Modern Indians have never heard of slow food.
In the great 20th century drive for ever more urgent instant gratification, India developed demands of food and its providers that would stump even the cleverest American fast food giant. We want any dish off a menu of 200 items, and we want it here within five minutes. An Indian waiter will very reluctantly inform you that a special dish will take fifteen minutes to arrive, with good reason: most people will both complain about the time as they place the order, and then precisely five minutes later they’ll yell at the waiter for their food being ‘late’.
We also want it to taste like it was slowly cooked over a coal fire for two hours, and we will not settle for anything less. The second most common outburst from the Indian restaurant patron is that the plate of baingan bharta that has just arrived does not — horror of horrors! — taste exactly like the baingan bharta he’s had in every restaurant across the country for the past forty years.
A Time Paradox
The problem here is that very few of the dishes that are now considered ‘Indian’ — I’m talking here about daal, saag paneer, naans, biryani and yes, even baingan bharta — can be made in five minutes. A good biryani takes about two to three hours from the time you chop the first onion. The longer and slower you cook the saag, the nicer it will taste (There’s even a legend of a Kashmiri variety which is cooked for three days!), and let’s not even get into the time required if you decide to make your own paneer. Naans and chapattis are perhaps less time consuming but no less labour intensive. No wonder there’s a thriving market in ready-made chapattis.
“Daal and rice only takes ten minutes,” I’m often told by aunts and elders. They fail to account for the hour you need to spend sorting and cleaning both the rice and the lentils; the other hour it must soak in water; the hour it takes to slowly cook the lentils until they’re a rich, soft consistency; the fifteen minutes it takes to wash the rice thoroughly of its extra starch. No, all they see is the ten minutes in the pressure cooker to turn the rice — by now wholly devoid of any nutrition by the repeated washing and soaking — into a stiff, uniformally gloopy cake. They see the five minutes it takes to make a tadka for the daal; oil in the pan, crackling cumin, some curry leaves and tomatoes, garlic and then the already cooked lentils. Fifteen minutes, and that’s if you let the daal simmer for a bit before serving to get it all smooth and comforting.
These same elders blanch when I mention the thirty minutes it takes to make a good risotto*, or the same time it takes me to put together a hearty salad (I’m very particular about cleaning the leaves, and prepare the dressing fresh every time). “Why don’t you just make daal and rice?” they coo. They also spend most of their day in the kitchen, or spend any time out of it planning or shopping for the next meal. The last time I made daal and rice was two years ago. I enjoy it, but it isn’t my One True God.
* (Yes, I know it takes around 16-18 minutes for the rice to cook. But I never bother with horrible flavour cube stocks, opting instead to slowly cook the onions and vegetables, chuck in the rice and cook it with water. Cooking the vegetables with the rice results in something equally tasty.)
When the food does arrive, it’s a frenzied race to see who can finish the most food within ten minutes. Mountains of rice are piled onto steel plates the size of hubcaps, and then drowned in seas of daal or curries. Stacks of chappattis, tubs of sabzi, and gallons of water in tall glasses to wash them down — usually while they’re chewing. “Oh, but only a little dessert please,” they say, “I’m dieting.”
There’s a reason most foods in the modern Indian canon are soft; why daal is cooked until it’s paste; why rice is washed and washed and washed until it can be pressed between fingers and literally used to glue envelopes shut; why spinach is pureed and paneer is butter soft. In order to meet the ten minute gorging requirement, the food can’t have any texture or bite; it has to go down smooth, and it has to go down quick.
Why spend most of those ten minutes chewing when you can be shovelling another pound of rice down your throat? My brother and I cause some irritation to all our hosts when I spend fifteen and he spends twenty minutes finishing his meal (not counting a second helping, which we rarely find the energy and space to take on).
Once, I tried to make some french beans with my grandmother. We sauteed some onions and garlic, added in the chopped beans and stir-fried them, adding a little grated coconut when I was happy; the beans were cooked but still crunchy and fresh. Ten minutes later I returned to find that my grandmother had doused them in two cups of water and boiled them until they were a sick, mossy green-brown.
I’m not kidding about the 200 item menus, by the way. The average (vegetarian) South Bombay eatery has:
1. South Indian Snacks: Dosas, Uthappas, Idlis, Medu Vadas, and probably Upma and Sheera. Dosas and Uthappas alone take up a whole column. Thirty varieties are common, from the simplest Sada Dosa to the most elaborate Ghee Paper Mysore Masala Onion Rava Dosa. “Steam Idli, Fry Idli, Tomato Uthappa, Onion Uthappa — wondu soft pongal!” a satirical ad used to say back when I was a kid.
