Going out for a sizzler dinner may not be the “thing” today, but the 60s food show has enough sizzle in heat to turn heads and orders still – and is a trend to stay.
By Madhulika Dash; Picture courtesy Pinaak Kumar/Gola Sizzlers
When it comes to mood changing theatrics, nothing, and we mean nothing, comes close enough to the magic of Sizzler (okay, the nitrogen ice topped dishes, sugar balloons and foams are the following next). The very sight of a sizzling plate of food passing through with the aroma weaving and wafting through the space is just about enough to mollycoddle you to do one of these:
1. Look at the direction of where it is going, with every gracefully possible attempt a peeking at what’s in it.
2. Rethinking your order for a split second.
3. Changing it and instantly telling the staff in waiting – “get me that instead” with your preference coming next.
If you have nodded at any or all-of-the-above, then fret not, you are not the only one. Sizzlers are known to have that kind of affect on everyone, including the chefs who have time and again reached to this 60s trend to give their offering that instant boost of appeal.
But what is it about sizzlers that makes them such a fascination even today, given that not just Sizzler-only places like Kobe, Gola and Yoko Sizzlers have their own fan base, but even those for whom sizzler aren’t a part of the menu often find it the perfect platform to garner diners’ curiosity.
A fine example is the use of the sizzler plate to offer delicately cooked dishes like prawns, thin slivers of meat, especially lamb in Zest Bengaluru; or the now-classic offering of the sizzling brownie – a presentation that cafés like Café Coffee Day and the ilk have perfected these days.
To know the answer to why sizzler, a trend that Chef Pradeep Tejwani of Young Turks calls “functional”, one needs to know how the concept originated.
THE HAUTE TO HOT HISTORY
The idea and the name sizzler, as we see it today, is attributed to the famous restaurateur duo Delmar and Hellen Johnson, few believe that the concept was first executed in a small restaurant named Maxim in Hong Kong in 1956 – which was two years earlier to the popular tale. Story goes that the owner in Maxim to attract more diners would serve the steak on a metal plate that was kept over a wooden base. The idea was to keep it hissing hot, and the restaurant did it by pouring the sauce over the steak done to order.
Sizzler’s popularity however is attributed to Delmar and Hellen, former ice cream vendors of the Collin’s restaurant, who were so inspired by the concept of teppanyaki that they tried creating that same experience while serving ice creams. While the initial fascination of food on a hot plate didn’t work much with the ice cream culture back then, it did work with steak. What gave it that ‘oomph’ factor was another factor that dominated much of the 50-60s and later years too – that of fusion food.
In its initial years Sizzlers stayed true to the steak plate. However, the brilliance of presenting food on hot plate and the affect it had not just on the food, but diners as well, opened up this whole new world of opportunity for chefs to go beyond the tried and tested meat route, to bring in interesting combination to the plate.
Result, Sizzlers – both the brand and the concept – spread like wildfire (pun intended). So much so that when the former ice cream seller approached Jim Collins to off load the Sizzler brand a decade later in 1967, it was already 164 restaurants (160 of them owned by franchisees) strong.
THE INDIA TOUR
By then the popularity of Sizzler had made it a global phenomenon with theme-based restaurants opening taking popular spots across different countries. In India, that credit goes to the famous Parsi bawa, Firoz Erani who opened the first Sizzler theme restaurant, incidentally by the same name, in Mumbai in 1963. Based in the popular bylanes near now defunct Excelsior Cinema, Erani fine tuned the American concept to suit the Indian palate. Helping him do so was his Japanese wife, Tachiko, whose inherent knowledge of Teppanyaki aided in creating dishes that could play to the Indian palate. That is how it is said that the famous cabbage leave made its appearance on the sizzler plate along with a side of butter tossed vegetables and a mound of French fries.
But that wasn’t the only way the American innovation was reinvented in India. Erani’s success with sizzlers enticed many to either add it to their menu like the beloved Filet Mignon Steak Sizzler in Café Royal or open similar themed outposts like The Place in Pune that took the sizzler fare a notch higher by introducing Mix Grill and an array of option for the vegetarians. That need to innovate and expand the offering gave birth to the popular paneer stake or the Paneer Shashlik.
