What do millennials want from restaurants in India? Do they appreciate quality, instead of chatpata, “buzzing” flavours? The answers lie in the history of restaurant retail in India and cultural habits of how people eat different foods at home and in restaurants, writes Anoothi Vishal in her book, Business on a Platter: What Makes Restaurants Sizzle or Fizzle Out. But first, a taste of history... An edited excerpt:
If professional chefs run restaurants today, history has come a full circle. In medieval India, the moneyed nobility employed the highest-paid chefs and not the bazaar chefs who cooked the common man’s chaat, kebabs and breads. Several accounts of Lucknow, including the early 20th-century Guzishta Lucknow by Abdul Halim Sharar, talk of highly paid rikabdars, or professional cooks, who specialised in unique dishes that left their diners amazed.
Shaikh Fida Ali was a rikabdar during the reign of Wajid Ali Shah, the last nawab of Awadh. He once placed a transparent lampshade on a table before a British dignitary. He placed a lit candle inside the lampshade, then blew it out, broke what appeared to be the glass of the shade and started eating it. ‘It was later learnt that the entire lampshade was made out of sugar candy,’ wrote Aslam Mahmud, an old Lucknauwallah and bureaucrat, in his superbly researched Awadh Symphony, which talks about life under the nawabs. Centuries before molecular gastronomy began to beguile us with its presentations, the rikabdars were already practising food as an art form.
Restaurant cooks, on the other hand, traditionally didn’t know how to cook these nuanced dishes, and restaurant cooking has therefore always been distinct from home cooking in India. This fact is crucial to any understanding of the country’s food- and restaurant-scape. For the first time, really, in the history of food retail in India, we are at a point where at least some restaurant food cooked by chefs is being considered more evolved and more desirable than home food. Experience-led dining that was confined to moneyed homes (as opposed to restaurants that were more functional and catered to mass needs) has only relatively recently shifted out of that private zone and into a public, social one.
After the British assumed power in India and Mughal might was lost, cooks who had till then laboured in the kitchens of aristocrats found themselves out of work. Some of them found work with new employers but discovered that these new sahibs and brown sahibs of the Raj did not understand the elite art. Chef Mujeeb-ur-Rehman, a well- known chef from Lucknow popular for his high-end wedding catering, tells me this delicious story behind the popular Lucknow idiom, ‘Yeh moonh aur masoor ki dal’, used to be dismissive about someone.
According to him, a chef who found employment after having served a nawab for a long time asked his new employer what he would like to eat that day. The employer told him to make something simple like masoor dal. The chef in turn handed the employer a long list of ingredients to be bought for the preparation, looking at which the employer’s face fell and he complained of the expense. The cook walked out, scoffing, ‘Yeh moonh aur masoor ki dal’ (loosely translated as ‘How can you, with this face, appreciate my masoor dal’).
Used to a lavish, no-expense-spared way of cooking, the talented cooks must have been at a loose end. Some of them and their descendants set up small restaurants where they refashioned the elaborate and exquisite foods of their former masters as bites for common men. Qormas (hitherto cooked only within homes, nihari being the street dish), dal and pulaos were thus tweaked to become part of Mughlai menus at a few restaurants in cities such as Delhi, Calcutta, Lahore and Lucknow.
We find an example of this kind of shift in the story of Karim’s, the iconic Mughlai restaurant in Delhi. According to his descendants’ retelling of their restaurant’s history, in 1913, Haji Karimuddin set up Karim Hotel in Gali Kababian near Jama Masjid, contending he was serving the ‘food of royals to the common man’. Haji Karimuddin traced his ancestry to a family of Mughal cooks in Shahjahanabad that had to flee the capital after the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar II, was exiled. The family relocated to Meerut. However, when India came under the British crown and the Delhi Durbar was being held in 1911, Karimuddin moved back to the city with the idea of opening a small restaurant to take advantage of the crowd that would be descending on the city for the durbar. Karim Hotel in the beginning served just aloo gosht, a home-style gravy of meat and potatoes, and dal to its patrons. The food was meant to be a substitute for home food.
