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Whose Indian Food Really Stands Out?


Suvir Saran
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reading the India board here is a great start.

Did that. Just reacting to a seeming reticence to ongoing discussion of Indian cuisine in its details, as opposed to "whose Indian really stands out?" That's a little too Zagat-like to hold my interest, particularly as it seemed intended to support a single restaurant.

Who said "There are no three star restaurants, only three star meals"?

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Plotnicki, you're just displaying a preference for French food over Indian food (again). No surprise there. Judged by the standards of Indian cuisine, Tabla fails miserably. Judged by the standards of French cuisine, of course it's better than Diwan -- it's basically a French restaurant that uses a lot of Indian spices.

What he said. When I joked with the waiter that they were charging an awful lot for Indian food, he promptly corrected me and said that they were not serving Indian cuisine, but rather were serving American cuisines with Indian influences. (Or something like that.)

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It's not like you give us much of a choice, especially when you say things like

Fat Guy - While I can understand that a cuisine can revolve around a spicing routine, I have not heard why that isn't an outdated and outmoded concept that is being slowly obliterated every day by the free market? And what I really don't understand is why people have an investment in one position or the other. They are all cultural constructs and the only difference between traditional tandoori lamb and braised brisket of beef in Indian spices is the tens of millions of people who have already accepted it versus the tens of millions who will be willing to accept something new because they have access to a free market.

Restaurants like Tabla can either be compared to restaurants like Diwan or they can't. If you want to compare them using the parameters of Indian cuisine, you will surely find that Diwan comes out of top. But if you want to use modern day Western style dining, then based on the meal I ate Tuesday, The Bread Bar wins hands down. And if I can't reconcile them my way, because you are going to accuse me of not "getting it" because authentic Indian cuisine revolves around "parsing the spices," I can only ask two questions. One, is that a legitimate concept for a modern day cuisine to revolve around and two, where can I sample spicing so magnificent that it will make me want to sign up for the next spice tasting class at Executive Spice Seminars? Because the first time I tasted '61 Gaja or '83 Cheval Blanc or '90 Chave Hemitage, I got it right away. But here it is alluding me. And maybe it's because of my western palate? But maybe that isn't the case and we can get you to admit that spices are not food, and you are describing a skill that revolves around an adjunct of food and not food itself?

Simon - That isn't my argument. My argument is that Indian diners have accepted the cuisine. Obviously they are not alienated by it. And in fact it seems like it has attracted them. Especially young diners.

If Fat Guy's proffer about parsing spices was legit, someone should market it that way to diners. In fact, someone already should have. Let them make tasting menus showing spice progressions so people can learn about it and experience it. That's what they do in French cuisine, Japanese cuisine etc. But my kishkes tell me that although there must be a million ways to make a curry powder, there is no there there. Their burden (meaning traditional Indian chefs) is for complex spicing techniques to capture the imagination of American diners so they are interested in discerning the differences when dining. Just like Fat Guy talked about the difference between various types of tuna in sushi. But tuna is food, not a spice, and I don't see why people would find spicing routines sufficiently interesting (at least any of the ones I have tasted) when they are in competition with great tasting ingredients, i.e. proteins.

Edited by Steve Plotnicki (log)
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... although there must be a million ways to make a curry powder, there is no there there.

Where?

Actually, the spice tasting menu sounds like a brilliant idea. If someone did it, I think people would be interested.

Edit: Too many articles, definite and indefinite.

Edited by Wilfrid (log)
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Steve P -- I think the burden of the Indian chef in America is that Americans have until recently been raised on bland food, exacerbated of course by the explosion of food processing post-WWII. They have also been been taught that Indian food is eaten by poor starving peasants and causes the runs.

While I can understand that a cuisine can revolve around a spicing routine, I have not heard why that isn't an outdated and outmoded concept that is being slowly obliterated every day by the free market?

I think I must be misunderstanding this, because if anything I see spices finding their way back into the American diet, not the other way around. (I read the threads backward.)

Edited by Stone (log)
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Isn't the "Free market" a nice way of saying 'lowest common denominator' by the ill-informed middle classes? Doesn't seem a very good basis to judge food merit by.

Adam - No. That's how the elites would want to describe it. What it really means is every class of people who are interested and can afford it. It covers numerous economic groups. But in reality, a tasting menu made up of complex spicing routines would be expensive, and would exclude most diners

Steve P -- I think the burden of the Indian chef in America is that Americans have until recently been raised on bland food, exacerbated of course by the explosion of food processing post-WWII. They have also been been taught that Indian food is eaten by poor starving peasants and causes the runs.

Stone - When you say "Americans" you mean all Americans. I am describing people who would be called interested in fine dining. In that way Adam's point about BBQ is not fine dining.

Actually, the a spice tasting menu sounds like a brilliant idea. If someone did it, I think people would be interested.

