Sweet, salty, spicy, sour. Balance these four flavors in perfect harmony and a fifth is born – chatpata. Akin to umami for the Japanese, chatpata presents itself in various dishes across South Asia, capable of unlocking a sensation completely unknown to the Western palate. Though this delicate fifth flavor may seem elusive, or even mythical, it can be found captured in glass jars at the center of dining tables across the Indian subcontinent, in its most convenient form: achar.
Directly translating to pickle, achar refers to a condiment in South Asian cuisine made through the fermentation of various fruits and vegetables in oils and spices. The process of making it is incredibly time-consuming, but the outcome is always rewarding. Opening any jar of achar for the first time is a euphoric experience, but my personal favorite is mango achar. After popping the sealed lid, aromatics of the toasted spices are set free, chaperoned by scents of fiery chili pepper and savory garlic. Vibrant red and green-colored fruit peek out of the golden mustard oil as the subtle tartness of unripened mango finally begins to come through. Half a tablespoon of this stuff could transform the most boring bowl of basmati rice into a culinary masterpiece – it just has that much depth!
With all of these contrasting elements working together to create a single, unified flavor profile, it is no wonder that achar is often seen by many as the poster child of chatpata. The mystery lies in how this condiment, a symbol for such a central tenet of South Asian cuisine, has almost no association with South Asian food once you actually leave the region.
An Identity Crisis
Venture into any other part of the world, and there is a total switch in identity. Most restaurants featuring South Asian food cast themselves as vague Indian eateries, with a menu largely consisting of curry, naan breads, chicken tikka, curry, paneer, butter chicken, and occasionally, curry. My beloved mango achar? Nowhere to be seen!
And this is not me trying to criticize people that love curry. In fact, I believe that the universal recognition of these dishes comes from how undeniably delicious they are. Prepared with well-known spice blends, a disrespectful amount of ghee, and sometimes plunged in cream, it is no wonder that this projection of South Asian, or “Indian”, food is viewed as one of the ultimate sources of comfort food worldwide. However, it is this very fact that also places the South Asian community in the dilemma it finds itself in today.
Yes, South Asians have found amazing success on the global stage with these best sellers. But if hearty, rich, buttery comfort food is all that the world thinks of when South Asian cuisine comes to mind, a disservice is done to the varying, nuanced depths of flavor that this region is also able to produce. This broken identity seems even worse when you realize that naan breads actually originated in Persia, or that curry was a term coined by British soldiers too lazy to learn the names of different dishes. In terms of truly authentic foods, mango achar is just the tip of the iceberg, and with not even that in the spotlight, much of the world will continue assuming that curries and naan breads are all that South Asia has to offer.
In just June of 2020, globally renowned chef and Masterchef Australia judge Jock Zanfrillo claimed during the show that “Asian food does not lend itself to fine dining.” While this rightfully resulted in backlash from a large number of communities across Asia, the statement was a reminder of how the culinary world continues to view these regions. It is the belief that South Asian cuisine is incapable of producing food sophisticated enough for “white tablecloth” restaurants, a mere extension of the belief that South Asians are incapable of being sophisticated themselves.
Fortunately, this idea is starting to be challenged. South Asian cuisine is beginning to carve out a new place for itself in the culinary world, with its unique cultural identity reimagining the traditional definition of fine dining.
Breaking the Stereotype
The first challenge in taking on such a monumental task is introducing the rest of South Asian cuisine to the world, as there is very little room for growth or refinement when you are being misrepresented by a curry-naan combo meal.
To illustrate how much there is left to introduce, here’s a quick geography lesson. The three largest countries in South Asia are India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Bangladesh is separated into 8 divisions, India into 28 different states, and Pakistan into 4 non-administrative provinces. Within each of these geographical units are hundreds of different styles of cooking, each with varying cultural histories, natural environments, access to ingredients, and social influences. Including these three countries alone, South Asian cuisine is already vast enough to house countless sub-cuisines within it, and this is without mentioning Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Nepal, etc. The layers of this cuisine are unbelievably deep, and many pioneering chefs have made it their life’s mission to get this message across to their customers.
A prime example is Bengali-Indian chef Gaggan Anand. Positioned at the forefront of this movement, his restaurant, Gaggan, features a dynamic tasting menu highlighting different flavors across South Asia. Based in Thailand and regularly catering to customers from all over the world, he is aware of the stereotypes and expectations of Indian food that his cooking must confront. When asked, he has a very clear message that he wants his food to send to the world:
“If Pink Floyd can make a 20-minute song and make it sound good, then I can make Indian food, 23 courses, without serving more than one curry.”
-Gaggan AnandSource: Netflix’s The Chef’s Table
However, breaking the misconceptions of South Asian cuisine is only the first challenge these chefs undertake. The second is to reshape the world’s view of fine dining itself.
Challenging a 300-Year Old Culture
The modern standards of fine dining first began forming in the 16th Century, with the Japanese Kaiseki (懐石). Directly translating to “stones in the bosom,” this ancient form of dining focused on expressing a time and a place in nature through the flavors and visuals of a multicourse meal. As the legend goes, this centuries old tradition grew out of Zen Buddhist tea ceremonies, in which monks would place stones on their stomachs to ward off hunger.
Around the same time, French cuisine also found itself going through a transformation, marked by the rise of bouillon restaurants in the mid to late 1700s. According to historian Rebecca Spang, these restaurants were created to capitalize on the newly popular Enlightenment idea of becoming more sensitive to the world around you. One way to showcase this sensitivity was by avoiding “coarse” foods associated with common people, such as brown bread or onions and sausage, in favor of more delicate dishes. As an all-natural, easy to digest, hearty broth dish full of invigorating ingredients, bouillon stood out as the perfect candidate. It’s name, derived from the French word for “boil” or “bubble”, quickly became synonymous with upper class European dining during this era (If you’re too lazy to learn how to pronounce bouillon, may I suggest just calling it curry?).
