Politics and revolutions, my father used to say, usually after a satisfying homecooked meal, are the offspring of the ageless human struggle over food. Civilisations and cities thrive when there’s a surplus of food to sustain a consuming class of royalty, warriors and priests; and they also get uprooted because of revolutions triggered by food deprivation.
Traditional food writing and celebrity-driven television series have for long been singularly focused on the more cultural aspects of food, especially fine food, but, mirroring the rise of the voiceless ‘subaltern’ in historiography, and the growing influence of inter-disciplinary studies, food writers are now increasingly looking beyond chefs and restaurants for inspiration for their stories. Food writing, as Ravindra Khare established a long time ago, has got to simmer in the melting pot of agronomy, anthropology, archaeology, economics, historiography, politics, psychology, religious studies and sociology. There’s no one-dimensional way of looking at it.
It is this holistic approach that makes Shylashri Shankar’s Turmeric Nation: A Passage Through India’s Tastes (Speaking Tiger; Rs 499) not only a pleasure to read, but also a declaration that there are a myriad ways of studying the food culture of a nation. For starters, the most important question to ask in the contemporary context is: Does food have a religion?
Shankar reminds us that the majority of Hindus are non-vegetarian, as reported by a national survey conducted by The Hindu and CNN-IBN back in 2006, and that the per capita consumption of meat and fish has risen from 1 kg in 2004 to 2.5 kg in 2014, and is expected to almost double by 2023. With the same clarity, Shankar approaches contentious issues such as the evolution of the Gau Raksha Movement and the myths associated with beef eating in India—quoting 2011 data from the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO), she points out that 13.5 million Hindus (70-80 per cent of whom were Dalits) said they had eaten beef in the month preceding the survey, whereas among Muslims, the percentage was only 42 per cent.
Beef consumption, clearly, is not the prerogative of the followers of a particular religion. Chroniclers of India’s food culture must therefore take a more rounded, and less political, view of their subject, which embodies the luxuriant diversity of their country.
It is this diversity that is brought alive in Shankar’s book as it moves seamlessly from the Buddha’s ‘last supper’ to an analysis of a Dalit wedding feast centred around pork, to the as-yet unexplored world of Indian cookbooks, to what each family stores in its refrigerator, and many, many more intriguing facets of what we eat and how we do so.
The section on cookbooks has the delicious story, based on a memory shared by Rukmini Srinivas in her book Tiffin, of the author R.K. Narayan mistaking the pepperoni in a pizza for tomatoes on a visit to Berkeley and after realising his mistake, asking for a ‘cleansing meal’ rice and yoghurt from Srinivas, who’s also the wife of the famous sociologist M.N. Srinivas. Titbits like this one abound in the book, which doesn’t let you off its pages for a moment.
A book of this intellectual breadth and inter-disciplinary depth could have come only from an inveterate scholar such as Shankar, who’s a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, whose published work spans subjects as diverse as judicial activism, ethnic conflict and political impact of anti-poverty programmes. She has created a new genre of food writing in India.
The Bong Mom turns novelist
From Joanne Harris’s lusciously layered Chocolate to Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s The Mistress of Spices, which seamlessly moves from a magical world to thegritty underbelly of the Indian immigrant experience in America, to poet-nuclear radiologist Amit Majmudar’s The Abundance,the emotions stirred up by food have enriched the narrative of many a work of fiction that stay on forever in the D Drive of our memory.
The next in the queue is Sandeepa Mukherjee Datta’s Those Delicious Letters (HarperCollins; Rs 299). In the world of food bloggers, Mukherjee Datta, a New Jersey-based electronics engineer, is regarded as a pioneer, better known by her nom de plume, The Bong Mom, whose recipes and stories woven around food have been devoured since 2006 by her many followers around the world. In Those Delicious Letters, the recipesprovide the backdrop of hope to the US-based, just-turned-40, mother-of-three Shubha (Shubhalaxmi Sen-Gupta), whose marriage with Sameer seems to be collapsing—at least in her imagination.
Out of the blue, she starts getting an aerogramme (remember those letters we used to receive from home when we were students in America) each month from a elderly relative who identifies herself as Didan and sends her two seasonal recipes per letter. Yes, Didan has a postal address, Panchanantala Lane, Baranagar, Kolkata, but Shubha just can’t figure out who she is.
