I am not a great gourmet and normally I just glance through it out of curiosity, wondering about how much can be written about just food. I was brought up in the old school: 'Eat to live and don't live to eat' was the mantra dinned into us; but I have long realised that to fantasize about food is now regarded as fashionable.
Today I stopped in my tracks. A crisp golden brown dosa in all its beauty and nobility adorned the page. It was laid out on a luminous plantain leaf and was accompanied by its natural allies, a bowl of brown sambhar and a smaller katori of chutney.
The photo was so good that my savoury and olfactory senses were at once aroused. I spread the page reverentially on the table, taking care not to cause a crease in the paper-dosa, since it was a newspaper after all. I started reading, my mind already awhirl with a hundred memories, of sights, smells and even the crunchy sounds of other dosas from times past.
The pride of place for the dosa in this American newspaper, I learnt, was because of the review of a new Indian restaurant in the city I live, simply called The Dosa. This itself made me very happy. It signalled the arrival of the dosa; not that it was an unknown debutante, having won its popularity internationally over a decade back.
But still the confidence and the panache of the owner calling the restaurant in this highly sophisticated culinary city as simply The Dosa, secure in the knowledge that the cognoscenti will know that this will be an Indian, specifically a South Indian eatery, pleased me enormously.
Also the fact that gone are the days when every Indian restaurant abroad had to call itself Taj Mahal or Maharajah or Bombay Palace to convey the message that you could get nan and butter chicken inside. Alas, such names and places still abound in every major American or European city: with the obligatory plaster of Paris Air-India Maharajah inviting you inside, to a dark interior, stale samosas and strains of the sitar.
Though such places still dot the landscape selling their shoddy and soggy wares, we now see more and more fancier places calling themselves with flair and imagination as Tamarind Tempatation or Dhaba Divine or Teasing Tandoor. Thank God. Now that the Clintons themselves have become known aficionados of Indian cuisine, the bowing Maharajah may as well bow out, his brand having been established.
But I have digressed to generic Indian restaurants. In all the confusion and evolution of Indian food abroad, the 'Udupi' have remained true to their essence. They have kept the sacred fire burning, the ancient art of the idlis intact. The disha of the dosa remains safe in their hands.
I started reading the review. It was by the famed food columnist of this paper, a redoubtable 'Marriane' (not her real name, for reasons of my safety!) Apparently she goes to such places incognito so that the owners or the chefs don't pamper her, goes at least thrice to sample varied fare and is scrupulously honest and brutally frank in her comments. This celebrated critic had gone to the unsuspecting The Dosa.
I read her review, first with amusement, then with irritation and ending with burning indignation.
It started innocently enough. She had started with 'The idli at $4.95' which she described predictably as 'miniature steamed cakes made from rice and lentils' which 'soaks up a fiery sauce with a tangy tamarind finish.' She then went on to the masala dosa at $8.95 (here I gulped involuntarily) described as 'a large thin crispy crepe-sour and not sweet' filled with buttery potatoes, onions, cilantro' to be eaten with the 'dip' of chutney, (too exotically described for me to remember now) and an occasional swallow of sambhar to add piquancy to the palate.
The good old idli and dosa, thus stretching the limits of the orientalist imagination and also of the English language, I thought. But I also chuckled to myself thinking that one day I should take my revenge with a review for Rediff of a snooty French restaurant serving a crepe -- a 'crisp, smallish dosa-sweet and not sour, and with a topping not of masala but of maple syrup.'
What made me angry, however, were not the descriptions, not even the narration of the dosas with the mutton or egg fillings, heresy and blasphemy to a traditionalist, which I have nevertheless come to tolerate. It was Marrianne's take on the service, which she normally does at the end of the review.
Marianne had found the service appalling. First, the place does not take reservations, she noted, despite the popularity. Having found a seat, she was made to order straightaway. Only when she asked was she offered a small tattered menu card, she cribbed. The ultimate affront to her was that the waiter refused to write down her order (of idlis, dosa and carrot halwa) and even brought the bill (to be correct 'the check') before she asked for it. What rudeness? How primitive? How dosaish and not crepish?
She had noticed other inefficiencies: The running 'water boys' (as she called them) kept filling her water glasses, even when they were half full; a refill of sambhar in her bowl had been effected, unasked; no wines were on offer to match the food; and the carrot halwa seemed to float in -- heaven forbid -- was it ghee?
As I read Marianne's vicious comments about the service, so brisk that she had found it forced, and so prompt that she had found it rude, my mind went back to all the Udupis of my yesteryears -- the Kamats, the Dasprakashs, the Saravana Bhavans and their variants.
And the ever smiling tambis in them, brisk, bustling, and business-like who had fetched my dosas, without frills or fancy footwork. The waiters in my youth had not proffered menu cards, tattered or otherwise. One simply went in with ones friends in Bangalore and said for instance: "two rava idli, one chow-chow bhat, one Mysore masala with butter and set dosa, and two by three coffee."
The communication between the customer and the server was crystal clear and complete. Why did the waiter need to write that down? He could do a hundred such variations in his sleep, without ever getting it wrong. It was child's play. The food came in no time, fresh and fragrant. Meanwhile the 'water boys' in Marianne's terminology and the sambhar suppliers were fulfilling their own dharma, dispensing the essentials at regular intervals. There was no need to ask them and there simply was no question in their mind that someone would not want a refill, all free, of course.
Yes, you were expected to eat fast and scoot. After all, other hungry members of humanity were already hovering near your table for the next empty seat and the whole operation depended on a super-fast turn over and maximisation of customers as modern management jargon would call it.
At the end, the tambi brought the bill, of course unasked, having done the math sums in his head. He did not need a paper or a pencil for this math, thank you, let alone a calculator or a computer. One paid, normally not a large sum and received instant change, correct to the pai. Tipping was not expected but if indulged in, brought everlasting gratitude.
I remembered all this with a sigh. Globalisation was a mixed blessing, I thought. It had brought the Udupi to the West, but not the sensibility and the samskriti to truly appreciate its blessings. Any way, I should judge for myself, I reflected.
Did I go to The Dosa? Can I vouch for its authenticity? Not yet, it is not easy for me to shell out $8.95 plus taxes for a dosa.
B S Prakash is India's Consul General in San Francisco and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh