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Fat Guy

Restaurant Cooking versus Home Cooking

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Several people who have traveled to India have said to me, as though it's a law of nature, that the best cooking in India occurs in private homes. If true, this is amazing to me, as it's certainly not the case in any Western nation I know of.

So, is it true? And if so how is the training to home cooks being imparted, and why can't restaurants duplicate it?


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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Home cooking is much superior to the restaurant fare available.  Mostly for one simple reason, in India, most people would rather go out and eat foods other than Indian.  You entertain special guests at home.  Chefs at homes of privilege come from a lineage of cooks.  

Recipes are often handed down through the generations and guarded as closely as ones jewels.

Restaurant chefs can cook large meals, but often lack the expertise of playing with spcies in ways that a home cook does.  In homes, spcies are often entertained in ways other than those known commcerically.  For their healing, spiritual and their ability to cleanse the mind, body and soul.  While a professional chef may know this, they have little time to entertain these nuances as one would in a home.

Homes where the lady of the house cooks, will have foods that are very healthful, regional and light.  Again, this touch will not be seen commonly in restaurant fare.

Many restaurant dishes are copies of what would be found in homes, but a recipe that is close to the authentic home version, but has been adapted to match the stress  that comes with large volume.  IN that translation much of the subtle play between spices, produce and other ingredients is lost.  

Most home chefs have learned to cook under  the unstructured tutelage of mothers, grand mothers and private chefs.  A training that was without any set curricula but one based on improvisation and the very Indian way of living in the moment.  Recipes often change with every little detail of ones life.  WHile the home chef thrives in the mutability of a moment, a restaurant chef succeeds only if they can standardise, perfect and replicate the recipe again and again.

These are just few of the many nuances of Indian cooking that have made it more of a success at homes and a challenge that will take years to fill by the professional staff.

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First,I'd like to thank egullet for adding the India site;I look forward to learning more.I have to disagree about home cooking not being better then restaurant cooking in the western world.The genius stuff that goes on at 4 star restaurants may not happen in many homes,and there are loads of people who don't cook at home anymore. BUT, having eaten in homes in Europe,and here in New York, cooked with love and good ingredients,I wouldn't paint the western world with such a broad brush.I've also worked in restaurants,and there are a lot of people who really don't cook all that well working in them-come eat 'family meal' sometime.

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Chefs at homes of privilege come from a lineage of cooks.

That's certainly a distinction worth noting. As an American, it's hard for me to imagine a lineage of cooks at all, no less a home where somebody employs a cook from such a lineage.

I do think this is a point on which we can generalize about the Western world. It's not a question of every restaurant in the West being good. Of course there are plenty of shoemakers calling themselves chefs in the West. But the point is that in the Western world the highest expressions of cuisine have for the past century or more been almost exclusively found in the restaurant kitchen. I think you would have to go back to before the French Revolution to find a situation where it would be anything but remarkable to get a Michelin-star-quality meal at a private home. It can happen. I've experienced it. But for me those few remarkable occasions (usually at the homes of restaurant chefs, by the way, although there are two doctors I know who can produce a meal at that level) are the exceptions that prove the rule. In any event, it's not a question of do you eat well at homes or restaurants. The point is that in the Western world -- and I love nothing more than to paint with a broad brush! -- it is restaurant high-cuisine that acts as the benchmark. Serious gourmet home cooks are for the most part attempting to emulate restaurants. In India, it sounds like the restaurants are trying to emulate the home cooks -- and perhaps not succeeding.


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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Point well taken;I was thinking of local cooking that is not Michelin star stuff,in places that where there is a lot of good local cooking  and ingredients ,but they don't have a thriving restaurant economy-some corner of Turkey or even upstate New York-I talk to a lot of produce and livestock purveyors from upstate,who lament the lack of good restaurants in the Hudson valley,but admit that there aren't enough potential diners to support them[esp. during the winter].Getting back to India,during my one month traveling there,the one home cooked meal that I had was the best,and it was very simple.The concept of European service,and cooking and plating a dish per order,to a large extent, don't really exist;your expectations of dining as you've known it have to go out the door,which seems to be easier said than done for a lot of travelers...

