Eating For A Living: An Interview With Delh406826's Top 3 Food Critics
12 December 2012
Food, music and nightlife have a strange relationship in India.
Night-owls expect nothing less than to be able to bask in a 3-course meal or buffet at 2am in any nightclub or bar, and disco dancers do407071't seem to bat an eyelash as steaming hot food passes them by on the dance floor. Maybe this is a good thing as it offers an opportunity to sober up the drink drivers before their idiotic crusades around the ring road home, but it certainly is a strange sight to behold for newcomers.
Food is of the most tantamount importance to anyone venturing out of their home for the night and these days, almost everyone that eats out a lot fancies themselves as an amateur food critic. With online restaurant directories encouraging feedback and reviews it is easy for the average Joe to delude themselves into thinking the opinions of their palette should be shared with the masses.
For many the idea of being paid to eat seems like a dream job. Maybe just a demi step away (in my mind at least) from travel writing but, with great food comes great responsibility and also a lot of bad food (and bad stomachs) in between.
We got curious and decided to pin down Anisa Nariman (mademoisellechou-fleur.blogspot.in, Sunday Guardian food critic), Vandana Verma (singforyoursupper.in, theindiatube.com, Ex Time Out Nightlife/Food) and Simran Bhalla (Time Out Food/Ex Nightlife), three of our favourite Delhi based food (and sometimes music) critics, to delve below the surface of what it actually takes to become a professional food critic:
So, how many times a week are you currently eating out?
Anisa: At least 3
Simran: I eat out about twice a week, not including takeout.
Vandana: Anywhere between 3-5 times a week.
What is the most common misconception that people have about your job?
Anisa: That I must be eating good food all the time. When more often than not most new restaurants in the city serve some pretty average to bad food. I409089's really just painful at times to see the things people put out on a plate.
Simran: I think most people assume all I do is eat, sleep, and then write a tiny bit. I have actual office hours in between those things.
Vandana: That it is, quite literally, a piece of cake. It’s not just the eating, it’s also writing about it after, so while everyone else is groaning and digesting, we’re click-click-clicking away at our keyboards. Also that we always want to talk about food; I hate that stuff - constantly talking about ingredients and preparation and who the chef is and what the inspiration for x or y is… it’s just so tedious. I’m really not into that.
How do you stop yourself from becoming stupidly overweight?
Anisa: Exercise - I cannot compromise what I eat at all and I do have the most unhealthy food habits. So as much as I hate exercising, it is a compromise I’m willing to make for a brownie today and tempura tomorrow.
Simran: I don’t. This will backfire on me by approximately 2015.
Vandana: I’m trying to exercise portion control – it’s the only way to try everything on offer without blowing up like Porky.
What type of food are you fed up with reviewing/eating?
Anisa: Bad food. Actually i410400's the mediocrity that really kills me. When the food is plain awful you think okay these guys are just off their heads. But the amount of places that serve mediocre food - as if they make it just about okay and say “yup that’ll do, lets open a restaurant.” Opening a restaurant seems to have become a fad and the food is just one of the elements on their restaurant checklist. A cook is thrown in a kitchen and told to cook “exotic foods” like jerk chicken and kung pao prawns but has no connection with those words what so ever, neither does anyone else care enough to make him connect. What you end up with is soulless food, so uninspiring it saps away the very joy of eating - and that is well worth being fed up with.
Simran: I hate the standard Delhi cafe menu of insipid little nachos/Chindian fried food/tedious pastas. If a menu includes cuisines from three continents, it’s safe to say nothing will be good.
Vandana: Honestly, Indian food. It’s the cuisine that tends to make me the most ill, particularly when a kitchen’s been too heavy-handed with the spice.
Have you ever been ill from a meal (or is that a silly question!)?
Anisa: The way I eat my stomach is messed up on a regular basis. It wouldn’t even be fair for me to blame it on anyone but myself.
