Chefs in India cook up childhood nostalgia dishes to woo visiting Indian Americans, NRIs

Dishes for NRIs
“Atta Semiyan” (left), “Chenna Chat” (center) and “Cooker Meat”

Malai Cheeni Toast, Sattu Paratha big hit on nostalgia platter.

By Rupali Dean

Who doesn’t treasure warm childhood recollections of a favorite homespun food made with love?

No qualms then that this worldwide phenomenon — with its original wistfulness for childhood — is a trend with many Indian Americans and other Non-Resident Indians coming to India for a vacation, or to meet with their extended family. Many eateries in the country have noticed that a growing number of returning and visiting NRIs wanted to give their kids a touch of what their parents grew up eating, but in upscale hygienic settings.

As nostalgia food continues to be a theme many Indian chefs are exploring, they confirm that the trend rings a special bell with those who may have been away from India for a while. At a chic eatery called Prankster at Sector 29, Gurgaon, a suburb of Delhi, the menu offers the classic yet unfamiliar charm of India’s childhood, emphasizing local ingredients and seasonal offerings, espousing them skillfully with the acquainted flavors.

Each dish on the menu, be it Matter Paneer Pakoda or any other, has a story to tell. Corporate Chef Harangad Singh just introduced Cooker Meat, which is cooked and served in a pressure cooker, where the last whistle actually happens at the table!

“The aroma is sheer delight and the tender meat curry bubbling hot tastes just like how my grandma makes it back in my village in Punjab,” says Samson Gill from Buffalo, NY.

Today’s diner is more veteran and savvier than ever before. They have tasted an extensive range of cuisines and their exclusive ingredients. That makes them easy to lure with gastronomic nostalgia and its emotive appeal!

“The reminiscences we have of foods we prized as children will constantly play a role in the foods we hold dear even as adults, and the hunt to restore those memories is what brings people to our restaurant,” says Inderjeet Singh Banga, founder of the Delhi-based Biggie Hospitality. “A lot of our customers are Indians settled in the US, Britain and even Australia. Sometimes we do get a call from our patrons from the airport itself to reserve a table for them. Honestly, it is very satisfying to see people coming to us to let their kids experience a touch of what their childhood food was like.”

"Ras Malai Res Leche" from Farzi Cafe.
“Ras Malai Res Leche” from Farzi Cafe.

It is a formula catching on now that eateries sell not food and beverages but rather an experience — cheesy, but accurate. “It has become progressively significant to us that our menus resonate with guests on an individual and passionate level. At Unplugged Courtyard, Gurgaon, one of the hot selling dishes is Bhuna Gosht with Saffron Parantha. A fresher rendition of the classic version, it makes for a perfect bite, with marinated onions providing a satisfying contrast to the flavour and texture of the meat,” says Dinesh Arora, Chief Managing Director at Eastman Colour Restaurants.

What becomes a trend in the food industry is often a wistful moment! “For just about every dining demographic, the appearance and aroma of Pav Bhaji, Khichdi and Parantha are instant cues to childhood memories. I recently visited Comorin at The Horizon Center in Gurgaon, an upscale casual restaurant from the makers of Indian Accent, and was pleasantly surprised. They double the appeal by adding a refreshing tweak to comfort food – the sweet corn Khichdi for example. When upscale casual venues serve a Champarin (a place in Bihar) Meat with Sattu Parantha, they are drawing on comfort-food classics and nostalgia,” adds Ritika Jain from Kentucky.

Desserts are where you truly get a taste of your childhood — be it the Mumma Cooker Atta cake, or the Atta Semiyan at Prankster, or the Malai Cheeni Toast at Comorin, which, at some point, we have all eaten in our childhood.

Zorawar Kalra, perhaps one of the most influential restaurateurs of the last decade, along with Chef Saurabh Udinia, re-imagined many a kid’s nostalgic dessert moments like the Parle G Cheese cake, which brings back memories of steeping them in milk — just like we ate while watching Saturday morning cartoons — and used the flavorful, satisfying concoction to make cheese cake with Cadbury Gems studded on it. Samson Gill from Buffalo says, “When the kids get excited to see the Cadbury Gems toppings, we explain them that those are the M&Ms of our childhood!”

Rupali Dean is a food and travel writer based in Gurgaon, India.

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