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I sort of like the idea of a "guidebook-proof" culture of dining. I mean, you have to be invited to homes. How can you have Michelin or Zagat or even newspaper reviews when that's the case? It must be very frustrating for a person who travels by the book to visit a place like India!


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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Firstly, I am of the opinion that Indian cooking is far superior, more subtle and multi dimensional in homes of Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Indians.  

And Steven, you guessed right, Indian restaurants have often looked back at home cooking to find recipes  that would excite a diner.  In fact, Bukhaara, one of Indias top restaurant in New Delhi where President Clinton once again realised why he loved Indian food as dearly as he had known himself to, was founded by a group of foodies that understood that the genius of Indian cooking was guarded by grandmas, mothers, wives and professional home chefs and celebrated hosts.  

After having understood that, it is my understanding that they invited a very diverse set of women from Indian homes, with almost no understanding of how a restaurant works, to come and prepare their favorite dishes at the restaurants test kitchen.  The team of executive chefs from across the hotel group where Bukhaara is, watched, studied, took notes and interviewed these women, gave them compliments, boosted their egos, gave respect to them for indulging in what would otherwise seem mundane and boring to them.  

But this was not being done as social work, but the hotel chain with interest in creating the temple to Indian cooking from the north west, had a business on their minds.  And they did it very smartly.  

After documenting recipes from the very many participants, they were able to come up with the very best and then with the genius of a professional restaurant or hotel chef, they standardized the recipes and have been able to maintain great quality and consistency.  Sharing with millions a repertoire that could have been common restaurant fare, but in this case, has the very simple, subtle and playful partnership of meats and vegetables with herbs and spices that reaches a zenith in Indian home cooking.

Actually, at Bukhaara, they stay away from gimmicky garnishes, since they have understood long before the rest of us, the hokey side to gotham platings.  The food is served almost as plainly as it would be at a comfortable home.  They focus instead in making each dish a celebration of good food.

While some travelers would miss out on home food while traveling across the Indian Sub-Continent, it is not uncommon for many to get invited to homes, to be offered food as they share trains or bus rides with rich and poor fellow passengers.  There is a very deep sense of sharing in the culture of the Sub-continent, and so, most people I meet, the backpackers or the elite traveling across that area, have stories to share about how they have been moved by the generosity of even the poorest of poor mankind.  

I love the idea of a train journey across India in a unreserved coach for that very reason.  There are 20 times more people crowding the coach than the maximum capacity, and in time, they each are carrying food for the travels packed by loving mothers, wives, home cooks or a neighbor.  And as they bring these goodies out, the first thing they do, is offer their meal to those around.  And they often are insulted if you do not want a small bite at the least.  

What is fascinating to me, is how rich and substantial even the poorest persons meal is.  While it certainly has no drama that comes from having a pantry full of all exotic spices and ingredients, these barely spiced and flavored foods, have a rustic taste and simplicity that is haunting.  For lack of resources, some of the meals I have eaten in these rides are made with little oil or ghee, with very basic produce and with few if any garnishes, but long after I have made it to my destination, the foods I was given to taste, the generosity of people living below the poverty line, have lingered vividly in my memory.

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It shouldn't surprise me that an incredibly interesting thread pops up here on the very day Suvir joins the eGullet team!  Thank you to Suvir and wingding and Steven for thoughtful posts so far.  I obviously agree "it is restaurant high-cuisine that acts as the benchmark in the Western world."

I don't find it unusual that "Indian restaurants have often looked back at home cooking to find recipes that would excite a diner."  If it is also true that "most Indian home chefs have learned to cook under the unstructured tutelage of mothers, grand mothers"--perhaps it is worth reminding that many of the great French masters, especially in the provinces, did so as well, in reaction to the haute cuisine going on in Paris.   And that, in turn, the next generation of French chefs were able to build and re-invent and re-order what was going on in both of these evolving restaurant traditions.  

