distinguish 1 from 2.

                              1. re: limster

                                Sadly, methinks the venerable Veeraswamy (co-owned by the legendary Camellia Panjabi) on Regent Street fell into Category 2.

                                Although, Camellia's brainchild in India like Karavalli in Taj Gateway Bangalore (helmed by the incredibly talented Naren Thimmaiah) and Raintree in Chennai's Taj Connemara (both of which I hope to return to in April) served incredible food, no such pleasure awaited me when I was last at Veeraswamy :-(