Saturday, November 26, 2011

Mass production mess

Food, or rather things and attitudes surrounding food, has been on my mind for a few days now (as evident from my last two blogposts). The thing is, some of these attitudes and issues are met with every day, while some are seasonal, brought to mind by things like the wedding months. Wedding season is something many of the people I know seem to look forward to… all year. Why? Because it is a time of many invitations and much feasting, with GOOD food. For me, it is increasingly a time of intense gastronomical boredom.

I do remember a time when every wedding feast was different, and truly something to look forward to. But that was a long time ago, in the age of the halwai and the khansama. That was the time when masters of the art of cooking (aptly known as karigars) would come to the home, take over a large, usually open, area, surround it with some kind of fencing, and get down to creating the gems for the banquet. That was the time when every spread had a different menu and each dish tasted different. That was the time when the “haath ka fark” or the difference of the human touch was pronounced and very noticeable. After all, two people cooking to exact specifications from the same recipe will still manage to create slightly different tasting dishes.

That age seems to be a long time gone though. These days, it is all caterers and cardboard. The amazing thing about catered food, at least in India, is how similar everything tastes. Not only are the menus merely mild variations on a general theme, but all the dishes, across the banquet and across caterers, seem to turn out pretty much the same! Always wondered how they manage to do that! Almost an art form really. As a person who likes cooking, I know how difficult – if not impossible – it is to replicate the exact taste, even with the same person following the same recipe. How then, do they manage to do it on such a mass scale?

There is something about mass scale cooking by people doing it because they have to because it is their job. Their lack of liking for what they do, and an absence of personal investment seems to lead to this generic, not so nice taste that is the hallmark of all the catered food at every single wedding I have attended over the last 10 years or so.

People too seem to be losing whatever imaginations they had. Families and parents and couples seem to have stopped paying much attention to setting the menu for their big day. With the frenetic pace of modern urban life, and double income couples, planning a wedding must be a huge undertaking. Not surprising then that a lot of things get outsourced to simplify the process. A caterer is much more stress free than having to hire individual cooks, arrange for all the shopping, provide space for the cooking, keep an eye on progress and so on to lay out an old fashioned feast.

And once a caterer is hired, it is easier, safer, and more economical to pick a menu from a list of dishes recommended by the caterer. After all, these are presumably things they make well. Who would want to take the chance, and incur the extra cost for thinking up a radically different and interesting menu? And even if one did, what happens if the caterer screws it up? So, from the point of view of the organizers, it makes eminent sense to go with the general formula with slight variations.

For the discerning gastronome, it translates into yet another plate of generic dal makhani, yet another helping of over-sweetened pulao, and some more badly done bhetki paturi, followed by the inevitable vanilla icecream/gulabjamun. All in all, not much fun, and definitely no longer something to look forward to!

Friday, November 25, 2011

Bongs love fish and mishti and bhaiyyas eat chana fit for a horse

What is it about us that makes most of us unable to think in anything other than stereotypes? As a culture, we are happiest and most comfortable when talking – and thinking – in stereotypes received from community, parents, media, and so many other sources. Sindhis are miserly, Gujratis are happy go lucky and business minded, Marwaris are unscrupulous, Bengalis are intelligent and arty, south Indians are studious and nerdy, Punjabis are dense – there’s so many of these blanket generalizations floating around in our psyches that I sometimes wonder how we keep them straight.  

Like all generalizations, these are good for pigeon-holeing and dismissing people, and helps each community feel better about itself at the cost of all the others. How many times have I heard “eww how do you eat those animals!” or “oh khottas(usually people from UP, Bihar, etc) eat horse food….all this chana and things.” However, it does nothing whatsoever in helping to interact with individual members of any given community. I know plenty of really dumb and totally aesthetically impaired Bengalis, just as I know plenty of intelligent Punjabis and fun loving people from so-called “south India” (a massive and problematic generalization in itself. WAKE UP PEOPLE there are FOUR, count it FOUR, separate states down there!)

The all pervasive nature of these stereotypes extends equally to food as well. The minute I identify myself as a Bengali (albeit an non Bengal one), the assumptions click into place. So, I must love fish, and sweets. I MUST perpetually subsist on a diet of JHOL and JHAL, and - in a nod to the nawabi tradition – love biryani. In reality, only one of these generalizations is true, and that’s more of a personal choice issue than whatever BENGALI genes I possess, if they even exist. I like fish yes. Love it. BUT – horror of horrors – I prefer sea fish which is a total anathema to Bengalis. Bongs eat fresh water fish … most of which I cannot stand!

