Flavours of fusion 
A wave of new platters has swept away the traditional menu and brought forth a rich and tempting variety of pan-Indian cuisine. The purists may continue to fret, fume, and frown but fusion food, as in couture and music, is here to stay, observes Pushpesh Pant

Badami bans korma combines Kashmiri and continental cuisines
Badami bans korma combines Kashmiri and continental cuisines

Chettinad tangari kebab combines the best of North and South
Chettinad tangari kebab combines the best of North and South. — Photos by the writer

Decades ago there used to be a lively, reasonably affordable eatery in Delhi. This was the Tea House located at the corner in the Regal Building in Connaught Place, a meeting point for loquacious intellectuals, budding poets, short story writers and others of this artistic ilk. What drew many others to the place was not ‘food for thought’ but food for the body. One of the innovative dishes served here in the mid-1960s was the keema dosa. This was our first encounter with fusion fare. The dosa was paper thin and crisp, as usual, but the filling had no pretence of any South Indian origin. It was unabashedly hybrid refugee Punjabi-Delhi flavours predominated the spicing but the mince also displayed ambitions of ‘upwards social climbing’. There was just a hint of the Anglo-Indian curry puff/ mutton patty. Off course it was served without the sambhar-chutney combo and prompted you to reach for the mustard and tomato sauce.

Truly the Madrasi dosa in this avatar defied Rudyard Kipling the poet laureate of the Raj—on this platter met not only the East and the West but also the North and the South. Since then we have sampled many creative recipes that sought to marry (with varying degrees of success) individuals with body, soul and temperaments compatible or otherwise and have had many occasions to ponder the subject.

The first question that may be asked is, ‘Why fusion?’ Why can’t we leave old classics alone and enjoy traditional (authentic? whatever the word may mean) recipes in their pristine glory? The answer methinks is blowing in the wind since the great poet Kalidas penned in Sanskrit: Kshane kshane yannavatamupaiti tadaiva rupam ramaniyataya. Even in crude ‘un-poetic’ English translation the truth shines out: Whatever is changing constantly, dazzles us in novel ways, alone is truly beautiful. The jaded palate requires the stimulation provided by fusion fare to delight. Do not forget that the most conservative of our classical musicians allow themselves the luxury of improvisation during their recitals; no art form can evolve and flourish without creative experimentation.

Nor can any cuisine evolve without incorporating, in other words ‘fusing’, diverse influences. It is well known that potatoes and chillies, along with tomatoes and cheese, came to the subcontinent with the Europeans circa 15th century. The alu stuffing for the good old masal dosai certainly doesn’t date back to earlier times. Various tomato-based gravies that lend distinction to many Indian curries—vegetarian as well as non-vegetarian tell the same story.

Some regional cuisines—the coastal for instance—provide fascinating illustrations of genuine fusion. The Kerala repertoire amalgamates Arab, Tamil, European and Chinese elements in local cooking. Similarly, Hyderabad is a food zone that has forged a distinctive identity blending gastronomic streams brought in from Delhi, Avadh, Andhra Coast and neighbouring Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. The Turks and Persians, members of the Nizam’s court circle, may have been a microscopic minority but contributed significantly to fusion fare. Like in Lucknow in its golden age of good living, bon vivants in Hyderabad too generously patronised master chefs and encouraged experimentations in the kitchen. Parsis too, ever since they adopted India as their own land, have, as a community, constantly and quite consciously enriched their food through a process of deliberate fusion.

Their recipes are truly eclectic—a veritable cultural confluence-Hindu, Islamic, Iranian and European. Others too have been flirting with fusion off and on. Denizens of Old Delhi—notorious for their resistance to change—seem to have no problems with ishtew borrowed and soon transformed beyond recognition from the Firangee. Interesting variations on this theme are encountered in Kerala. The adventurous and intrepid Punjabis have never shied of trying everything more than once and exerting to persuade others to partake of their delights. What has helped is the fact that tandoor, the clay oven, can be utilised to produce mouth- watering healthier versions of many old friends. Also, the staple versatile paneer has won the hearts of the shaakahari in the land. In the beginning it was tandoori murgha that ruled the roost but nowadays orders for tandoori alu, gobhi and paneer keep the cash counters ringing. The butter chicken sauce/gravy has spawned god alone knows how many makhani curries. The poor time-tested standby, matar paneer, is almost extinct.

The great difference between these examples and what we are going to talk about here is that in one case the process is gradual, imperceptible and accomplished over generations, while the other is a result of a conscious intervention akin to genetic modification of crops.

More often than not, particularly in the realm of restaurants and hotels, self-proclaimed fusion fare only succeeds in creating confusion. Outrageous concoctions exotically named do not justify the tag. Fusion, if it is to work, must harmoniously blend ingredients, cooking techniques so that the dish doesn’t resemble the proverbial camel, "a horse designed by a committee!" The "ship of the desert" is undeniably very useful in a ‘sea of sand’ but everywhere else is an ungainly creature with a distressing hump. Most professional chefs, even media-savvy celebrities, tend to forget that you can’t just jump upon and ride the fusion fare bandwagon if you lack imagination and remain insensitive to your own native roots. They waste their energies imitating each other, chasing mirages and only succeed in irritating food lovers with pompously presented inedible "delicacies."

