Sunday, June 26, 2011

Food .... What's Beyond The Taste?

There are habits, traditions, styles and numerous other cultural aspects that we treasure as being our own, do we know where they really came from?

I just could not help but think about this, when I, recently, re-read about the discovery of the New World, the Americas, way back in 1492.

I wondered what would have our treasured Panjabi food been without corn, or potatoes, or chilli peppers? We are so used to the makki di rotiyan and the sarson daa saag and the aloo de parathey and the rajmah and the bharey hue shimla mirch (capsicum stuffed with spicy mashed potatoes) that living our lives without them would seem unimaginable. How many of us would have realised that the basic ingredients of these rustic Panjabi flavors have their humble origins in the New World.

We call the "time pass" roasted peanuts sold in local trains or in the "roadways" buses our own! Are they really ours?

Can you imagine a masala dosa without the spicy potato filling? Or a vada-pav, sold outside every suburban railway station in Bombay, without the batata-vada and the Portuguese Pão? Or the ubiquitous Indian snack, the samosa, without its filling of mashed potatoes and peas?

The New World gave the world, bounties of potatoes, tomatoes, chilli peppers, peanuts, tapioca, chocolate, vanilla, kidney-beans and pumpkins. We have, over the last 500 or so years, concocted our cuisines around these "adopted" flavours, and we call them our own today.

I would not be biased towards the Americas - the Middle East gave us chick peas - imagine not having chholey bhaturey on the menu? The Chinese gave us tea - would you ever hear shrill cries of "chai-i-chay-ae" on railway platforms and bus termini if we did not adapt to the incoming Chinese imports? And how can you ever think of a South Indian meal without the stimulating bitter-sweet filter coffee? Now that was an adapted taste from Ethiopia, that found its way to South India through the Arabs and then the Europeans - French and British!

But then India gave the world a condiment that was worth fighting wars for - pepper. It is believed, though the thought may seem controversial to some, that the Crusades were fought to secure trade routes to India - the place where pepper originated from. Then, as years went by, the desperation of the Europeans for pepper, led the Spaniards to venture westwards in the quest for spice - they ended up discovering the New World, that ultimately gave all these foods that we relish today! Legend has it that Columbus and his followers to the Americas christened the native American chillies as "peppers" in desperation!

That was all because of India! I thump my chest as I say this!

Our contribution the world goes beyond pepper. We gave the world the aromatic basmati rice, turmeric, and possibly saffron(?).

The role of religion in food cannot be discounted at all. Venison, or deer meat, which was a part of the popular cuisine in ancient Vedic India was taken off the plates by the advent of the Ashokan missionary style of Buddhism. Pork in Indian cuisine suffered a pitiable fate with the barbaric Islamic incursions into northern India. And in purely my opinion, beef was taken off ancient Indian menus, primarily as a religious edict, to conserve nutrition. A milk-giving animal consumed as meat, would be wasteful when compared to the wealth of nutrition that one could get from it - milk, butter, ghee (clarified butter), curd and butter milk! There's no better way to enforce all this than get religion to do it!
Rationally speaking, I guess that is what kosher is all about - not mixing milk and meat products is the rational way in a nutrition-scarce desert. If I am wrong here, I would love to hear from my Jewish friends!

Indian food has evolved into a richer form, never got decimated, with the incoming flavours, over the centuries! The intercourse of food habits and ingredients is not bastardisation of food, as the adaption in India has shown. Certainly McDonaldization is not going to kill our rich culinary traditions. Neither is the Indo-Chinese brand of food popularised by the likes of Mainland China. The interplay will only make our cuisine richer.

And lets not lose sight of what we have to offer the world - we need strategic thought - say a government fund to encourage export of food chains - that would take the biryanis, chicken tikkas, chholey bhaturey, samosas, vada-pav, masala dosas into the world, with Indian brands. (I am told Ugandans have already taken to samosas and chapattis as their own cuisine!)

Adaptation of Indian food around the world would give India immense soft power!

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