Could it be, perhaps, that the truest examples of Indian-influenced "Haute cuisine" have been developing--but developing abroad, outside of India--because that is where the talent has been willing to experiment and where the audience has been more willing to embrace it?  Is it also possible that professional cooking in India has yet to adequately embrace and reconcile this parallel track of "home cooking" as the French did?

That in India a different timeline is in effect--and that not surprisingly, things just shook out a whole lot faster in France.  Can it be that we are just waiting for the same issues of haute cuisine and cuisine bourgeosie to fold in, against and around themselves in India--as they already have in France and by extension the rest of the Western world?

Another issue I'm curious about:  how influential will the fusiony, French-Indian constructs developed here in the US, like those of Floyd Cardoz and the late Raji Jallepalli, be on the professional and home cooking of India?


Steve Klc

Pastry chef-Restaurant Consultant

Oyamel : Zaytinya : Cafe Atlantico : Jaleo

chef@pastryarts.com

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Fat Guy-

Certainly in the area where you live, and in other large metropolitan areas, there are many restaurants which epitomize Great Dining: "Food as art for art's sake." They are frequented by patrons who desperatly seek to find the most fashionable dining room, the trendiest food, the most difficult to find ingredients and the most famous chef of the day.

But you don't speak for the entire Western world here, or for the entire US.

There are still plenty of home cooks here in the US. Home cooking is cooking at home for the people you live with and love. Imitation restaurant food served for a dinner party is never home cooking.

If my daughter comes home from college and requests a home-cooked meal, I know exactly what she wants. She knows what she wants. If I serve a menu taken from a Star Chef cookbook instead of giving her baked chicken with gravy, mashed potatoes, fluffy biscuits, homemade stuffing, she'll be upset she didn't get her home cooking.

This is food you can't get in restaurants in the US. You have to get invited to people's houses to eat it. Restaurants try to imitate it, but poorly. (New diner cuisine, anyone?) They end up having to do things like saturating the potatoes with heavy cream and butter, so people who aren't used to home cooking can still feel like they're eating in a restaurant.

Which means that it really isn't home cooking if you get it in a restaurant, just a pale imitation. Just like in India.

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Indian Haute Cuisine in India if way beyond where it is at in the US or even London.  Indians thrive and live in the world of entertaining and enjoying life.  Perhaps years and years of invasions and dominance by outside powers made people live to the fullest every living moment.

Thus, the Indian restaurant scene is very vibrant, alive and very fast changing and ever evolving.  I speak of the large metropolitan cities.  The smaller cities, like those in the US, are always some generations behind.  And yes, there are many parallels between Indian and French cooking.  Of technique, of historical importance of food and a respect for tradition and in their mutual indulgence in food as more than just a dietary necessity.

Indian fusion as we see in America pales in comparison to what is happening in the food scene in India.  There is fusion happening across many borders and cuisines.  What makes fusion successful only time can tell.  The Indian fusion scene in America is way to young to use as a comparitive study just yet against any other cuisine.

Raji and Floyd have certainly been the trendsetters, but their own journies are yet to  near saturation.  There are many miles to go before we can realize the wonders of what they have started.  We have so much to hope for.  

And yes, every culture has parallels about home food.  Home cooking is special no matter where one travels.  Indian home food has occupied many minds lately more so because of the anthropological and social nuances of it.  A young nation that brought into a union very diverse people, the country has a history that would entertain something in everyone.  And the food has done the same.  But that is also true in America is it not?  As one travels from the east to west, north to south, midwest to south east, one sees the many levels of subtle changes that enrich the foods of this great country.  And one can study as one travels across the homes of this country how similar the food is and yet how many subtle changes leave a mark of the local flavor.