The mystery about Didan’s identity doesn’t stop Shubha from replicating the recipes that Didan keeps feeding her—from hinger kochuri (kachoris redolent of hing—asafoetida) to aloor dom (the Bengali dum aloo), potoler dolma (pointed gourd dolma— an Armenian contribution to Bengali cuisine—stuffed with either mutton or paneer mince) and mochaar ghanta (a vegetarian preparation made with banana flowers). Didan’s recipes stir up the pot at Shubha’s kitchen and make her quite a Facebook star among her friends.
The truly delicious part of the novel, however, comes at the end, when it gets revealed who Didan is and the effect is has on Shubha’s marriage with Sameer. In this story of unsure love, longing and redemption through food, the winner is Didan, and the many other unknown custodians of our country’s culinary culture like her. As Shubha learns, Didan’s recipes, drawn from her aging memory, have a more healing effect on her emotional wounds than the many bits of advice she keep picking up from online relationship counsellors.
With more people starting to order in food, giving a real boost to the home delivery business of restaurants, Jatin Mallick at Tres, the European fine-dining restaurant at Lodi Colony Market, has realised that ‘soul dining’ is fast replacing fine dining. “Comfort food is in, showmanship is out,” declares the chef, who’s otherwise known for his fine cuisine.
We were talking about Juju Chicken, which we discovered during Lockdown and has now become a family favourite. Juju is what Mallick’s business partner, and acclaimed chef, Julia Carmen Dsa, is fondly called back home in Goa. The distinctive taste of the chicken—all thigh pieces— comes from Julia’s home-made spice mix. The thigh pieces are kept in a brine solution overnight, marinated in the spice mix for six hours, cooked gently using the sous vide technique in a hot water bath for a couple of hours, and then grilled in the Spanish Josper oven, which the restaurant loves to flaunt.
The elaborate process ensures the chicken remains moist and juicy for three to four hours, making it ideal for home delivery. Mallick first tasted success with the Juju Chicken at the last Palate Fest, where they sold more than 1,000 portions of it, so when Lockdown presented an opportunity, he added it to his home delivery menu. And yes, to borrow from KFC’s now-former tagline, people found Juju Chicken to be finger-lickingly good.
Sourish Bhattacharyya has been writing about food and drinks for the past two decades. He is also co-editing with Colleen Taylor Sen The Companion to Indian Food for Bloomsbury, UK, which is scheduled to come out in 2022.
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Try these easy-to-make Tricolour recipes at home
As the nation celebrated its 71st Republic Day, we being to you a few specially curated recipes, inspired by the colours of the National Flag to help you celebrate the joyous occasion with your loved ones.
Chef Rajiv Das, Executive Sous Chef, Courtyard by Marriott Mumbai, shares his creative expertise that are both delightful and Instagramable.
BERRY BERRY PETITE GATEAUX
PORTION: 15 PIECES
Butter: 250 gm
Grain Sugar: 250 gm
Whole eggs: 5 nos
All-purpose flour: 250 gm
Baking powder: 5 gm
Mixed berries: 100 gm
Vanilla Essence Few drops
Sugar fondant: 400 gm
Food colour (orange and green): As required
Cream the butter at room temperature, add sugar and keep creaming. Add the whole eggs one by one and keep creaming, until mixture becomes soft and fluffy Add all the dry ingredients and fold well. Add berries and mix with a light hand. Line small square silicon mould with butter and flour and pour the mixture. Bake at 180 degree pre-heated oven for 15 mins. Check the baking and if needed, cook for 5 mins more. remove it and allow it to cool.
Divide the sugar fondant into three parts, add orange colour in one, mix well, add green colour in other and mix well and keep third part as white. Roll each sugar fondant with the help of a rolling pin. Cover each small cake nicely with the trio of fondants so it resembles the colours of the Indian flag. Decorate it with fondant flowers and leaves.
Kiwi Chunks: 8-10
Kiwi syrup: 10 ml
Cream based sparkling water: 200 ml
Orange syrup: 30 ml
Fresh mandarin slice: 1
Mint leaf: 1
Muddle kiwi chunks in the kiwi syrup and pour it at the base. Put a layer of crushed ice in the glass and add cream soda. Top it up with orange syrup. Garnish it with fresh mandarin slice and a mint leaf.
