Indian Food in Paris

The French Can’t “Curry”: Indian Haute Cuisine, a Parisian Nightmare

3 years in Paris gave me the French habit of complaining. My favorite thing to moan about: the hopeless state of Indian food in the city.

Papadoom Kitchen is an Indian restaurant, located in Paris’ chic neighborhood of Grand Boulevards. Decorated with Indian motifs, spread across two floors, Papadoom Kitchen promises to offer its clients an Indian dining experience, unlike the cramped venues and sticky table tops of the restaurants in Paris’ South Asian district behind Gare du Nord. When I ate dinner there during the opening week, I was expecting a unique menu, featuring Indian fusion and regional dishes. Naturally, I was disappointed to find hackneyed dishes like Butter Chicken and Cheese Naan that have continuously reduced the diversity of a country with over 780 languages –according to the People’s linguistic survey of India– to the Mughlai cuisine.

Papadoom Paris

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Almost a year later, the restaurant has updated its menu while maintaining some dishes. You can now order a ‘Mumbai Poke Bowl’ with your ‘Butter Chicken’. If it wasn’t already the case, the menu is now a mishmash of boring bites in the name of tradition and confusion rather than fusion.

People always wish to have butter chicken

The restaurant offers a high-end ambiance that surpasses the quality of its food. It would not come as a surprise to me, if Parisians opted for the cheaper restaurants of Gare du Nord. After all, they would get the same dish at a much cheaper price. So the question arises, can Indian food be viewed as elevated cuisine in the capital of gourmet?

“The tastemakers of cuisine, the people who judge and categorise food are European,” said Krishnendu Ray, the author of The Ethnic Restaurateur to me in an interview. According to Ray, the French have not been exposed to the tastes and cooking methods of Indian food. Two months ago I invited a French friend to a South Indian, specifically Tamil, restaurant in Paris. I hoped to introduce her to a cuisine that is miles apart from the generic North Indian curries she believes to represent all Indian food. While I ordered a dosa, a South Indian style crepe, she stuck to naan and paneer curry. I watched my attempts to expand her views on Indian cuisine fail.

 

 

“People always wish to have butter chicken,” said Stéphanie de Saint Simon, owner of the first two fine- dining Indian restaurants in Paris, MG Road and Desi Road. Simon opened MG Road first in 2014 with the idea of presenting a different variety of Indian food, from street dishes to those typical to Bombay’s Iranian cafes. Her restaurants are perhaps the closest Paris gets to inventive Indian cuisine and yet they don’t dare to push their clientele to try Indian food beyond curries. Simon changes the menu at her restaurants every quarter, but she had to bring back butter chicken because it gives her audience the reassurance of a tried and tested reference point. Her menus are a conflict of authenticity. Her inspiration for authentic Indian food comes from her experiences with bazaars, street chaat and home- cooked food, during her extensive travels through India. But authenticity to her patrons is derived from the comfort of the familiarity that curries – Vindaloo, Chicken Tikka Masala – have. And so Simon’s passion to present diverse Indian food drowns in the oily, orange mess known as Butter Chicken.

French continue to judge food through the lens of French cuisine standards

Another reason why Indian food is misunderstood, according to Ray, is that the French continue to judge food through the lens of French cuisine standards. This makes Japanese food more acceptable in Paris, given that its minimalist aesthetic can be judged under the parameters of French cuisine.

 

 

The amount of money Parisians are willing to spend on Japanese food versus Indian food is quite telling. For instance, the list of Paris’s 50 Best Restaurants of 2018 features many Japanese restaurants like Inagiku, where the cheapest menu is worth €39 for an entree, a main dish and a dessert. The list features only one Indian restaurant, Indian House, where for a €17.50 menu, one can get two vegetarian dishes, one chicken curry, lentil soup, Indian crackers with chutney and rice. One could argue that Japanese cooking requires more skill and expensive ingredients. But dishes such as the Hyderabadi Biryani, found in a lot of menus in Paris, can take up to two days of preparation and exorbitant spices such as saffron and cardamom.

In Paris, the expectation of Indian food being low-cost has resulted in scores of cheap Indian restaurants

“It’s a chicken and egg situation,” said Ray. “No one wants to pay a lot for Indian food, which results in poor quality, bad ingredients, lack of originality and the people cooking the food could be from any country from South Asia.”

