India Can Be An Exemplar for Regional Cuisine: Prof Krishnendu Ray

Professor Krishnendu Ray spent last year’s lockdown in his apartment in New York city. While most New Yorkers stocked up on bottled water and toilet paper, Krishnendu stocked up on canned food, pasta and tomato puree. He even mentions in an article why he didn’t stock up on water. In the shortest span in food history, he saw some of the big names, as well as the small ones, being ‘decimated’ by the virus. 

Krishnendu cooks extensively, almost everyday. Right now he’s pulling recipes from In Bibi’s Kitchen and Nothing Fancy and also from recipes in the New York Times.  “I have been in fact cooking a lot more through the pandemic and partly because I'm stuck at home so I cook a lot for my son and my family.”

Personally, he loves Indian food. “My Indian food nostalgia is for Bengali food because my father was Bengali and for Odiya food because my mother was from Orissa. Sometimes it is the simpler stuff like a running vegetable stew with garlic, very typical of  peninsular Indian cooking. I also love rice and daal.”

An Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies at New York University Professor Krishnendu is the author of The Ethnic Restaurateur and The Migrant's Table. He co-edited Curried Cultures and was a faculty member and Associate Dean at the Culinary Institute of America.

His interest in food studies started from a “sense of India within the immigrant community” but he says it has expanded since he moved to the US in the 1980s.  “There is this whole question of  global culture and this is being explored in many places in the US and on campuses. Food has become a bit like what music used to be.  Music is still important but there's a sense that food has replaced this especially amongst the younger generation. People's identities, what they eat, what they don't eat have become part of both an aesthetic engagement and an ethical engagement.”

This shift turned Krishnendu’s own attention from a narrower to a broader and wider concern about food and food culture. He points out that while anthropologists have talked about it for almost 100 years and it was the field under which food and food culture was studied, “in most parts of the world food was seen just as something you do and in some ways, don't think about too much.”

For a long time cooking for public consumption has been defined by social order, both in the West and the East, perhaps under the influence of colonisation. “There was a sense that it is the work of the poor, of relatively disenfranchised women and hence not studied in institutions of higher culture.”

Krishnendu has been exploring these questions through his course on Food Studies, his books, his articles in the journal Gastronomica, and his talks given all over the world.

Krishnendu’s first book, the Migrant’s Table, was on food and immigrants and domestic cooking - “what changes, what does not, how does it matter to people and does it matter.”

His next book, the edited Curried Cultures, explores ideas like Curries and their globalisation. His last book The Ethnic Restaurateur looks at immigrants in the US, who are into the food business - “and we have a long record of that,” he says.

 “One of my pieces that got the most attention was on the future of Chinese food. I wrote that Chinese food is going to become expensive in the US and why... it has usually been considered something cheap, just like Indian food. I argued that attention to Chinese food will change in American cities in the long run, I can see it happening.”

The chefs trending now are Indian, Chinese, Mexican, Central Americans but, “at the end of the 19th century and in the early 20th century it was the Italians. Italian food has climbed the hierarchy very fast and has become very prestigious. Just as Japanese food has from where it was hundred years ago.” So he extended his work into these various comparative domains.

When one speaks about culture, soft power and its relationship to economic power and prestige of nation states, “I would say I came from a narrower view and am now doing more work in terms of comparative culture.” 

The Regional Way

The story of Michelin and its grading system, which is the benchmark of the fine dining industry, comes up in the course of our conversation. After all Indian chefs have earned their Michlin spurs opening up restaurants abroad.

Nicolas Beaumont, Michelin's Vice President, Sustainable Development and Mobility, in CSP’s Namaste 2020 had pointed out that Michelin awards chefs who have excelled in regional cuisines in contemporary settings.

“Michelin was after all modeled in France where chefs acquired a lot of prestige and cultural capital. As long as we associate cooking with servants that's not going to happen in Indian culture. That's also true about China. I think it's a big challenge. Both India and China have a rich local cooking tradition but need to get past this bottleneck of  giving respect for what has historically been done by the poor and dispossessed.” Krishnendu points out that it is mostly “middle class Indian cooking that Michelin would be very interested in."  

So how does one increase value. How do you develop respect for a craft that is done by the poor.  Again music has a model. “Like in classical music you have to include increased cost of entry which restricts access like it is done in Gharanas.”

There is a second pathway, which is happening in India too which is the media celebrity route, he adds. “Like the Japanese, India can marry the tradition of craft to social media. And it's happening, the Indian social media world is very lively and because it is an anglophone world, there is rich writing emerging in social media.”

He quotes the example of the Bombay Canteen founded by two youngsters  - Sameer Seth and Yash Banage. Sameer trained at Cornell and Yash in Goa and then they got together to offer Indian regional cuisine. “The media celebrity chef is an important role and is already emerging in India with these young chefs who are assisted by food writers, new media with lower costs.”

