Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
Food : April 30, 2000
Celebrating food: let's do an Indian
The author is a Chennai based writer and critic of art and culture.
Food evokes strong emotions. Think of Charlie Chaplin in his role as the Tramp sitting down to a dinner of boiled leather boots. The way in which he attacks the boot very correctly with his knife and fork, pulling at the laces as if they were choice strings of spaghetti, cutting at the soles as though they were the tenderest cuts of meat and then dabbing his lips with a white napkin and picking at his teeth, is a study in the enjoyment of food by a hungry man.
Food is a celebration of plenty. Its opposite is hunger. The marvels of science and technology seemed to banish the spectre of famine in the 20th Century. Yet an organisation that calls itself the "Bread for the world institute" reported in Washington recently, "The number of people killed by hunger and poor sanitation during the last 50 years was three times those killed in all the wars in the entire 20th Century." The report also mentions that there are some 791 million hungry people in the developing world, 28.9 million being in South Asia alone.
We rarely think about it, but just as powerful as the images of a pot bellied god of plenty tucking into his favourite food, there are some equally striking examples of hunger. The Buddha for instance is shown as a gaunt and emaciated person, his ribs sticking out as he undertakes various austerities. He is always the Buddha of course, even while starving. Yet, these images linger. We see them in the figures of a sculptor like Ramkinker Baij, documenting the Bengal famine; we see them in the photographic evidence that comes in whenever there is a drought, a devastating cyclone, or war; we see them in the frail figure of Gandhiji "fasting unto death" on the long road to freedom.
Food is power. Whether it is in the form of the serpent of Paradise holding out the apple of Knowledge to Eve who persuades Adam to take a bite, or whether it is in the shape of the Pomegranate seeds that appear in the Greek legend of Persephone, or as the potent Amrit in the hands of the divine Mohini, who makes sure that only the Devas get a share, while the Asuras, who have worked for it just as hard, are deprived of the elixir that has been churned up from the Milky Ocean, the suggestion of this power is ambiguous. In the magical universe of the primitive imagination, the images of food have always been associated with the Earth, with the cult of the woman goddess, with fertility and a close association with the once all powerful forces of Light and Darkness and Wind and Water, that we call Nature.
In the bread market of ancient Athens we are told, it is the women who sat at the wayside with their baskets of choice breads. From the earliest times, Athens was so famous for its wheat that there were 72 different kinds of bread mixed with honey, milk, cheese, wine and every variety of herbs and spices that they could grow or import from the East. These women were sharp tongued. "Woe betide those who came late, or whose evil genius led them to find fault with either the quantity, or quality, or price of the goods. It is a running fire of puns and crude picturesque expressions which nothing can resist" observes a commentator.
The scene is no different at any of the fish markets of Mumbai even today. Once the men bring in the catch, the Koli fisherwomen, each one of them beautifully dressed, with elaborate face ornaments and tightly combed hair-styles, sit and harangue their customers with wit and fire. Perhaps they are the prototypes of the modern day hostess, whether in a "Star" restaurant, or in the air, those exquisitely groomed beauties, who are supposed to hover over their customers, urging them to eat. These days, they not only offer a choice of "veg or non-veg" but go on to recite a litany that suggests how health conscious our consumer society has made us, "For those with dietary restrictions, we also have special meals with no salt, no sugar, no fat" in short, no taste, no fun.
The curious thing is, that though hunger stares at us through the gates of an uncaring society and holds up its begging bowl from the pavements, it is gluttony that makes the world go round. The Romans dominated the ancient world but were ready to barter Rome for a few pounds of pepper from the coast of Malabar. They refined the art of eating to what became the most-celebrated orgies of dining in the history of food. The tables on which they ate were made of painted and inlaid aromatic woods, some of it veined to look like a peacock's tail. Indeed the peacock's tail itself served an important function. When the great masters of gluttony, such as the Emperor Claudius, or Galba sat down, or rather reclined on cushions to gloat upon the veritable mountains of meat and fish that had been prepared, they would tickle their throats with the feather, when they were too full, and with the aid of a little warm water induce a fit of vomiting that would clear their stomachs for the next round. Their dining areas were called "Vomitariums." When inviting the Emperor for dinner, the host would encircle the Sea itself and harvest it of its bounty so as to present a decent feast, or hunt down the rarest birds, from the nearby woods, starlings, ortolans, thrushes and quails, just to mention a few of these bite sized morsels that would be stuffed and roasted and baked in large pastry shells to pamper the royal taste.
Royalty reserves the right to extravagance. In the glory days of the former Shah of Iran, a rare type of caviar, golden caviar from the female sturgeons swimming in the Capsian Sea, was reserved for the royal palate. While at a banquet to celebrate two thousand years of the Iranian monarchy, the Shah made his costliest public relations blunder by serving peacock meat as a delicacy to mark what was to be his failing grip on the peacock throne.
