In June 2001 I was on a flight along with a few dozen Afghan refugees headed for America. Clutching their identical document folders they were migrating to a new land with an uncertain future. Their looks of excitement mingled with apprehension underlined the biting irony of America magnanimously providing refuge to a few from an endless war on a benighted land and its people - a war that America had no small hand in creating and nurturing. And I couldn't help but imagine them clutching their pots and pans and heading out to open restaurants, just as Vietnamese migrants of an earlier generation did, sprinkling suburban America with family-run restaurants called Pho something-or-the-other. The one near my University served a wonderful noodle soup that gladdened the heart on dull, overcast winter afternoons. The soup was usually accompanied by lovely rolls stuffed with slivers of carrots and sprigs of cilantro whose bright colours made an exquisitely shocking colour contrast inside the translucent whiteness of the moist roll.
But then such direct culinary transplantations impelled by the imperial thrust are a modern rarity. For most of history, ideas and ingredients in food have been slowly transmitted, such exchanges meandering their way through the grand concourses of trade, historical intercourse and, significantly, colonialism. The new ingredients and cooking techniques were adapted and transformed by local needs and availability and finally assimilated into a region's cuisine. But as with everything else, the diffusion of gastronomic ideas has quickened over the centuries, primarily fueled by European colonisation of diverse lands. Consequently, many current practices are relatively modern and rarely entirely indigenous. The chillies that are now most closely identified with Indian cooking came from the so-called New World, along with a whole lot of other wonderful fruits and vegetables brought to us by not-so wonderful colonisers. But, for me, the two most striking examples of such influences are the samosa and coffee.
The samosa probably originated in Persia, at any rate we got the idea of a pyramidal deep-fried dough jacket from the Mughals. But while the Iranian variety is even today stuffed with ground meat, it took a particular form of culinary genius to substitute it with a South American tuber called the potato and make it into the quintessential Indian snack! So the next time you eat a samosa, remember that it's the result of many conquests. But I hope such an understanding will not offend those who harken to a pristine Indian tradition so much as to put them off the samosa for the rest of their lives - for there's nothing to beat a samosa with piping hot chai as a mood-enhancer, especially during a good monsoon squall. Chai is itself another instance of adaptation where milk, sugar and spices gives the tea a silken feel and richer flavour than the weaker, tepid variety drunk elsewhere with a great exhibition of ritualised formality. Incidentally, the drink is also a linguistic gift from our northern neighbours, for the synonyms chai and tea both derive from variants of Cantonese and Mandarin words that took different geographical pathways through linguistic history.
But while our samosa formed itself in the frying pan of Indian history over a leisurely span of some centuries, the assimilation of the other favourite beverage is much more dramatic. Brought into this country by Englishmen, coffee - a drink eminently suited for the cold European climes - has been taken up with gusto by the people of India's southern peninsula where winters are but mild summers. And compounding this delightful oddity is the fact that for ultra-orthodox Mylapore mamis, a frothy, steaming tumbler of morning kapi has become de riguer. Coffee is now so intimately woven into the fabric of Tamil life that it creates its own forms of traditions, sometimes bordering on a harmless form of chauvinism. And while on the theme, the foreign origins of coffee is bad enough but one can really ruin a Tamilian's breakfast by quoting the very convincing conjecture of food historian K T Achaya that the steamed idli is also an imported idea, this time from Indonesia!
As in all cultures, India has an enduring love affair with food. The amount of time and energy spent on preparing food (unfortunately almost wholly by women) and its sheer diversity is breath-taking. Perhaps the complexity and variety of food in the sub-continent is not to be matched elsewhere. While the staple diets of wheat and rice broadly separate the North and the South respectively, the local traditions point to the intimate nexus between geography and eating habits, exemplified in the preponderance of coconut in the food made along the lush, sultry coastal strip sandwiched between the Arabian Sea and the Western Ghats. Although the traditional theory alludes to categorisation of foods based on their effects -- satvic, rajasic and tamsic -- a more empirical view shows that dietary norms have evolved with some very sound rationale. In a hot, tropical land the body's ability to fight disease is predicated on an appropriate diet, hence the preponderance of spices and condiments like ginger, turmeric, pepper and the assimilation of chillies into our cooking habits. Thus curd rice is most appropriate to end a South Indian meal as it helps one wind-down after the high drama of a fiery, main dish.
