Countries that are a fraction of India’s size have many more globally known restaurants.
When it comes to restaurant guides, most people look no further than the Michelin Guide. As such, the bias of Michelin stars wriggles its way into nearly every discussion regarding globally renowned restaurants. France tops the list of the 2017 edition of the Michelin Guide with 616 restaurants that have been awarded at least one Michelin star. Other top-ranked countries with decorated restaurants include Japan, Italy, Germany, UK, USA, Spain, Switzerland and Belgium. The 2017 Guide lists 274 restaurants from the Nordic countries (Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland and debutant Iceland) – this includes one restaurant from the Faroe Islands, a remote and rugged island with sub-polar climatic conditions.
All this begs just one question – why does India, a vast country with a diverse culinary landscape, not have a single restaurant which is globally known? What is wrong with our dal makhni and butter chicken, incredulous-looking North Indians will ask, whereas a South Indian’s chest will swell with pride due to the rich flavors found in different regions of this part of the country. They may dismiss the Michelin Guide with a wave of their hands, but the fact remains that the Guide is still highly regarded in the gastronomic world. An exception could be New York, where ratings by the New York Times are highly sought after.
In recent years the Miele Guide has tried to fill the gap for a comprehensive list of Asia’s best restaurants. Unfortunately, it has not been able to emulate the success of the Michelin Guide. Although the Miele Guide claims to provide a list of the best Asian restaurants, most of the top 10 restaurants serve modern European or French cuisine. The heavy tilt towards European cuisine, albeit in an Asian setting, leaves no scope for the inclusion of Indian restaurants among the topmost ranks.
Why does Indian food lag behind in global rankings?
The novelty of Indian cuisine lies in the complex blend of spices and depths of flavor which make up many dishes, especially curries. It is a difficult concept for people in Western countries to fully understand. This may possibly be the reason why Indian restaurants have not met with great success in Europe and North America.
To a large extent, the Indian immigrant community has not produced too many world-famous chefs who can be considered specialists in authentic Indian cuisine. Besides churning out great food, immigrant chefs also play the role of ambassadors in their adopted countries by educating local people and food critics about the nuances of their native cuisine. Chinese-American chefs, for example, have put in great efforts in the U.S. to familiarise Americans with the complexities of Chinese cooking.
Indian cuisine is largely rooted in tradition and adheres to recipes which have been passed down over several generations, leaving limited scope for experimentation. French cuisine, on the other hand, offers abundant scope for innovation and fusion. Nobu, arguably the most famous Japanese restaurant in the world, achieved fame due to the fusion of traditional Japanese cuisine with Peruvian ingredients, a brainchild of its chef Nobuyuki “Nobu” Matsuhisa. Sadly, Indian restaurants are not known by their chefs. Very little innovation has been seen in the case of Indian food due to the limited creativity resulting from a lack of notable chefs. There are exceptions such as Vineet Bhatia, Manish Mehrotra and Gaggan Anand, but they are an abysmal minority when it comes to famous chefs of the world.
The Michelin Guide is too Europe-focused to consider India any time soon. Its panel of critics (or inspectors, as they are called), who have little or no knowledge about Indian food, will probably cock a snook at the fare dished out by Indian restaurants. There are also allegations that the system of rating restaurants has been created keeping in mind the business interests of its parent company, Michelin Tires, one of the purported reasons why Japan features extensively in the Guides. The Michelin team of inspectors is also known to be under-staffed, which restricts their ability to focus on countries such as India. Closer home, Asia-centric food guides such as Miele are too busy indulging European sensibilities to give sufficient seriousness to Indian food.
The future may look hopeful for Indian cuisine and restaurants
The success of Manish Mehrotra’s restaurant Indian Accent in New York and Delhi, as well as the recent elevation of Bangkok-based Gaggan as the best restaurant in Asia may point to a brighter future for Indian restaurants. With the gradual opening of authentic Indian restaurants overseas, Indian cuisine may finally start gaining global recognition. However, it may still be years before a restaurant serving authentic Indian food receives three Michelin stars.
The creation of a global fine-dining Indian restaurant brand such as Nobu will do wonders for the popularity of Indian food. What is interesting is that Nobu did not originate in Japan but in the U.S. The likelihood that a globally-renowned Indian restaurant brand will emerge from London or New York is very high, since it will take into account the sensibilities of global clients. Till then, Indian restaurants will continue to wait in the fringes.