What is Progressive Food?

21 Jul, 2015 by Vir Sanghvi


What does the term ‘progressive’ Indian cuisine mean? Frankly, I’m damned if I know. It is now routinely applied to any restaurant that moves away from the butter-chicken formula, a category that takes in so many different places that, in my view, the term is foolish and meaningless.

In the Seventies, record stores in the UK used to have sections dedicated to 'Progressive Rock', a category that included bands like Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and many others. There was a context for the term. Within the British (and therefore, Indian) left, the term ‘progressive’ denoted people with a vaguely socialistic bent of mind who broke with the established centre-right political consensus but were not necessarily communists.

When popular music split into pop and rock (Herman's Hermits and the Monkees were pop; the Rolling Stones were rock), US record stores followed the pop-rock terminology. But in Britain, in the early Seventies, where pop acts dominated the charts (Mud, The Sweet, Gary Glitter, etc.) trendy record stores went further and used the term ‘progressive’ to characterise what bands like Yes or Jethro Tull were doing. The term elevated the pretentious and now largely-forgotten music of some of those bands and suggested that they, like political progressives, had an alternative vision of music, art and perhaps society itself.

Then, the term fell into disuse even in its political context. And so it would have remained except for Gaggan Anand.

When Gaggan opened his Bangkok restaurant and did outlandish things to Indian food with molecular techniques, he began calling his style of food 'progressive Indian cuisine’. He wanted a) to put off tourists who would expect tandoori chicken and b) to place his style in the same category as the rock bands he worshipped; Pink Floyd, for instance, remain his great inspiration.

As a term limited to one chef's view of his own food it made a certain idiosyncratic sense. But Gaggan never intended the term to encompass a whole school of Indian cuisine.

And yet, that is exactly what seems to the happening. Except for Gaggan, hardly anybody uses the term abroad (not for Indian cuisine or for anything else for that matter). But in India, it has gained in popularity as ambitious chefs and lazy food writers use it to describe any restaurant that differs even slightly from the norm.

Thus, poor Manish Mehrotra, India’s finest modern chef, now finds himself landed with a term used by Gaggan to describe his own restaurant, even though their styles are quite different. So do a variety of other chefs.

I don’t know if the term will survive. Even though it is essentially gibberish, it is easy to use for people who don’t understand the context.

If it does, then treat it as one more contribution to Indian cuisine from Gaggan Anand, the world’s most successful Indian chef!

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Vir Sanghvi
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