Asia Life | Society | South Asia

Butter Chicken Sushi: A Mixing of Tradition and Innovation in Indian Cuisine

Indian cuisine should be accepted the way it is and the way it is changing. Yesterday’s cuisine is today’s traditional food.

Krzysztof Iwanek
Butter Chicken Sushi: A Mixing of Tradition and Innovation in Indian Cuisine
Credit: Youjeen Cho / Unsplash

Last month, I argued there that while as some in the West pursue eco-friendly and vegan cuisine, often served in chic restaurants at a premium cost, Indian cuisine, especially in its simpler and traditional forms, already inherently features most of these “discoveries.” What Indian cuisine needs at the global level, I suggested, is more marketing — especially branding it as new-but-old — to tap into those fashions.

There is, however, one more valuable point that did not fit into that article: This does not mean that we have to freeze Indian cuisine as unchanging, as always traditional (whatever that would mean). Yes, edible plates are a fad in the West for now, while they have been long a part of a culinary tradition in India. But it also does not mean that we have the right to impose the vegan and traditional cuisine on anybody, in India or elsewhere (the case of ecological solutions is different, as they are often simply necessary).

To be sure, fads sprout in the middle-class bubble zones of India as well. I smile with amazement every time I see fusion cuisine innovations in places like Delhi’s Khan Market. Quinoa biryani, Thai chicken spring rolls, or butter chicken sushi… no, I have not made any of this up. Some of these may be fads that will soon disappear. But that is my bias: I just like Indian cuisine the way it is. It does not mean, however, that I – or anybody else – can deny it the right to change. Picking up new influences and experimenting are important elements of cuisine. And thus, despite my reservations, I should consider that some of these new concoctions that appear awkward to me now will one day catch on, and eventually become a part of the mainstream. They will be regarded as “traditional” a century from now. 

Chicken tikka masala, invented in Britain, is now perceived by many as a part of Indian cuisine. Kebabs have become one of the most popular dishes in Poland, and kebab joints function as a form of fast food restaurants across Polish dishes, but, being served wrapped in bread stuffed with typical Polish vegetables, such as cucumbers and cabbage, they are a long shot away from Middle Eastern kebabs. The same right to experiment with spring rolls or sushi should be respected in case of Indian cooks. 

“Fusion cuisine” is in a way a misnomer: Cuisine is nearly always based on fusions. While it is hard to imagine modern Indian cuisine without chili, it was brought to South Asia from the New World by colonial powers. While corn is consumed as a popular snack in north India and Nepal, and is used as a basis for a certain type of bread in regions like Punjab, maize was also introduced after being brought from the New World. Dishes like biryani or bread like naan came to India with the Turkish Muslim invaders from Central Asia. This process of endless fusion is similar in all but the most isolated places. For instance, it is equally hard to imagine Polish cuisine without vegetables introduced from Italy, potatoes brought from the New World, and spices like pepper or nutmeg, which used to be shipped from various locations around the world.

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Seen that way, there is no reason to oppose an innovation as long as it is neither imposed or wrong in some non-culinary way (e.g. for its unhealthiness). Thus, while the sheer notion of quinoa biryani brings a smile of irony to my face, logically if we are resisting it only because it is new we could have as well rejected biryani as such. After all, yesterday’s cuisine is today’s traditional food.

One on hand, therefore, the advantages of traditional solutions, such as Indian leaf plates, should be promoted more and given more recognition, both because of their benefits and least somebody would think that such a thing can only be invented by a star chef in New York. On the other hand, however, nobody has a right to keep non-Western countries frozen like open-air museums, only because we like their traditions the way they are or we do not like the thought of the “East” becoming more like the “West.” With the vastness of India and the diversity of its cuisine, there is room for both. There is no reason to think that quinoa biryani poses any kind of threat to biryani, just like the phenomenal and curious rise of the chicken tikka masala did not destroy any Indian traditions. We should thus talk and write of innovative Indian restaurants the same way we do about Western ones, not treating them as camps of heretics who should be burned at the stake. 

Well, hello there, butter chicken sushi.