Indian restaurants aren't my cup of tea. Don't get me wrong, I love Indian food and when I go to India, mealtimes are quite simply wow times. It's not just the gussied up food in restaurants there; even the everyday food made at the homes of my relatives stands out.
I just don't eat the food served up by Indian restaurants here in Auckland. Here are my reasons. Let me know if you agree or disagree.
The food lacks zing
Indian food here is like nothing back in the original country. Here it is either "hot as the hinges of hell's front door" or "we have toned it down for the Kiwi palate".
The food there is different - much more flavoursome. Only a native-born like me can tell the difference. Kiwis fed a steady diet of sickly sweet butter chicken cannot. Don't take it personally, because my job as a journalist is to inform, educate and bring you bad news. So bear with me for the next five minutes.
Ask any New Zealand Indian travelling home on a holiday, and they'll tell you they can't wait to hit the dining strips. Food, gorgeous food, is the highlight of a trip to India.
But go to an Indian restaurant in Auckland and you'll discover most of the items on the menu are clones of each other. Other than butter chicken, tikka masala and rogan josh, there's nothing really interesting. How is such a lack of choice possible when India has more geographic variety than Europe, is bigger than Europe and has more languages than Europe, with each language group having its own distinct cuisine?
Here's why. Indian cuisine became popular in Britain first. However, the first Indian restaurants in London were started not by Indians but by Bangladeshis and today 90 per cent of 'Indian' restaurants in Britain are owned by Bangladeshis.
Now the problem for our neighbours is that nobody wants to dine in a Bangladeshi or Pakistani restaurant. This, of course, has to do with the negative images both countries are associated with. So they decided to label this Bangladeshi-Pakistani-British mishmash as Indian.
To be sure, what the Bangladeshis have done isn't any different from what KFC would do - prepare ready-to-cook ingredients that are relatively cheap. Take some raw chicken, prepare a paste of ground spices and yoghurt; marinate the chicken a few hours (or overnight if you are slightly pretentious; it does nothing to improve the taste). And yes, the chicken has to turn red - not in shame at this devilish dish but from the liberal use of artificial colouring. This is exactly what Indian cuisine has transmogrified into.
Real Indian food isn't easy to make at all. It takes two hours just to get the ingredients ready. When I go to my relatives' homes in India, my aunts and female cousins disappear into the kitchen around 11am and by 1.30pm when lunch is served, it's a feast for the palate - and the eyes. (Before you make jibes about Indian women being married to the kitchen, let me tell you that some of my aunts and all my cousins are either scientists, engineers, doctors or mathematics teachers; and yet they love to cook. The only full time housewife I know is my brother's wife and she reads Tolstoy.)
The ambience is fake
Barring a few notable exceptions, why do Indian restaurants look so dowdy? Last year I went on a conference to Wellington. Given a choice I would opt for Chinese any day but I go by consensus always. The other delegates picked an Indian restaurant that looked like a dark, dingy, dolorous Taj Mahal (not built to scale, of course).
I lost my appetite the moment I saw that hideous thing. Despite the fact that the person who served us, an engineering student who regaled us with his excellent humour, I just picked at my food. I eat Indian food with my hands, but I found myself using a knife and fork - perhaps I was subconsciously keeping my distance from the lumpy, tasteless offerings. I left with a bad taste in my mouth - literally.
Why can't Indian restaurateurs dump the faux arches, fake lamps, and terracotta furniture disguised as teak? Perhaps the competition is so fierce that they are trying to be more Indian than other Indian restaurants, and eventually all of them end up looking like bad copies of each other. Something like the second clone of Michael Keaton's first clone in Multiplicity.
When will these guys realise that modern decor adds value? If you want to raise the standards of Indian restaurants, this is one area that needs urgent attention.
Of course there are some exceptions - like the one in Stanmore Bay, which really looks world class and actually won a New Zealand award, which is kind of unprecedented for an Indian restaurant in New Zealand.