In Paris, the expectation of Indian food being low-cost has resulted in scores of cheap Indian restaurants, concentrated around Gare du Nord, the busiest train station in Europe. Unlike the Paris of postcards, Gare du Nord is crowded with Indian boutiques, restaurants, tailors and supermarkets. French is hardly heard in these streets. These restaurants aren’t located in posh corners of Paris but they offer the same curries that can be found on the menus of MG Road and Papadoom Kitchen. What makes Indian cuisine so susceptible to serving comfort food in the form of spicy, sloppy curries in France?

© Sadia Rao/HEREYOUARE

© Sadia Rao/HEREYOUARE

According to Chef Manish Mehrotra, it comes from the history of how Indian cuisine made its way to the West. “Indian cuisine started on a different foot, with curry houses in the UK. They took a few aspects of Indian cuisine – tandoori, creamy, saucy food – and reduced our entire food to that,” he said. Mehrotra is an award-winning Indian chef and the brainchild behind the fine-dining restaurant Indian Accent in New Delhi.

The average cost of a main course dish is nine euros at Papadoom Kitchen and 11 euros at MG Road

In 2008, Mehrotra coined the term inventive Indian cuisine while designing the first Indian Accent menu. “I refuse to serve butter chicken at my restaurant,” said Mehrotra. At Indian Accent, Indian flavour profiles are paired with wine, a thought that would be unimaginable a few years ago. His goal is to change the image of Indian food from that of a rustic, comfort- driven cuisine to that of an elegant tasting menu. “People are ready to pay 400 euros for Alain Ducasse, but not 50 euros for a curry,” he said. Indian Accent is a step towards changing that.

Indian Food Paris

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Fifty euros would be an excessive price for an Indian dish in Paris. The average cost of a main course dish is nine euros at Papadoom Kitchen and 11 euros at MG Road. These prices are considerably lower than the average price of a dish at a high-end Indian restaurant in New York or London. Take for example, Baar Baar in New York, where the average price of a main course dish is 28 dollars or Zaika in London with the average price of a main dish set at 21 pounds.

The French have a very strong belongingness to their cuisine and wine. It is not easy to break this tradition

Mehrotra’s Indian Accent has chapters in New York and London, but none in Paris. “I find London and New York more cosmopolitan, more accessible to us, than Paris,” said Mehrotra. “The French have a very strong belongingness to their cuisine and wine. It is not easy to break this tradition.”

Indian cook in Paris

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This same sentiment was echoed by French chef Joël Robuchon, who was awarded the title of the ‘chef of the century’ in 1989 and today runs Michelin-star restaurants from Las Vegas to Singapore. In 2011, Robuchon told the Evening Standard that London is the gastronomical capital of the world and not Paris. London offers a myriad of cuisines, a melting pot of innovative food.

Unlike Muniyandi Vilas, a fast-casual Indian joint behind Gare du Nord, Papadoom Kitchen and MG Road have the platform and capital to change the image of Indian cuisine in Paris. They can use fresh ingredients and introduce regional dishes. Owned by French restaurateurs and catering to an urban elite French clientele, none of these restaurants need to be a bargain.

Muniyandi Vilas

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Perhaps, the French need to start cooking real Indian food, in order to elevate it to the status of haute cuisine. This is a slippery slope given that it can be viewed as cultural appropriation, taking away an important source of income from Indian immigrants. But as Ray explained, we need French tastemakers to expand their criteria. Since they establish the law of cuisine, we need them to understand the complexity of Indian cuisine, which is different from that of French cuisine. This will help them categorise, judge and distinguish it, a process that will help lift Indian cuisine from the status of comfort food to that of Michelin worthy.

 

Find below on the map the places listed in the article:

Papadoom Kitchen

157 Rue Montmartre, 75002 Paris, France

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MG Road

MG Road, Rue Saint-Martin, Paris, France

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Desi Road

Desi Road, Rue Dauphine, Paris, France

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Indian House

Indian House, 27 Rue Gassendi, 75014 Paris, France

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Muniyandi Vilas

Muniyandi Vilas, 207 Rue du Faubourg-Saint-Denis, Paris, France

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Sadia Rao is a Paris-based journalist and videographer, mostly found looking for the spiciest eateries in town.
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