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Rude Food: Neighbourhood watch

The average educated Indian is fairly knowledgeable about international cuisines. But do we know as much about the food of our neighbours?

india Updated: Oct 01, 2011 19:28 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times

I am not sure if I should be talking about this but a television channel is planning a massive food show that pitches a team of Pakistani chefs versus an Indian team. The show will probably be telecast early next year if all goes according to plan though, when it comes to India-Pakistan issues, nothing ever seems to go according to plan.

I have some involvement in the show and I have been sitting with the channel’s programmers to try and tweak the format. One thing that has struck us quite clearly is how little we know about each other’s cuisines. Indians imagine that Pakistanis eat the same food as us and that’s probably true. But who is us? Do they actually eat the same food as people in southern India? Have most Pakistanis ever seen a dosa? Do they know what bhel puri is? Have they any experience of the joys of Indian vegetarian cuisine?

VirI don’t know the answers to these questions though perhaps we shall find out what the truth is when the show begins shooting. But just as we think of Pakistani food as being no more than naan, mutton, chicken and more mutton which must surely be an unfair characterisation I’m sure Pakistanis have little idea of the variety of cuisines available in India.

All this got me thinking. Ask the average educated Indian about international cuisine and you will get surprisingly knowledgeable responses. Indians know enough about real Chinese food to recognise that Chicken Manchurian was invented in Colaba and not in any part of China. We know about Italian pasta. We have some understanding of French cuisine. We understand the basics of American food. And most of us probably know what a tom yum soup is or what a Thai red curry should taste like.

But are we as knowledgeable about the food of our neighbours? Ask the average Delhi resident (even an educated, well-travelled one) what Sri Lankan food is like and you will be greeted with a blank stare. No Indian who goes to the Maldives ever eats Maldivian food. The complexity of Bangladeshi cuisine and the way in which it differs from the food of West Bengal are mysteries to most Indians. Few of us recognise that momos, which we think of as some kind of snack food from the north-east of India, are actually of Tibetan origin. Many of us do not even realise that Bhutan has a cuisine of its own. The few of us who bother with Burmese food think that it begins and ends with khao suey. The wonders of Nepalese cuisine which must rank as one of the most outstanding cuisines of our region do not even interest most Indians.

There are many reasons for this. One obvious explanation is that India is a very large and diverse country and that Indians are only just beginning to understand the range of food available in our own country. For instance, hardly anybody in Delhi knew what a dosa was till the 1960s. Even now, most north Indians do not know what a kori gassi is. People in Bengal have very little experience of the delicately-spiced cuisine of Gujarat. When we have still to uncover the mysteries of our own country, how can we be expected to have time to learn about the food of our neighbours? The second explanation has to do with what I call the Big Boy syndrome. Because India is the dominant power in this region, the world thinks of the food of south Asia only in terms of Indian cuisine.

VirTake one example. In the ’50s and ’60s, Bengalis from the Sylhet region of East Pakistan opened hundreds of curry houses all over the UK. At the time, India and Pakistan were bitter enemies (and in many ways, perhaps we still are). But even in that era, the East Pakistanis did not describe their restaurants as Pakistani restaurants. Instead, they called them Indian restaurants.

Now that East Pakistan no longer exists, you might wonder if the Sylhetis use the term Bangladeshi restaurant. Far from it. The curry houses are still called Indian restaurants. What’s worse is that though the staff often speak no sub-continental language other than Bengali, they refuse to serve any Bengali food at all. Instead, the menu is full of dishes they claim are Indian: prawn patiyas that no Parsi would recognise, vindaloos that would bemuse most Goans, and Madras curries that are unknown in Madras.

It’s the same with the Pakistanis. Unless the restaurant’s name is a giveaway (Lahore Kebab House, for instance) even Pakistanis will claim that they are serving Indian food. Rare is the restaurant anywhere in the world that describes itself as a Pakistani restaurant. Even places that specialise in that Pakistani favourite, kadhai cooking (and its English half-brother, balti cuisine), and have only the most tenuous link to India will describe themselves as Indian restaurants – though few Indians will recognise the dishes on the menu.

I can understand the commercial considerations that make our sub-continental neighbours pretend that they are serving Indian food when they open restaurants in the West. But I find it strange that we in India have so little curiosity about the food of our neighbours.

Some of this is pure arrogance. When I first went to Colombo in the late ’70s, I was young and naive and imagined that they ate some variation of south Indian food. The very first day I was there, I found that the menu at my hotel offered ‘hoppers’. I called the waiter and demanded to know what a hopper was.

He was incredulous. Had we never heard of hoppers in India? No, we had not, I told him grimly. So, could he just tell me what the dish was? By the time I found out that it was a version of the Kerala appam (which only confirmed my original hypothesis that Sri Lankans ate some variation of south Indian food!), I had met Sri Lankan friends who introduced me to the joys of their cuisine and helped dispel my ignorance. It looked superficially like Indian food but the use of spices and fish reminded me of the cuisines of south-east Asia.

Over the years, I have made a conscious attempt to eat as much of the food of our neighbours as is possible. Unfortunately, the only way to do this seems to be to visit the country in question. You don’t find too many Sri Lankan, Burmese or Bangladeshi restaurants in India (or anywhere else for that matter). But because the distances are not large, it is easy enough to travel to SAARC countries.

For instance, Sri Lanka is now in the midst of a post-Prabhakaran tourism boom and is a wonderful destination with good hotels and great restaurants. Burma is more difficult to get to but that only adds to the charm. As much as I love the Maldives, I have to state that the local cuisine is not of the same standard as the natural beauty so you are best off eating seared tuna three times a day. The food in Bangladesh can be delicious: better rezalas than Calcutta and a great beef biryani. The most rewarding, however, is Nepal because the food is something like ours and yet it is recognisably an original cuisine. Each time I go to Kathmandu, I put on several kilos but because I eat so well, I have no regrets (my favourite Nepali cuisine is the food of the Ranas, which, sadly, is not well-represented in restaurants and is best enjoyed in private homes).

I have no idea how the India versus Pakistan food show will turn out. I’ve been talking to Indian chefs who seem intimidated by the Pakistani familiarity with mutton. They fear that our curries and our tandoori items will not match up to the high standards prevalent in Pakistan. On the other hand, the Indian chefs seem confident that they will win every vegetarian round because, they say, Pakistanis still haven’t learnt how to cook vegetables without adding meat. “They even put mutton in their gobhi-aloo,” I was told.

Nor are we sure about the range of Pakistani cuisine. Given that they are such close allies with Beijing, do Pakistanis eat real Chinese food? Or do they eat the same sort of Punjabi Chinese that is popular in India? We were still puzzling over that one when we looked at the audition tape for one of the Pakistani chefs. We waited to see which dish she would choose to demonstrate. A great mutton curry? A tandoori chicken? Or even gobhi aloo with mutton?

We knew we were okay when she began by saying “Aaj main aapko Chicken Manchurian sikhaoongi...” So, no matter how many missiles Islamabad shares with Beijing, when it comes to Chinese food, the Pakistani reference points are recognisably Indian in origin.

If the show does take off (and I always say ‘if’ for fear that I will jinx it by giving too much away before we start shooting) then I imagine that both sides will discover that we have many misconceptions about each other’s cuisines. It is my hope that the show will work as some form of cultural diplomacy.

In the old days, people like Inder Gujral were always going on about people-to-people contacts. Well, judging by the mess that India-Pakistan relations are in these days, that approach clearly didn't work. So now, it’s time for some pulao-to-pulao contacts.

From HT Brunch, October 2

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First Published: Sep 30, 2011 19:11 IST