Wilf - I agree. But my gut tells me that it would ultimately be unrewarding. Like a dinner of eight different cheeses. Lacking balance which it would get from the proteins. And that is the argument in favor of the Tablas of the world. The proffer would be, ethnic cuisines have been subject to all sorts of geographic and socio-economic influences that have compromised the cuisines somehow. And moving the cuisine into an environment where you aren't lacking anything, the constraints are taken off the cuisine and it turns into something different. I find that a quite natural process and extremely American in nature. In fact there is no other country in the world where this happens quite the way it happens here. Even though Australia seems to be doing a pretty good job of it right now.

Stone has a point. Use of spices, for example, at Blue Hill, Union Pacific and Cafe Boulud

Yes but they balance them in a western style which is what they do at Tabla.

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The proffer would be, ethnic cuisines have been subject to all sorts of geographic and socio-economic influences that have compromised the cuisines somehow. And moving the cuisine into an environment where you aren't lacking anything, the constraints are taken off the cuisine and it turns into something different.

And just what do you think, for example, the Mughal Emperors lacked? And today, how many millions of people do you think there are in India who are richer than, say, you? A lot, I bet. Your argument assumes a reality that does not exist.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Isn't the "Free market" a nice way of saying 'lowest common denominator' by the ill-informed middle classes? Doesn't seem a very good basis to judge food merit by.

Adam - No. That's how the elites would want to describe it. What it really means is every class of people who are interested and can afford it. It covers numerous economic groups. But in reality, a tasting menu made up of complex spicing routines would be expensive, and would exclude most diners

Yes, Steve and when it suits you, you are a food/wine elitist (note, no negative associations intended), so why rely, in this instance, on 'free market'. Do you let the free market decide what is the best wine for you?

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I think he does, Adam. He pretty much believes -- if I've read his posts correctly -- that the better Montrachet is going to cost more and that Montrachet costs more than Puligny-Montrachet because it's better, etc. I also agree with that to a great extent, though I don't take it as gospel. When you're talking about the .001% or less of the population that actually drinks the world's great wines, there's a market operating there and it's fairly rational. It actually works better in a sense than the restaurant market, because it's a single product being evaluated pretty much in isolation. A particular wine doesn't come with service, decor, etc., unless you count fancy labels or recorking services -- buy you know what I mean. Restaurant dining is far more difficult to quantify, sample, and compare, because people's needs and wants are so diverse. And of course it's not easily transportable.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Stone - When you say "Americans" you mean all Americans. I am describing people who would be called interested in fine dining. In that way Adam's point about BBQ is not fine dining.

Yes, but even those people grew up on overcooked vegetables and a fairly limited exposure to spices other than salt & pepper. They also grew up in a society that looked towards France and the rest of Europe for their ideas of "culture" (perhaps because most of us stem from European peasant stock)

Reading this I recall that after eating at Diwan I thought of writing up a piece comparing it with French Laundry and investigating whether, after stripping away the trappings of finery, FL could stand up.

For example, the bhel poori appetizer at Diwan had a nice presentation, well formed with various colors, etc., great textures (the puffed rice and crisp little noodle things), and vibrant blend of flavors from the sauces to the bits of fresh cilantro. FL's signature appetizer of oysters & pearls was a beautiful presentation, but texturally rode the edge as the tapioca sabayon could easily be described as gummy. More important, the dish relied heavily for flavor on butter (I've since heard this from a number of people and Keller himself describes the sauce in his cookbutter as a scoop of beurr monte with flavorings). The oyster was not much of a participant, and the caviar didn't stand out well.

The pan-roasted veal at FL didn't compare to any of the chops at Diwan, wet or otherwise. The pork belly at FL was delicious, and exelled in presentation and, of course, highlighted the pork itself. Diwans' meats were just as delicious, but didn't focus as singularly on the meat alone. I don't think anyone could argue that this is a categorical flaw in technique.

While FL's fish (black bass) had beautifully crisped skin, the meat was just as well-cooked piece of fish. Not necessarily an easy accomplishment, but certainly nothing knock-your-socks off about a piece of fish. The flavors in the shrimp and halibut tandoori at Diwan were more complex (he he), and still allowed the flavor of the flesh to shine through.

It's difficult to compare FL's saucing, which were much more subtle, of course, to Diwan's. They are two different animals. FL's leant itself to more of an introspective meal -- you would taste it, and think about it trying to parse the flavors. That's more difficult to do with Indian food, because many of the flavors have melded together. Also, eating with Cabrales, it's o.k. to discuss each bite. Taking nine of my friends to Diwan, it would have been difficult for me to inquire into whether anyone tasted the subtly of the XXX coming out in the marinade.

Also, FL relied on butter repeatedly. It was everywhere. I enjoyed it, but is it too sneaky?

Just some thoughts on the possibility of a larger comparison.

Edited by Stone (log)
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And just what do you think, for example, the Mughal Emperors lacked? And today, how many millions of people do you think there are in India who are richer than, say, you? A lot, I bet. Your argument assumes a reality that does not exist.