TRIO OF BAVARIAN MOUSSE
Agar-agar: 2 Sheets
White chocolate: 200 gm
Dairy cream: 100 ml
Mascarpone cheese: 150 gm
Orange juice: 60 ml
Vanilla essence: Few drops
Kiwi crush: 100 ml
Raspberry compote: 1/2 TBSP
Whipped cream: 300 gm
Bloom agar- agar in water and keep aside. To make white chocolate ganache, heat the dairy cream on low heat and add white melted chocolate. Whip the cream till soft peaks, add cold white chocolate ganache, mascarpone cheese and agar-agar. Divide the above whipped cream mixture into three parts and add reduced orange juice in one part. Add Kiwi crush in another part and keep third part as it is.
Take a presentation glass and pipe the above mixture with the help of piping bag. First pipe green kiwi mixture, then white and lastly, the orange mixture. Decorate it with raspberry compote.
INDUSTRY VETERAN CREATES NEW MARKETPLACE FOR SMART LIQUOR BRANDS
In the 10-15 minutes of free time he got before my phone call, Rahul Gagerna, co-founder and Managing Director, Boutique Spirit Brands (BSB), had already thought of 10-15 names of future products and asked one of his managers to start getting them registered. Indeed, the former Radico Khaitan top executive and alumnus of the prestigious Booth School of Business, University of Chicago, is a man who doesn’t wish to let any opportunity go by. His business, after all, is all about finding unmet needs, or cracks of unseen opportunity, in what appears to be a saturated alcoholic beverages market.
Gagerna’s hard work over the last three years seems to have paid off. His portfolio now has five brands—G ladius Blended 10YO Gold Reserve Rum (the latest) and its citrus equivalent, Gladius Limoni; Zeus XO (brandy); Jordy’s Bar (whisky); and Cliff Hangar (vodka—all sleekly packaged and targeted at the experimental younger generation “who do not wish to be limited by the choices available to their elders”. Together, the five BSB brands are commercially available in 13 states and Union Territories, and they had notched up Rs 225 crore in the last pre-Covid financial year, 2019-20.
As it moves towards its conclusion, 2020-21 doesn’t look all that gloomy. In December 2020, Gagerna informed us, his sales numbers were the same as what they had notched up in the same month a year back. Unsurprisingly, he is already planning the launch of three to four brands in the year ahead. He needs all the new names he can conjure up.
INDIA’S FIRST ONE-STOP SHOP FOR SAVOURY SNACKS TAKES OFF, AND HOW!
Ashish Nichani and Sudarsan Metla look delighted to pose with a selection of their products; Postcard’s tribute to its home city, Bengaluru.
Ashish Nichani and Sudarsan Metla laughingly insist they could be characters out of 3 Idiots—they attended engineering colleges, followed by management schools, and ended up in banks, hot in the pursuit of careers riding on money. Till the boredom of their work drove them into the warm and welcoming arms of food. It is the vertical they have been in since 2014, when they launched their online marketplace for hyper-local food products—more than 4,000 of them from 400 local producers spread across 124 locations.
Nichani and Metla’s CVs are quite similar to those of the food industry’s new leaders, such as the founders of Zomato, Swiggy, The Beer Café and Chai Point (and many others), and the reason I couldn’t wait to get to know them better was the way they have created a national marketplace for sleekly packaged savoury snacks—35 in all, including two pickles and six desserts—drawn out from the culinary banks of our cities and towns. Postcard is what Nichani and Metla call their brand, because each of their snacks is like a postcard for the city or town they represent.
It is only while digging the Bengaluru Harigalu, a spicy mix of groundnuts and pulses, I learnt that the name Bengaluru was the compound of two words—‘benda’ and ‘kalooru’, which combined together means the ‘land of groundnuts’. Or that Burhanpur, Madhya Pradesh, was to be the original site of the Taj, till it was found to be too far away from the source of the pure white marble that went into the construction of the mausoleum. Not that we are any poorer, for its peppery gathiya, an ideal match for the town’s kala jaleba (black jalebi), is more than adequate compensation.
Examples such as these abound across India, from Gujarat’s savoury and sweet Jamnagari chivda to Tamil Nadu’s Sattur Seeval from Tamil Nadu, and because Postcard insists on getting their products prepared at their places of origin, their authenticity can be guaranteed. It also justifies the claim of the company’s founders that they would expand their range to 150-170 products sooner than we would imagine.
