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The Obsession With Micro-Cuisines Is Insular and Chauvinistic



“It’s great you are doing so much for your community,” says the well-meaning socialite and cookbook author in Mumbai, “I wish to do the same,” she adds, as I cringe internally. We are conversing over some Kayasth khana, the traditional and now disappearing food of a community of medieval scribes that I happen to have been born into and about whose syncretic culture (and cuisine) I wrote a book two years ago. To be honest, it’s a culture and lifestyle that I am quite proud of but not for the reasons people assume.

Each time I write or speak about or cook and host an evening around the cuisine, it is with an intent to highlight the fact that food really is without boundaries, as is a people’s culture. We can’t put anything in boxes and say, “This is mine, this is yours”.

Food history teaches us that nothing is exclusivist, nothing exists in isolation. For instance, the cuisine of the Kayasths is part of a larger Ganga-Jamuni composite culture where every dying dish and elusive platter shows myriads of  influences from the Mughal to the colonial, medieval to the modern, from Lucknow and Agra to Delhi and Bikaner, influences that have seeped in from everywhere across religions, castes, regions and centuries. That’s the only reason the cuisine interests me – that I am must record it for ‘my community’ does not drive my interest. That’s the only reason it should really interest anyone intellectually – beyond whatever delicious morsels they find on the table. After all, there must be more thought to food than just biting into a sublime shami kebab!

Still, the only thing the socialite takes away from dinner – where I explain all this and more – is “how much you are doing for your community”. She is not alone. Culinary chauvinism in India is on the rise even if we may be blind to it.

India’s dining culture is at its most inward-looking moment today, more than it has ever been since Partition or perhaps ever in the subcontinent’s history. A look at the way young, metropolitan, millennial India is consuming “new Indian” food within restaurants and what our top chefs are being inspired by is perhaps a fair indication of prevailing urban tastes and aspirations, to say nothing of larger sensibilities.

A lot of the new or modern Indian food, trendy in our best and most upscale restaurants today, is about a rediscovery of the “old Indian”. Apart from the recent craze for Kayasth khana in the midst of which I am firmly caught, there’s Assamese, Naga, Goan, Bihari, Oriya, Puneri, Banarsi, Uttarakhandi, Saraswat, Marwari, Sindhi, Bengai, Parsi, Anglo-Indian, Chettiyar, Moplah, Maratha, Suriani, Bohri…the list goes on.

This is not a random count at all – in the last year alone, I have sampled all these and several more. There have been dishes from small regions and communities cooked by home cooks sometimes in partnerships with restaurants, sometimes as “pop-up”meals made accessible to a larger pool of diners in cities like Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore through social media outreach, and sometimes as exclusive “experiences” marketed by start-ups and global corporates.

It’s possible to look at this emerging eating out culture as both an “Indian renaissance” – a rediscovery of traditional hyper-local cuisines, cooking methods and ingredients – or just plain navel gazing. But of that later.

India’s elite culinary cultures have always been marked by a certain adaptiveness, by how quickly cooks and chefs have historically incorporated globally diverse thoughts, techniques and ingredients into existing recipes to tweak them or marry them with spices and other local ingredients to produce dishes that have since become legendary.

The texture that a galauti kebab bears, for instance, is likely to have been influenced by the French paté technique; many of our slow cooked meat dishes like Dilli’s ishtew and Calcutta’s kosha mangsho perhaps owe their origins to the European stew; Mughal food certainly had Persian influences; the post-Partition Punjabi-influenced restaurant food was created through an import of the tandoor popular till then used only in Afghan-bordering areas and then there is Indian-Chinese, Jain-Thai and chatpata Japanese! We know all about these.

Then there are the more recent influences too on how urban, affluent India consumed. Till not too long ago, the entire genre of “modern Indian” food within restaurants could be seen as being influenced by French gastronomy – plated food, using high-end French ingredients or referencing French-Italian dishes and techniques. Dishes like burrata with chilli dressing, salmon tikka, duck-stuffed kulchas, foie gras-galauti kebab, khandavi ravioli, flambéed mishti doi and so on.

As Spanish gastronomy emerged as a new global super power, we began to see a new wave of “modern Indian” peppered with El Buli-derivative molecular gastronomy. Ghastly smokes and spheres and endless copies of molecular chaat, yoghurt spheres, chilli-cilantro “caviar”, gajar ka halwa pressed wafer-thin, charcoal imbued paneer tikka and liquid nitrogen-wrought smoking desserts fuelled an upmarket restaurant trend that has now trickled down to low brow establishments and refuses to die.

However, the difference between these and the food emerging today is that while the older lot were essentially chef-led revolutions (whether it was the highly-paid rakabdars of Lucknow or chef Gaggan Anand in Bangkok, who influenced eating fashions of the day) and thus elitist, today’s “new Indian” is more democratic.

Instead of being a restaurant creation or food patronised only by the affluent, India’s newest new Indian movement is being driven by ordinary food enthusiasts – and who isn’t one these days – aided by the power of social media.

