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For the love of food

india Updated: Apr 02, 2009 14:46 IST
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As a person ages, of his five senses, four decline with the years; only one, the sense of taste for food outlasts the others. I know this to be true in my case. The older I grow, the more I think of what I will eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Of the three meals, the first two are nominal: a buttered toast with a mug of tea in the morning, a bowl of soup or dahi (yoghurt) at mid-day but dinner, I insist, must be a gourmet’s delight. It comprises of only one main dish with a salad to match, topped off with pudding or ice-cream. I have also discovered that in order to enjoy that one meal I must be hungry and have a clean stomach. It is best enjoyed alone and in complete silence. Dining in company or with members of the family may help bonding friendships and keeping the family together, but it takes away much of the taste out of tasty food. Talking while eating, one also swallows a lot of air with the food. This is how our Hindu ancestor patriarchs ate their evening meals. They had good reasons for doing so; I follow the precedent set by them. I also have the pattern of drinking and dining from my role model Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib. He took a bath every evening and got into fresh clothes before he fished out his bottle of Scotch Whisky, poured out his measure in a tumbler, added scented surahi water to it — and drank in absolute silence while writing immortal couplets in praise of wine and women. He does not record what he ate for dinner.

When I drink alone on an empty stomach, I can feel the whisky warming its way down my entrails. I do not get that feeling when drinking in company. Likewise, when eating in company, I scarcely notice the taste of what I keep shoveling in my mouth. When eating alone, I shut my eyes and turn my inner gaze to what I am chewing and munching bit by bit till it dissolves and goes down my throat. I feel I am doing justice to my food as the food I eat is doing justice to me. Never be in a hurry to get over your meal; take your time over it and relish it.

I like to vary my food. My trusted cook of over 50 years is now too old to try his hand at new recipes. So I keep menus of eateries that deliver food handy. I try them in turns — Chinese, Thai, French, Italian, South Indian. I also have phone numbers of ladies who specialise in different kinds of food they cook in their homes and cater to people who place orders in advance. So I have a Mrs Dhupia who makes excellent Quiche Lorraine and chocolate cakes. And I have Claire Dutt who makes excellent anything I fancy.

“Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you what you are,” claimed Savarin. If I told him of the varieties of food I eat, he would probably call me a pig. But I do not hog myself. What I take is in measured quantities. For me it is the same as Savarin claimed : “the discovery of a new dish does more for the happiness of man than the discovery of a star." Like Lord Byron I look forward to my evening meal as I used to look forward to meeting my dates in younger days. To quote: “That all-softening, over powering knell//The tocsin of the sod - the dinner bell.’

One final word of caution: make sure you never over-eat. An upset stomach ruins the pleasure of eating.

Nature’s Emissary
There was a time when during winter months I used to get up well before dawn, arm myself with a pair of binoculars, Salim Ali's book on Indian birds, a flask of hot coffee and egg sandwiches and set out with a small party of bird-watchers to a chosen site: it could be near Tilpet along the Yamuna or Sultanpur Jheel in Haryana. I also spent weekends in the Keoladeo bird sanctuary near Bharatpur. I picked up a smattering of information on birds but that did not deter me from claiming as an expert, writing a book called Nature Watch and doing a series for Doordarshan on natural phenomenon in and around Delhi in collaboration with Sharad Dutt. In short, I became an imposter and show-off. Although my birdwatching is now limited to my backyard patch of greenery with a few trees and a birdbath, I have a shelf full of books on birds, trees, butterflies and insects. I manage to keep up the pretence of being a know-all.

One thing I can say in my defense is that I read whatever I can find on these subjects. Most are reference books with names in Greek and Latin, their equivalents in Indian languages, habitats, identification signs, calls, nesting, rearing their broods etc. It does not make exciting reading. Rarely do I come across a book that grips me because of the author’s emotional involvement with birds and animals. Gerald Durrell is a good example of such writing. The best I have read so far is a collection of articles by Ranjit Lal, Wild City: Nature Wonders Next Door (Penguin). It is about birds, animals, and insects seen in and around Delhi. He writes in a beautiful lyrical style, evidently knows the subject well and is in love with everything he writes about including jackals, wasps, spiders and ants.

The only trouble is that he expects his readers to be interested and reasonably well informed. That is asking for too much and is the reason why he is not as well known, as he deserves to be. In my opinion he is A-1. In this book, he gives an example of the hazards of bird watching: Many years ago, I used to photograph the sea gulls that flock to Mumbai’s Marine Drive, right opposite a hostel for women. I hung around the place for hours, armed with binoculars, a camera with telephoto lens et al. If any police constable had asked me what I was doing opposite a women’s hostel equipped thus, I would have had to tell him the truth: ‘ I’m photographing gulls.’ You can well imagine the response! ‘Photographing girls? ‘Abbe saala, sharam nahin aata hai? (Aren’t you ashamed of yourself ?) Come with me to the lock-up!

I have often tried to reproduce calls of birds and frogs in print— and usually failed. I recall a pair of mynas that used to visit office in Broadcasting House. One of them kept up a monologue that I tried to put in human sounds. But I was unable to do so. Ranjit Lal has got it right: ‘Keek-keek-churr-churr-churr- kok-kok-kok keek-churr?’