In Calcutta, another cosmopolitan melting pot, dishes of Mughal origin were reinvented by small restaurants to cater to the needs of workers and daily-wage earners. Anadi Cabin on Esplanade is reputed to be almost a hundred years old. It has been around most certainly since before Partition, and remains unchanged till today, including in its use of the same iron tawa on which the cook shallow-fries Mughlai porotas (the Bengali term for paranthas), a beloved Calcutta street snack and Anadi’s signature dish.
The tiny restaurant turns out 400 porotas from 20 kg of four daily in a kitchen visible to all. The porotas could be covered in duck egg (which were considered vegetarian by traditional meat-eating Hindu Bengalis who did not prefer chicken) or chicken egg, filled with keema, folded and shallow- fried. These keema porotas are an innovation often credited to this restaurant. Mughlai paranthas almost certainly existed in Lucknowi and Awadhi homes before Wajid Ali’s exile to Calcutta along with cooks who brought Nawabi dishes to the City of Joy. The simple egg-coated Mughlai parantha of Awadh, made with many layers or parat, underwent a metamorphosis to become the keema-filled substantial snack of Calcutta, which could be picked up easily and eaten on the go by daily-wage earners in the new city.
Many of these early restaurants thus came up as businesses that were seeking not to provide recreation but instead to cater to a need for cheap, filling meals as people moved from villages and smaller towns to the cities to work for their colonial masters. However, colonialism in India brought with it more upscale restaurant and leisured experiences, catering to the elite.
The first passenger train in India started running between Bombay and Thane in April 1853, pulled by three steam engines Sahib, Sindh and Sultan on a 34 km broad-gauge line. As British India’s rail network grew and the railways began to cover longer distances (Bombay to the capital in Calcutta was a much publicised route for first-class tourists), there was need for refreshments and restaurants en route.
Several British or Anglo-Indian travellers’ accounts speak of impeccable crockery, turbaned waiters and formal service, and food that was fairly similar all across the railways — thick soups, cutlets and bread and butter. It was, however, only Europeans or Anglo-Indian travellers who were entitled to travel in first-class carriages, and who could enjoy the catering in the dining cars. Conditions in the third class, in which the bulk of Indians travelled, were terrible. A 1929 Times of India report said that the Great Indian Peninsular Railways was trying out a separate dining car for Indians: ‘It would probably not have allowed the third class passengers who made up the bulk of travellers, and who had to either eat food they had brought or buy at station halts on the way.’
Since the catering was primarily for Europeans, European- inspired dishes started appearing on the menus in these restaurants along the rail network — things like chops, cutlets, omelettes, tea and custard. These dishes would eventually get absorbed as restaurant and club food in India, and we continue to eat some of this ‘continental’ food even today. The crockery and cutlery used were of the highest quality and the service by liveried waiters was impeccable, in keeping with the expectations of the sahibs of the Raj. Even after India became independent, upscale dining would imitate this pattern of deferential service.
While the dining cars were available only to first-class European travellers, from 1901, separate refreshment rooms for Indians started appearing at a few stations. This resulted in the emergence of other dishes that are now part of old-fashioned or nostalgic restaurant food centred around the Raj — for instance, the railway mutton curry (which clearly was never a single recipe) or the egg curry.
Till much after Independence, railway refreshment rooms were thought to be fairly high-standard restaurants, and railway catering would be relied upon for banqueting needs when dignitaries visited. My grandfather, who was in the catering division of the Northern Railways for some time in the 1970s, had amusing stories of catering to the Nehru-Gandhis — delicious anecdotes that we savoured as all restaurateuring tales must be.
But not all history is appetizing. The history of restaurants in India is fraught with caste and religious segregation — one reason that may have prevented a food retail boom earlier in the country’s history. Once they started catering to Indians, railway refreshment rooms were segregated not just as those meant only for Europeans but also as those meant for Hindus versus Muslims. Even water from taps in the railway stations was marked Hindu or Muslim in British India. There were ‘pure’ Hindu meals cooked by brahmins, and those offering Muslim food like qorma, kebab and pulao.
