The Pakoda Parallels

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No matter how distinctive our regional cuisines, we are more like each other than we know


Tyrannical vegetarians may get blood-thirsty over that, but children tutored by prejudice can be picky too. In her school bus, my five-year-old, who has yet to appreciate the word ‘discrimination’, had two of her classmates gang up: “If you are non-vegetarian, we won’t talk to you,” they prattled. Made of sterner stuff (and many chicken tikkas) than to wilt under such pressure, she shot back: “Why weren’t you born on a vegetarian planet, if you want only veg?”

Clearly, food can be hugely divisive. In school, mini rivalries can sprout up over whose dabba (lunch box) is better than yours; in college, over who takes a bathroom break when the bill for the group outing arrives; at home, over whether mom or wife cooks better and whose food finds favour with the spoilt son; in unstructured life beyond, everything from the fact that you’ve folded your banana leaf up, not down, to the fact that you eat onion and garlic in your meat and fish can mark you out as the ‘other’: you, lesser being; me, virtuous. We are what we eat, after all.

The creators of lowbrow Indian restaurant food, however maligned they may be today for having branded us the butter-chicken people for aeons to come, did one big service, however. Like the national anthem, they forged a national palate: a matrix of tomatoey, creamy dishes and tandoored offerings that we demand and get each time we decide to go ‘Indian’ in restaurants; a common cuisine that everyone else in the world recognises us by, regardless of the fact that no Indian eats or ate that food at home—even in Punjabi homes, where dal makhni is certainly no dal Bukhara.

Ironically, research into authentic Indian cuisine(s) is now striking at the very root of this homogenisation. As hotels, restaurants, chefs and consultants go out of their way to preserve and market heritage, the focus is turning once more to caste, sub-caste, religion, cultural-minority in a way that will leave the politically correct squirming. Food (ironically, correctly enough) is being defined by its caste in five-star hotels and restaurants, even as we try to do away with it (caste, not food) in the wider public sphere.

Is it vegetarian Baniya food (chaats that we had hitherto only eaten off the streets), mithais no longer made by Bengali sweet shops today and strictly heeng-zeera cooking that those hung-up on home style food dig? Or, is it Moplah food, of the boat people from God’s own country, where spices, nuts and Arab influences give you a rather richer mishmash? Is it Bunt or Mathur, or then again, Parsi? Tiny communities all, threatened by the larger forces of globalisation and mixed-up marriages. Is it Murshidabadi (as distinct from Bengali) or Anglo-Indian?

Step into any self-respecting hotel today, and you will find promotions and research focusing on all these and more. After all, we the discerning Indians now want authenticity and exclusivity. Or we think we do. And there are worse sins than peddling heritage—my food versus yours.

Alas, for all our patriotic efforts, we have never been one nation, one food, but many mini-nations with many micro cuisines. “So, how do you make your pasande?” The pasande are not mine; rather, they are flat pieces of mutton. But what the expert chatting me up wants to know is how a Kayastha-style (my community that often holds up its culture as ‘exclusive’, and cuisine as reflecting India’s syncretic, intermingled Hindu and Muslim traditions) preparation is different from a Mughal dish? The ignoramus may also want to know the difference between an Udupi-style sambhar that has travelled up north, far and wide thanks to the entrepreneurial zeal of the community, and the stricter Tam Bram version (so now you know why dosa-sambhar at your friendly neighbourhood Sagar/Udupi is different from what they serve at Saravana Bhavan). And budding gourmets may take pains to explain to their fellow men finer points such as the fact that Rajasthani food is really not a monolith. Instead, it is the disparate cuisines of the lordly Rajputs with their gamely recipes, the vegetarian Marwari traders and sundry tribes, whose sparse cuisines no one has bothered to study enough.

Food in India is a product of caste and geography. Indeed, even within the same micro region, each home has its own distinct recipes held superior, more authentic or inventive than the neighbours’, which is why perhaps it is so tough to neatly categorise and codify all our offerings in the manner of French ‘maps’, not to mention Larousse Gastronomique. Common cooking techniques can be the basis of gourmet classifications. At least, they are in the West. But if it is slow-cooked mutton that you want to label, what are you going to call it: kosha mangsho, rogan josh or the (dry) stew of Dilliwallahs? The use of spices and spice combinations are, in fact, a better basis for nomenclature. Mustard has been famously claimed by Bengalis; Malayalees will only use small, green cardamom, not the nuttier, bigger, black variety used elsewhere; UPwallahs would favour amchoor (dried mango powder); Kashmiris, fennel and dried ginger; Old Delhi denizens, their kala chaat masala, full of potent black pepper… but alas, these are just broad categories.

However, if food divides us, it also has the potential to bring us closer. We only have to be open to the smells and flavours and the fact that in India’s fertile, imaginative terrain, virtually nothing is pure, untouched, sacred or, er, ‘authentic’. Both kheer and halwa, favourite foods of many Vaishnavite divinities, are, in fact, Persian in origin. And even our humble samosa, bazaar snack of the powerful and powerless, is an innovation. Islamic extremists in Somalia may have strangely banned it—Somalis can be punished if caught cooking, buying or eating these—because they see it as too ‘Western’, but they’ve got both their history and geography wrong. The Middle Eastern sambusak travelled to various countries in the region and eastwards to India, with the Mughal emperors having famously relished all kinds of samosas—from egg and fish-filled ones to those with nuts and raisins (the Persian influence, no doubt). Potatoes, an American crop that found a home in this country of eventual aloo/batata (note the similarity with potato) lovers, must have come in as an innovative filling only later.

Tomatoes that were considered exotic garden vegetables of the English memsahibs in the 19th century have, of course, assumed a much more nationalistic character, replacing yoghurt as the souring agent in most north Indian gravies. And even on the ghats of Benares, the most ancient of cities, traditional kachoris and papdi chaats have rubbed shoulders with the ‘tamatari’—a mashy tomato chaat that old timers are today nostalgic about, overtaken as it is by more generic offerings inspired by big cities and Haldiram’s. In the world of food, as in the world, things have a tendency to go round in circles.

Amti dal travelled with Sambhaji and the Maratha warriors down south to result in sambhar, the myth goes. Avadhi biryani travelled to Calcutta with Wajid Ali Shah and his cooks. Chowmein has travelled from the 1970s’ Mumbai restaurants to mofussil eateries, vegetarian sushi has travelled from five-star coffee shops to kitty parties, and now khao suey and thin-crust chicken pizza have left the metros for the B- and C- city destinations in the country.

Like children of mixed parentage, dishes with mixed-up provenance are the most interesting. There are uncanny similarities between rice pithe of Assam, the steamed modak favoured by Ganesha in Maharashtra and the Kozhukkattai of Kerala that no one can explain, and there are other inexplicable trails too that you can stumble on, researching old and vanishing regional and community dishes.

When it rained, my naani (maternal grandmother)would make an impossibly difficult and laborious snack: patode. Colocasia leaves (that can otherwise make your throat itch) are rolled and steamed and deep fried. It used to be a traditional monsoon eat in UP and Delhi. No one really makes it any longer. But if you travel down the country, you are likely to find that this is almost the same as patrode in Mangalore and along the Konkan coast, and the aluchi vadi of Pune/Mumbai. We are more like others than we think.

(Anoothi Vishal is a food critic, now working on reviving her own Mathur-Kayastha community food)