A HEARTY WHIFF OF SINGAPORE’S STREET HAWKER CULTURE
After wowing Delhi with her haute Japanese restaurant Kampai at the Aerocity, Avantika Sinha Behl is all set to introduce the city to Singapore’s authentic street flavours.
I have often wondered why Delhi doesn’t have a decent Singaporean hawker-style restaurant, considering how many of us have been to the Hawkers Centre in the spiffy financial heart of the island city and to the seafood shacks that thrive on the East Coast Road.
Despite its remarkable story as the most successful of South-East Asia’s ‘tiger economies’, Singapore has worked very hard at preserving its multinational cultural identity, defined by its Chinese, Malay and Indian settlers, and the surprising richness and variety that lie at the core of its food culture. This tiny nation, which grew out of nothing, hasn’t let its wealth blinker its vision of its past. It is proud of it and it shows in the pride with which they talk about their Chilli Crab, Fish Head Curry and Hainanese Chicken Rice—paired without doubt with their other national favourite: Tiger beer.
If you have been missing a Singaporean restaurant with the same intensity that I do, then rest assured that your wait will be over in the coming week – and deliciously so – with the opening of Mai Bao at the glittering new DLF Avenue, Saket, which will also see the Yum Yum Cha founder, Varun Tuli, launch his new potpot.in and TBSP. restaurants, flanked by the city’s Singaporean newbie and The Big Chill.
Avantika Sinha Behl, a NIFT graduate who studied luxury brand management in London (her Master’s thesis about India’s luxury hotels is still quoted with respect at her alma mater!), got seriously interested in restaurants after her marriage. Her husband, Pranay Bahl, who heads Embassy Catering, is from the Ghei family, which has the distinction of launching a slew of popular restaurants in India, starting with Kwality (in association with the legendary Pishori Lal Lamba) and The Embassy in Connaught Place. Avantika made her debut with Kampai, a contemporary Japanese restaurant with a seriously traditional menu targeted primarily at the Japanese expat community working out of the Aerocity.
She exceeded expectations with her eye for detail and her steadfast refusal to flirt with the local palate. Kampai was instantly rated as Delhi-NCR’s No. 1 Japanese fine-dining restaurant. And it has acquired a sizeable Indian following, which has helped Avantika weather the sudden desertion of the city by the Japanese community because of Covid-19 fears. “They have more than made up for the loss of my Japanese clientele,” Avantika said, assuring me that the restaurant business seems to have finally shaken off the ill-effects of the pandemic and gotten back on its feet.
It was more than a year ago that Avantika announced she was opening a Singaporean restaurant. Then came the lockdown and those long months of despair when “I was ready to just lock up and stay at home”. To get over the depression, she attended an online course on vegan baking and it did have its desired positive effect.
Avantika went back to the drawing board of her new restaurant, visited Singapore thrice and checked out all its regional delicacies in their infinite variety, roped in a Singaporean chef to smoothen out the rough edges in the menu developed by Nitin Bharadwaj, a brilliant Japanese chef (ex-Sakura and Guppy by ai) who presides over Kampai, and has now also got seriously interested in Singaporean cuisine. Its name Mai Bao, by the way, like many famous restaurant names, means nothing—although I can assure you that you’ll fall instantly in love with the restaurant’s baos.
Singapore couldn’t have asked for a better representative of its food culture than Mai Bao. Unlike Kampai, which celebrates fine dining, it is all about smart casual dining. I visualise it becoming the next big hangout for trendy young people washing down their Ayam Goreng, Satay, Rendang (served with the must-have blue pea rice) and Laksa with buckets of beer. It may not be impossible for it to even spread its wings to Singapore. Now, that would be its crowning moment!
SANKRANTI: ONE COUNTRY, MANY CULINARY CULTURES
Sankranti, Pongal, Lohri, Uttarayan, Bihu… one country, many cultures. We see different regions coming together to mark the beginning of a new harvest season and the end of the winter season. People express gratitude to the Sun God and thank nature for its abundant resources. What makes the occasion even more special is the wide-ranging recipes for the occasion, making Sankranti truly a festival that unites us all.
