Rude Food by Vir Sanghvi: authenticity is overrated


Given the current obsession with food authenticity, I often wonder if we realize how the food we eat is newly invented and not part of any authentic tradition. Many ingredients that we consider to be an integral part of Indian cuisine came from South America and only came to us when Europeans brought them here: tomatoes, potatoes, corn, peppers, etc.

And so many of the dishes that we consider to be part of the ancient Indian tradition are 20th century restaurant creations. Butter Chicken, Masala Dosa, Chicken 65, Vada Pav, Chicken Tikka and many more.

This shouldn’t surprise us. This is true of all cuisines all over the world. Spaghetti Bolognese was not created in Bologna but in England. Chicken Kiev was not invented in Kiev or elsewhere in Ukraine. It was invented in New York. Pepperoni is not a traditional Italian topping for pizza. It is an American creation.

This is also true of the food of Asia. Along with sushi and sashimi, the only Japanese dish that has gained popularity around the world is ramen. The sight of a ramen house with diners noisily sipping their ramen and soup feels quintessentially Japanese to us. And it may be, but only now. Until the 1950s, hardly anyone in Japan ate ramen.

Until then, the Japanese called Ramen Shina Soba or Chinese soba because the dish was considered part of Chinese cuisine. All of that changed after Japan was defeated in World War II. The victorious American occupiers tried to feed the defeated Japanese masses, only to find that the country had its worst rice harvest in 42 years in 1945. The Japanese were then (and still are, in many ways) a predominantly consuming population. of rice, so there was a terrible food shortage and people were hungry.

The Americans responded by flooding the country with American wheat, hoping the Japanese would eat bread. They did it: bread consumption in Japan more than doubled between 1948 and 1951. But much of America’s wheat was used to make Chinese-style wheat noodles, which eventually became an urban staple. under the name of Ramen.

Thus, ramen is hardly a traditional food in Japan. It is a Chinese dish that became popular because of the American occupation.

Noodle dishes exploded across Asia after WWII. Take Pad Thai, perhaps the most popular Thai dish in the world. One story suggests that it was not invented until the 1930s by the Thai government to help build the nation and was called Pad Thai to give it a patriotic character. (Pad means stir-fry, so ‘Thai Stir-fry’ or something like that.)

The dish did not take off until the 1950s and this is attributed to rice shortages during WWII. The Thais discovered that you could make two kilograms of rice noodles from one kilogram of rice (no, I don’t know how it works either), so they used their precious reserves of rice for making of noodles. The recipe for Pad Thai already existed, so the noodles entered Pad Thai, which became a means of feeding the nation. By the 1950s, it had become a staple.

You can argue about the historicity of the stories, but what is clear is that Pad Thai and Ramen only took off after WWII and are relatively new dishes, which are far from over. ‘be traditional in their own kitchens.

We have experienced a similar transformation in India. Until the 1950s, Indians did not really drink tea. It had been planted by the British using saplings brought from China, but the production was mainly for export. Tea consumption did not take off in India until the 1950s after a Tea Board campaign to get Indians to drink tea.

Because the taste of fine tea was foreign to our palates, the Tea Board promoted inexpensive teas (made by a process called CTC) that could be cooked with milk and sugar to create the tea we now associate with each. chai store. You can judge the success of the Tea Board campaign in India by looking at Sri Lanka where the consumption of CTC is low (they drink real – or orthodox, to use the technical term) and our type of cooked tea is not. Standard.

We now recognize that tandoori chicken and tikka chicken were only popularized in the 1950s by a restaurant called Moti Mahal in Delhi. But we also have to recognize that the black dal rich in tomatoes and butter which is served in all Indian restaurants all over the world with names like Dal Bukhara and Dal Makhni was also created at the same time. There were no tomatoes in the punjabi black dal when it was a homemade dish.

The original Moti Mahal in Daryaganj is no longer run by the founding families and there are at least three groups of people who use variations of the Moti Mahal brand. So far, they’ve been content with serving butter chicken, claiming the dish was invented at Moti Mahal (which it was).

But now there is a new battle between the descendants of Kundan Lal Gujral, who was the face of the original Moti Mahal, and the descendants of Kundan Lal Jaggi, who was one of the partners. Jaggi’s descendants say that Gujral took care of the front of the house, but Jaggi was in the kitchen creating dishes such as butter chicken. Their own restaurant chain, Daryaganj, says it’s run by “the inventors of the butter chicken,” which makes Gujral’s descendants look red because they challenge the role of Jaggi.

In the case of butter chicken, we know where it was invented and when. All that is disputed is the identity of the man who invented it.

But other dishes present their own mysteries. Take Chicken 65. We still don’t know where it got its name from. According to Chennai’s Buhari restaurant, which claims to have invented it, the dish entered the menu in 1965 and was called Chicken 65 after the year it was introduced. Well, maybe. But Bangalore claims to have invented it too. And there are other theories about its name: the chicken must have been 65 days old, it used 65 different spices, it was dish number 65 on the menu and so on.

Although there are no clear answers, one can be sure that the dish is a relatively recent invention (mid-1960s) and that it is not part of any culinary tradition: someone has come from there. ‘invent.

Another southern favorite is Gobi Manchurian (although the name varies slightly depending on the state you’re in). The dish is a variation of Manchurian chicken, which was invented in Mumbai in the mid-1970s in response to customers asking for “spicy Chinese dishes”. The invention is generally attributed to restaurateur Nelson Wang, especially after claiming the dish as his own on a show I did almost two decades ago. But there are others who say it was they, not Nelson, who created it. And even Nelson did not, even in his worst nightmares, conceive of Gobi Manchurian.

So let’s let this thing of authenticity rest. Kitchens evolve. The dishes are created. Some are good. Some are terrible. But each dish finds its own market. And as time goes on, it starts to be seen as “genuine”.

From Brunch HT, December 26, 2021

Follow us on

Join us on


    Why hide the papers? Why keep the conspiracy theories related to the death of Netaji Subhas Bose alive? And why deny India the truth about the death of one of its great freedom fighters?
    …See the details


Previous What is a fruit cake? A look at history.
Next Tried Chelmsford's new Giggling Squid Thai restaurant and the food was mouthwatering - Hope Woolston