Butter Chicken In Berlin

I’m listening to the Gayatri mantra, being sung by a German in a laundromat in Berlin. Between showing me how to start the washing machine and work the clothes-dryer, he tells me about his fascination for India. It would be surreal, if it wasn’t so familiar. I have heard so many similar versions of the story over the course of the one month I’ve been in Berlin. At my neighbourhood bar, I bump into an aging pony-tailed hippy who tearily talks of falling in love with a Indian drifter in Mumbai, and then returning to India 14 times to find her. An edgy street artist tells me he plays Shah Rukh Khan’s bodyguard in the upcoming “Don 2”, set in Berlin. And every neighbourhood flaunts bustling Indian restaurants — all crammed with locals wallowing in butter chicken, vindaloo and palak paneer.

Berlin’s favourite fast food is the curry-wurst, a startling combination of sliced sausages and a dark, viscous tomato sauce, deepened with paprika and flavoured with curry powder. At the sun-filled Sgaminegg café, my Berliner friend regularly orders frothy cinnamon-dusted ‘Chai lattes’ with apple pie. I snootily dismiss them as inauthentic, but as time goes by I’m gradually captivated by their sweet, vanilla-scented lushness.

The Germans I meet ask about my opinion of the Indian restaurants in Berlin. They tell me the food’s unapologetically inauthentic. However, inauthentic is not always a bad thing. Look at what we’ve done to Chinese food in India, creating a fiery, oily but delicious new cuisine by blending the most obvious, populist elements of Chinese cooking, and reinterpreting them for a mass desi audience. A cuisine should be strong enough to be adapted in many ways and tailored to suit different tastes without losing its soul. This way it transcends borders.

Yet, I’m decidedly less forgiving when a friend takes me to Ashoka, a trendy Indian restaurant in chic Charlottenburg, West Berlin. It looks promising, crammed with German customers happily spooning up their ‘lentil dal’ and ‘saag aloo’.

The meal starts promisingly with steaming samosas, liberally dusted with chaat masala. Then comes a sugary raita, butter chicken that tastes like a cross between cranberry juice and tomato sauce and finally a black dal that’s chewy with husk. It’s all washed down with refreshing mango lassi, a German-Indian restaurant staple, made from canned mangos.

Is this Indian food? Across Berlin, Indian restaurants serve the same fare. They use paprika instead of chilli powder, parsley instead of coriander and pour prodigious amounts of cream into every curry. Sometimes you’ll find sugar in a dish, sometime cheese floating on top of a curry. Yet, in a city with very few Indians, it works. From ‘Yogi-Haus’ to ‘Maharadscha’ to ‘Namaskar’, on Saturday night, every Indian restaurant is full. So who decides what’s traditional?

Personally, I prefer the W-Imbiss approach. Instead of hankering for authenticity it calls itself Indian-Californian fusion. The steamy little kitchen specialises in naan pizzas.

We stagger in late at night, exhausted and starving, and are quickly served a Jewish naan, slathered with sour cream, capers, sliced onions and generous slices of salmon.

Despite being tempted by the Dirty Naan — ghee, garlic, fenugreek and chillies — we settle for a Indian red lentil soup, which tastes like sambar and is served with a salad. The vibe’s relaxed and friendly. So friendly we get into an intense political discussion with the guy eating a quesadilla at the next table, and end up polishing off his bowl of super-hot sauce.

However, since I’m on a mission to find at least one authentic Indian restaurant in Berlin for this story, the pressure is on.

Finally, through a network of Indian friends, I hear about a tiny place called Agni in Alt-Moabit, a quiet part of Berlin. As soon as we enter, the smell of tandoori and presence of Indian customers convinces me that we’ve finally hit gold. ‘Uncle Sanjay’ who runs the kitchen with his wife, is from Delhi where he studied catering with ITDC Ashok group. He moved to Germany as a cook 21 years ago, worked with a series of restaurants and finally decided to start his own.

In classic Indian style, he cooks us a massive meal of kebabs, stuffed parathas and dal, and then brings out a complimentary tray of rich, milk sweets as he pulls his chair up to our table and settles down for a gossip. He eats his own lunch as we chat — dal-roti.

“In the end,” he chuckles, “this is what I like best.” It seems appropriate. To cross continents and end up feeling the most at home with a plate of dal-roti in a small room shiny with plastic lights and alive with the sound of Kishore Kumar.”

Posh Curry

It is as Indian as palak paneer, and as international as champagne. Traditional, like a tandoor, yet sufficiently avant-garde to keep up with edgy food trends. It incorporates age-old ingredients like saffron, and showcases caviar from the Caspian Sea with equal zest. A whole new genre, this is the newest form of Indian cuisine, currently being created by talented chefs in competitive London. Greasy chicken tikka masala has finally ceased to define India.

At Zaika, where the sleek décor is more about clean lines than the typical mirrors-sequins-and-elephants kitsch, and the music more Talvin Singh than thudding bhangra, Chef Sanjay Dwivedi offers a gourmet tasting menu. This includes a tandoori grouper, served with upma (or “Indian cous cous” as they call it) in a surprisingly invigorating champagne and cardamom sauce. The high drama of the meal is sustained by a succession of beautifully designed courses — seven in all — and theatrical frills, like a waitress spraying a thick foam of coconut cream over spice-encrusted scallops, right at the table. There’s pan-fried foie gras, served with wild mushroom naan and mango chutney. And chocolate samosas drizzled with raspberry sauce.