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It is haute cuisine which is better done in a restaurant. The French revolution changed eating out. The French Elle magazine identifies recipes by type of cuisine. Often that means the region of France in which they arose, a foreign country, etc. One of the types is "restaurant" cooking. In no other country, even in the west, is restaurant cooking so distinguished from home cooking or so rarified. I'd guess that all restaurant cooking in the western world owes two debts. One to local, or relatively local, cookng and the other to French restaurant cooking. There are plenty of places in Europe and the United States where the best restaurant in town, or the region, is operated by a home trained cook. I include all the "Mère" restaurants in France, although their day has come and is almost gone. For most of my youth, the claim "home cooking" was one restaurants made as claim to superiority.

Restaurant cooking when done well in the tradition of haute cuisine is cooking of a high order, but there's no reason not to value a home cooked meal or to deny the pleasures of comfort food. What is deplorable is the need people express when putting down restaurants "which epitomize Great Dining: 'Food as art for art's sake.'" I've hardly met a great chef who didn't rhapsodize about his grandmother's cooking and who wasn't thrilled to be invited to a good home cooked meal, particularly if of a food less known to him, but I'm always running into defensive comments that put down fine haute cuisine, but those with very limited experience with it.


Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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Uh Oh! The first day you guys start the Indian board, THE MOST INTERESTING discussion about Indian food opens up.

First, thank you guys for starting up the new board.

Second, let me add that my dad has been in the restaurant business in New Delhi for fifty years. He runs several in the city. My family is one of the three or four old restauranteer families in New Delhi and therefore have vested interest in issues that we are discussing here.

>> Home cooking is much superior to the restaurant fare available.  Mostly >> for one simple reason, in India, most people would rather go out and eat >> foods other than Indian.

I disagree that home cooking is much superior. As Suvir points out, correctly in my opinion, restaurant food is usually much different. In the north, for example, the tandoori and mughlai food served in restaurants (that most of us in the west call Indian food) is almost absent in homes. People do try and mimic restaurant delicacies at home, usually with poor results. How many homes in India have a "tandoor" at home to cook their versions of "chicken tandoori" or "seekh kabab." Not many. Conversely, vegetables and lentils cooked in homes are almost impossible to reproduce faithfully in a mass production facility. That is not only true of this Indian "restaurant food" but also of street vendor foods – mostly snack type foods. All are very specialized foods that are done well in different settings by different kinds of people. Can your mom make better tandoori delicacies than the chefs at my dad's place (who has been doing it for 50+ years)? I really doubt it. This argument is more true of northern food than of other states where people actually eat various versions of "thali" consisting of home-style food. I can not say that home style cooking is that much better (I grew up on a 50-50 combination).

Home cooked Indian food is ingredient intensive and depends critically on what is fresh and in season. That is the way things operate there – everyday my parents wake up and decide what to eat depending upon what is available. The same can be said of other cultures and cuisines.

Those of us that have immigrated to the west miss home cooked food – for sure. However, it is as much a lack of quality ingredients as it is a dearth of "moms and grandmothers and aunts" each of whom has their own set of special recipes and techniques. How many people of other cultures lament the non-availability of fresh and quality ingredients from their homelands. EVERY ONE. I will take it a step further. My dad will argue with you till the cows come home that the quality of ingredients available in India has gone down over the decades. Before her death, I heard stories from my grandma about the quality of wheat and ghee and lentils available where she grew up – in present day Pakistan before they immigrated to present day India in 1947. Nostalgia OR reality?? A bit of both. Make no mistake about it, we suffer from the same. How many times have I dreamt of certain dishes I used to eat as a kid, made special requests to my mom and aunts when I visited, only to find out it tasted better in my memories.

Haute Indian cuisine…Now you are talking. I will formulate thoughts and post it later..

cheers..Vivin.