But for the demand for the spices of the Orient, the famous seafarers of the 15th and 16th Centuries might never have left the shores of Europe, to discover the New World, like Christopher Columbus, or the old one like Vasco da Gama. The court of the Moghul Emperors at Agra had excited the imagination of every traveller from Europe. They spoke of the markets of the East as a movable feast of delicacies, from different parts of the known world. The Moghuls had borrowed their culinary refinements from the Persians, whose style they imitated in the finely chased silver and gold enamelled plates, their iced sorbets, their delicately spiced dishes, with rice and meats melded together in fragrant combinations, that might make use of the apricots, the saffron, the pomegranate and rose petal from the snowy regions of the North, to the more attractive native fruits and spices of their adopted country. Even a sceptic like Babur, who found little to commend about his new kingdom in his diary, could not help but hail the Indian Mango as "The Beauty of the garden, the finest fruit of Hindustan."
India's long coastline ensured that there have been many culinary exchanges between the Arabs, the Chinese and some scholars say, even from civilizations that are even further away. Nobody knows when the maize plant, a native of South America, was introduced to India, nor when the first coconuts arrived. Long before the Portuguese came to India, bringing with them the fruit and vegetable wealth of the America, introducing us to tomatoes, potatoes, papayas, guavas, chikoos, cashew, cocoa, and the most piquant item of all, the chilli, the country had absorbed the tradition of tea drinking from the Chinese, coffee from the Arabs and of choice Shiraz wines from connoisseurs like the Emperor Jehangir, though in theory the Moghuls were supposed to be abstemious.
The British adapted and adopted their own tastes with those of the country, the Kedgeree, a strange mix of boiled fish that is served at breakfast, being their version of the Indian khichri, while the five ingredients that went into the warmed Indian wine drink, became the famous Christmas Punch. The early British colonists at Calcutta were also great gluttons. With nothing much to occupy them, they spent their days in devising great feasts at the table, indulging in such diversions as throwing pieces of bread at each other during dinner. It was no surprise that not many of them survived the regimen beyond the age of thirty.
"Let's do an Indian!" is the cry that echoes through even the smallest village in the U.K. today, as the empire has silently crept back, taking with its immigrants from Bangladesh and Punjab, all the culinary secrets that were reserved for their former colonial masters. Whereas at one time, "Tandoori" and "Vindaloo" signified the cuisine of the sub-continent, the demand for newer and newer taste sensations to feed a public that hankers for what some writers refer to as "gastro porn" has led to Indian food being regarded as the "S&M" of the culinary experience - Spice and Moksha cuisine - the release being regarded as a change from the everyday diet of cereal and toast. Not only are there an increasing number of spas, that offer herbal enemas, along with a "Sattvic" diet, at what seems like astronomical rates, restaurants now offer regional cuisines that would come as a surprise to the average Indian. Who for instance could have predicted that a cuisine based on the humble steel bucket, or "Balti" in which it is served, could be elevated to a cult status?
Manoj K. Jain
As though to keep up with this trend for less is more, our own culinary pundits are packaging little known food traditions from the more remote areas of the country and promoting them as major "cuisines". Of these, the fashion for Chettinad cuisine is perhaps the most notable. What was once the humble pepper fry chicken, or dry ginger-chilli-garlic mutton fry, served at what used to be known in the South, as the military hotels, or the biryanis, the idiappams or string hoppers, hoppers, or appams with stew, that was served in every home, have now been designated as coming from a tiny fragment of the Tamil Nadu countryside, that describes itself as Chettinad and anointed as Chettinad cuisine.
The poorer areas which for centuries have made do with the dry legumes of the thorny Acacia bushes, and frugal methods of the local housewife, as the Ker-sangri, Dhall-batti traditions of Western Rajasthan testify, or the wild pork dishes of the Coorgs, or the fish eating habits of the Malwani, or the Konkans might show, are now being presented as "Cuisines" in their own right. Whenever the palates of the rich become jaded they tend to go back and eat with the peasants. They re-discover their roots, talk of the joys of going ethnic, with mud-plates, disposable terracotta cups, banana leaf circles stamped out from machines to fit their silver salvers and trumpet the benefit of neer-more and jeera pani. The peasant foods then go up-market, are transformed into highly priced items on the five-star circuit, lovingly described by "experts" on the regional cuisine trail and finally end up as processed foods, to be re-constituted with water, milk, or curds. The peasant learns to eat bread and noodles. Even the most remote towns in the South now boast of at least one hotel that offers, "Chettinad-Continental-Chinese" and another that promises "Guru Nanak's Punjabi Dhaba," under a sign board that offers chilled fizzy drinks of two famous multi-national brands who are slogging it out from the billboards and painted walls all through the country. Thanks to them, it is also possible to buy chilled water in sealed plastic bottles in every town and hamlet.
In the brave new world of multiple choices and market driven diversity, maybe a day will come and when we too will look into the freezer and exclaim, "Oh, let's go out and do an Indian today!"
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