In happier times, Kashmir used to attract a large number of tourists, and one recalls a row of crowded food stalls in the vicinity of Shalimar and Nagin Bag that used to cater to this clientele an array of delicacies—from idli-dosa to tandoori tikka. What was intriguing was, to sample local fare—gushtaba or tabak maaz—one had to scout really hard. Not so long ago, we had a similar experience down south. Small eateries in Kanyakumari advertised their mouth-watering Gujarati and Rajasthani thalis. This is what we feel reflects the ltc syndrome. Wherever you go, the tyranny of the tandoor follows and most often, the regional cuisine that is dished out is mostly inedible, under the general impression that Indians aren’t adventurous and like to stick to their own food. What has happened in the past few decades isn’t really the evolution of a pan-Indian taste; the pseudo-national menu needs scrutiny and deeper sociological analysis.
True, taboos are breaking and prohibitions and prescriptions have lost their power over the majority of young Indians, specially those living away from home in cities, but this should not blind us to the fact that there is growing interest in traditional recipes and ethnic (regional and sub-regional) foods. In this age of identity politics, how could it be otherwise? Laloo Prasad Yadav’s daughter may contribute recipes for a biriyani in an upmarket rice cookbook, but father would never lose an opportunity to flaunt his favourite chokha-litti. Doctors have tried their best to scare the daylights out of their clients, but this has not brought about any significant reduction in consumption of poori-subzi or kachori-jalebi in in the Hindi heartland and Rajasthan. Many companies, Indian and multinational, are striving to persuade us to choose healthier options for breakfast and snacking; almost all are flattering the Indian palate by imitating the time-tested indigenous stuff.
But let’s not give you the impression that the swadeshi banner is fluttering high, proclaiming a decisive victory over alien invaders. The talk that the tandoori murgh will make Kentucky Fried Chicken scram may have boosted Indian egos for a while, but as any objective person can testify, the all-American favourite has made steady inroads into our markets. The pizza toppings too have similarly stooped only to conquer in the long run. Paneer, aloo tikki bits, seekh kabab slices and curried chicken may sound delightfully desi but their treatment makes them phoren. Slowly but surely, those who frequent these fast food joints begin to forget the taste of the original dish. Collective amnesia in matters culinary can have disastrous consequences for a people. In the absence of shared benchmarks by the community, elegant recipes become a pale shadow of their classic selves. How can the counterfeit work magic?
Photograph by R.A. Chandroo
What’s heartening is that the young have started asking questions. They are insisting on value for money. Our only regret is that some are distracted by the size of the portions, while others are bought off with a little pampering of their egos. They are ‘recognised’ as they enter and encouraged to order pompously by the stewards and restaurant manager. It is hard to resist the temptation to impress fellow guests. Remember, all restaurants have to change menus periodically, not only to provide novelty and weed out slow-moving items, but also to justify an increase in prices. The names change, but it’s the same old wine turned to vinegar in new bottles.
Perhaps it needs to be emphasised that in gastronomic matters, the well-travelled and well-heeled Indian today is far more discriminating when the cuisine in question is European, Chinese, Japanese, Arab or Mediterranean. The dazzling diversity of Indian inheritance remains to be discovered. Some may have had a taste of Chettinad, Suriyani, Malvani, but for the multitude these words remain geographical indicators—a rough guide to navigate the florid, overwritten food festival menus. Another problem with food festivals is that they keep “unveiling” and showcasing the same old “gems” every time. The diners remain strangers to the delightful staples and refreshingly different common dishes. The diversity is annihilated as the cliched stars steal the show again and again.