The charm of sizzlers didn’t remain a privy of the restaurants for long. Soon clubs and regimental messes too began having it on their menu. Such was the popularity that it warranted a whole new chapter in the regimental cookbook. Old cooks were trained, says brand specialist Zamir Khan, “to turn some of the popular British, Anglo Indian, and East Indian fare into popular sizzler items with new additions in terms of the sauce, the rice, the use of fried chips and such. In fact, each mess secretary, who is an officer, was encouraged to find ways that the menu could be worked on as it made for great dining experience, one that could be laid out for guests as well.”
In clubs, that meant a space for Asian cooks who incidentally were great at handling all the hot mess that came along with making a sizzler – and this included the smoke, lots and lots of it.
But not all adaptation of this famous American thing were about creating sizzlers. A few like the Frontier restaurant at The Ashok in New Delhi put it to a more functional use till the early 2000, when most tandoor dishes that were served in this once Pathan house themed restaurant was on the sizzler plate. The reason was simple: it kept the kebabs warm and that classic charred aroma that came with the pouring of basting butter on top – usually flavoured ghee – added to the dining experience. Keeping with the Pathan style service, each sizzling platter came with a side of fruits that worked as both palate cleanser and added to the experience.
The Trend That Stayed
Sizzlers, both as a culinary concept and as a dining experience, had a graceful four-decade run. During which time it went on from becoming this novel concept to a popular pop culture trend to even a dining experience that most people would dress up for. Then in the 2000, it slowed down. But unlike its brethren, fusion food, which, says Chef Tejwani, “played a significant role in the popularity of Sizzler, and especially of it breaking out from the steak only mould to becoming a standard offering in most pan Asian restaurant and even moved into home kitchens, sizzlers never really went out of fashion. And the reason for this was its immense functionality and the way it nudges one to creatively rethink plating.”
Let’s start with functionality first, says Chef Tejwani, “unlike any other theatrics that has come to the fore, sizzlers could hold on to their own fireworks quite with ease. The smoke remained a good 10 minutes on the table, crucial moments when a diner is making his/her mind whether they like a dish and what is exactly they like it. It also conforms the concept of having food at a certain temperature that makes the dish delicious – and is a diktat for most Asian meals. And the most fascinating aspect, it allows the dish to finish itself. So you can place a slice of pineapple on the cast iron plate and by the time it reaches the table it would be just the right char to add to the palate play.”
The latter in fact, he continues, “was one of the reasons that CCD in later years introduced to great popularity, its sizzling brownie. And can explain why the 60s trend makes an appearance once a while on the table as well, especially those that are curated.”
Why it isn’t a happening occurrence today has a lot to do with its offside, says Khan. “Creating a sizzler has its own challenges and one of the biggest is not only the handling of the cast iron plate that needs 15-minute-warm up on the burner. Then comes the plating, which cannot be just about changing plates. To turn any old favourite into a sizzler needs a rethink as on the hot plate it would cook, and there is little you can do to stop cook any of the food while the hot plate is hot.”
This meant an extra set of prep work than what is needed for the dish otherwise and a rethink of the usage of the sauce which often determines the deliciousness of a sizzler, says culinary explorer Chef Nimish Bhatia Of Nimisserie Bespoke, who finds sizzler one of the fascinating modes that will see a revival in the Modern Indian food space. And while that extra work along with the handling and the smoke could have attributed to the fall back sizzler experienced in their later years, continues Chef Bhatia, “the charm or nostalgia that a hissing plate of food brings forth continued to fascinate the chefs, most of whom found it an amazing mode to experiment.”
Think of it this way, says Chef Bhatia, “here is a plate that can finish a lot of elements of the dish while being carried to the dinner, can implement the flambee experience with relative ease and effectiveness, and is a fantastic way to introduce the idea of new food pairing as well creating composite meal that can change the way diners experience food. After all, it did introduce the idea of Shashlik, which for some time was a straight out of the tandoor kebab.”
Could that mean a resurgence of the good old favourite?
As the high riding trend, says the experts, “may be not. But as a vehicle that can endorse new flavours and food pairing, without a smidgen of sizzling doubt.”