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>> Could it be, perhaps, that the truest examples of Indian-influenced "Haute cuisine" have been developing--but developing abroad, outside of India--because that is where the talent has been willing to experiment and where the audience has been more willing to embrace it?  Is it also possible that professional cooking in India has yet to adequately embrace and reconcile this parallel track of "home cooking" as the French did? Another issue I'm curious about:  how influential will the fusiony, French-Indian constructs developed here in the US, like those of Floyd Cardoz and the late Raji Jallepalli, be on the professional and home cooking of India?

Steve, I can tell you from my dad's expeiences over 50+ years, you could not be closer to the truth. In my opinion, innovation in restaurants in India has been close to nil. Mostly because the audience is not willing to embrace it. My dad has been experimenting (and it is not real innovation a la Michelin star restaurants) over the years with new dishes with little success. The same "chicken tandoori" and "seekh kabab" that he used to sell in the '50s remain the bread and butter of his trade even today. Newer items have never made it big. There is no reconciling the "home cooking" with restaurant food (in the north). Just as the street vendor food will never sell well in restaurants or cooked well in homes. Just totally different foods. I am sure others will disagree. Innovation is happening more abroad where the talent and audience are both present. As an example, North Indian folk music underwent a revolution in the late '80s and early '90s in the UK (with its large population from north India) while no one in India was listening to this stuff. Now the imported innovation has become a big hit at home. Can this happen with food? Possible but not probable.

Suvir, when you speak of the Indian fusion and the fast changing and evolving restaurant scene, please elaborate on this. Are you talking of the inevitable (and long overdue) penetration of regional cooking in metropolitan area restaurants OR the western influenced restaurants popping up all over? Please forward me a list of restaurants in Mumbai and Delhi that you would consider truly innovative. I NEED to experience this.

That brings me to another difference between restaurant and home cooking. Surprising no one has brought it up here. Restaurants (especially in the north) specialize in meats (chicken, goat, lamb mostly) while home cooking is mostly vegetarian. That is a big reason they do not mix well. How many Indians grew up eating poultry or meat twice a day like me? Very few. How many of them will appreciate Floyd Cardoz's innovations. Again, I think the answer is very few. I am not making this up. My dad and I have been debating this very issue for a while. Is it a viable business idea to start an establishment like Tabla in New Delhi? He does not think so and will not advise me to put my or his money in such a venture.

thinking aloud - I am struggling with the notion that what happened with French cuisine will happen with Indian food. The concept of haute cuisine has so far been absent as far as I know. I will visit Bukhara again the next time I go to Delhi.

comments and criticism welcome.

cheers..Vivin.

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Vivin,

Thanks for your wonferfully rich post.  What restaurants does your family run?  or is that not kosher of me to ask?  I too would love to visit his restaurants.  Will be in India in March.  It seems like I should know about you and him.  The Indian community can be so close.  I feel robbed that I have had a person with your interest and background in Indian food and have never known it to be so close.

Vivin, fusion in India takes a character truly its own. It is very different as you observe correctly.  And no where close to what Tabla is.  But is it any poorer?  That remains to be seen.

At India Jones/Opium Den in the Bombay Oberoi, one is given 120 dishes from six chefs cooking foods of 7 asian cuisines.  They have a Teppan Bar.  It is catered to feed the yearning of the gourmet traveler.  And where do many Indians love going to when they have a short trip open?  South East Asia I am told.  While it does not cater adequately to the vegetarian guests, they have something for the amusement of any palate.  I am sure the owners hope for us to believe the food is very authentic.  But the fusion of Indian taste buds and Indian sensibilty could not be removed.

The Gordon House Hotel in Colaba again in Bombay, you have three restaurants under one roof.  Serving three distinct  cuisines.   The first one is All Stir Fry, where you capture in a small intimate room for 60 diners, street foods from around the Orient.  You cannot call it authentic, it is again a play of fusion.  You can get a great bowl called a poor persons meal or some such name.. and in that one bowl, lies a fusion of many cultures.  It is nothing more than a soup very flavorful one at that topped with grilled chicken and crisp veggies.  You also get to choose what soup you want, if you want extra spices or what cruncy veggies.