There is a whole new crop of Indian chefs who want to travel to various parts of India. Sameer Seth is traveling right now in Uttarakhand and exploring Gadwali food. “There's a lot of promise for Indian food. In some ways, for me wherever there is a dialect there is a cuisine. Most Indians don't know most Indian food and this offers an opportunity to rediscover these cuisines.”

Krishnendu’s friend from Germany, for instance, is interested in doing a small alternative traveling group to Bhuvaneshwar and parts of Orissa, which is not very well known in Germany. “Such tours would like to know about places where they grow paan, places where they grow rice in a paddy field. Such target groups of 10-15 people will be high end tourists rather than backpackers, where they will spend $5000 to $10,000 for a seven day tour.”

The French did it at the end of the 18th century and the early 19th century by mapping the whole country. “They did it by creating a centre which was Paris and Versailles, and mapping various regions. Michelin is a tyre company. They got involved in cuisine as they wanted people to travel and have a destination to eat. This led to another level of promotion, which has to be regional and sub regional, almost at the district level.”

It takes time for a restaurant to become a destination, and Krishnendu says that even the French and Italians had to go through a tough phase. “In the US they thought Italian food was wretched and garlicky and not very interesting. That changed in the late 1970s  and 1980s. I think it has to be a combination of the Indian middle class rediscovering its roots and and, in some ways, going back, which I see happening all over social media.”

This is exactly what happened in America too, he observes. “Everyone thought Americans had terrible food and American themselves started thinking that  American food was terrible. That has changed over the last 30 years. Today you have more celebrity chefs in the US than anywhere else in the world.”

Local people will have to be trained who can interpret this information. “They don't realize how important their culture is, because they have received this idea that big cities  offer good fashionable things. So a retraining has to happen with segments of the Indian middle class, who can then articulate that idea. Some of this has to be done in schools, colleges, hospitality schools, business schools and eventually universities.”  

India today has a “substantial middle class which has money, which travels, the roads have gotten better, flights and airports are better. I think you are beginning to see that early phase of discovering your own country. You can use a blow horn to announce it to the world and set up restaurants which of course would need very high visibility.”

Cuisine as Soft power

Once the people start taking pride, he suggests using tourism and cuisine to fuel soft power like it is being done by the Thai, Japanese or Italian governments who have “very focused soft power investment in even things like identifying the best of their country’s cuisine in the world.”

“What are these places, and can people go there and even if people cannot go can the media go? The Italian Trade Commission identifies authentic Italian restaurants all over the world. Even though people will disagree about the ratings, it draws attention to it.”

In some ways, “India has some massive advantages partly because India has many languages and regions, almost incomparable to any other nation in the world.  The only comparison can be made with China, but China doesn't have as many languages as India and where ever  there's a language, there is culture.  India can become an exemplar but we'll need some  transformation in taking our food seriously.”

Apart from Social Media, one can have a Netflix show on Indian cuisine. Right now the chef shows on Netflix only feature Indians abroad “like Gagan in Singapore, Asma Khan in London. The point is to be able to draw some of these shows into India. It's happening but we are not there yet.”

Courses like the one he runs at NYU are critical. He gives the analogy of cinema studies. “People didn’t take movies seriously. They thought it was just fun and games and entertainment. No one studies entertainment. NYU was among the first to add cinema studies. Places like NYU will do it because places like Harvard don't need to do. Older universities can do the old classical disciplines, they'll do Sociology, they'll do History and they'll be fine. It is the second tier institutions that are hungry for attention.  I think in the Indian case that will be the same. You probably will not have Food Studies in the first tier universities, but you will have it in the second tier.”

Krishnendu says it is important to calibrate culture stressing the importance of food and its integration into hospitality, culinary or humanities schools. “There has to be an investment in educational capital, so that people know how to talk about these things, what are the concepts and what is important and what would an international audience be interested in knowing.”

The Covid  crisis has impacted the service industry badly, especially food and travel. Krishnendu says those who are surviving are at the top or the bottom of the chain. “American chains are doing very well, McDonalds especially because its take out and delivery and not a sit down experience. The very high end ones are also doing well, but they had to pivot to survive.”

He quotes the examples of Daniel Humm’s Eleven Madison Park, one of the top restaurants in New York city. “(During Covid) They did Eleven Madison at home where they sent you a package with the best quality meat and fish. Most Americans cannot buy this kind of quality fish and produce in normal course. Now this has been branded by chef Daniel Humm and is sent with a bottle of wine to your home for $200. A restaurant like that could feed a maximum of 100 to 200 people a night  is now doing it to many more people because now he doesn't need very expensive real estate space. What is happening is the transformation of the industry.”