But Dwivedi’s current piece de resistance is his experiment with molecular gastronomy (the science of creating cuisine by treating your kitchen like a laboratory), a steaming portion of fragrant wild mushroom rice, topped with a scoop of tangy tomato “makhni” ice cream and served with mini-poppadums.

Slick and stylish

Slick, stylish and sassy, Indian food in London has certainly evolved from the days “Indian” meant oily balti meat curries and cheap takeaway. While the British have had an enduring affair with “Curry Houses” for many decades, these restaurants haven’t always been the best ambassadors for authentic Indian cuisine. For one, “Indian” in the British restaurant sector is used generically and includes Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Nepalese, and Sri Lankan food, according to Pat Chapman who heads the Curry Club and publishes the popular Cobra Curry Guide, currently in it’s ninth edition this year with about 50,000 copies sold. “Most of these restaurants in the U.K., some 85 per cent or 7,200, are Bangladeshi owned,” he says.

Typically their menu includes lamb jalfrezi, aloo gobi, vindaloos and “chicken naan”. “In a curry house, all the sauces are the same,” states Samir Sadekar, chef of the smart new Imli restaurant in Soho. “They just put in onion, carrots, tomatoes add spices and keep it cooking. Then, when a customer orders something, they’ll mix turmeric for a yellow colour, or red food colour for a chicken tikka.” And this holds true, right from Aberdeen to Brighton.

Nevertheless, these places are still popular and can be credited with having made Indian food a part of the British menu. “It’s also the British affinity for India,” says Chef Vivek Singh, of Cinnamon Club as he sips a luxurious Saffron Gin, glinting with gold leaf, in his trendy restaurant set in the old Westminster Library. “It’s the romance of the Raj… the best time of the Empire, and that just doesn’t go. So the feeling towards spices and silk is deeply engrained.” He adds that he constantly has customers who talk of grandfathers who served in India, “They still have old letters, photographs and paintings.”

Yet, he says even about a decade ago, although Indian food was wildly popular, “when it came to the top five, top 10 restaurants in the city, you would never find an Indian restaurant listed. It was still classified as `ethnic’ and it still had a cheap image.” Justifiably so since there was no quality control. “But because these restaurants were also successful — the most successful in the country — they didn’t need to change,” says Singh.

Raising the bar

Then restaurants such as Tamarind, which received a Michelin star for the seventh year running this January, began to raise the bar. Our motto is “change your perception of Indian dining”, says Rajesh Suri, Executive-Operations for the Tamarind Group. “We have high standards and inspect all supplies. If the sous chef is not happy with one fillet we send it all back.” Alfred Prasad, the Chef, adds that “London is the best place in the world for a restaurant, and a chef. But you have to be creative. And original. It’s very competitive.” And although they don’t innovate wildly, believing “there is enough diversity in Indian food. We haven’t even touched the tip of the iceberg. There are so many regional specialities… the opportunities are endless,” they do “push the boundaries,” to quote celebrity Chef Gordon Ramsey. Roghan Josh with avocado for example, or “butter chicken with herb butter to calm it down,” says Prasad.

Imli, Tamarind’s sister restaurant, on the other hand is about fast, casual dining,” says Chef Sadekar. “Vegetable brochettes, fenugreek wraps, papdi chaat and mushroom tikkis… What we are offering is lighter food, and great quality at affordable prices. For the common man, this food is a revelation. After a meal here people say, `I never knew Indian food was actually like this’.”

With three-year-old Benares (featuring contemporary food from all over India by Chef Atul Kochar) also being given a Michelin star this year, it looks like London is finally taking Indian food seriously. As a result, there’s tremendous competition and every chef is pushing himself relentlessly, resulting in leaps of creativity. “In India people are still following old rules… recipes that are 200 and 500 years old,” sighs Singh. “In India, unfortunately, we can do anything we want with any other cuisine, but we cannot touch Indian food. Indian people will not take any innovation.” He adds, “I create food that is relevant.”

Not just simplistic fusion

“People are changing the way they eat,” agrees Dwivedi. “We’re making food lighter. I don’t do rasamalai. And I don’t do rasagullas. I don’t eat them. Nobody does, unless it’s at a shaadhi… I’d make a crème brulee or chocolate samosas instead.” He insists it’s not simplistic fusion, but all about playing with flavours, textures and techniques. “When people dine at Zaika for an occasion we want them to remember it for the rest of the year.”

“At Cinnamon Club we’re still cooking with spice, still cooking Indian — but in a contemporary intelligent way,” says Singh. “I do a European fish on a Bengali sauce served with lemon rice, which is south Indian: the whole plate is Indian to me. The customer is comfortable because he recognises the fish, yet there’s still a wow factor.”

All this confidence is being reflected in the pricing too. For a long time, people, used to curry house prices, resented expensive meals at Indian restaurants. “It’s a mindset that’s been around for 40 years — Indian food has to be cheap,” sighs Prasad. “We use the same suppliers as Gordon Ramsey. The same vegetables, the same fish… and that’s a three Michelin star restaurant.” Thanks to years of standing firm, and their unwavering quality, Tamarind and the others now charge as much as any top London restaurant, and still have a stream of happy customers.

“I take offence to India being portrayed as just the land of snake charmers and tigers. There’s a brilliant, modern India too,” says Singh definitively. “We are comfortable with the international world, why shouldn’t our food reflect that?”

http://www.hindu.com/mag/2007/03/18/stories/2007031800170700.htm

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December 2019
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