As for sweets … I can sum up my attitude to the world famous Bengali mithais in one word – YUCK! I detest them, yes, even including the rasogolla that bongs are assumed to consume by the kilo. The worst form of torture for me is visiting kollkata relatives who insist on serving up five or six different kinds of MISHTI, and insist that you eat them! I would rather be slow roasted over a coal fire than have to send even one down my gullet. But, it’s a massive surprise to all … bongs and non bongs alike… don’t like mishit! What kind of a bong are your? Um….. the thinking, I can make up my own mind about what I like and not blindly eat whatever is culturally prescribed kind????

Similarly for biryani. NO I DO NOT like the damn thing overmuch. Once a year or so… especially the much milder lucknowi kind of biryani … ok…I can enjoy it. But unlike most Bengalis I know, it is NOT my first choice when eating out, especially not all the time! And NO I don’t order a curry with it. Biryani is supposed to be eaten with its own rassa or a raita. If you order curry or chaap or whatever, what’s the point of ordering a spiced rice? Why not just order white rice since you are going to overpower it with the curry anyway! Also, my daily diet is definitely not the traditionally recommended dosage of jhol. In fact, I am not even all that fond of the jhol.

Home food, on a day to day basis could be anything from chholey to sambhar, kaali daal to ilish bhapa, pasta to soup and noodles, and anything else that springs to mind. Combinations are unusual too, with sambhar rice being followed by a bong fish curry or chholey being preceded by shukto, and we LOVE it that way! Having lived in so many places, and enjoyed such varied cuisine from around the world, I see absolutely no need to have the same boring menu for 30 years at a time! I would go out of my mind if I had to eat the traditional bong spread everyday for even a month. And this works all around. I have Gujrati friends (supposed to be vegetarian by stereotype) who love fish, I have Punjabi friends who practically live on pasta and pizza punctuated by the odd tandoori chicken, and I have Bengali friends who most frequently eat dosais and appams, at home and out.

So, why are we still thinking in these boxes? While they might vaguely apply to interior areas and rural settings where traditional ways of life still continue and the community and surroundings exert a much greater influence, they hardly seem to have anything to do with the modern, urban, middle class, educated, travelled Indian. Or is it just my clique? Looking around, I also see many of my peers stuck in the OLD ways, not by choice, but by inertia. “This is how it is” carries the newest generation into the same – often unhealthy – lifestyles, until they arrive at their own old ages (or until the older generation dies, which is usually when these people have access to real decision making power), at which point it is too late to change things, and they are set in the ways which are perpetuated.

Hmmm, how insular human beings are!

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Inventing SOCIAL eating

“Are you a foodie?” they ask “What kind of food do you like?”.

Well, it’s impossible to explain my attitude to food to most people.

After all, traditionally we categorise attitude to food into just two categories – “live to eat” or “eat to live” – and recognise no other category. That’s like saying are you a teetotaler or an alcoholic-fall-down-drunk-all-day kind of person. Now, anyone with half a brain, and any knowledge or exposure to modern urban middle class and above lifestyle will easily recognise the stupidity of such a binary distinction. Even matrimonial websites these days list a category of “light, social drinker” and of a “light, social smoker” recognizing that there are levels between the two extremes.

A person may not be a total abstainer, but they may enjoy the occasional drink with friends, or appreciate a fine wine. It also does not mean that anyone who takes a single sip automatically becomes the stereotypical Hindi-filmy drunk (so wonderfully portrayed by Johnny Walker or Keshto Mukherjee) who was forever seven sheets to the wind and falling down all over the place. Most people I know enjoy alcohol, drink (some more than others) at parties, weddings, and such, but none of them can be labelled as alcoholics, and none of them requires drink as a fuel to function in their daily lives. There is, after all, a huge difference between the occasional indulgence and addiction.

Why doesn’t the same thing apply to food I wonder? Yes, I enjoy all kinds of different cuisines, and really appreciate the diverse flavours of world food, but – and this is a BIG but – I DON’T like rich foods, and I don’t, can’t, eat large amounts. Yet, the minute I answer a question like “what’s your favourite cuisine” with something like “I enjoy North and South Indian, Bengali, Thai, Chinese, Italian, Mexican, French, Malaysian, Indonesian, Greek, Arabic, Lebanese, Syrian, whatever”, I am automatically branded FOODIE.

