Sodabottleopenerwala, which opened two years ago in Gurgaon and has since expanded to other locations in Delhi and elsewhere, may well have been named MaximumParsiSignifiers. Irani restaurant as theme park, it represents a weird yet representative moment in the packaging of regional cuisines for hyper-consumerist India in the early 21st century. Unpacking all of this properly is beyond the scope of a quick meal report written on the fly but I’ll give it a truncated shot.
First up, a little recommended reading for those who don’t know their Parsi from their Paris (all from Another Subcontinent): start with this brief essay by the late, great Sue Darlow that sketches the history of the Parsi community in India; then take a look at the first three links in this feature on a Parsi cookbook; finally, go take a look at Sue’s wonderful series of photographs, “Scenes from Parsi Life“. That should give you enough of a context to get started here.
Okay, so let me try to quickly explain why I find this restaurant a somewhat weird phenomenon. But first let me say what is quite obvious to anyone who has followed developments in the restaurant scene in Delhi in the last few years: that it is also in fact completely of a piece with the times. As I noted in my writeup of Dzükou last week, in the last ten years or so there has been a proliferation of regional cuisines in Delhi. But what is different is that most, if not all, of those regional cuisines’ visibility in Delhi has tracked with demographics. There are large South Indian and Bengali populations in Delhi, for instance, and so as consumer spending on dining out has amped up in the increasingly flush Indian economy, it’s not been much of a surprise to see increasingly fancy and visible restaurants serving that food. I don’t mean to suggest that only South Indians and Bengalis in Delhi eat at those restaurants, of course; but again, the curiosity of the average non-South Indian or Bengali Delhi’ite going to those places is itself conditioned by a far larger cultural awareness of Bengal and the South Indian states. And it is also the case that most of the regional restaurants that have opened up the Delhi food scene are also owned or operated by people from the source cultures (see Dzükou again, for instance).
None of this is true for Sodabottleopenerwala. It is operated by AD Singh, the restaurateur behind Olive, Monkey Bar and Fatty Bao (successful chains all) and what it is peddling is not primarily the food of the Parsi community—knowledge of which for most Indians outside Bombay did not previously extend far beyond dhansak. And nor is there a major Parsi population in Delhi. In other words, the restaurant is feeding neither a displaced minority community’s desire to have nice places to go out to eat its own food at, nor the larger community’s desire to finally be able to eat the well-known food of this minority community. Now when I say that what it is peddling is not primarily Parsi food I don’t mean to deny that Parsi food is what it is predominantly serving (along with Bombay street foods and snacks and so on). What I mean is that the appeal/proffer of Sodabottleopenerwala is not primarily food-based. What then is its appeal/proffer?
Two things. First: the ambience of the Irani restaurant, of which there is far greater awareness thanks to Bollywood films and books like Shantaram. It’s not the case that the average Delhi-ite has been to a lot of Irani cafes but that we’ve always known that Irani cafes are a mainstay of Bombay’s cultural scene and we’ve had some idea of the kitschy signifiers of Irani cafe culture. These Sodabottleopenerwala serves up in spades: every idiosyncratic aspect of the milieu/aesthetic of famous individual Bombay Irani cafes is collected and mashed together here. It is as though you are in, as I said at the start, the Irani cafe as theme park. Please note that I am not suggesting that this is a problem of authenticity. Irani cafes have long been kitschy in Bombay as well; it’s just that Sodabottleopenerwala amplifies the kitsch to spectacular levels. (For an interesting, academic’ish discussion of Sodabottleopenerwala and authenticity see this; what the authors, the redoubtable Anjarias leave out, of course, is any discussion of the food, but that’s what I’m here for.)
Second: Parsi exotica. Now, exotica in Indian restaurants in India is nothing new. Despite what many Americans might think, Indians have always been very adept at and willing to market themselves to the West; with the rise of the strong nationalism of India Shining etc. in the last decade and more, Indians have also become very good at marketing themselves to themselves. Every regional restaurant (well, most of them anyway) that you enter in Delhi seems to be covered in regional markers, be it the tribal chic of Dzükou or the costumes worn by the waiters at Dakshin and so on. And don’t forget either the truck inside the Claridges’ Dhaba or the auto-rickshaws inside Khaaja Chowk and so on—in general this kind of stuff has been going on for a while.
What’s different about Sodabottleopenerwala, again, is partly that in this case it is not Parsis selling Parsi-ness; more interesting, I think, is that Parsi-ness functions as a kind of domestic foreign identity. On the one hand, Parsis have long been associated with Westernness; and on the other, the cultural and religious differences of this community have never registered as threatening in an otherwise fraught landscape of identity precisely because of how small the community is (and it’s smaller still in Delhi). Sodabottleopenerwala, with its over-the-top kitschy signifiers—from the name of the restaurant to the lists of rules to the pictures on the walls to the tablecloths—I’m suggesting makes a commodified Parsi-ness available to non-Parsis in a way that’s different from what’s happening in other regional restaurants. Diners entering Sodabottleopenerwala are invited to wallow in cultural difference that is sanitized and non-threatening.
Well, I guess that wasn’t so truncated: you should be happy you got off with fewer than 2500 words on all of this. Anyway, what about the food? Well, it was tasty but, as I said, it’s really a bit of an afterthought here. What’s important to this restaurant is the names of the dishes and what they look like and they nail all of that. The taste itself seems somewhat North Indianized—at least in Delhi: I’d expect that the most recent branch in Bombay itself (but probably attracting customers who would not hitherto have stepped into an actual Irani cafe) does somewhat better on the cooking front. Nothing was bad but if you’ve eaten Parsi food—in Bombay or in the homes of friends—you might find something missing.
To see what we ate and to read brief descriptions please click on a link to launch the slideshow. Oh yes, we ate at the mothership at the Cyberhub food court in Gurgaon—a truly global-postmodern foodcourt if there ever was one.
There were five adults and two small children eating. We didn’t generate leftovers despite ordering a lot. This is not only because we are greedy: the portions are not terribly large and it’s hard for more than 3 adults to get a decent whack at most of the dishes. Prices are also pretty high. I was not allowed to pay but the bill before tip came to about Rs. 7500 (or $115’ish) which seemed rather high for the quality of what we ate. As for the service it was a mix of attentive and utterly clueless. When we ordered we were told the fish would take a while to make but it was the first thing to come out. At times servers were all over us, at other times none could be flagged down despite there being, as is common in Delhi, seemingly two servers per customer in the restaurant.
Anyway, if you’re in Delhi it may be an interesting experience but if it’s good Parsi food you’re after I’d recommend instead Rustom’s Parsi Bhonu on Aurobindo Marg in the Qutab Enclave area. We actually ate there a couple of days after this meal, and I will have a writeup of that meal (far, far briefer, I promise) up next week.