Which is India’s greatest food city? Once upon a time I might have said Amritsar. Or, possibly Surat. Or, the obvious one: Lucknow. But now I am not so sure.
The usual definition of a great food city is self evident: one where the food is great. And if you use that definition then Amritsar certainly makes the cut. The kulchas alone are the worth the trip there. Surat is less well-known in the North but in the Western parts of India, it has a reputation for great street food. When Gujarati foodies die, God sends us to spend the after-life in Surat but only if we have done good deeds during our time on earth. And Lucknow, well, who can challenge Lucknow’s culinary and gastronomic strengths? That pulao! Those gravies! Some of the best chaat in India!
But now, I wonder if I should revise my definition of a great food city. For instance, I’m not sure that I would rate Paris or Lyon as great food cities any longer. Yes, French is the classic cuisine. And some of the world’s best restaurants are in France (natch!) and especially in Paris and Lyon.
But is that enough?
I am beginning to come around to the view that a great food city is not one that does the local cuisine well. If that was all there was to it, then Cheng Du and Indore are worthy challengers to Paris and Lyon. But I think that to be a great food city in today’s world, you can’t just be good at your own cuisine. That much we should take for granted.
A great food city is one that serves as a crossroads for food from all over, one where different cuisines mingle and grow. So, no to Paris, Lyon, Cheng Du, Indore, Amritsar, Surat and Lucknow. They don’t really make it. They are cities located in regions where the food is very good. But they are not, in themselves, great food cities.
So, what is a great food city? Well, London may be the best example. English cuisine is, let’s be honest, not very interesting. But it is, nevertheless, difficult to eat badly in London. That’s a reflection of the city as the capital of the world. London is home to communities from all over the world and they have brought their own food with them.
You could eat very well in London for at least six months without ever having to eat any English food at all. There are great restaurants from Asia: Indian restaurants, Thai restaurants, Malaysian/Indonesian restaurants and even (if you like that sort of thing) Bangladeshi curry houses. Over the last decade, the cuisines of Africa and the Caribbean are well represented in the restaurant scene. And because chefs from all over Europe have made their way to London, you can eat outstanding Spanish, Portuguese and Italian food in the city. That to me, is the mark of a great food city.
The same principle applies to New York. Many of the world’s most popular dishes were either invented or popularised in New York City. It isn’t just Chicken Kiev or Vichyssoise. It is staples like the hamburger, the hot dog and the kind of pizza that has travelled all over the world. New York Cheesecake is a category by itself and new desserts keep being invented all the time. (Remember the Cronut?)
To realise how advanced New York is you just need to travel to the American Midwest or even any small town in the United States. The food there will be much more American. And it will be nothing like the food in New York. The difference between New York (and California too) is that immigrant communities brought their own cuisines and created a whole new way of eating.
But why look to the West? We have great restaurant cities in India and the rest of Asia. I wrote a few weeks ago about Singapore, which is truly the gourmet capital of Asia: great local food, amazing street food and some of the world’s best international restaurants. That used to be true of Hong Kong too (though the street food in Singapore has always been better) and perhaps it will be true once again, after things settle down in that troubled city.
In India, my vote could go to Mumbai, Kolkata, Delhi and Bangalore, though not necessarily in that order.
Mumbai’s inclusion at the top of this list is a no-brainer. The reason that it is India’s food capital is because it is the country’s most cosmopolitan city. It is like London in the sense that you can eat very well for at least six months without once eating a local (Maharashtrian) meal: though that would be your loss because Maharashtrian food, unlike English food, is delicious. The food of Mumbai tells the story of the people who built this great city and those who made their fortunes in Mumbai.
Much of what we regard as Mumbai food is Gujarati. Bhelpuri was a Gujarati riff on the chaat that immigrants from UP brought to Mumbai. Pav bhaji was created to feed Gujarati traders near the old Cotton Exchange. And much of it is Muslim: not just the Gujarati Muslims (Bohras, Khojas, Memons etc,) who contributed so much to the creation for Bombay as it was then but also Muslims from all over India who were drawn to the city. The Udipi restaurants that characterised the city were run by immigrants from Mangalore; later the same restaurateurs started the craze for so-called ‘coastal’ seafood. The bakeries were run by Muslims from the North; the first cake shops by Catholics, many of them from Goa. The Irani cafés were run by a second wave of immigrants (after the Parsis) from Persia. Frankie was invented by a sardarji. Dabeli came from Gujarat. Only Vada Pav may have a Maharashtrian origin.
So it is with Kolkata. Anyone (well, any Bengali, certainly) will tell you that Bengali food is one of the world’s greatest cuisines. But the interesting thing about the food of Kolkata is that nearly all of the dishes that the city is famous for were invented by non-Bengalis. The classic Kolkata puchka and the world-beating chaat are not made by Bengalis but by Biharis and UPwallas. The Kathi Roll was created by Nizam’s which is run by non-Bongs. The biryani that every Bengali raves about is said to have been created at the court-in-exile of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah whose Avadhi cooks added new ingredients (potatoes, boiled eggs etc.) to the biryani of their own region.
It is hard to find an original medieval Delhi cuisine nowadays. The Mughal Court was based here so there must be a Delhi school of Mughlai cuisine. But unlike Lucknow and Hyderabad, where the old recipes have been preserved, the food of the Mughal emperors has been largely forgotten. However, there is a bania tradition from old Delhi, which now includes fabulous chaat and the Kayasth cuisine is distinctively Delhi. Add to that the post 1947 influence of Punjabis from West Punjab who brought tandoori chicken with them and transformed Indian cuisine. Delhi food today is a delicious mixture of all those influences.
And why Bangalore? Well, because Bangalore has always been the gateway to the cuisines of the South. In the 1980s, it had the best Andhra restaurants outside of Hyderabad. It has since rediscovered the fish dishes of Mangalore. And some of India’s best Kerala restaurants (Kappa Chakka Kandhari etc.) are in Bangalore. And, of course, there is the delicious cuisine of Karnataka: benne dosas and super light idlis, for instance.
Is mine a valid distinction ? Or is any city with good food a great foodie city?
I think this characterization works. Good food is everywhere. Great food is the product of diversity and many different influences.
And fortunately, because of our plurality and diversity, India is home to many great food cities.
The views expressed by the columnist are personal
From HT Brunch, April 16, 2022
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