“I am bringing 50 theplas and a jar of pickle” declared my mum as I spoke to her this morning on the phone. My parents are flying into Munich tomorrow evening and I join them in a few days for a European holiday that will last almost 3 weeks. Now for any Indian family (and vegetarian at that), going without desi food for that long would seem like a punishment they couldn’t endure and so my mum is coming well equipped, ready to confront the bland tastelessness of European cuisine. The Italians might be master chefs tossing up perfect pastas and the French might pride themselves for their delicate blend of flavours, but no Indian worth their salt (and spice!) would be able to pretend for too long in admiring the subtle nuances of European cuisine.
Which brings me to the contentious argument I am about to make – Is Indian food superior to cuisines from the Western parts of the world? Are we more evolved in what we eat and how we cook as compared to our counterparts in Europe or America? Despite being vegetarian, I am extremely fond of European cuisine – I like the freshness of the ingredients, I like the fact that individual flavours are retained instead of being killed by an overindulgence of spice and the presentation is superb. I also admire this whole gourmet culture in the west, the fact that so many different techniques are used in cooking and that there are so many food connoisseurs passionate about what they eat in an age where takeaways and frozen meals are becoming the norm. Yet, I like it only for a while – about a week at a stretch, no more!
You might argue that this is because I am used to eating Indian food, that Europeans too would say the same thing about our cuisine. True, food is after all a very subjective matter, but holistically speaking, I still believe Indian cuisine is in many ways superior to European cuisine and for the following 3 reasons.
Variety – From meat and fish to about a hundred different kinds of vegetables, wheat, pulses, rice and abundant spices – we probably use the most number of ingredients in our food and that too in a variety of different ways depending on which region of India you are from. The predominant ingredients in European cuisine are meat, pastry, pasta and potatoes and you could literally count on your fingertips the staple dishes eaten in any European country.
Health – Any health expert will tell you that the nutritional value of a wholesome Indian meal (daal, rice, vegetables, yoghurt and chapattis) will far exceed that of a British or Italian one. Also India is probably the only country in the world where the choice of vegetarian options exceeds that of non-vegetarian ones. So even as vegetarianism is just about becoming fashionable elsewhere in the world, we’ve adopted it for centuries.
Flavour – Agreed, we sometimes overkill the individual flavour an ingredient with spices, but come to any Indian home and every dish has a distinct taste. Our curries aren’t that obnoxious red colour, nor are they as greasy or overpowering in their spice levels as they are in Indian restaurants here. Flavours vary hugely from region to region and are distinct and varied as you make your way across the subcontinent.
No wonder, then, that Indian food hasn’t been as easily influenced by foreign cultures as food elsewhere is. In Britain for instance, curry, Chinese and sushi have now become as much a part of daily life as mash and sausages. This is testimony to the lack of variety offered by local British cuisine. In mainland Europe, too, Indian and Chinese food is hugely popular because of the richness of its flavour. Of course we Indians too enjoy the occasional pasta dinner or Chinese takeaway (hugely modified to suit our taste), but I really can’t imagine a day will come when our local food will lose its appeal and make way for other cuisines to be equals at our dinner table.