Why Aren’t There Any Michelin-Starred Restaurants in India?

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Why Aren’t There Any Michelin-Starred Restaurants in India?

Growing up in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, I remember the obsession the world—and my miserable-with-my-body teen-self—had with fat. Fat was evil and was to be avoided at all costs. The tadka on dal, made with a glorious combination of red chilis, onion, garlic, tomatoes, curry leaves and ghee? Bad. The large pot of creamy yogurt my grandmother set with full-fat milk? Bad. The pat of ghee or butter on a whole wheat or makki (corn) roti? Bad. My Himachali grandfather’s entire cuisine, most of which requires hours of simmering yogurt-based dishes so they form their own ghee? Bad (obviously!). Kalari, a ripened cheese from the Kashmir Valley, fried in its own fat, which my grandmother thoughtlessly brought for me from India, knowing I was on a diet? Bad! Bad! Bad!

All this is to say, I grew up loathing the dishes and cuisines that were meant to culturally define me. As an Indian, food was (and is) key to my identity. As a third-culture kid who didn’t much take to Bollywood movies, it was the only definitive shred of my Indianness. 

This self-loathing was made worse by the misguided notion that French cuisine was somehow the culinary gold standard globally. There were and are, after all, no Michelin stars in India. French cuisine was “muted” and “subtle;” much of what we know as “Indian food” thrived on celebrating flavor and spice. And as a teen in an era where the internet had yet to answer all the questions, this meant one thing: Indian food—in its many incarnations, some of which are subtle and muted (but were projected as “bland”)—was less than.

That was something I believed, even after I’d torn out the colonialism I’d internalized over the years—until I learned what Michelin stars actually are: an old advertising strategy that simply took off well. 

Michelin stars came about after Michelin, the French tire company with a marshmallow man mascot named Bibendum, published its first guide for where to stop and eat on road trips in 1900. The guide, aptly named Guide Michelin, gave each of these eateries stars since its inception in 1900. As a former ad woman, I cannot fault the simplicity these guides offered. The tire market, in a vehicle-lacking country, was spoken for through the one thing the French were (and are) proud of: their food. 

Today, however, those stars have taken on a life of their own, complete with an elitism that is celebrated in culinary circles. The stars—one, two or three—each have a vague label pegged to them: 

One star: very good restaurant in its category
Two stars: excellent cooking, worth a detour
Three stars: exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey

Which brings me back to why there are no Michelin-starred restaurants in India: Michelin simply does not put out a guide in India. (There are, however, Indian restaurants and chefs with Michelin stars.)

Michelin-starred restaurants exist in other parts of Asia, so it would seem logical to pay attention to what a population of one billion people eats. Then again, the entire continent of Africa—with its 54 countries—is entirely ignored. Perhaps it’s possible that sponsors and tourism boards in India simply haven’t made an enticing enough bid (Thailand’s tourism board reportedly paid $4.4 million for Michelin’s presence there).

Moreover, though, this raises the question of what these stars actually mean (if anything). Do they represent a ranking of the “best” restaurants in the world or just those closest to the Francocentric (and therefore limited) idea of what constitutes “good” food? Moreover, why is it that compound butters and chili-scallion oils are, if TikTok is to be believed, trendy and delicious but generous quantities of butter in pav bhaji are scoffed at? Why are escargot and frog legs deemed delicacies where tart-sweet chutneys made of ants, goat brains and chicken feet are not? 

Bluntly put: the culinary world, especially in the Global North, is, through its cultural imperialism, dubiously selective. The Michelin guide is simply an extension of that imperialism. And while I frequently see this impacting young Indian chefs I know—who crave recognition and opt to work in Bangkok and Singapore, both of which have Michelin guides, instead of staying in India—what we’re really missing is the big picture. Are the (presumably) well-intentioned people at Michelin putting out these guides serious about global food? There’s something to be said about the lack of racial and gender diversity these guides fuel (and possibly profit off of): They have no place in this day and age. 

It goes without saying that I love the dishes that were an essential part of my childhood (I’ve said it, just to be certain). However, I’ve gone beyond this need for validation from a system that doesn’t acknowledge the culinary existence that is key to my identity; I loathe it. I find it somewhat amusing that I ever thought it credible–to look to one of the beige-est places in the world to understand the complexities of the food and cuisines I’m fond of. 

There was a great Los Angeles Magazine headline a few years ago, that I think points us towards the future: “Maybe if We All Stop Talking About the Michelin Guide, It Will Just Go Away.” (Here’s hoping.)

Akanksha Singh is a journalist based between Mumbai, India, and Lisbon, Portugal. Her work has appeared in Bon Appétit, CNN, Lonely Planet, Saveur and more. Read her work here, her tweets here, and about the time Nigella Lawson called her toaster oven madeleines “beautiful” over on Instagram.

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