At the same time, among the 50-odd dineout destinations that made it to "Auckland's Dirtiest Restaurants'' list released last month, only two, (going by the names) Curry House in Ponsonby and Hyderabadi Biryani House in Sandringham, seem to be Indian owned.
The ingredients are bland
There are many vegetables in India which simply do not grow in New Zealand. For instance, one of my favourite salad ingredients is called banga, which is a bright orange coloured cucumber which comes with a natural salty taste. There are dozens more everyday vegetables that I don't even know the names of but which are sold in every city and village in India.
Also, the relatively young New Zealand soil does seem to affect the ingredients - the chicken, for instance, is kind of rubbery and the meats have less flavour.
Five-star chefs, two-star quality
A good chef should be able to overcome the above issues. Yes, a good chef. That's one of the peculiar problems Indian restaurants in New Zealand face. You see, good chefs are mighty hard to come by. Their adequate supply depends on whether the Immigration Department has placed chefs in the Skills Shortage category. This list changes every year, depending on the state of employment in New Zealand.
Many Indian chefs here claim to have five-star hotel experience . Now, if you are ever allowed inside a five-star hotel in India, you won't buy that line either. Five-star hotels in India are an order of luxury that many foreigners can't imagine. India has always been a land of luxury, and that tradition carries into hotels too. Top five-star hotel chefs in Mumbai and Bangalore draw salaries that many New York CEOs would envy. There is absolutely no reason for them to come to New Zealand and battle it out with the Immigration Department. (How some Indian chefs get here is an entirely different story that would shock many seasoned industry people here. That's for another time.)
Another interesting fact is that many Indian restaurants are owned by people who have a day job. They could be selling insurance, working in banks, or delivering parcels from 8am-4pm. At 5pm -- like Superman -- they rip off their clothes, don the white cap and become Chefman. By 5.30pm they are warming up frozen gravy bought wholesale from an East Tamaki factory. You have to admit it's a neat way of making money for your retirement days.
Indian restaurants in India at least try and copy the techniques that housewives and grandmothers have perfected. Indian restaurants abroad don't even care.
And why bother when any fool can make butter chicken, which incidentally I tasted for the first time in my life, in 2006 in Auckland. (It isn't bad when you are really hungry.)
The casualty of this rigmarole is quality. That's precisely why the food in Indian restaurants - from Waiuku to Waimaku - tastes exactly the same. Ordinary chefs do not create extraordinary food.
Variety - the spice of life
There is a whole lot more in India that should be part of the menu here. There are dozens of fish, seafood, chicken, meat and vegetable dishes that will have you gasping in delight. It is a shame that the absolutely sumptuous seafood dishes from my home state of Kerala are not popularised abroad. Or the brilliant Rajasthani vegetarian fare that made me give up meat and fish and egg for eight long years.
Even in the fourth decade of my life I'm surprised by the new dishes that I encounter in my trips back to a new city in India each year. And I haven't even covered 10 per cent of the geography.
In April 2012 Trading Standards Officers in the UK's Warwickshire County tested lamb kebabs in 20 restaurants and found that none contained just lamb, reports the Daily Mail. Read it here. All kebabs contained a mixture of pork, beef or poultry, and four lamb curries didn't contain any lamb at all. In fact, of 19 lamb dishes tested, only three contained lamb.
In the UK, lamb is the most expensive meat, followed by beef and pork, with chicken being the cheapest.
So you are being twice conned: Bangladeshi restaurants pretending to be Indian restaurants, serving chicken, beef or pork kebabs disguised as lamb kebabs.
Now that's really not kosher - if you are Hindu, Muslim or Jewish.
Rakesh Krishnan is a features writer at Fairfax Media. His articles have been used as reference at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey; the Centre for Research on Globalization, Canada; Wikipedia; and as part of the curriculum at the Anthropology Department of the National University of Ireland, Maynooth. This blog looks at issues concerning ethnic groups that are normally discussed only in dark corners. However, you can expect posts on a wide range of other underbelly topics.
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