Lord Krishna Ate The Mud. The Bangalorean Ate The Sweet And Sour Masala Onion Rings
Almost exactly 25 years ago, I launched Bangalore's first city guide (now called "Explocity Guide").
One of my first problems was this: how to categorise restaurants that served varieties of cuisine?
Whenever I asked a restaurant what they served, most of them would reply, "Indian, Chinese and Continental".
That summed up the Aryan settlers, the Dravidian victims, the Vellore mutiny, Hieun Tsang, Fa Hien, the Sino-Indian war of 1962 and the entire British raj.
Throw in the Mohammads, Ghazni and Ghori, and all the Mughals from Babar to Bahadur Shah Zafar to Sonia Gandhi and you get why we need such a diverse menu, with so many dishes - all of them expansively listed in a menu that was a little book.
I did not know of the name of a category in which I could list all these restaurants.
So, I coined the term "Multi-cuisine".
It was 1989 and restaurant owners told me that their customers - regular Bangaloreans - had diverse tastes and they had to cater to all of them at once.
I asked him to explain.
Just as he started to explain, one of his stewards was showing a gaggle to its table.
A few couples with all their kids asked for a table for 17.
"Wait and watch," the restaurant owner instructed me.
Their order was fascinating.
The men ordered a round of drinks. Mainly rum but there was one order for a large Peter Scot. In the tradition, the women mainly asked for colas and juices.
One of the women asked for a gin.
This was received with approval from all the men at the table. Two of the wives did not like this. The other mothers were busy keeping the shoal of hungry children from complaining, fighting, drumming loudly on the table with the cutlery, powdering the complimentary poppadums on each other's heads and lighting the tablecloth.
They say it takes a village.
After a time, the waiter and his pencil stood poised while the menus traded hands and everyone suggested dishes and preferences and finally, the woman with the gin - because she was sort of forthright and the gin had made her brave - decided to voice the order to the waiter.
And I realised why the restaurant owners needed to serve so many different dishes, for which he needed to employ chefs and cooks of various skill.
"Anyone want soup?" the gin lady asked, brassily.
This resulted in an order for nine Tomato Soups and five Sweet Corn Chicken Soup, "which we can all share".
And then the order for dinner ensued and the waiter had smoke coming out of his pencil.
The order for the table included Chicken Tikka, Noodles, Sweet and Sour Chicken, Sweet and Sour Vegetables, six bowls of Plain Rice, Prawn Masala, Naan and Roomali Roti, Continental Fried Fish in Tartar Sauce, Vegetable au Gratin and Onion Raitha. I am sure I have forgotten some items.
Everyone shared everything and ate everything in a grand gesture of eclecticism.
I tried not to stare but I did see one dude tear off a piece of the roomali roti, to use it as a spoon as we all do. He scooped up a masala prawn, a piece of chicken, some veggies floating in a sweet and sour sauce and a small brace of spinach and baked cheese.
He opened wide and popped the lot in.
Judging from his look of ecstasy, that mouthful must have been an orgy for his taste buds; the six tastes of sweet, salt, sour, bitter, pungent and astringent all exploding upon his palate and rushing joyfully up his Eustachian. He chomped and smiled flirtatiously in the direction of the gin lady.
Mythology has it that the lord Krishna got a scolding from his mom for eating mud but then he opened his mouth and revealed to her the entire world and the universe - mountains and fields and all.
In the mouth of this diner was revealed the truth of the universal Bangalorean - we need variety.
We Bangaloreans crave it. We want everything, in our face, all at once. We are quickly bored without variety, even if that variety borders on kitsch. In fact, we would be bored if our variety did not border on kitsch.
It mirrors our movie culture, which for the most part must be scripted with all - but all - human emotions. We must have music and dance, fights and women vamps, happiness and high-fidelity wives, anger, love... all in one story. (Movies that deal with one subject in a single plot line are called "art movies".)
It's the same with music.
When Bangalore's first private FM radio station, Radio City, was launched, the people who ran it told me that in order to decide what to play on the air, they took a group of people (that they considered to be "typical" Bangaloreans) to a 3-day focus group at the Windsor Manor.
The exercise yielded the strange (to me) result that people wanted a single station to play an imprecise mix of Kannada, English and Hindi music. Listeners said they wanted the station to mix it all up but they also had arrived at a ratio of how much of each type of music they must play. And then, it somehow was clear to everyone that the RJs must speak only in English.
And all this made complete sense to one of the station bosses.
She smiled comfortably.
In recent years, there have been many more restaurants launched and the new Bangalorean's palate has become a tad more discerning (even if such discerning is limited to a larger subset of carbohydrates and masala).
25 years later, the city guide I publish still has a generous listing for "Multi-cuisine" restaurants and this phrase has since been adopted by almost everyone else who publishes guides.
I spoke with the restaurateur last week. I asked him if dinner orders were still as eclectic. He said yes, people still did that.
I felt happy to encounter a small but familiar eccentricity of old Bangalore… happy that not everything has changed.
The nicest ad campaign I ever saw for India was when I was on a business trip in New York in the 80s. It was a nice Sunday morning in Manhattan and I unfurled the Travel section of the New York Times to be greeted by a double-spread ad for India Tourism.
The tagline read, "India. Where the festival of life never ends."
What a marvellous summary of us, I had thought. One that was most applicable to Bangalore - culturally the most diverse of all Indian cities.
After all, we are the people who put the kitsch in kitchidi.