Indian restaurant menus struggle with words, confusing paying customers with dry language and stunning but unreal imagery. Real food doesn’t look like this
With the right smartphone and smart lighting, you can now make a boiled egg look like a dying foodie’s last supper
For breakfast this morning, I recommend crispy, golden pancakes made with a fermented batter of pearl rice, split chickpeas, split black gram and pigeon peas, infused with the essence of asafoetida from Mazar- e-Sharif and sprinkled with coarsely ground dry red chillies and green chillies, with green islands of freshly picked Coimbatore curry leaves from the stem.
The pancakes will be roasted on a hot stone griddle with cold-pressed virgin peanut oil, and served with shallot pesto, Nilgiri garlic cloves, dried Guntur red chillies and proto salt. -Maldon, all fried in coconut oil and crushed by hand in an ancestral mortar.
If your answer to that was, “Who talks like that?” Would you have a simple dosa and chutney? then you are in good company. According to a live survey I conducted, about 93.7% of restaurant patrons are stunned and shocked by the convoluted food descriptions on modern menus. Most Indian menus require a minimum doctorate in anthropology with geography as a subsidiary.
What do you think would land on your table if you ordered a “Burmese war coconut curry soup with the seven additives from heaven”? (Available, if you’re wondering, at East-Asian Spice Trail or EAST at Sahara Hotel.)
Fancy an “Indian bread of flour and egg with or without fenugreek, made by rolling and stirring until it becomes thin before being cooked on an inverted stone wok”? That, ladies, would be – abracadabra! – a roti roomali in all its glory.
Today’s menus, concocted by cilantro chefs and bumbling editors who consider anything with garam masala and chopped dhania a masterpiece, kill food on paper before it not be murdered on the plate. To set the record straight, no restaurant in India cooks anything overnight, let alone maa ki dal. Nothing is simmered and nothing is “homemade”, no matter what the menu swears by. The butter in the dal makhani is definitely not “homemade”.
We’re in the age of the Cookstagram chef who knows that with the right smartphone and smart lighting, she can make a boiled egg look like a dying foodie’s last supper, with a single leaf of parsley perched atop from the dome and an instant Caribbean sunset in the background. (An exception, by the way, might be Deepa Ravi’s food_for_nothing Instagram channel. She focuses on taste and lets her son Vedanta do the camera magic.)
Those exceptions aside, it’s a deadly combination – contentless gorilla words chosen for their ability to confuse hungry diners combined with images of an out-of-order bottle washer rendered world-class by his iPhone 13 Pro using computer photography. He just aimed and clicked.
But words on menus matter; they can create deep desire as easily as they can kill it. Dr. Brian Wansink of Cornell University, in a six-week study of 140 diners, found that well-written descriptions of menu items increased sales by about 27%. and left customers more satisfied with their meal.
Indian restaurant menus struggle with words, oscillating between flowery and tasteless, wordy and enigmatic. In some quarters, notably London, stating a few key ingredients and leaving the rest to the imagination is considered sufficient. The menu at Chourangi, the city’s newest restaurant, will feature, Crispy—Railway Lamb Shank Curry Nutmeg, Black Cardamom, Ginger.
You have to calculate the flavors yourself. Too bad if black cardamom is a mystery to you.
No one has captured the transcendental heights of a well-made dish as perfectly as Sylvia Plath, who described her lemon meringue like this: “Baked lemon meringue pie, chilled lemon custard, and a crust on the rim of the cold bathroom window, stirring in the dark night and the stars.”
David Baker, describing the hearty fish stew with bouillabaisse in his book Vintage, wrote: “It can also work wonders on a broken heart…With a dash of cayenne pepper and saffron, even the most battered heart can be restored with enough vigor to face the broken heart again. the turbulent and stormy waters of love.
One of my favorites is Min Jin Lee’s beautiful depiction of simple foods waiting to be transformed from nature to food in his classic Pachinko. Passing the kitchen, his character notices a soup pot “half filled with water, cut potatoes and onions, waiting to be put on the stove”. My mind, warned, set it on fire and imagined what would come out of it.
Until you eat it, each dish exists only in your mind as an expectation, fueled by those words on the menu. Once consumed, however, a good meal changes your soul. The best food changes moods, creating a deep reluctance to leave the table even after all the food is gone. These are special times, and the Spaniards have a special word for them: sobremesa, which means “above the table”.
Sobremesa is when everyone at the table, beaming with the pleasure of a wonderful meal made with love and eaten among friends, sits down laughing and talking about life, the universe and everything. Nobody wants to leave.
Here, seen from there. Bangkok-based CY Gopinath casts unique light and shadows on Mumbai, the city that raised him. You can reach him at [email protected]
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The opinions expressed in this column are those of the individual and do not represent those of the newspaper.