People, especially Indian people, have no concept of the difference between a gourmet and a gourmand. A gourmet is a connoisseur of fine food and drink, an epicure, whereas a gourmand is someone who is fond of good eating, generally in an indiscriminate manner and mostly to excess. Which would make the foodie a gourmand. And I am definitely not one of those. I am a gourmet. I enjoy fine foods, wines, cheeses, but in small quantities, and I am VERY choosy about what I like. Also, gourmands generally favour rich foods, while I hate oily, spicy and rich foods like biryanis.

So shouldn’t there be a concept of social eating to describe people like me? So that I can say I am a social eater, and avoid the dichotomy of starving versus hogging? So that I can enjoy food without being an addict, and eschew overeating without being a Spartan? 

Friday, November 4, 2011

Little birdie’s first solo flight

It has been a strange few weeks. What should have been some of the happiest and most fun days of the year, actually turned out to be some of the most boring.  Durga Puja and Kali Puja this year SUCKED, and sucked HARD. Mental emotional states were at a fairly low place to begin with, and breaking my foot just before the festivities began didn’t help. The plaster cast on my foot effectively put an end to all and any enjoyment of the normal puja activities, and confined me to home. It also put paid to all the holiday and travel plans that I had been so thrilled about.

The major concern, of course, was not letting all the negativity affect the little one’s fun. She, after all, deserved her puja and diwali fun, no matter the state of mommie’s health! So, after months of convincing, little miss decided she was going to spend the duration with the geographically closer grandparents. They have a durga puja in their building, (what fun!) not to mention a new set of kids who have taken up residence there.

Now I’ve been trying to get the little one to have a sleepover for quite a while now. Various reasons of course (not the least of which is some LOOOOOOOOOOOOOONG forgotten privacy and solo time with my man) some a little selfish, some not so much, behind the drive. She’s almost six now, and its past time that she begins to outgrow her dependence on us. She’s a pretty independent little character, having inherited strong woman genes from both sides of the family tree, and there has never been a problem with her learning to do the basic things like dressing herself or tying her own shoelaces. She plays little imaginary games for hours, needing little or no constant supervision (so only half my mind needs to be focused on her at any given time :D ). However, until now, staying away from us for an entire night has never been an option to her.

She’s happy being with the people she knows and trusts, like the grandparents or close friends of ours, for a few hours, especially in the daytime. But as evening approaches, my little lark begins to droop with sleep, and when that happens, no one else will do. Either mommie, or daddy, or preferably both, MUST be around to do the bedtime story and the tucking in and the putting to sleep. And god forbid she should wake in the morning (4.30 or 5 am being her usual time) and turn her sleepy head and not see at least one of us there.

As a result, date nights and late partying have taken a beating, and we didn’t mind. Seemed important that she feel secure in her little universe. This time, however, it was different. She realized (smart little thing that she is) that clinging to the parents was only going to ruin her holiday. So, for about two weeks prior to the main event, she primed herself up to stay over. Of course, the added temptation of kids her own age to play with helped the psyching process. As lonely and isolated as kids are these days, any chance of company of the same age is a huge draw.

So, off she went! One test night, hassle free, and there she was, staying with the old folk for the entire week! Not just that, she was too busy and too happy to even bother with talking to mommie on the phone! Much fun was had, with almost seven kids congregating there, and a lot of dressing up (which she loves to do) and playing. For Diwali, once the fireworks were all accumulated, she insisted she wanted to go over again and burn them there, with her friends. So, three successive nights she spent playing and letting off fireworks with her buddies, in complete bliss.

How fast they grow! Now that she is having sleepovers, I feel a little weird. Happy, of course that she is stretching out the umbilical cord and finding her own identity, but a little sad to be losing the little creature who depended so fully on me. Yes, it was a chore, one that lasted almost six years, but it is truly amazing to be NEEDED like that. Now that she needs me a little less to be happy and peaceful and secure, I am getting a tiny foretaste of the empty nest syndrome. Suddenly I can flash forward to college, job postings, marriage, and every other thing that is one day going to put a lot of distance (physical if not emotional) between us, and truth be told…I am dreading it.

And yet, cest la vie. She will grow up, needing me a little less each day. She will learn to do more and more things for herself, and depend on me less and less for her basic needs. She will have more and more people in her ever expanding life, getting a little further away –at each step – from the all encompassing mother-need that ruled her life for over five years. All of this is inevitable, and healthy. So why on earth does it make my gut wrench so? Now I really feel an almost overpowering need to rewind life and go back to the day I brought the little bundle home, wrapped in her teddy bear blanket. Mothers are weird :D