Eating is an elaborate ritual in India, one that addresses itself to the need for bodily nourishment and the pleasure of all senses. Aroma, colour, texture, temperature and taste are all important in a gastronomic experience. The traditional setting also affords a rich, visual display used to stunning effect by food photographers. In a typical meal one encounters a multitude of colours -- the various shades of white (a heap of rice, pinch of salt and a scoop of dahi), the bright reds of pickles and chutnies and the many shades of yellows and browns of dals and sambhars, all set-off with spectacular effect against a green banana leaf. However the problem with browsing through such cookbooks is that the delightful images make one hungry and crave for what's on display.
In a society where food is so central to a people's cultural identity, pride in one's own cuisine is inevitable. A certain amiable competitiveness sets in that sometimes becomes insular. In India, the most acute form of this malady manifests as, what I call, 'mango chauvinism' -- where justifiable pride in the local variety transmutes into aggressive claims of its unchallenged supremacy. Such feelings are fueled by the bounty that this land is blessed with -- more than two thousand varieties of the mango in all conceivable combinations of shape, flavour, aroma, and texture. My earliest memories of my grandmother's house in the Godavari delta, are those of the storeroom full of mangoes, where we learnt the meaning of the word satiation. Eating a mango is a serious affair and deserves an independent exposition in the manner of M Krishnan the naturalist, who in a delightful essay does the favour for the humble jamun. But one certainly cannot be said to have done justice to one's mangoes until small rivulets of juice run down the arms and the chin, at least when consuming "mangoes capable of squirting in all directions", in the vivid imagery of a letter written to the biologist JBS Haldane.
But such pleasures are increasingly hard to come by. Today many indifferent, artificially-ripened varieties flood urban markets with lots of cash and no discerning taste. The past summer was an exception with good, succulent and juicy mangoes being sold dirt cheap, at least in Visakhapatnam. My conjecture is that this had to do with an exceptionally good crop coupled with the unavailability of the Arab export market due to the American invasion of Iraq, once again reinforcing the intimate if ugly connection of food with geo-politics. But to return to our theme, mangoes have obviously played an important role in Indian life and culture. To take one theme, we encounter a generous sprinkling of mango connections throughout our cultural history -- from the association of the mango bower weighed down with fruit with the fertility of women as in the wholesome carvings of Sanchi, to the evocative colour and density of mango trees in Pahari, Kangra and other styles of miniature.
Like many things Indian, our food is also highly assimilative where an unobtrusive place is found for an ingredient or an idea in the larger dietary patterns. Assimilation itself has different forms -- some are adopted in a straightforward manner (coffee), or transformed to suit local needs and availability of newer ingredients (the potato in the samosa substituting for meat) or with a mere trick of renaming with a strong, local resonance. The sitaphal might evoke associations with the consort of Ram but knowledge that the custard apple was brought into India by the Portugese from South America should put pay to any such assumptions!
It's a similar story with the import mentioned earlier, chillies. Now that they have so deeply insinuated themselves into our psyche, it is baffling to many that throughout most of history Indians had to make do without the fire of chillies. This coupled with the fact that tomatoes, potatoes, cauliflower etc. are also non-indigenous makes it quite hard to imagine what an Indian meal might have been even a few centuries ago. The other trope of Indian cuisine is the nuanced blending of spices that go towards endowing dishes with a distinct flavour. Most dishes have a single key ingredient (like mustard in certain Bengali preparations of fish) whose presence is heightened by a milder medley of a few other spices that act as a backdrop. All of this is of course lost in the mindless blends churned out today under the broad category of garam masalas where the individual notes of spices are drowned in a cacophony of muchness.
And as with many things in our confused, modern existence, changes in food culture are driven by both mindless imitation (the mushrooming of pizzerias, for example) or the simple expedient of convenience. Quality is lost in the process and spices are not the only casualty. For me, one of the most satisfying Epicurean experiences was the Bengali wedding feast -- a lavish affair where everything served between the appetiser and the dessert delights the palate and all harmonise into a mouth-watering meal. This certainly points to a refined sensibility handed down by tradition and is quite demanding on both the skills of the pundit who usually supervised the cooking and the bank balance of the host.
But the richness of the experience and the authentic Bengali touch has now given way to 'catered' banquets that serve over-spiced and greasy fare that is vaguely pan-Indian in form and very un-Indian in taste. Thus the traditional starter of begun bhaja (fleshy slices of deep-fried egg-plant made piquant by the wonderfully pungent aroma of mustard oil) is expended with and replaced by an insipid lump of mishmash called the 'bhejitebil chop'. Surely such abominations are not worthy of the innovative skills that have been part of Bengali tradition. For, lest one forgets, while today no Bengali is worth his name without his maach and mishti (fish and sweets), it is also true that rosogollas and chamchams emerged only in recent history. Bengali sweets developed around chhana (cottage-cheese) that was introduced to the region - depending on which story you believe - by the Portugese or certain Scotsmen in colonial Calcutta.
