It's the plat du jour
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It's the plat du jour

I feel very proud Hillary Clinton likes Indian food so much. But to truly appreciate our gastronomy, it's important to know its intellectual origins. Manas Chakravarty writes.

india Updated: May 12, 2012 23:45 IST

Clinton, a lover of Indian cuisine….said she would have to be on a diet for the next seven days to offset her possible weight gain during her three-day visit to the country. — PTI, May 8

I feel very proud Hillary Clinton likes Indian food so much. But to truly appreciate our gastronomy, it’s important to know its intellectual origins. It wasn’t always this good, you know. In ancient times, we laboured under the belief the world was an illusion, or Maya. That wasn’t very conducive to good cuisine. Our sages survived on fruits and nuts, frugal fare that led to the belief that life was suffering. Eggs were all they had to alleviate their anguish. It was only when a sage’s chicken coop burnt down that we were introduced to the joys of chicken tandoori. This was followed rapidly by chicken bharta, baingan bharta and before you could say Rig Veda, an enterprising maharishi cannily published his collection of recipes called the Mahabharta and for a time there was much confusion because many people read it under the impression it was the Mahabharata. This mix-up led to the misconception that the six schools of ancient Indian philosophy were Hing, Haldi, Dalchini, Dhaniya, Jeera and Garam Masala.

Be that as it may, indulgence in food was still a secret vice, largely because of the fear that pigging out meant being reincarnated as a pig. Two schools of thought developed, the Dvaita, or dualist school, which said that life and food are different and the non-dualist Advaita, which held that life and food are One. Naturally, followers of the Advaita school were fatter. This led to the publication of the famed Diet Sutra, the world’s first book on losing weight. The principle behind it was known as The Middle Weight, which included Right Lip-Smacking, Right Finger-Licking, Right Burping, Right Calorie-Counting and so on.

Ancient Indian gastronomy was, however, disturbed by an invasion of kebabs, rogan josh and biryani through the Khyber Pass. In the West of the country, incursions were made by vindaloo and sorpotel. Chillies and tomatoes and potatoes made their appearance, as evidenced from Abul-Fazl’s famous book during Emperor Akbar’s reign — the Ain-e-Potato-curry.

But let’s get back to the present. The sway of Maya over the Hindu mind has disappeared, replaced by Leela, which provides the philosophical underpinnings for Indian food. This is evident from the Leela chain of hotels across the country.

To understand the theoretical basis of modern Indian cuisine, I talked to several eminent personalities across the ideological spectrum. “All food can be divided into two broad categories — nationalist and pseudo-secular”, said a BJP ideologue. “Beef is definitely pseudo-secular,” he continued, “while meat and fish are dicey.” Vegetables are nationalist, especially with a pinch of saffron. A Congress supporter said he preferred a balanced diet of spaghetti, risotto and pasta.

But the most interesting culinary philosophies have emerged from the Left. “Take sweet - that’s the thesis; take sour — the anti-thesis; Combine the two with pork and you have a synthesis — sweet and sour pork. Serve with red wine. That’s dialectical cooking,” said a Marxist comrade. He asked me to read his forthcoming cook-book, The Communist Many-Feast-O.

What of the future? Not everybody believes in it. There are many who support George Bernard Shaw, who pointed out, “Statistics show that of those who contract the habit of eating, very few survive.”

(Manas Chakravarty is consulting editor, Mint)

Views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: May 12, 2012 23:42 IST