This restaurant culture and emphasis on ingredients continued to grow into what resembled more modern enterprises, such as the first two grand Parisian restaurants: Trois Frères and La Grande Tavene de Londres.
In the early 20th century, rampant culinary cultural exchange between the French and Japanese quickly gave rise to a new style of serving food. Soon enough, certain cooking styles, plating techniques, flavors, and dress codes became the rules that constituted a “fine dining establishment.” Only recently have other cultures begun bringing their own influences.
And once again, it is impossible to discuss this in the context of South Asian cuisine without mentioning Gaggan Anand. His restaurant has become known for retaining just enough features of fine dining to call it fine dining, while bringing a cultural twist that breaks most traditional rules.
Take his dish Indian Foie Gras as an example. Knowing that certain ingredients are seen as “lower class” when it comes to modern fine dining standards, Anand decides not to reveal the ingredients of this dish to his customers until after they eat it. Only then does he let them know that they just enjoyed some delicious goat brain, a delicacy in many parts of South Asia. In addition, his restaurant has featured 25-course menus in which 22 are meant to be eaten by hand, referencing how much of the South Asian population eats their food and completely disregarding the cutlery circus seen at most fine dining locations.
Evidence of these changes actually finding success can be seen by Gaggan’s 2019 ranking as 4th worldwide by 50 Best Restaurants. Outside of just him, other fine dining restaurants featuring South Asian cuisine have also garnered attention, with many of them being awarded Michelin stars or a ranking by 50 Best Restaurants. And thanks to a new generation of South Asian chefs following in the footsteps of Gaggan, it seems as though this number will only continue to grow in the future.
But before you start planning a South Asian trip to try one of these places out, let me save you the time. Cities with the most highly regarded South Asian fine dining restaurants include Macau, NYC, London, Bangkok, Singapore, and San Francisco. Only a handful of these restaurants are actually in South Asia! And even then, they are highly concentrated in Northern India. This isn’t just a coincidence. It’s a symptom of a whole new controversy that these chefs must face.
Challenging a 3000-Year Old Culture
The very last blockade keeping modern South Asian cuisine from truly blossoming is the backlash it receives from its own place of origin. Shifts toward fine dining have been called bastardizations of the culture, or disingenuous to the way that South Asian cuisine is meant to be served.
Many of these feelings stem from the fundamental structure of South Asian society. Food and family are its two main pillars. Visit almost any household, and you’ll find the most important part of the day to be sitting down to eat with the family. At the dinner table, food is always served in enormous bowls because it is meant to be shared, with everyone taking a bit of everything. And this meaning behind food bleeds into every aspect of life in South Asia. A mother hand-feeding her son morog pulao on his wedding day, a daughter brewing her father’s favorite suja on his death anniversary, or a group of friends enjoying shemai on Eid—cooking, feeding, and eating make up the South Asian love language. Surely, trying to change it would seem like sacrilege!
But changes to tradition do not necessarily mean that this expression in food must disappear. Contrary to traditionalist opinion, the shift towards fine dining is not a movement to prove to South Asians that they must replace comfort food. Rather, it is a movement to prove to the world that South Asians cannot be limited to it. Today, “gourmet” South Asian food is beginning to emerge throughout the region, with restaurants like Bukhara, Masque, and Indian Accent slowly making names for themselves around the world in their own rights. The chefs guiding these restaurants find themselves at the forefront of a culinary revolution occurring in South Asia, but this is not a novel phenomenon.
The world has always been in a constant state of change, culture and cuisine included. Tomatoes, non-native to South Asia and once shunned for their meat-resembling texture and color, have become the base of many soups today. Black pepper, once the predominant source of heat in South Asian food, has been replaced with chilis introduced through European trade. Yogurt based drinks, once accounting for all popular beverages in the region, now share that title with chai after British colonization brought black tea.
Rethinking how we prepare, serve, and consume food is a process as enduring as the storied history of South Asian cuisine, so I’m not surprised in the slightest to find it in the middle of that process right now. If anything, it makes me excited to see how this new revolution will change the world’s view of South Asian food. The least it can do is convince more curry houses to serve mango achar. Is that too much to ask?
Gelb, D. (Director). (2016). Chef’s Table: Gaggan Anand [Video file]. United States of America: Netflix. Retrieved January 13, 2021, from http://www.netflix.com.
Merchant, N. (2019, June 02). The Curry Chronicles. Retrieved January 13, 2021, from https://strangersguide.com/articles/the-curry-chronicles/
Rath, E. C. (2013). Reevaluating Rikyū: Kaiseki and the Origins of Japanese Cuisine. The Journal of Japanese Studies,39(1), 67-96. doi:10.1353/jjs.2013.0022
Sanghvi, V. (2020, February 18). The Taste With Vir: How Michelin stars work and why there will be more Indian places on the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list this year. Retrieved January 13, 2021, from https://www.hindustantimes.com
Sharma, J. (2006). British science, Chinese skill and Assam tea. The Indian Economic & Social History Review, 43(4), 429-455. doi:10.1177/001946460604300402
Spang, R. L. (2020). The Invention of the Restaurant: Paris and Modern Gastronomic Culture. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Malik, Mirza. Close up of Aam ka achar. 2002. Photograph. Shutterstock. Web. 31 January 2021.
- Netflix’s The Chef’s Table
- Netflix’s The Chef’s Table