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Taste of India

When we talk about the triumphs of Indian secularism, we sometimes forget they extend to the kitchen too, writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Feb 14, 2009 16:16 IST
Vir Sanghvi

Local councils in the Italian city of Milan in the Lombardy region are considering whether to impose a ban on restaurants serving non-Italian food. In one town in the region, four kebab shops have been denied licenses on the grounds that their cuisine is against the traditions of Italy. This bizarre move appears to have the support of Silvio Berlusconi, the equally bizarre media magnate who is the current Prime Minister of Italy.

Of course, there are all kinds of subterranean agendas at play here. One of the councillors supporting the ban made the point that the owners of kebab shops tend to be foreigners who work very hard and stay open for long hours. This, he said, posed unfair competition to native Italians. Presumably, hard work is also to be regarded as un-Italian from now on. (Or was it always so?) The real agenda, of course, is one that our friends in the sangh parivar will recognise immediately. Each time I am invited to a serious seminar in Europe, the discussion always veers towards diversity in society. After ten minutes of going around in circles, the Europeans get to the point. How do we in India cope with our Muslims?

Aren’t they all fanatics? Don’t they refuse to integrate? Aren’t they all too obsessed with insults, real or imagined, to their religion? Could they ever fit into any kind of liberal society where people are not expected to wear headscarves?

It is at this stage in the seminar that I begin to look superior and lecture Europeans on India’s triumphs in dealing with diversity. We’ve never had that sort of problem with our Muslims, I say. Of course the Muslim community contains a fair share of fanatics and religious psychopaths. But then, so does the Hindu community. You do not judge religions or communities by their nutcases.

I note that the Council that has denied licenses to the kebab shops has also opposed the building of any mosques within its precincts, presumably because these are also un-Italian and unable to host little snack bars selling Chianti and pizza con salumi. So the real agenda is not about food at all. It is about making life tough for Muslims.

Think about that the next time some European politician comes to lecture us on the condition of India’s Muslims, the need to solve the Kashmir problem and the importance of religious equality. It’s all very easy to preach tolerance when the majority of your people belong to one religion; much more difficult when you face the kinds of problems that India has coped so magnificently with.

The Italian neo-fascists got me thinking about our food traditions. As far as I can tell, the only religious intolerance we demonstrate relates to beef and in some cases to non-vegetarianism. Religious Hindus object to the slaughter of cows on the grounds that cattle are sacred. I have never understood the corollaries to this objection. Why, for instance, can’t we eat Japanese beef or Irish beef? No fresh cows were slaughtered on our account, and in any case, why should Hindus have to worship big fat Irish heifers? But yes, even though I do not agree with it, I can see the case for banning cow slaughter. Nevertheless, this is hardly the same as passing judgement on other people’s food habits or declaring them un-Indian.

A second problem is sometimes posed by agitated vegetarians. In parts of Bombay, militant Gujaratis (now that’s an oxymoron) object if restaurants serve non-vegetarian food in residential areas favoured by God-fearing, Sensex-worshipping Gujaratis.

Of course, this is nonsense. The Gujaratis should sit at home and cheerfully eat their theplas without worrying too much about whether the man down the road is eating a chicken curry. But I don’t see the objection as stemming from any anti-Islamic sentiment. The Gujaratis are as agitated about Hindu non-vegetarians as they are about Muslims or Christians. (And no doubt, if they came across a non-vegetarian Gujarati like myself, they would probably club me to death with rolled-up share certificates.)

Despite all our difficulties, Indians have never tried to communalise food. Go to any north Indian restaurant and you will find the leading lights of the BJP enjoying a biryani or a shammi kebab. It will never occur to them that this is Islamic food and therefore, alien to their Hindu traditions.

One of the factors that contributes to the richness of Indian cuisine is that we have always allowed communities to cross-pollinate each other in the kitchen. The most notable example of course is the influence of Christians. Over 500 years ago, when European Christians landed on

Indian shores, they tried to convert the locals and often (as in Goa) they imposed their religion by force. The vast majority of Hindus resisted the efforts of the missionaries, often at considerable cost to themselves. But even as they clutched their religion close to their heart, Hindus had the good sense to open their stomachs to the new foods that the Christians had brought with them.

Can you think of many vegetarian Hindus who will be able to complete their cuisine without chillies, tomatoes or potatoes? Yet, all of these vegetables were unknown in India. They were brought here by the Europeans who had themselves only recently encountered them in the Americas.

Consider the provenance of most Indian desserts which are made from cottage cheese. Hinduism has a traditional injunction against splitting milk which is why there is so little cheese in Indian cuisine. But, it was Portuguese Christians who taught Bengalis how to make cottage cheese, thus setting the stage for the dishes that would travel all over India, including rasgullas, rasmalai and even that Punjabi staple, muttar paneer. If that surprises you then think of the provenance of that most Punjabi of breads: makki di roti. It is not an ancient dish invented by the Aryans on their way to do battle with the Dravidians. Corn was unknown to India till the Europeans introduced it. So makki di roti is of relatively recent origin.

The Muslim influence is most notable in our choice of fruits. When Babar first got here, he lamented that the fruits of Hindustan bore no resemblance to the delicious fruits he was used to in Samarkand. Over the next century, the Mughals introduced such fruits as Persian melons, Samarkand apples, cherries and apricots. Many of the fruits we regard as essentially Indian were actually brought here by Muslim conquerors.

In the area of cooked food, the Muslim influence is even more phenomenal. Refined flour or maida came to us from the Middle-East. So did the kebab which is of Turkish origin. The pulao came with early Muslim traders (see last to last week’s Rude Food) as did many other rice dishes. The samosa is an Indian variation on the Middle-Eastern sambusak.

Even cooking traditions changed dramatically once the Muslim influence began to be felt in our kitchens. Just one example should prove my point. Most Indians will not be surprised by the thought of using yoghurt or cream in the cooking of meat dishes or at the very least in marination. This style of cooking spread all over India only because of Muslim cooks. When we talk about the triumphs of Indian secularism, we sometimes forget that they extend to the kitchen and the dining table. We may have our fanatics and our nutcases. But it is to the credit of the Indian people that we have never allowed religious differences to come in the way of the development of our cuisine.

The Italians should recognise this. Barely two decades after the pizza became widely available in India, it has already been Indianised. Many restaurants will offer you a Jain pizza (without onions, garlic or flavour) and even south Indian snack bars will tart up their uttapams and describe them as pizzas.

That’s one of the strengths of Indian cuisine. Most people who muck around with the pizza only play with the toppings (as do we with the chicken tikka pizza). But Indians take the entire dish and reinvent it. Just as we have done with the hamburger which is now a channa-tikki burger even at McDonald’s, we have taken the pizza, made it our own and given it a new name: ‘pija’. That’s why Indian cuisine has a richness and variety that the Italians for all the strengths of their food will never ever be able to match.