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!

No comments:

Post a Comment