There is no dearth of Youtube videos on how to cook the perfect Dindigul biryani painlessly, food groups discussing seasonal fruits, veggies and millets, nutritionists and historians galore dispensing Ayurvedic knowledge, and Twitter outrage on whether the rosagulla belongs to Bengal or Odisha. In short, regional and community-specific Indian food has never got so much attention as now. ‘Authenticity’ is the mantra and that is a tricky concept, at once contestable and parochial.

This trend of going back to “roots” for culinary inspiration and aspiration neatly coalesces with a similar dominant global culinary trend where top chefs are fashioning chic food from the wholesomeness of their childhood memories or celebrating local produce and traditions even as they reinvent these. Chefs like Rene Redzepi, who started off the entire “New Nordic” wave, or Massimo Bottura, who put Modena on the map, are hugely influential even in Indian restaurant kitchens.

India’s top chefs, influenced by their global peers as well as by the clear domestic demand for Indian food (the highest selling cuisine in restaurants), have then been going back to their roots and shoots, adding to this momentum for this “new Indian”.

Log on to Instagram and other social media and you will see our best chefs holding up the hyper local. Chef Manish Mehrotra of India’s top restaurant Indian Accent shows off the now-disappearing traditional monsoon sweet anarse of his home town Patna on his Instagram account. Chef Prateek Sadhu plays up his Kashmiri heritage putting “local” ingredients from 2,500 km away on his creative plates at Masque in Mumbai. Chef Thomas Zacharias cultivates a much-followed traveller persona on social media, going on road journeys through different regions of the country every few months to unearth hyper-local cooking traditions. The idea is that all of these will inspire upscale restaurant food, which has an influence on the larger food culture of the country far extending the limited number of diners that these restaurants entertain every year.

Culinary chauvinism

As our food media overflows with chatter about the “traditional” and the hyper local, are we falling prey to culinary chauvinism? It may be very well to rediscover our culinary heritage and be able to partake of Indian food beyond butter chicken. But cuisine is a marker of cultural identity. As more people seek to discover their roots through food, there’s danger that we are seeing ourselves in far narrower fashions than in the past.

“I will never write about Marwari food, because if you go beyond dal-baati, you cannot really claim something like aloo-petha as exclusive to the community,” chef Ritu Dalmia, one of India’s best-known chefs, a Marwari widely known for the brilliance of her Italian cooking, had once told me.

Dalmia was pointing to the problem of provenance. A pumpkin dish can hardly be claimed as “original” or exclusive to a particular community, even if there are some differences in how it is cooked elsewhere. Over the years, I have learnt to acknowledge this.

In a country where every home has minor variations in recipes and where cuisine changes every few hundred kilometres depending on just changes in the souring agent used in meat and fish curries or the combination of spices, the notion of culinary ownership is full of pitfalls. Yet, encouraged by and contributing to this “new Indian” rediscovery, we are engaged in asserting our uniqueness and distinction through food.

The Jodhpuri gatte are different from Jaipuri ones, says a chef to me who has grown up and worked in Rajasthan for years, and then describes the dish of besan dumplings, fried and cooked in a richer gravy in Jodhpur ostensibly, leaving me wondering how then is it really that different from the Kayasth takey paise, the big vegetarian star of the community.

My friend Lakshmi says she is rediscovering her heritage through a unique coconut dosai from her father’s taluk near Mysore. “My aunt made it – coconut is the star and it is only made in Kollegal,” she says, referring to the district known for its silk. The Bunt neer dosa blends in coconut too, but then perhaps this is different. Meanwhile, in Chennai, musician and wine and food expert Chinmaya Arjun Raja is planning to publish a cookbook on the vegetarian recipes of his town Rajapalyam, a small municipality near Madurai known to breed dogs.

Every home has minor variations in recipes. Credit: Pixabay

In fact, if we take a state as small as Tamil Nadu alone, till now only known to the rest of India for its Chettinad, Madurai or “Tam-Brahm” cuisines, there are other sub-cultures and micro regional cuisines being hotly discovered and debated – Kongu Nadu’s, for instance, is now a separate cuisine on the strength of its dry coconut marinades and dried meats, there’s the Arcot royal family’s heritage, and emerging biryani cults around Dindigul and Ambur.

Follow various food conversations and you may find foodies discussing the merits of “Sindhi paani puri” over Lucknow’s pani ke batashe, malpue made by a specific caste during “adhik mas” (an extra one month added to a year, according to the Hindu lunar calendar) as the “best ever” and other exclusive treats.

This dalliance with the new Indian and its microscopic breaking down of culinary cultures into their narrowest identities does give us more diversity on our plates, but also trains us to spotlight our dissimilarities, some of them really minute. Why not research and acknowledge other influences?

In the race to be more exotic and unique than the other, we are missing the threads that bind us: What makes Indian cuisines “Indian” despite the many differences? There’s the play on spices and the artful, subtle layering of flavours that perhaps no other culinary culture can equal. But there are also genres of dishes and ideas of dishes that have travelled from one part of the subcontinent to the other – or from another part of the world – only to express themselves somewhat differently in every region. It may be time to study these and see the whole picture.

‘New India’ cuisine is about the re-discovery of what is really old Indian and often in a parochial way.

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