Chai to Chai-latte!

Ashish Damle is a dear friend and the executive chef at Belgo Brasserie in Calgary, Alberta. He has worked in some of the reputable restaurants in the region and it goes without saying is a foodie at heart. When I asked him to write a piece about Indian food, he responded with a passionate ” there is a lot to talk about it!”. Following is what I am assuming could very well be just part-one of a long conversation.

Chef Ashish at work

Chef Ashish at work

Believe it or not whenever Indians meet the conversation never starts with “let’s make butter chicken” but there is a good chance it might start by saying “who is making Chai?”

Ever Memory I have about my grown up life in India revolves around making , drinking or watching people enjoy Chai right from the secret meeting with friends smoking Rothmans near Law College (pune)  or lonely breaks between classes standing next to the street side vendor. Chai is a conversation starter and a welcome sign for guests at home.

Old aluminium kettles at a tea stall vendor

Old aluminium kettles at a tea stall vendor

During my first international assignment, working as a chef on a cruise ships, the Indian staff was made fun of for eating with our hands and moving our heads the exact same way to say yes and no. J  The one thing that worked in our favor was that we made delicious, creamy spiced Chai in the morning for everyone, and no we never ran out!!!

chai

The Chai I am talking about is different from the Chai- latte that has been gaining popularity here in the west none the less Chai–latte is its close derivative. I think it is a good metaphor for how East Indian cuisine has evolved in the eyes of the world. As a chef I am constantly trying to put my own signature on what I cook and honor my food-heritage when I can. So in my attempt to talk about the food I love the way I know it I had to talk about how India has influenced the world cuisine and in turn has been influenced by the world.

Sweet and savoury snacks to go with my chai

Sweet and savoury snacks to go with my chai

Indian cuisine as we know is not just one style but a variety of style that changes throughout the country with rich curries from the North West frontier provinces to coconut gravies of the south, Asian influences in the east and European influences in the west. The Study of Indian cuisine is really a study of the history of the region, the many military –conquests that happened and all cross cultural influences that Indian sub-continent has had in the past 5000 years. The Mughals in the North gave us knowledge of use of Spices such as Saffron and Black Cardamom, the Nizams in the south gave us the delectable Biryanis and the Tibetan Chinese immigrants gave us Momos in the east; the Afghans brought knowledge of Clay ovens and Tandoori cooking. The food scene is also influenced by the local geography of course. The people in costal areas eat a lot of seafood and coconuts are seen used in everything from appetizers to desserts.

Spices

One important chapter in the evolution of Indian cuisine has to be the Spice Trade. Spices were an important component of Medieval Business. Most traded spices were available only in the Middle East, Persia, North Africa and South East Asia for centuries. Spices were a desired commodity as a food additive as well as a basis for making perfume, dyes and medicine.

The European attraction to spices and grains from the old world began as early as the7th and 8th century with Medieval Europeans trading gold and silver , precious metals and knowledge of fire arms for Spices such as Peppercorn , Cinnamon , Turmeric, Cloves and Saffron . Without getting into too much history I will just say that this brought great riches to the sub-continent and around the 15th century helped in forming the British East India Company and the Dutch East India Company.

Traders became Rulers and the whole world saw colonization by the Europeans who took the love for use of Spices in cooking and medicine from India to all across the world. As the British, Portuguese and the Dutch created their strong hold in various parts of Bharat (land mass extending from Turkey to Burma and everything in between ) they learned the delicate use of spices and incorporated in their own cuisine and hence gave birth to Anglo Indian Cuisine  with recipes such as kedgeree , and Bubble and Squeak . Also leading to creation of Madras curry powder, and Worcestershire Sauce which was first made by a British army officer in memory of the Indian food he was use to eating when he was commissioned in India.

Use of vinegar, Pork blood, and meat Sausages started to appear in a primarily Vegetarian Society as the result of the 500 years of Portuguese rule in the western provinces. Today Bread or Double Roti is served at all meals in Goa and this rather unknown bread variety of the past is now a main stay in every Indian household.

Defines my passion for food.

Defines my passion for food.

After being the holy land of curry and spices steeped in tradition India’s food culture is changing even though the love for spices and excitement in savoring the best of the best in Indian cuisine is always on trend; Another wave of global influences are at play once again in Indian cuisine. Pizza Huts and McDonald have appeared on the scene and are perceived to be cool and hip. Fast food chains are making their presence felt in the Indian market and giving the traditional eateries new challenges. On the other hand with globalization and globe trotting Indians travelers there has been growing awareness of the international food trends and Indian chefs both in India and abroad are mixing techniques and ingredients and comforting their knowledge thirsty souls by learning new ways to cook our ancient cuisine and creating new cuisines of their own.

Britain today has the largest number of Indian restaurants outside of India and North America is not too far behind. Although The Indian cuisine you are most likely to find in some Indian restaurants is as far a cry from what I know and love about Indian cuisine as the Chai–latte is from the simple cutting–tea that I have at home yet it is a good reminder of the ever evolving food culture.

 Thanks Chef! I am hoping we will get to talk again sometime soon!

Phir Milenge!!

all images and text courtesy © Ashish Damle

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