A taste of the real India

Going in search of Indian food in India — in vain

Restaurants
The “Real India”? Mukesh Ambani’s Antilia building (Wibolsheim CC BY-SA 3.0)

Ten days, five cities. I’d never been to India before and I was captivated by the prospect of a book tour, not least because, finally, I thought I would have the chance to eat some real Indian food. Vast, varied, subtle, ancient, complex: in theory I knew what it could be, but had never really felt anything other than ignorant in the face of its European iterations. I wasn’t optimistic on the sightseeing front, as publicity tours tend to be heavily scheduled, but surely in between being asked impertinent questions by bored journalists we would have to eat?

“No, Lisa,” said Susannah the publicist on our first morning, as she spied my loaded plate. I’d gone straight for the “local” section of the international breakfast buffet, eschewing dim sum and sausages in favour of a chickpea dhal with chapatis and an intriguing green coconut relish. “No meat, no dairy, no sauces, no seafood. Philippa Gregory had a very nasty turn last year.”

Harry Styles, I share your pain. Even at my risible end of the fame spectrum, they need to keep the Talent healthy. If I wasn’t to get sick, I wasn’t to eat anything other than processed, sanitised ersatz European food in windowless, air-conditioned, ersatz European dining rooms. As our driver crawled through the endless, honking bottlenecks of Mumbai or Bangalore, I gazed yearningly at chai stands and street markets, sniffing sadly through the window for a whiff of freshly-ground masala above the odours of carbon monoxide and Lynx. In Pune I made a break for it, escaping for a wild 20 minutes in an auto, one of the the moped-rickshaws which pack the streets, but the traffic was so bad that Susannah captured me before I’d had the chance to scarf so much as a gulab jamun.

Fate intervened on my behalf in New Delhi, when Susannah herself was struck down after an unwise encounter with a croque monsieur. I proposed casually to the nice young girl from Bloomsbury India that we dine that evening “somewhere you go with your friends”.

“Brilliant. Pizza Express or TGI Friday’s?”

Awkwardly, I explained that I wanted to eat Indian food.

“Why? We’ve got Jamie’s Italian in the mall. That’s where I go when I step out with my girlfriends.”

The journey took an hour, even though the Vasant Kunj shopping complex was about 200 metres from our hotel. Talent doesn’t walk. On the way, the nice young girl told me about her boyfriend, who lived in Jaipur.

“Did you meet him through your family?” I asked squirmingly. She looked at me with a combination of incredulity and contempt. I had dressed for the evening in palazzo pants, a long-sleeved loose shirt and a pashmina, for cultural respectfulness and to keep off the icy breath of the ubiquitous air conditioning. She was in skinny jeans from TopShop and a crop top.

“No, obviously not. I met him on Tinder, like everyone does.”

Jamie’s Italian in New Delhi is pretty much like the one on your local high street, with the added attraction of being dry. We had the “ultimate garlic bread” and the “famous prawn linguine”. The famous prawns were as floppy, listless and exhausted as I was. The garlic bread was garlic bread. Jamie’s is operated as a franchise, with all the attendant joyless efficiency one would expect, and it was heaving. Everywhere the moneyed, aspirational youth of New Delhi were snapping selfies and sharing memes between bites of gnocchi and tastes from the “sharing planks” of withered antipasti. It wasn’t the most revolting Italian restaurant I’ve ever been to (that’s in Palermo), but as an insipid exchange of insults between two monumental food cultures it made a good showing. I assume that Mr Oliver is aware of the horror being perpetrated in his name; nonetheless the website for the Indian branches expresses his pride in the “delicious food”, which claims to be “superbly sourced”. From where, one wonders, because that mozzarella ain’t ever been anywhere near Calabria. Goodness knows what might have become of bestselling Tudor-lit if Ms Gregory had had a go on the pizzas.

I managed to catch a glimpse of the India Gate through the smog on the way to a 6 a.m. radio interview, and from my vacuum-sealed room at the Four Seasons in Mumbai I could see the Antilia building, the 27-storey home built by billionaire businessman Mukesh Ambani, which is quite interesting if you want to know what God thinks of money, and that was it for the highlights, culinary or architectural. We were served chicken tikka masala on the plane home, which didn’t even feel like a joke.

“Ah,” said everyone sagely when I tried to describe the experience. “Then you didn’t see the Real India.”

Perhaps that’s what India and Italy have in common, apart from their cynical maltreatment at the hands of the Naked Chef: the stubborn persistence of the Brits’ belief in an authentic culture, accessible to the intrepid few who go off the beaten path (as though anyone who uses that expression might be capable of venturing beyond it). No, I wanted to protest, I have seen it. I saw endless motorways and shopping malls, vast skyscrapers studded with satellite dishes overlooking slums where everyone had a better phone than mine. I was offered muffins and Frappuccino and conveniently-packaged Molton Brown toiletries between journeys in a blacked-out SUV. A notion that India is about enlightenment and a joyous disregard for materialism is as dated as E.M. Forster’s Passage to India. The kids of New Delhi no more give a stuff about yoga than the Neapolitans do about the ruins of Pompeii. They want massive tellies and Starbucks.

Go to an ashram if you want to be fleeced like the tourist you are, but if you want to eat like a New Delhi local, don’t bother booking a flight. Just go to the supermarket and pick up a Pizza Express Quattro Stagione. I have seen the Real India, and it’s eating frozen gnocchi.