Tides is their seafood restaurant which has sea food dishes from France, Italy, China and India.  Call me silly, but the first three countries foods are far from authentic, not for lack of resources in the owners deep pockets, but because in the androgynous flavors of the foods, he has realised t he love of Indians for cultures foreign.  So again, in one room, one menu, you see a play of many cuisines.  And if that were not complicated enough, the same restaurant also serves as a 24 hour coffee shop, only Indians would understand that concept.  Somewhat similar to a 24 hour neighborhood Diner.  But in India these were mostly in the earlier part in 5 star hotels.  In the coffee shop menu you can find burgers, sanwiches, pizzas, biryaanis and fish and chips.  

The third concept within the Gordon House Hotel is a Three Flights Up members only dining extravaganza if you may.  Membership is free and by invitation only.  Very Calvin Kline in all white, with very Indian undertones, you enter to an island bar and a dance floor.  Caviar and smoked salmon are served at the bar.  

Busaba is another restaurant in Colaba.  In this restaurants kitchen, women chefs from Burma, Vietnam and Thailand work in creating an array of soft and plump momos, crunchy spring rolls and many fish dishes.  One sees fusion taking place in the marriage of techniques between the womens foods.  It is inevitable to work together so closely and to not inspire and inspirit one with the others creations.  

In Opera House area of Bombay you have another trio of restaurants that are serving three menus in three different rooms.  Karma the ultra chic hip restaurant of the moment.  It has a roll down screen showing fashion TV and is a regular for the hip, acting and modelling circuit.  Pastas, Pizzas and Starters make  the menu.  The Pizzas are the winning part of their menu.  Thin crust and crisp.  Somewhere between a pizza crust and the crunchy quality of a pappadum.  The toppings are authentic.  But authentic again with a slight twist.  Heat of the Indian palate changes  the very earthy undertones of pizzas in America.

In Bellisima, the other restaurant in the Opera House complex, my past partner of Pondicherry Fame from NYC, who lives in Mumbai, Chakor Doshi has re-introduced the Chili Dusted Brie as an appetizer.  There is a roasted garlic lemon-apricot salsas.  Does anyone know where that comes from?  Fusion I am told.  Apple pie is there winning dessert in this very creative and ever developing menu.

Liquid Lounge is the 3rd concept at the Opera House setting.  Chakor has filled the room with music from the 60s through the 80s.  It has a menu stating liquids and solids.  Solids are creations of the kitchen and its chef.  One finds in this menu all those kababs and tandoori dishes that Vivin talks about.  Served Haute Cuisine Style.  A great vegetarian Kabab selection and then curries from the south of India and also a paella.  

Another new restaurant is Bombay Blue in Bandra, Mumbai.  Here you find tandoori fare served alongside middle eastern fare and pizzas, foccacias and pastas.  The pastas are made with imported olive oil as the owners do not stop mentioning and also the sauces are made with imported tomatoes from Italy.  But it is in the deft Indianising of the palate that has made the restaurant a great success.  What can make pasta Indian?  Lots of red chili and hints of spices without overwhelming a sauce I am told.

When I come back from Delhi, I will certainly have more to write about.

Vivin, what fascinates me is how Indians can crave all these foods and yet have very little desire to push for the very authentic in any of these foreign cuisines.  It is that mind boggling need to have newer options yet keeping their palates limited that is driving a fusion movement unlike one we know here.

Vivin, my own family has roots in modern day Pakistan.  My home in Delhi had a tandoor till the mid 1970s.  And then it was gone.  For some parties at our home, the driver was sent to fetch tandoori breads that were made at home prior to the mid 70s from the corner restaurant where tandoori foods were being sold.  That made the meal complete.  WHile I cannot agree more with you about home cooking being vegetarian in its base.  Restaurants became popular with their selling meats and tandoori specialties once Tandoors became obsolete.  

