Globalization of taste buds

Savouring an Indian global


Tags: Op-ed Roopen Roy May 17

The term globalisation had not been coined then. Rabindranath

Tagore, while describing the mission of his global university in Santiniketan, succinctly described the concept:

“Visva-Bharati represents India where she has her wealth of mind, which is for all. Visva-Bharati acknowledges India’s obligation to offer to others the hospitality of her best culture and India's right to accept from others their best.”

In the past three decades, we have witnessed a rapid globalisation of our taste buds. Indians have developed a liking for western food. We have embraced European cuisine. And we have queued up for branded fast food offerings such as burgers and French fries, pizzas, nachos, tacos, burritos and fried chicken. Pandering to the local demand, we have McSamosas, burgers without beef and fried chicken with spicy flavours. Nothing new really —ethnic Indian restaurants in London offer “mild” curries to their western customers who find the classic variety a little too fiery.

When the Europeans came to India, spices were on their wish list. Yet, one wonders why, even after centuries of British Raj, traditional English food never relied on spices to pepper up the taste or flavour. Of course, I am not considering chicken tikka masala, which the British claim to be their invention or the Mulligatawny soup, which was reportedly concocted by them in Madras.

In the past, Indian food was served in basically two kinds of formats in the west. You had the ethnic Indian restaurants with a predictable menu of dishes like tandoori chicken, chicken tikka masala, daal, vindaloo and palak paneer. The USP was cheap, spicy food. This restaurant model was pioneered by the immigrants in London from the subcontinent, most notably folks from Sylhet in Bangladesh.

The second type of restaurant exemplified fine dining. Offering great ambience and excellent food, they had pri cey menus. Veeraswamy in London is a good example. One should not be mislead by the name, it is a non-vegetarian restaurant with a delectable menu. A dinner for two, with cocktails, can set you back by Rs 15,000. It was set up in 1926 and was patronised by the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and Marlon Brando. Other examples would be The Bombay Club in Washington DC. It is frequented by presidents, ambassadors and the glitterati.

Yet, no one has been able to create a branded, Indian fast food chain like McDonald’s or Pizza Hut. We do not have branded, global fast food chains that serve kathi rolls, masala dosas or biryani/ kor ma bento boxes. Although, in the cross-streets of Manhattan, you can find all kinds of street food, I have not seen anyone selling pao bhajis, bhel, rolls or dosas. For the times they are a-changin’. A quiet wave of migration of Indian cuisine is visible in university campuses in the west. The London School of Economics canteen serves curries of all types. The International Society for Krishna Consciousness (Iskcon) serves vegetarian food on campus. The vegetarian food offered by them is not just wholesome —it is also free.

The founder of Apple, Steve Jobs, in his commencement speech at the Stanford University had famously said, “I would walk the seven miles across town every Sunday night to get one good meal a week at the Hare Krishna temple. I loved it.” There is another silent infiltration happening in the western kitchen. We have a variety of packaged Indian food, for example Kitchens of India brand from ITC.

Silicon Valley in California is home to IT majors like Oracle, Apple, Google — just to name a few. They have specialised kitchens that prepare Indian food, which is enjoyed as much by the home food-sick diaspora, as well as the natives. The same is the case in Seattle — home to Microsoft, Amazon and Starbucks.

But why do we not have a chain that serves branded Indian vegetarian food? I believe, there is an absence of scale and lack of global reach. Here is what Haldiram said in a recent interview published in Financial Chronicle: “Hal­diram pac kaged namkeen and sweets are available across 50 countries in the world. McDonald’s serves only burger and French fries. We have a huge range of choice on our menu card and so, it is just matter of time that we become a global restaurant chain brand.”

Haldiram is not alone. The Speciality Restaurant group in India has 62 fine-dining outlets across the country and ab road, under such the brand names as Oh! Calcutta, Sigr ee, Mostly Kababs and Just Biryani. Branded restaurant chains like these will proliferate in the future in north America and Europe, initially riding the wave of diaspora demand.

Eventually, Indian food will be mainstreamed in the west over the next two de cades. It is not inconceivable that in 2020, an American will sit at a restaurant called Biryani Handi on Pier 39 in San Francisco enjoying a mutton biryani with chicken rezala. It is equally possible that an Englishman will come to a fast food chain called Nizam’s of London to pick up mutton /egg rolls and masala chai. Then, truly, we will be able to say that we have fulfilled India's obligation to offer to others the hospitality of her best cuisine.

(The writer is managing director of Deloitte Consulting, India. These are his personal views)