Simran: Yes. The worst was from the Haldiram’s near Chandni Chowk
Vandana: All. The. Time. When I was at Time Out and bound to a magazine’s production schedule, I was a perma-shade of guacamole green. No exaggeration.
Do you prefer to review anonymously or not?
Anisa: Yes I do, but i412059's not always possible. That never means the review is compromised or I sugar coat anything though. Cross my heart.
Vandana: Anonymously is best, one hundred percent.
What difference does that make?
Anisa: Honestly, what I have noticed is it doesn’t make such a big difference to the food. If the level of cooking is poor or average, i412466's going to stay just that. They won’t suddenly become ace chefs out of nowhere. The only thing that may get altered is the service; it most certainly can get a lot more attentive. But even then the staff cannot fake certain things - like knowledge of the menu and food, at times even the basics of hospitality.
Simran: The experience is much more genuine when you’re anonymous – that way, if it’s good, you know you’ll go back, and can recommend it to others.
Vandana: It means that you’re free to enjoy (or not) your meal as any other patron would; without the special treatment, or obsequious staff attention, without special visits to the table from the chef… I mean, it’s all very sweet but I’d much rather just order what I fancy and then eat it at my own pace without someone hovering over my shoulder asking how it is. Repeatedly.
What is your least favourite food/meal?
Anisa: There’s very little I dislike eating to be honest. I don’t particularly find an all vegetarian meal all that fulfilling. At least throw in a sausage or two. I do think sausages go with everything!
Simran: I don’t have one anymore: I’ve tried things I never thought I’d like, but they’re made so well I have to reconsider everything Iever hated. But I still dislike413781'baingan ka bhart413799' (Sorry, mom).
Vandana: I’m not huge on really dense, rich food. So Kashmiri food’s not a top pick. Oh, and ‘parval’ – can’t stand the stuff.
Difference between eating and tasting?
Anisa: I suppose i414040's like the difference between hearing and listening - sound goes in but have you identified the words that make up those sounds and what those words mean? Same way the act of eating - food can go in to your mouth - chewed and swallowed - but tasting means paying attention to what goes in - ingredients, how these ingredients combine, textures - the techniques that make it so. I414421's about being aware of every bite and how your senses respond to them. I don’t think anyone should eat without tasting.
Simran: I think eating is just putting food in your mouth when you’re hungry, or when you feel like you should because it’s a designated meal time; tasting is the entire experience of eating: place, memory, pleasure.
Vandana: Paying attention.
Who is your favourite food critic & why?
Anisa: Hmmm, never really thought of a favourite. But if I was to pull one out of the bag it would be Jay Rayner. For starters I find his style of writing hilarious. No-nonsense. Food writing can get monotonous but he keeps it from going stale. His writing is casual but not to the point that it makes a mockery of the English language - though his mockery of most other things is what keeps me coming back for more.
Simran: This guy. I also like Sam Sifton from the NYT, though he’s no longer the food critic, and Adam Gopnik does amazing things in long form. I love food writing in fiction/memoirs most of all, see this for examples (and a shameless self-plug).
Vandana: I have two: A.A. Gill, because he is brilliant, savage and hilarious, and Adam Platt, because he is incisive, measured and so, so much fun to read.
The crunch question, fail-safe most delicious and consistently good place to eat in Delhi?
Anisa: Consistency is the biggest problem in this city. That being said there are a few places that defy the norm. Andhra Bhawan, Yum Yum Tree, Indian Accent, San Gimignano, Royal China, Smoke House Grill, Sushi at 360, Pizzas at Amici and Sagar.
Simran: My picks are pretty boring, but completely reliable: Diva, Oriental Octopus in the Habitat, and my local Punjabi diner-dhaba, ChicFish.
Vandana: I’ve talked a fair bit about Izakaya on my blog, and actually, I think it’s the one I’m going to pick. Great Japanese food, pretty decent value, excellent ingredients and a couple of really great cocktails: it’s all I need really.
Image Credit: Sing For Your Supper