We have no Tabla in India.  But Tabla will never work in India.  It is food that can inspire palates here, but would do very little for people back home.  Your father is wise in staying away from that.  I remember taking friends to Tabla.  For me it marked a great new step in the right direction for Indian food and the Indian food movement.  I had warned my guests that the food would be far from Indian.  Mostly with some sutble hints of Indian food.  In the end of the evening, I was almost assasinated and 2 years later, I am still being harassed for my very bad choice of restaurant for that night.  To these friends from India, with homes across 3 continents, Tabla was a restaurant with a great look and food with no feet and no body.  Though I have to say, the Kulfi with the citric soup was a winner that evening.  These were people t hat love french food but in Tabla they found the spices distracting from the pleasures of eating something clean and simple.  And if they looked at the food as Indian, they found it bland.

Well all I say about fusion is that with some time, we can have restaurants that serve fusion food, that will have longevity that Vivins father has had with his Indian restaurants in India.  Once we see a knockout fusion concept, I am sure they will mushroom around the US and India and other countries.  We are yet to reach there. But Tabla is a great begining and what makes them even better is how t hey continue to change and evolve.  The best thing a growing institute can do.

Vivin, thanks for your great post.  Look forward to more from you on an ongoing basis.  And my best to your families restaurants.  I have a few restaurants that I am thinking of.. that could be your families.  It is going to be a difficult evening for me... trying to figure which ones these may be.

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Vivin,

You articulate the grandmother nostalgia for better ingredients in Pakistan very well.  Mine does the same.  She lives in San Francisco and serves fusion haute cusine in my granparents home in the marina.  Making brownies with spice powders, corn bread with cilantro, and mint chutney and cayenne pepper or marmalade with ginger made with fresh citrus fruits from their yard.  And yet, even after having lived here 2 decades, she still craves the better ingredients from India and then those typical cravings for the much better quality that all things had when the lived in colonial British occupied India in the part of India which is now Pakistan.

You brought back similar memories of my own grandmother with  your post.  How very true.

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Vivin,

I have a Tandoor in our apartment in NYC.  It sits out in our deck on our 2nd floor baby terrace year round.  Is used when I have large parties.  Breads and meats are grilled in it.  Also seasonal grilled mixed veggies and fruits for salads.

Sometimes, when inspired, I will leave a large bowlful of lentils to cook overnight as grandma would have done.  To use the spent flames and make the tastiest Maa Kee Daal (Whole Black Lentils).  One that gives most restaurant chefs goose bumps.  Since it is what Maa Kee Daal was meant to be.. and too many restaurants have forgotten.  The slow cooking over the spent flames cooks the lentil perfectly over a very gentle flame and in doing so, preserved the shape of the lentils perfectly, keeps them from getting too mushy and releasing too much starch.

My fathers family had a chef (who came from a lineage of chefs) that worked the tandoor, my maternal grandmother had her own recipes that came from her mother and aunts and extended family that she taught to whoever was the help of the decade.  But I still remember vividly, that she had a small Tandoor that was used on the stove top.  Over the gas flame.  It was shaped like a mini tandoor and the breads and meats were cooked the same way minus the coal.  Which does change the flavor dramatically.

But I am talking about a very small minority within India.  I make the point only to share how Tandoors were the gas stove equivalent of the Indian past.  While ovens and gas ranges were more common here, tandoors were common fare in India till at least the 60s.  Calcutta had gas burners before any city in India.  Bombay followed soon after and then Delhi I am told.  In Calcutta of the 50s, gas came to homes in pipes as it does in American homes.  In Delhi of 2002, that still does not happen.  Or at least to my knowledge.  People rely on cylinders with liquid gas in them.  

And I cannot agree more about home chefs in India wanting to duplicate restaurant fare and the vice versa.  But that is true for any culture.  As I travel extensively through the American south, I have met home chefs that are trying to adapt their foods to the very mediocre standards set by chain restaurants in their area.  Their children want foods like those served by establishments they feel have more charm than good ole mamas style.