In the past millenium Indian life has been shaped in fundamental ways by the twin invasions of the Mughals and the British. The impact of these historical encounters has been well studied and their essential differences are increasingly better characterised. Coming after a series of raiders looking for loot, the Mughals finally settled down in India as its rulers. Their integration into Indian society was perhaps uneven and gradual but led to a definite synthesis of ideas, some of which were particularly profitable. I'm thinking of music and food here.
The encounter with Persians and Arabs infused a new vitality into Indian music, resulting in the sublime form of khayal. Food was similarly enriched and while the first emperor Babur pined for the pears and musk-melons of Central Asia, by the time of Akbar and Jehangir the Mughals had integrated into this land and in turn changed our food habits. Think of the myriad kababs, pulavs and biryanis fashioned out of a marriage of Mughal ideas and Indian ingredients.
The history of the British on the other hand is carved with an entirely different kitchen knife, as it were, and points to their ultimate immiscibility with Indian society. In the early days of the East India Company, the gora sahebs adopted Indian ways -- in imitation of the 'nabobs' -- which meant taking Indian wives, wearing Indian dresses and partaking of local fare. But all of this changed with the arrival of the idea of Empire and the opening of the Suez Canal. The resultant flood of imported English brides and assorted husband-hunters changed the nature of domestic life of the British in India.
With the arrival of the mem, Englishmen withdrew from social intercourse with Indians, resulting in a hardening of imperial culture. With the new need to increase their social distance, the representatives of the Empire could no longer be eating native food, and horror of horrors, with their hands! Cutlery appeared on the table and so did the most ridiculous spectacle of a formal dinner, propah-ly dressed Englishmen living out their Victorian lives in a tropical hot-house, as hilariously recounted by David Burton in The Raj At The Table.
Such absurd pretensions to 'high culture' is still to be seen with anglicized Indians clumsily wielding a knife and fork to attack a crisp dosa! But every British household had a khansama who learnt to fashion, out of local ingredients, the porridges, pies and pastries that were now required. This was also the beginning of a diffusion of English ideas into Indian diet. With the collapse of the Empire, a different sort of migration has emerged with many from the subcontinent now living in England. And in a curious manner, the favour has been returned. Today chicken tikka masala is said to be the most popular dish in ye olde England.
However, while I can certainly appreciate such exchange of wonderful goodies, it is still a mystery to me as to how so many bakeries in India turn out consistently delightful cakes and pastries using fairly primitive ovens.
No account of invention and innovation in the culture of food is complete without reference to our street-food and restaurants. Street-food has a culture of its own and comes with many local variations. Most street-food, like the chats of the North or the mirchi bajji of the South are of the sort seldom made at home and bring with them a certain tart-and-tanginess that hints at forbidden pleasures. And what street-food lacks in refinement, it certainly makes up in boldness of flavour, the savour and spice of it answering our occasional craving for over-indulgence. A recent phenomenon however is its increasing gentrification, with push-cart sellers being replaced by swank kiosks and cafes. But such a sanitised experience never measures up to the fun of standing next to a golgappa-wallah who plies half-a-dozen customers with his fare faster than they can gulp it down. The key to this mystery lies in an observation made by an astute journalist who after recounting his unsuccessful attempts to replicate the taste at home mused that "perhaps dirt is the missing ingredient".
Restaurant food, on the other hand, suffers from a strange paradox. While India has a multitude of food cultures, restaurants serve a limited spread under the rubric of Punjabi and Udipi food. This has historical reasons, to do with the fact that the earliest restaurants were set up by enterprising communities from these regions. Nonetheless it has imposed a stifling uniformity of food over most of urban India. And as in the blurring of distinctness of the performance styles of different gharanas
in Hindustani music, increasingly one can get the same indistinct fare whether one is in Delhi, Panaji or Chennai. This is a certain loss that deprives us of the delights of local fare, unless one can afford the restaurants in the rarefied reaches, well beyond most budgets. A similar forbidding price-tag means that the wave of new cafes, pizzerias, Italian and Thai Restaurants sweeping through metropolitan India are beyond the reach of most Indians.
In her evocative collection of essays, The Cooking of Music, musician and raconteur Sheila Dhar discussed the churning of ideas in contemporary Indian music -- a veritable grab-bag of much dross and a few gems. But since tradition is ever in flux and always being invented, she conjectured that we might enter a new phase of innovation. What holds for music is also true of food. With millions of households cooking everyday and perhaps thousands experimenting with new ideas, the next phase of exciting innovation using new ideas and ingredients is always around the corner. The great Indian love affair with food continues. Eat on.