STRAWBERRY PATISHAPTA BY SONALI CHATTERJEE OF PAANCH PHORON
Ingredients for the crêpes:
• 70 gm Maida
• 10 gm Sooji
• 20 gm Rice flour
• 150 ml Strawberry crushed and strained juice
• 100 ml Milk
• A pinch of salt
*For the Filling*
• 1 cup Freshly grated coconut
• 1 cup Full cream milk
• 1 cup Unsweetened khoya
• ¾ cup Sugar – 3/4 cup
• Some liquid date palm jaggery (jhola gur)
1. Mix the maida, rice flour and sooji. Add salt, fresh strawberry juice and milk to make a batter and leave it aside.
2. Meanwhile, make the filling by first heating the milk. Pour the grated coconut and the sugar. Stir, taking care it doesn’t stick to the bottom. Add the khoya at this point.
3. Now, take a non-stick pan pour some oil and make crepes by pouring the batter with a ladle and moving it in circle. Ones its cooked, take it off the burner and place it on a plate, place a spoon full of the filling on one side of the crêpe and roll it.
4. Drizzle some jhola gur just before serving.
GEHU KHICHDA BY ABHILASHA JAIN OF MARWADI KAHANA
• 2 cups whole wheat
• 1 litre full cream milk
• 2 tbsp ghee
• 1/2-3/4 cup sugar or Jaggery
• 1/2 tsp cardamom powder
• Some salt
• 7-8 strands kesar
• Cashews, pistachios and almons
• Soak the wheat overnight, dry and then remove its husk by crushing it in hammam dasta.
• Once the husk is removed clean it and let it dry for few minutes
• Now take pressure cooker, add little water, salt and the broken wheat, take 3-4 whistle; the wheat will become soft
• Now let the milk boil and once 3/4 is left add the cooked wheat in it and cook for 15-20 minutes
• Add kesar and dry fruit; serve with garam garam ghee on it!
UNDHIYU BY SHAILEE SHAH
Undhiyu is a traditional Gujrati dish made for Sankranti. It is a tedious procedure, but the result is smashing.
Ingredients needed for making Methi Muthiyas:
• 2 cups chopped fenugreek leaves
• 1 cup chopped coriander leaves
• ½ cup wheat flour
• ½ cup besan
• 2 tsp ginger-garlic paste
• 3 tbsp sugar
• 1 tsp chilli powder
• A pinch of soda
• 3 tbsp oil
• Salt to taste
• Oil for deep frying
1. In a bowl mix all the ingredients to make a dough
3. Make oval shaped balls and deep fry the muthiyas.
• Peel and cut into pieces: 1 cup each of potatoes, raw bananas and purple yam (Kand); and ¾ cup of yam (Suran)
• 1 ½ cup surati papdi (Indian flat bean), stringed and cut into halves
• ½ cup fresh tuvar dana
• ½ cup hara chana
• 1 tsp carom seeds
1. Boil potatoes, banana, purple yam and suran
2. Now deep fry or shallow fry it. Sprinkle salt and keep aside.
3. Pressure cook Tuvar dana, hara chana and Surati papadi with salt and carom seeds. Keep aside.
• 11-12 small Brinjal
• 1 tbsp fresh shredded coconut
• 1 tsp red chilli powder
• 1 tbsp coriander powder
• 1 tbsp besan
• 1 tsp turmeric powder
• 1 tbsp sugar
• 1 tsp lemon juice
• Salt to taste
1. Mix all the ingredients, except Brinjal, in a bowl.
2. Cut the Brinjal and cut it in a criss-cross pattern (4 slits) keeping the stem.
3. Stuff the brinjal with stuffing masala, drizzle some oil and microwave it for 7-8 min on 800W.
• 3 tbsp oil
• 2 tsp asafoetida
• 1 tsp carom seeds
• 4-5 tomatoes puree
• 3 tbsp Undhiya masala powder
• 1 tbsp sugar
1. Heat oil in pan and add carom seeds and asafoetida.
2. Add Tovar dana, hara chana, along with surti papadi, stuffed Brinjal, yam, potatoes, banana, and purple yam.
4. Add the remaining stuffing masala, tomato puree and mix well. Let it cook for 5 min.
5. Now add Undhiya masala, salt, sugar and fried muthiya.
6. Let it all cook for 5-6 minutes.
7. Garnish with lots of coriander leaves and coconut.
INTO THE ALIMENTARY TRACT OF MUSLIM SOUTH ASIA
Food is a defining part of our lives and a marker of our identities. We figured this out from our edible obsessions during the pandemic of lockdowns. An anthology of food writing from Muslim South Asia underscores this reality.