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Suvir,

No question about it. You and I obviously have something in common that is rare (I believe). This food bit is in my blood. My father comes from the original Moti Mahal family (in Darya Ganj in New Delhi). My dad's uncle (one of those who started Moti Mahal) had some establishment in Lahore. And my last name is Oberoi (related but not close to the Oberois who own the hotels). My dad personally owns the line of several Mughal Mahal restaurants in New Delhi (starting with the original one near Hotel Siddhartha in Rajendra Place). When I say that there is little innovation in Indian food (commercially) I say so with pain. Because I see it everyday in my wife's cooking. She hails from Karnataka. She successfully pulls together elements from Kannadiga, Punjabi (she was raised in Delhi), French and Italian cuisines. AND BOY IS IT FUN!  Last summer, my parents and my aunt were visiting. My wife made fresh ravioli with cheese and the bitter greens of radishes (mooli patta) adding Indian spices where she thinks appropriate. And she served it up with a salad of figs and mozzarella with cilantro chile pesto style dressing. You would think these old people will not get it. Are you kidding me? They loved it. There was nothing left. My dad's oldest sister has never been out of the country. But she cares about good food. My dad still drives all over the city looking for good kaale maa ki daal that he hauls all the way over. The batch this time was hard as stones. Takes for ever to cook even after soaking it. But boy does it taste good. I am sure there is something to do with grandma's genes. Obviously, you have inherited similar ones. Why don't more people enjoy that? Why can't I add that to my father's restaurants? Questions I do not expect you to answer.

Your fired up responses deserve a lengthy and well considered reply. Your list of restaurants and their descriptions have me salivating. Yes, they might be far from authentic but a clever chef (a la my wife) who understands Indian palates can twist a foreign concept to appeal to Indian taste buds. And I need to see your tandoor sometime.

Unfortunately, I will have to break this highly stimulating and invogorating discussion. In five days, we leave for a culinary tour of the temples of haute cuisine in Paris. Meals at Guy Savoy, Ducasse (and 5 others of similar caliber) await. I am sure I will have a lot more to say about the trip (and our discussion today) once I get back. Now I have to start packing...

Looking forward to more of the same...

cheers... Vivin

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I had neighbors in South Extension that owned the Moti Mahal in South Ex in DElhi. Did you know them?  ALso a friend of mine is also involved with Moti Mahal.. I think.  Rahul Virmani.  

Moti Mahal in South EX was the restaurant which I was talking about when I said the driver would come back with freshly made bread from there for parties.  In fact, in my cooking classes I have shared the simple pearl onion soaked in vinegar recipe from your fathers restaurant.  I loved them.  And crave them more than anything from India.  Such pleasure from something so simple.

Have a fun trip in Paris.  And look forward to hearing about your culinary conquests when you return.

I knew it was Moti Mahal... Since they were one of the first in Delhi.  Your father has a fan in me.  I have much respect for them.  Consistent and authentic for decades.

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Suvir;thank you for the information on the thought that went into the food at Bukhara.I had a meal there a few years ago,and it blew me away.It was another moment in my dining experience where I ate and enjoyed things that were really simple,but wonderfully prepared-the tandori baked pomfret was a knockout.I regret not having enough time to eat at Dumphakt in the same hotel-I had picked up a book about the food of Lucknow in a train station,and found it to be fascinating...

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Dumpukht is to Indian cooking what haute cuisine can be.  It is a great restaurant.  And Indian food cannot get better than that. I say this knowing that it is a blanket statement, but believe me, not many restaurants have reached t hat hight point with food.  To Indian food, it is a temple of food.  Bukhara is great, it is more rustic.  The same team that started Bukhara started Dumpukht.

Maybe it is time for you to prepare some dishes from the book you bought.  And share with us what y ou think of your own preparations of the food from the city that gave the world amongst other things, the very high point of Mughal Culture.  To which we owe Indian food as we know it today for the most part.

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