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Book Review: Bhagwaan Ke Pakwaan

Book Review: Bhagwaan Ke Pakwaan
A cover of Bhagwaan Ke Pakwaan,
03 Min Read

A bouncy and quirky narrative brings flavour and history to the food of communities inhabiting the various corners of India

Anjana Basu
May 13 , 2019

This is a cookbook guaranteed to make an impact in the world of Indian cuisine where a plethora of cookbooks jostle for attention. Two millennials got together to make a statement and found it in the food of the gods. Bhagwaan Ke Pakwaan—named because Varud Gupta felt that Hindi was catchier than English—deals with the prayagraj of food made for the gods and daily life. Gupta and photographer Devang Singh have sussed out minority communities across the country—though many would wonder whether Jagannath is really a minority.

There is a format that the authors have adhered to—a quick description of the place, a decoder of life and language, and a checklist of the types of food that makes the place. Tracing the Karbi tribe of Meghalaya with their rice beer bellies to the vanishing Jewish community of Kolkata, the Parsis of Udvada, Gujarat, Jagannath’s followers and a Gompa in Spiti, this format is followed. If you take the millennias into account, the narrative is bouncy and definitely quirky with references to dough balls the size of Ferrero Rocher chocolates evoking things that only a certain type of would-be cook or book-flipper would be familiar with. Jagannath’s lifestyle, incidentally, would be a good way to go in the days before social media and his fans are compared to Mickey Mouse fans though more lasting.

Trending topics, like a recipe for Cicada Chutney is thrown in because much of the protein the world eats, in the future, might be insect derived. Or the fact that black peas can be grown in Spiti and are better for the stomach, for diabetes and for the pockets of those who grow them.

Gupta and Singh have explored the spirit food cooked for Parsi funeral services and provided some of the recipes for Jagannath’s mahaprasad that they smartly managed to extract from the tight-lipped cooks. There is ample research which is delivered in the short snappy style that even readers with short attention spans would find easy to browse through. There is also a lot of trivia to be enjoyed. At the Jagannath temple for instance, the authors say, the community is fed before the god whereas the Tibetan monks feed the ghosts first. 

What is missing in the Kolkata section is Nahoums, the go-to Baghdadi Jewish confectionery. Instead, the authors refer to Saldanha Bakery which is Goan in origin. The recipes from the Jewish community are the ones reserved for festivals or elaborate dinners, though they are set apart by the fact that these dishes evolved when the community set down roots in India.

Would a classic cook find the book too gimmicky? Mostly because of the in-your-face attitude. The authors make no bones about being the millennials that they are and enjoying the way they do it. Gupta has gone through a whole wealth of professions from selling cheese in NY to turning spits in Argentina and bartending in Peru, while Singh has had life threatening altercations with elephants. This might sound too attitudinal to be true.

However, in a world where there are Hairy Bikers’ Cookbooks and Rude Food and each cookbook has to find its very own niche, Bhagwaan ke Pakwaan has found where it belongs. Singh’s photographs are equally full of attitude and lend their colour to the more exotic locations. 

Perhaps the text could be a tad less minimal in its setting. Sadly, Bhawaan ke Pakwaan is also bedeviled with proofing problems—monks ‘wonder’ round a monastery and Jagannath is carved ‘from’ a golden axe. But then after all minimalism and flaws are very 21st century things.

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