It took a pandemic to make humankind rediscover its umbilical affection for food. (Now that Rutger Bregman has elevated the collective noun ‘humankind’, I am delighted to reclaim it after its long exile on the charge of being a symbol of excessive political correctness!) Faced with an extended, exhausting spell of enforced unsociability, our social genes sought out their survival in the kitchen.
Almost as if on a cue, food became the new driver of conversation on social media, that ultimate purveyor of our civilisational concerns. Its channels were spilling over, like a Chinese banquet, with food memories, images and recipes. It was as if all of us on a cue were overcome by the need to communicate with one another through the medium of food. Social distancing didn’t allow us to share tables, so we turned to social media to share the day-to-day bounties of our tables. And those of us with children realised how easily—and diabolically!—the joys of spending quality time with children can translate into spending longer hours in the kitchen!
Talking about online food stardom, I will not forget easily how Dalgona Coffee, which is nothing but the whipped up ‘shaadiwallah’ coffee we all know too well, acquired a trumped-up social cachet during our own lockdown. It was impossible to miss the coffee whenever you logged on to Facebook or Instagram. Everyone—and her aunt—seemed to be making Dalgona Coffee!
Such stars kept being born and reborn day after day. One of them, as Emily Laurence wrote in Good Food, was banana bread. Sharing its recipe became a “transnational craze”, a behaviour that we may consider irrational in ‘normal’ times. As Claire Chambers, Professor of Global Literature at the University of York, U.K., and editor of Desi Delicacies, writes in her introduction to this volume of ‘Food Writing from Muslim South Asia’, “Food is not only for nutrition but also for comfort. With more leisure time yawning in front of us, many people turned to baking to quieten their nerves, quieten their nerves, and fill their bellies.”
The timing of Desi Delicacies, a heart-warming quilt of fact and fiction, could not have been more appropriate. Never before has the world been more hungry for stories woven around food. With the pandemic and political disruption dominating headlines, food offers a delicious, if momentary, escape from reality.
Momentary, because the pandemic brought joblessness and hunger in its wake, and the restaurant sector has been the worst hit, seeing its business plummet, revive briefly, before being locked down in vast swaths of Europe and America. The people employed in the food supply chain and delivery businesses, meanwhile, are the “unsung heroes”, as Chambers describes them, who get food to stores and to our homes daily without fail, although they rank next only to frontline hospital workers in the pecking order of exposure to infection.
My extended discussion on the pandemic contextualises the genesis of this cogently structured volume. It owes its birth to the culinary creativity spurred by the extended period of collective isolation. My only regret is that it does not capture the diversity of the Muslim experience in India, although Rana Safvi does a magisterial job of rescuing ‘Mughlai’ cuisine from the popular notion, thanks to the rise of post-Partition Punjabi restaurants, that it’s all about dunking in tomato puree and dairy cream. And of course, powdered spices are a no-no.
Pinpointing the differences in the ways of cooking the two signature ‘Mughlai’ gravy dishes—the qorma, which entered the Indian Muslim diet only in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and the lighter qaliya—Safvi says tomatoes, turmeric and coriander (the latter two are best for each other) are never used in a qorma, which gets its flavour profile from the effort that goes into braising the finely chopped onions in ghee or oil with yoghurt and whole spices. In a qaliya, finely chopped onions get replaced by onion paste, which is cooked with turmeric to form the base masala for the gravy.
Befittingly, Safvi concludes her essay with an observation that Lucknow’s much-quoted chronicler Abdul Halim Sharar (1860-1925) made more than a century ago in his ageless classic, Guzishtha Lucknow, “The most important activity in human life is eating. As any nation or community progresses, its diet is the most salient guide to it.”
Tabish Khair, an Indian scholar teaching in Norway, starts his essay with anthropologist and cultural theorist Mary Douglas’s contention that food, whether it can be eaten or not in a particular social context, is a primary marker of identity. In the Muslim marriages he attended growing up in his small town, Douglas’s correlation of food with identity was evident in the separate kitchens and dining areas—one that prepared the food for the primarily non-vegetarian Muslim guests and the other devoted entirely to the service of the vegetarian Hindus. “The ‘syncretism’ or pluralist nature of weddings in my immediate family was fraught by sometimes indelible lines of difference,” comments Khair.