2. Chaat: Bombay street food. Bhel puri and Sev puri, pav bhaji in all its varieties (sada, khada, cheese, jain, special, etc). Fifty or so dishes.
3. Sandwiches: another twenty types, from cheese toast to club sandwiches. The club sandwich itself is an Indian institution. Double decker; on the upper level, layers of cucumber, tomato, beetroot and red onion, with spicy green coriander and coconut chutney lubricating the buttered slices. On the lower, a tomato ‘omelet’ (really a pancake made of chick-pea flour and tomato). The stranger ones on offer might be Russian sandwich: alterantely a mayonnaise vegetable filling, or marinated sweet and candied fruits with jam. Note that even pizza (but not as we know it, Jim) may also be listed here.
4. North Indian Food: the stuff anyone in the west will most likely identify as Indian food. Sabzis, bhajis and curries, rice and pulav and biryani. A hundred dishes and more.
5. Chinese: Do not for a moment think that this is actual Chinese food. It’s basically Indian food with soy sauce and lots of chillies. So you have fried rice, gobi manchurian (battered, deep fried caulifower florets in a lethally spicy sauce), noodles, chopsuey and the uniquely Indian Triple Schezwan (fried rice noodles cauliflower/vegetable nuggets in an even spicier, red sauce). While most people either opt for manchurian rice or a Triple, there will still be two dozen types of each thing (rice, noodle, ‘gravy item’).
6. Juices and Milkshakes: Here’s one of the few places the variety in a menus actually helps. The ridiculous variety of seasonal and year-round fruits available in India ensures that you can come to a restaurant every day and not have the same drink twice in a couple of months.
7. Dessert: From gulab jamun to gajar halwa, all the way up to my favourite, fruit salad with jelly and ice-cream. At least twenty things.
Perhaps this kind of restaurant is only prevalent in South Mumbai where ten million people from twenty five same-same-but-different cultures come down every day to work, and have as many same-same-but-different tastes. But I have seen this template growing, at least on the inter-state highways where, no doubt, people from Mumbai fully expect to find the same dining experience as they do every day in Fort. And all delivered to the table in five minutes, of course.
The New Indian Eating Experience, is, rather fittingly, epitomised in a restaurant that shares its name with an express train. Rajdhani has no menu; it doesn’t need one. It only serves thali, a staple Indian restaurant item consisting of a few sabzis, rotis, rice and dal in a big plate, with either limited or unlimited refill options.
Now, I like thali; I like the variety and the satisfying nature of it. Chefs go all fancy and set up a degustation menu (a.k.a. a Tasting Meal) but this is the same thing, only without the pretension. Rajdhani, however, takes thali to a whole new level of crazy.
I entered the overly lit, overly yellow restaurant which seemed to have more waiters than patrons, after a late movie. At such a time I would rather have had some fruit juice or a light sandwich, but alas I was in the minority and the rest of the group were starving for some real Indian food. We were seated and a foot-and-a-half wide steel plate was placed before me, filled with a dozen little steel bowls. Then the madness began. No less than six servers came around, bearing everything from two types of daal (semi-sweet and spicy), three types of sabzi, three types of sweet, three types of roti… er, I’m struggling to remember everything.
Five minutes in I was left staring at the already gargantuan meal. I had’t even taken two bites when the procession of servers began again. Throughout the meal I was keenly aware of a tie-wearing server captain’s eyes boring into me and everyone else at the table, scrutinising each’s plates and snapping his fingers at servers to come and top up any of the seventeen things on our plates if they ran low. I spent more time saying ‘no’ to servers than I did actually eating. I never took any seconds other than rotis, and that, despite the supposed vigilance of the captain, took ten minutes to arrive when I asked for some, and meanwhile I had to shoo away several people bearing more sabzi and daal.
It was perhaps the most uncomfortable meal of my life. I just wanted to be left alone to eat in peace! Needless to say, my views are firmly in the minority, and Rajdhani enjoys a steady stream of clientele, all of whom are in and out within fifteen minutes.
I’m not sure what triggered this Indian obsession with hyperfast food. Perhaps because earlier we never had so much to eat, and therefore meals could be completed in ten minutes. Now that there’s more to eat we’re simply binging on it in the same time. Perhaps the food itself was of a simple nature — fruits and raw foods are considered the healthiest diet in ayurveda — that it didn’t require an hour to prepare and eat.
But let’s turn this argument on it’s head: the food now is so prepared, so over-the-top, that in any ordinary day you’d require a lot of down-time between meals simply to process all that junk you’ve taken in. And so the daal gets softer, the rice pastier, and the halwa richer, because after a thali you’d better have time for a quick lie-down, my friend.
You’re going to need it.