The Taste With Vir: The Ingredients That Have Transformed Indian Restaurant Cooking Over The Last Half-Century


What do you think are the two most important ingredients that have been introduced to Indian restaurant cooking over the past half century or so?

An obvious candidate for this accolade is industrial broiler chicken. Whole generations of Indians have forgotten about that chicken taste because everyone is now using broiler chickens which may be big but have no taste. When people say chicken is tasteless meat, they are wrong. What they should say is: The chicken used by restaurants in India has no flavor!

The industrial egg, child of the mass-raised hen, is the other related candidate. Most people have forgotten that eggs once had brilliant yolks, the color of the sun. They think it’s normal for the white to be a watery mess. In recent years there have been attempts to go back to basics and sell eggs from non-caged hens. But this remains a niche market. The egg you will be served for breakfast, even in an average five star hotel, will be disgusting.

I could go on. Noodles mark a significant shift in our eating habits, but I think their real influence has been less in the restaurant industry and more in our homes where instant noodles (made by brands like Maggi) have become a huge part of the kitchen.

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You can also make a case for the mayonnaise that I talked about at length before. We never used mayo at home when I was growing up. But now many middle-class households regularly buy bottles of mayonnaise made by Indian brands such as Veeba and Cremica. Usually, the most popular mayos are the flavored ones — with things like chili butter chicken masala. But they are still mayonnaise.

The mayo boom is always a house thing. Restaurants have always used mayonnaise and they continue to do so: no change there. A stronger case should be made for soy sauce which is a restaurant favorite. We always had soy sauce in India, but we only ate it when we went to old-fashioned Chinese restaurants, which weren’t as popular then as they became after the 1990s.

But now soy sauce is ubiquitous. This is partly due to the boom in Indian Chinese cuisine, a local cuisine in which any masaledaar dish can become Chinese once soy sauce has been added. The sushi boom is also based on the popularity of pairing rice with soy sauce. When Indians eat sushi, it is almost always an American-style sushi roll that is first dipped in a bowl of soy sauce. It is the rice-soybean hit that is the key to the soybean boom. Serve soy-free sushi and most people will find it too dry.

I’ve been hesitant to include soy sauce in my list of ingredients that have transformed restaurant cuisine over the past half-century because most Indians would say it’s only popular in a certain type of restaurant. I’m also hesitant to include monosodium glutamate, better known by the Ajinomoto brand, because chefs will flatly deny using it when we all know they do.

Ajinomoto was first used in Chinese restaurants in India (although the Ajinomoto company is Japanese) as a flavor enhancer. This meant, according to Chinese cooks, that it did not alter the flavor of the dish but rather sharpened the flavors. In no time, Indian restaurant chefs also started adding Ajinomoto to their curries. The packaged food industry has also started to use it extensively.

Then Ajinomoto went down in a cloud after American doctors said it could cause headaches or tremors in those who ate it. The claim was exaggerated: yes, a few people have an intolerance to Ajinomoto, but many more people are allergic to peanuts. Do you also ban peanuts then?

It’s now clear that Ajinomoto isn’t the villain he was made out to be, but chefs are still hesitant to admit they use him (despite him being everywhere) and packaged food companies are trying. to conceal the amount of monosodium glutamate that their products contain. So yes, Ajinomoto has become a constant presence in restaurant kitchens, but it’s the one ingredient that dare not speak its name.

So, which would I pick as the two best newcomers to Indian restaurant cuisine?

Well, cheese would definitely be one. It’s not just melted cheese. It is also bread. Until about 30 years ago, paneer was primarily a North Indian thing. Now its popularity has spread all over India. It is not uncommon to find paneer masala or paneer mutter on a South Indian menu. Even Gujaratis who have their own well-developed vegetarian cuisine are ditching fresh vegetables for paneer.

And then there is melted cheese, totally foreign to Indian cuisine. But restaurants are now using cheese in all sorts of things. You will find melted cheese in murgh malai kababs. Street food guys will grate it over dosas, uttapams and even pav bhaji, dishes that obviously don’t need it. A cheese naan made with Amul cheese can’t be more than two decades old and yet you now find it everywhere.

So yes, cheese is one of the two most important ingredients to enter Indian cuisine over the past few decades.

The second is the most surprising. The tomato. We all know that tomato was discovered in South America and made its way to India through European traders and settlers. But frankly, it’s not that unusual. Chilli and potato followed the same path and soon became an integral part of Indian cuisines.

The tomato, on the other hand, took much longer. Think big restaurant dishes that use tomatoes—butter chicken or Bukhara dal. Both were only invented in the mid to late 20th century and were restaurant creations. The traditional Punjabi black dal has no tomatoes. Butter chicken was invented in the 1950s. British chicken tikka masala was created in the 1970s.

Ask your grandmother for her recipes. You will find that no matter what part of India you are from, there were hardly any tomatoes in the food your grandmother’s generation ate. Even now, India’s major cuisines are much less dependent on tomatoes than, say, chilli.

As you might have guessed, the reason I mention cheese, tomatoes, soy sauce, and ajinomoto is because I have a theory about how Indian tastes have changed over the past few decades. My theory is that the most recent developments in Indian restaurant cuisine were caused by the discovery of umami flavors by the subcontinent.

I’ve written about this before and I think more work needs to be done to give shape to my theory. But even intuitively, I think you’ll agree that the flavors we love now aren’t necessarily the flavors your grandparents enjoyed.

But then, isn’t this how cooking develops?


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