And then there are the invisible guests—members of the mainly Valmiki Dalit caste known by their pejorative collective name, Churha, who show up after dinner to forage for still-edible leftovers (the jootha, colloquially also known as joothan, which can be translated as ‘polluted’ or contaminated). They show up in Omprakash Valmiki’s Joothan, published in 1997, and then translated into English in 2003, with the sub-title ‘A Dalit’s Life’.
In a particularly moving passage quoted by Khair, Valmiki wrote: “The little pieces of pooris, bits of sweetmeats, and a little bit of vegetables were enough to make them happy. The joothan was eaten with a lot of relish… Poor things, they had never enjoyed a wedding feast. So, they licked it all up. During the marriage season, our elders narrated in thrilled voices, stories of baratis who had left several months of joothan.”
The left-outs got the leftovers, which became their marker of identity. The notion runs counter to the hypothesis floated by Robertson Smith, one of the founding fathers of anthropology, and quoted by Khair. “Those who sit at meal together are united for all social effects, those who do not eat together are aliens to one another, without fellowship in religion and without reciprocal social duties,” Smith had theorised. Khair counters this logic with the stark reality of jootha. “But what of jootha,” he asks, “where one had fellowship in religion but did not sit at meal together, yet partook in an eating that was intimate and at the same time removed?”
Cultural nuggets are scattered all across the book. In Pakistan, as we learn from the Karachi-based journalist Sanam Maher, the expression ‘burger boy’ is used to disparage anyone who has had an entitled childhood, an easy passage into adulthood, and stays detached from what is going on in the country. It is their equivalent of ‘pappu’, which Imran Khan carried ignominiously on his shoulders till he became prime minister.
“It’s the first time that the burger group will come out to vote,” joked a local politician, Shaikh Rasheed Ahmad, during the 2013 general election, which saw Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf emerge from the sidelines to become his country’s No. 2 political formation. “They are going to join the chapati and saalan folk. They might need to carry their laptops on their heads to protect them from the sun,” the Shaikh had said.
As we live in the time of preponderant death, thanks to the omnipresence of the Corona virus (before I complete this review article, the global death toll will touch two million), I must mention the occasions when a feast follows a funeral in the book. “Feasts honouring the dead no doubt fulfil multiple purposes,” writes Bangladeshi poet and scholar Kaiser Haq. “It is hoped that prayers from well-fed mourners will carry more weight. Sharing a meal is also a life-affirming act and cements social bonds.”
Haq’s memories of the biryani served at her grandmother’s chehlum, the end of the 40-day mourning period, prefaces her reminiscences of the feasting that follows Ramadan fasting in Old Dhaka, and of Chittagong’s tradition of mezbaani in that holy period (she uses the opportunity also to chuckle at the love that the denizens of this port town have for red chillies.)
Tarana Husain Khan, likewise, uses the fortieth-day feast as the backdrop for her fictional ode to Rampur’s Taar Gosht and Khamiri Roti. Describing the scene after the return of the men from the burial, Khan writes, “The cooking pots filled with curry were brought into the courtyard, and the women got back to the business of living, laying out food. The aroma of taar curry and baking rotis enveloped them. Holy texts and prayer beads were put away, the chatter became louder, and life pulled everyone back into the fold. Death receded.”
Here’s a smorgasbord of the sub-continental culinary tales that will prove to be invaluable to our understanding of why what we eat defines who we are. One may be tempted to ask if there’s any homogeneous demographic or psychographic entity that qualifies to be called Muslim South Asia because of the ethnic distinctions that sets one Muslim apart from another, in the same way as no two Hindus are alike in the sub-continental melting pot.
This absence of homogeneity dredges up so many possibilities. A second volume could be a great starter, taking us on a gustatory tour of the many kitchens waiting to be explored in our corner of the world, from Baltistan to Jaffna, from Ahmedabad to Sylhet and Chittagong.
The book, ‘Desi Delicacies: Food Writing from Muslim South Asia’ is edited by Claire Chambers (Picador India, Rs 450).The Mughal dastarkhwan (table), as shown in the spread laid out by Osama Jalai, doesn’t have any of the tomato puree- and cream-laden dishes associated with it in the popular imagination. It has evolved out of the finer influences of the Indo-Islamic culinary tradition showcased in the 15th-century cookbook of the royals, Nimatnama-i-Nasirshahi (Nasir Shah’s Book of Delights), and Humayun’s exposure to Persian haute culture when he was exiled in the court of Shah Tahmasp II.
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