When in Bengaluru, do yourself a favour. Go into one of the 85 craft breweries in the city — or rather, try to go, because depending on the day, you won’t be able to get in. Weekends “tho” as we say in Hindi, forget it. And these aren’t small places. In order to get a microbrewery licence, you need 10,000 square feet at minimum. Beginning Thursday night, craft breweries are packed. Hence my question: is beer the butter chicken of Bengaluru? All parts of this question are operative.
You see, I am a serious wine drinker (not a pretentious one though) and a casual beer drinker. In the wine world, we keep talking about how India is ground-zero for wine business, and how more and more young Indians are drinking wine. But that’s because we haven’t seen the growth spurt in the craft beer industry. No other alcoholic beverage has been able to forge such a huge fan base among the Indians– and Bengalureans. So, to all my wine-drinking friends, I say, we winos are living in la-la land. Beer– not wine– is taking over the Indian subcontinent. Part of the reason is because wine is viewed as elitist while beer is accessible, without fuss. Like butter chicken, it is a crowd pleaser that doesn’t take itself too seriously. And now we come to the title of this essay.
Please read the question again. I am not talking about food that pair well with beer. Of that, there are many including pakoras, peanuts, vadas, fried food in general, biriyani, Andhra meals, spicy food in general, heck, all Indian food except maybe our sweets. Is food pairing the secret of beer’s success? Maybe.
Years ago, I got really mad when a Western wine writer wrote that the best wine pairing with Indian food was, well, “beer”. I thought he was dissing India’s wine palate, our country’s sophistication with respect to wine, and that he displayed typical Western chauvinism when it came to new cultures savouring wine. Now that I have started drinking craft beers in Bengaluru, I have to admit that he may be right and take that chip off my shoulder. Indian food pairs really well with a chilled beer.
That said, what Indian dish do you associate most with beer? If beer where an Indian dish, which one would it be? I can only think of three contenders and I have never tasted two of them: butter chicken, tandoori chicken, and masala dosa.
Now, I have written a lot about masala dosa but this dish is too parochial and dare I say, Brahminical to align with beer. Bengaluru, much like beer, is cosmopolitan, forgiving and welcoming. Masala dosa is too entrenched and regional. That leaves the two chicken dishes, which I, as a lifelong vegetarian, have never tasted. But if I were to eat non-veg, I would probably begin with these two dishes. They look appetising. A friend told me eat them just before I die because then my regret for not eating chicken earlier would last for a shorter period of time. Twisted logic– but then this friend is a serious carnivore.
Beer and butter chicken have a lot in common. Take the dish. Originally from Punjab, butter chicken has taken over the world, much like beer. Both adapt well to regional variations. Butter chicken is touted as the national dish of the UK. I would reckon that the English version is nothing like the fiery Telangana version. Much like beer, butter chicken lends itself to fine-dining and dhabas. Both beer and butter chicken are ancient inventions, and perhaps they were created around the same time.
Today Belgium, Germany, the Czech Republic and England are the four countries that come to mind when you think of beer. Except that these guys eat food that is nothing like our spicy Indian food. German sausages, Czech dumplings, English shepherd’s pie and Belgian steak frites are the opposite of our spicy food. Yet somehow, our food pairs just as well with beer as do the weak-kneed non-spicy food of these Northern European countries. We have to grant them one thing though. Northern European countries were the pioneers in elevating beer into the dry-hopped, barrel-aged, limited-release, small-batch artisanal versions that are taking over India.
This then is the genius of beer, relative to my other drink: Wine. Even though beer is arguably more complex than wine; even though it definitely takes more steps to make beer than wine, beer wears its laurels lightly. It is forgiving when it comes to food pairings. Throw a kheema kebab at a white wine and the wine will wilt. Throw a kheema kebab at a German Kolsch and it will dance. In fact, I cannot think of a single variety of beer, be it a Belgian ale, German lager, Czech Pilsner, or Irish Stout that won’t go with Indian food. Beer therefore is like butter chicken: complex yet accessible.
Where do I go to drink my beer in Bengaluru? Well, that requires a separate article.
Shoba Narayan is Bangalore-based award-winning author. She is also a freelance contributor who writes about art, food, fashion and travel for a number of publications.