This isn’t meant to be a nostalgic lament. However, it would render us vulnerable to the charge of being economical with truth if candour was eschewed. We are firm believers that our cuisine—for that matter of any people—can only flourish if it enjoys a respect in family kitchens. No amount of designer dining, resuscitating fusion or cutting-edge science can bring back to life something that is dead. Recipes, like our costumes and idioms, are not akin to bespoke tailoring, which can be part of the life of the elite. If the corner grocery shop stops stocking required ingredients because there are no buyers, then no life-support system can work. Our major concern is that Indians who are willing to pay the proverbial top dollar for Norwegian salmon, New Zealand lamb or imported cheeses, chocolates and wines think that they are being ripped off if a scarce ingredient used in Indian cooking—northern or southern—is involved. People may visit Khari Baoli in the capital for a lark—it is arguably the largest such market in the world—but general awareness of Indian spices and other ingredients is eroding dangerously fast.
Photograph by Dinesh Parab
There is another interesting trend that is discernible. Restless people in search of their roots are not content to identify with just a geographical region, be it Kashmir or Kerala, the coastal belt or the heartland. They wish to know, “What did grandma cook? Was it Bunt, Mappila, Suriyani, Malvani or Kathiawari, or Sambali Rohilkhandi fare?” The variety of tribal repast is just being discovered—from the Northeast to the heartland. There is greater awareness about the riches of poverty—millets and other coarse grains and plebeian vegetables. How all this will make an impact on the culinary mainstream is hard to tell.
The times, as the old song goes, are changing. The Indian foodscape can’t remain unaffected. But few can guess where the blowing winds will take us.
Pushpesh Pant, A former professor at JNU, the writer is the author of India Cook Book and Gourmet Journeys in India
Apropos Pushpesh Pant’s lead piece in your food special (The State Highway To Aoshi, Dec 26-Jan 9), Indian cuisine is an omnibus term and can never be defined accurately. Not only does the cuisine differ with the geography, it changes with caste and economic status too.
Your special year-end issue on The Aromas of India was a treat for our tastebuds (Dec 27-Jan 9). India’s cuisine is as diverse as its culture and people, but the one common factor in our varied flavours are the spices that are used. As India is scaling new global heights in technology and economy, its cuisine is not too far behind. Our cuisine is also going global like never before. Probably, we have the widest variety of food among the countries of the world.
K. Chidanand Kumar, Bangalore
Apropos The State Highway to Aoshi, the subjects that the editor of this newsmagazine chooses to concentrate on make it read like a journal not from a third world country facing rampant corruption and sundry other problems, but one from France or somewhere.
Arun Kumar, Lucknow
“I think there is only one RELIGION, one UMBRELLA, one SPORT, and one RITUAL left now which everybody follows, subscribes to, plays, and takes shelter under without any debate whatsoever i.e. FOOD - rest is ‘TIMEPASS’ and ‘PASSES OFF’”
Indian cuisine is an omnibus term and can never be accurately defined. Not only does the cuisine differ with the geography, it changes with caste and economic status too. For example the diet of a Brahmin and that of Kshatriya will be totally different. The diet of a Nawabi Muslim and that of a Muslim labourer are totally different.
For a majority of Indians, non-vegetarian food is unaffordable, as are ghee and spices like cardamom and saffron. Even milk at Rs.30 a litre is a luxury for them. They survive on coarse breads or rice gruel with a raw chilli or an onion for taste. Salt is the only "spice" they can afford to buy.
As for the upper classes who lead eclectic lifestyles, their culinary preferences are equally eclectic; Thai one day and Mexican the next. They look down with disdain on desi stuff.
It is the middle classes, especially women, who are the custodians of traditional cuisine. With women increasingly opting for tertiary education, there are genuine concerns that these culinary skills might disappear over time.
Technology undoubtedly changes lifestyles but it also offers solutions. Both my daughters have learnt to cook, not from their mother, but from the internet. With internet, they can download recipes in a flash and carry out their own culinary experiments. Internet will ensure that our culinary traditions will never die out.
The subjects that the editor of this news magazine chooses to concentrate on, makes it read like a news magazine not from a third world country facing rampant corruption and sundry other problems, but a news magazine from a country like France.
When I see the changes made to my original comment by the editor, I am reminded that India is a country where education is a complete flop. I even wonder: Are Indians uneducable?
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