Saturday, May 7, 2011



As everyone knows, restaurants "plate" their food. The more you pay, the more they plate.  But let's think about this a moment. At home, where portion sizes are not controlled, you serve from the stove, or from a dish. So home like food is best served by somebody dishing up, or by the eater him/herself, from a dish. 

Indian food is quintessentially home food. The reason is simple. In India, there is still a lot of domestic help in middle class homes. Hence, preparation-intensive food is available at home. This is not to say you wouldn't go to a restaurant. But you would do it primarily because you want to eat a kind of cuisine that you wouldn't get in your own home. It's still home food.

Of course, this is all changing. Restaurant cuisine, with all its fancy techniques, is slowly making inroads in India. But leaving that to one side, restaurants in India are recreations of a home eating experience, and hence they do not plate food. They put it in dishes, which are brought to the table, and served--by a waiter, if the restaurant is old-fashioned and fancy, or by the diner. Of course, the same goes for most Indian places in Toronto. 

That's why it was amusing when Susur Lee did a show on Restaurant Makeover about a ghastly place called Dhaba: Indian Excellence -- I wrote about it somewhere below -- and pronounced it superb. The only thing he wanted to teach the chef was plating. Given that Dhaba has no culinary pretensions above your average greasy Indian dive, Susur was barking up two wrong trees. 

Put that aside. Yesterday, I went to Aravind, a new Kerala restaurant on the Danforth just west of Pape. I was excited to try Kerala food--see previous posts for my eulogistic treatments of Syrian Christian cooking. I was disappointed. Syrian Christian cooking is known for it complex clean flavours and its wonderful textures. At Aravind, all was muddy and mushy. 

But here's the thing. Everything was plated. At the next table, a man ate crab biriyani that had been shaped like a drum. Lynne and I had relatively simple dishes. I had crab with kappa: kappa being mashed tapioca root, which is commonly served with hot fish curries. The correct way for to eat this would have been for me to put the crab next to the kappa and combined them in mouthfuls. But they had plated it so that the two were mingled beyond recognition. And they had put two (very good) southern paratthas on the plate under the kappa-crab mixture. A disaster!

I guess I'll have to wait a while before I can go to a restaurant that serves good Kerala food.