This is not to deny that there have been some instances of truly inspired fusion. Jiggs, when devising the launch menu for Dillli ka Aangan at the Hyatt Regency in the capital fashioned a breathtaking salmon tikka that has been shamelessly plagiarised dozens of times in the past decade and half. Then, there was Muhammad Faroukh the self-effacing soft-spoken wizard from Lucknow who relied upon baking skills learnt from Gora sahibs to unveil dramatically his delectable chilman mein biryani brought to the table with an almost-translucent sheet of golden dough or to display his kebab naqabposh crowned with typically English, or American if you prefer, fried eggs sunny side up. One can also cite a myriad instances of fusion within the subcontinent: tarke wala dahi— hung yogurt tempered with curry leaves mustard and red chillies with just a whiff of hing. Kaliya baans singhara—pairing bamboo shoots and water chestnuts—seldom cooked in the Hindi heartland with an aromatic Avadhi gravy; sunhari khasta—is a brilliant take-off on Hyderabadi tootak created for a food fest abroad pressing into duty asparagus shoots from the North-East. The list is a long one.

We are of the opinion that the most significant contribution in this genre is made by anonymous housewives—mothers, wives and sisters—who following the dictum, "necessity is the mother of invention." Our late beloved aunt the celebrated Hindi writer Shivani had, many moons ago, treated us children to a ‘fried rice’ that could put into shade any Chinese contender in this genre. The recipe eschewed the pulavbiryani- khichadi- tehri route; it did use left over rice as its base, carefully stayed kosher for vegetarians, incorporated curry leaves and mustard tempering, just a pinch of podi/ sambar masala introduced a whiff of refreshing breeze from south of the Vindhyas. But it was strongly rooted in native north Indian soil. The veggies fortifying it were fried phoolgobhi, beans, and dices of carrot, shredded cabbage with just a handful of chunki matar. Tomatoes rendered the dish resplendent. Chopped green chillies and sprigs of fresh coriander crowned it. It is easy to understand how easily she churned out bestsellers. We believe this is how many a fusion classic is born.

There is no substitute for inspiration and it is useful to remember that only those who are gifted and have mastered the rules of grammar can invoke poetic license and take liberties with recipes. Most of misplaced creativity is encountered in the sweet shops. Blessing the pioneer who fused rabarhi with rosogulla to invent rasmalai, those following in his footsteps have rushed in to territory where angels fear to tread. One can literally see red when a candied peel of fruit is found lying cheek-by-jowl with plump raisins in a darvesh. (The atrocity is even more intolerable when dished out at Annapurna) Fusion or cheapskate cost cutting? A dozen and more oddities are fabricated by many a halwai across the land deploying marzipan and eggless cake or pastry-based prosthetics to empower desserts challenged mentally and physically from conception to birth. Badam ki Jaali was an original work of culinary art but santare ki burfee mimicking marmalade certainly is a fake.

Dropping florets of broccoli in over-spiced and greasy gravy doesn’t justify the claim of inventing a new fusion dish; but the unsung father of chilly paneer, far removed from its Chinese chicken cousin but retaining ancestral pride in residual traces of Middle Kingdom needs to be gratefully acknowledged as a loyal friend of the Chinese-loving shaakahari.

When India finally decided to liberalise its economic policies and allowed multinational fast-food chains to set up shop, one witnessed a fascinating Indianisation of oppressively homogenous international food. Not only the menus included paneer or alu tikki burgers but pizza toppings had to fall back on traditionally popular and time-tested staples, murgh tikka, paneer masala even pindi chana! Some of the more enterprising players on the scene tinkered with the ideas of replacing ketchup and mustard with imli ki chutney and sonth. Be it two-minute, heat-and-eat noodles or potato chips, the taste-making flavouring has had to bow before the dictates of the local palate.

Fusion, in fact, goes much beyond mix-and-match as per convenience. Discordant elements can only jar unpleasantly, to work its magic fusion should blend harmoniously following the natural grain and be inspired by complementarities and reinforce natural affinities. Ours is a syncretic civilisation—synthesis is its hallmark. Food has evolved in different regions imbibing diverse influences. It is much more than using exotic ingredients to prepare local dishes and certainly goes beyond experimenting with utensils and cooking techniques or presentation; no imposed hybridisation but evolution and abiding popularity is the test of a fusion delicacy.

This is the essential irrefutable logic of fusion: local taste reigns supreme yet it is not always parochial and exclusive. Younger generations are ever so keen to try out anything trendy, new and exciting. This is borne out by the happening scene in the realm of fashion (costumes) and popular music (Indypop and the remixes).