What they might have lacked were great chickens and lambs due to geography. Or, they might have had wonderful spices that they realized were valuable and they built a cuisine around what they thought was a disply of wealth. It could be countless reasons. But whatever, I don't see the trendline in cuisine going down the road of spicing techniques in this manner being something that dominates cuisine in the near future. Does anybody else see that?

Adam - Well I didn't say choose for me, I said the free market chooses for itself. And if someone believes that they can build a successful business on the concept of complex spicing, be my guest. I'll support it and I hope the market does too because that sounds interesting. But my gut says that is too esoteric a concept.

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FG - good Montrachet is going to be more expensive then bad Montrachet or Puligny-Montrachet, sure I can see that as the 'Free market' in action. What I don't buy is ' Montrachet is more expensive then Sauternes (with a exception), therefore it is a "better" wine. Free market fails when faced with the un-familiar.

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Or, they might have had wonderful spices that they realized were valuable and they built a cuisine around what they thought was a disply of wealth.

Hmmm. But I would change "what they thought was a display of wealth" to "what was a display of wealth."

Edited by Stone (log)
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Complex can be simple. :cool:

By George, he gets it! icon4.gif

I am trying to parse, not spices, but Steve's position. He can't literally mean that there isn't a real and indefinitely sustainable cuisine trend which involves dominant spicing. Tens of millions of people eat that way and are likely to continue doing so. Just in the United States, there must be hundreds of thousands of restaurants which make that proffer (I'm counting Mexican in there).

What Steve might mean (like the Mughal Emperors might have lacked chickens) is that dominant spicing is unlikely to become a trend in the cuisine served at the comparatively small number of restaurants one might regard as at the cutting edge of (predominantly French) haute cuisine.

Well, yes, it would be weird to think otherwise. I don't suppose they're going to get into chargrilling entrees either. It totally wouldn't work for that style of cooking. Which proves...?

(I know, it proves that haute cuisine is better :yawn:.)

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FG - good Montrachet is going to be more expensive then bad Montrachet or Puligny-Montrachet, sure I can see that as the 'Free market' in action. What I don't buy is ' Montrachet is more expensive then Sauternes (with a exception), therefore it is a "better" wine. Free market fails when faced with the un-familiar.

But the main reason you can't compare Montrachet to Sauternes are 1) they make what, a thousand cases of Montrachet and they makes tens of thousands of cases of Sauterne. So the supply side is way out of whack. They are also used differently with Montrachet being a wine drunk with the meal and Sauterns being drunk only with a Foie gras course or with dessert. So they are incomparable right there.

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That people are willing to pay X for a French meal, 95% of X for a Japanese meal but only 50% of X for an Indian meal is because the French and Japanese meals have a lot of things we value bundled into the price of a meal. We do not consider what Indian restaurants have to offer to be as valuable. I don't really think it's more complicated then that.

I understand what you mean, but these "facts" don't support your argument, because they're not true. Compare the price of dinner at La Petite Auberge with dinner at Tamarind. I think you'll find Tamarind a little more expensive. It's a better restaurant. Compare Sushisay with with Tamarind. About the same? Not much in it.

You can't compare the cost of French, Japanese and Indian dining in the way you do without specifying that you are comparing very expensive French and Japanese restaurants with relatively cheap Indian restaurants which - holy smoke - cost about the same to dine at as relatively cheap French restaurants.

What you should be asking is why there aren't any very expensive Indian restaurants in New York yet (although a lot of people wouldn't find Tabla cheap by any means. If it's Indian).

Are there expensive Indian restaurants in India, Singapore or Malaysia? Or Canada? I ask 'cos I dunno.

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Actually I was trying to say the exact same thing that you said. Price point is related to the level of experience you desire. It has nothing to do with ethnicity ot type of food. And I agree, Tamarind is a higher level dining exerience than say Gigot is. But that is reflected in the cost of the average check. That is exactly my point.

But you have also asked the threshold question. Why there aren't very expensive Indian restaurants in NYC? Or London for that matter? But don't stop there. There aren't very expensive Chinese restaurants, Thai restaurants, German restaurants, etc. And you know why? People won't pay the really high prices for things like Tandoori. To get the really high prices you need to offer people unusual techniques and/or ingredients that you can't find elsewhere.

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Should we start a separate thread about comparative dining costs of cuisines?

Anyway, let me bore you with some facts. I took Dawat as an example, as its a Indian restaurant with some pretensions to smartness (I don't like it much) and it's menu is on line. An ungarnished entree averages $23. Assume either rice or a bread (you'd probably split one of each with someone): $33. Share one vegetable side dish, as is common practice: $40.50.

Compare with two fairly smart non-Indian restaurants nearby. Dawat is more expensive than Della Femina (unless maybe if you get the prime rib) and it's about the same as a garnished entree at Beacon. You could knock it down under Beacon if you didn't have a vegetable.

Okay, carry on.

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