Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Indian Food

With my mother visiting us, J and I are getting to eat authetic bengali food every day. When I am on my own, this is a very special treat reserved for days when I have time to cook the varied spread it takes to make a full, multi-course meal. Having lived in many other parts of India as well, I know the same is true of most regional Indian cuisine. A traditioal Indian meal is elaborate and takes a lot of work to put together. Our mothers and grandmothers took pride in following the recipes religiously and not cutting any corners. My generation and beyond often have to improvise for the sheer lack of time and resources to do things right. The results needless to say, speak for themselves.

Reading this Buddhadev Bose (an author revered by bengali literastes for his style, substance and erudition) essay on bengali gastronomy makes me wonder if there might a little more than nostalgia in what makes food from my part of the world so special. While he is on the theme of Bengali food, he also addresses the point I try to vain to make to people who question how it possible for me to be a Hindu and have no religious restrictions on my diet. When I say and I can be an omnivore if I choose to and be no less a Hindu for that I perplex desis just as much as I do the non-desis. Maybe I can now cite the Bose's essay to my defense. He says :

We cannot be sure whether there was ever a standard diet for the whole of India--available records are meagre, and no gastronomic counterpart of the Kamasutra is in existence. All we can guess on the basis of literary evidence is that the ancients were a meat-eating, wine-tippling people, inordinately fond of milk-products and beef-eaters as well.[1]

The Buddha himself did not impose a ceiling ban on flesh-eating, many of his followers (Bengalis?) ate fish habitually. The only strict vegetarians in ancient India were the Jains--a rather small and relatively isolated community with scant influence on the social life of orthodox sects. How and when both beef and pork came to be interdicted and the great schism between vegetarians and flesh-eaters arose on the Indian soil cannot be ascertained with any degree of precision; we do not even know whether these arose of religious or circumstantial pressure. Nor we can form a clear idea about the type or types of cooking current in the Vedic and epic ages.

Homer describes each meal with meticulous care, dwelling on every detail from the slitting of the bull's throat to the hearty appetites of the heroes; but the great sprawling Mahabharata is remarkably--even annoyingly--silent on such points. The phrase randhane Draupadi--`a Draupadi for cooking' has come down to us and is cited to this day, but not once do we see this proud lady actually in the kitchen, not even during the period of exile; the feeding of the wrathful Durvasa and his one thousand disciples was magically accomplished by Krishna, without any effort on Draupadi's part.

Bhima, we are told, served a whole year as the chef in Virata's household, but as regards the delicacies he presumably concocted for the royal table, we are left completely in the dark. The Ramayana does a little better; we often see Rama and Lakshmana bringing home sackfuls of slain beasts (wild boars, iguanas, three or four varieties of deer. We are also told that their favourite family diet consisted of spike-roasted (meats) (shalyapakva), known nowadays as shik-kebab or shish-kebab); --unfortunately no other detail is supplied. Who skinned the carcasses or made the fire or turned the flesh on the spit, what were the greens and fruits eaten with the meat or the drinks with which it was washed down--all this is left to our conjecture.

Nevertheless, we are eternally grateful to Valmiki for the passage describing the entertainment provided by the sage Bharadvaja to Bharata and his retinue; there is nothing to compare with it in the Mahabharatan accounts of the Raivataka feast or Yudhishthira's Horse-Sacrifice. For once in our ancient literature we find the courses itemized--savoury soups cooked with fruit-juice, meat of the wild cock and peacock, venison and goat-mutton and boar's meat, desserts consisting of curds and rice-pudding and honeyed fruits, and much else of lesser importance. All this is served by beauteous nymphs on platters of silver and gold, wines and liqueurs flow freely, there is dance and music to heighten the spirit of the revels.

Granted that the whole account is somewhat fantastical--it was the gods who had showered this splendour on that forest hermitage--a splendour that rivals that of Ravana's palace in Lanka; but this at least tells us what Valmiki thought a royal banquet should be; evidently he had experience of a highly sophisticated culture.

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