In the south, similarly, vegetarian brahmin hotels and ‘military hotels’ serving meat (with the suffix ‘Hindu’ added to signify that no beef or pork was served, though mutton was) came up as well as Udupi restaurants serving ‘pure veg’ food run by brahmins from the region, to cater to students and officers who worked in the Madras Presidency.
Restaurants like The New Woodland Hotel came up in the Madras Presidency, and can be credited as popularising the Udupi-style food that continues to thrive today. Woodland, as it was popularly called, was set up in 1938 by K. Krishna Rao, a man from a poor family of priests from near Mangalore. Its customers then were primarily brahmins who worked for the government, or upper-caste religious travellers who were vegetarians. As we can see, for so much of their history, restaurants in India were not the inclusive businesses we see them as today.
Partition changed much of that. It rent India’s social fabric in more ways than we can imagine. It unleashed bloody, religious violence, but with the old order being torn apart, space for the new was created. For the first time, as I argued in a 2017 article, we got eateries that catered newly invented restaurant food to all manners of people — rich and poor, Hindu and Muslim. Butter chicken, dal makhani and naan became the first restaurant foods to escape the tag of religious identity.
Refugees from Punjab had arrived with less than nothing in Delhi. They brought with them a hardy spirit of survival and enterprise, but also one very important tool — the tandoor. A clay oven used to bake bread in villages, the tandoor made its foray into Delhi with refugees carrying memories of the sanjha chulha (the common village oven used to bake breads for all households) into this new harsh city where they had to fashion life afresh.
In 1947, an enterprising refugee from Peshawar, Kundan Lal Gujral, opened a restaurant called Moti Mahal in Delhi’s Daryaganj area, in a building that had suffered badly during the rioting. Here, he set up a tandoor, in which the restaurant baked naan, a bread popular in old Peshawar eateries, and eventually chicken. The fowl was not a meat that Delhi was familiar with or fond of. ‘Neither Hindus nor Muslims ate it, and initially there was some resistance to tandoori chicken,’ says Anil Chandra, one of Moti Mahal’s early patrons.
As food historian K.T. Achaya notes in his authoritative Indian Food: A Historical Companion, the chicken, as a scavenger, was thought to be ‘unclean’, and since the oldest of times, there has been resistance among brahmins and other upper-caste Hindus to eating its meat. Delhi and Uttar Pradesh’s composite culture meant that these biases were ingrained in upper-class Muslim culinary cultures too.
Goat meat was prized and Mughlai dishes like shabdegh, silken qormas, gola and dil (heart) ke kebab, that required much dexterity, were made of goat meat within homes by specialist cooks for weddings and special functions. Specialist cooks like Hakim in old Delhi, whom old-timers told me about for my article for the Wire, and restaurants like Flora cooked these and catered to shaukeen, gastronomically indulgent Dilliwallahs, both Muslims and meat-eating Hindus like the Kayasths. This courtly culture, however, waned after Partition as the Muslim elite moved away and refugees poured in.
The new tandoori chicken was India’s original fast food. Simply done and fresh. Moti Mahal also takes the credit for inventing butter chicken: tandoori chicken pieces dunked in a tomato, yoghurt and butter laden sauce, and perhaps India’s most famous restaurant creation.
The advent of this new kind of food served by Punjabi restaurateurs was to have a big impact on restaurant food everywhere in the country. In Delhi, restaurants such as Kwality, which had come up around the time of World War II and served ice cream and simple continental eats to American soldiers posted in Delhi, gradually incorporated this new Punjabi food into their menus. Other similar restaurants came up, also run by migrants, serving bold Punjabi flavours with tomato and cream, dishes that had been concocted within restaurants, and dishes such as pindi chana (a style of dry chickpeas popular in Rawalpindi) that came to Delhi and have been part of the city’s most famous street dish since then — chole bhature.
Excerpted with permission from Business on a Platter: What Makes Restaurants Sizzle or Fizzle Out, Anoothi Vishal, Hachette India, Rs 550