The geopolitics of culinary knowledge

ZILKIA JANER

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Ashis, a Bangladeshi bartender in my New York neighbourhood, has offered to bring me some hilsa. I crave the delicate buttery fish yet I hesitate to accept the offer. When I lived in Guwahati everybody spoke fondly of hilsa as a great delicacy and I anxiously waited for the brief season when the fish come to the Brahmaputra river to spawn. Sadly, hilsa has become very hard to find in the local markets. Aside from dams that have made it hard for the fish to enter the river, the shrinking supply is being exported to more profitable markets.

A couple of years ago the irony of this situation became evident when a fish market in Guwahati was selling frozen hilsa from Bangladesh that was beautifully packaged for sale in Italy, but that was approaching the stated expiration date. Guwahati residents had access to the fish only after it had been packaged for and rejected by the Italian market. Right now it seems like it would be easier for me to find hilsa in New York than it was in Guwahati. One of the results of the globalization of Indian food is that the best quality ingredients and maybe even restaurants are more readily available in New York and London than in India.

I enjoy this new access to Indian food but I also believe that India has more to offer to global cuisine than ingredients and restaurants. Indian culinary knowledge, including philosophy and technique, has not been as successfully exported as tandoori chicken. I wanted to experience cooking in India in order to get a deeper sense of its culinary knowledge. After years of occasional cooking lessons from mothers and grandmothers of my Indian friends in the United States and reading thousands of pages of cookbooks, I wanted to move beyond the limits of what can be learned long-distance. This is why a couple of years ago I welcomed the opportunity of leaving New York City and setting up a home in Guwahati.

My strategy for learning how to cook the Indian way included watching other people cook in dhabas, restaurants and homes. But because cooking is ultimately learned by doing rather than watching, I decided to learn by cooking my own daily meals. My friends and family were concerned about this decision because the work involved in food preparation can be too cumbersome without help. I dismissed the warnings and accepted to impose on myself the sweet tyranny of cooking in India with minimal use of the conveniences of the modern food industry and without the help of a domestic cook.

 

Cooking starts with a trip to the market and that is where I began to understand the extent of the challenges that I would face. At first the market seems like the full spectacle of life in all its beauty and cruelty. The sight of artfully arranged produce coexists with live fish and poultry waiting to be clumsily killed on demand. The sweet aroma of fruits competes with the stench of organic refuse and with the incense that fails to keep the flies away. Smells, sights and sounds of different registers are thrown together in an exhilarating staccato. The market is totally seasonal so I had to learn to wait for the right time to enjoy foods like cauliflower, mangoes and cilantro. For those of us used to year-round availability of seasonal products this wait can be annoying at times (can you really cook without cilantro?) but the mature flavour of vegetables in season more than compensates for it.

Vegetables are small, irregular and unattractive when compared to the picture-perfect vegetables that are the norm in the United States. While I was willing to do without the visual appeal of tasteless industrial produce, it is undeniable that cleaning and trimming sandy spinach and dirty onions is time consuming. Finally, seeing your fish and chicken being killed in front of you definitely spoils your appetite. However, this is where the magic of cooking begins: the transformation of the harshness of nature into the refinements of culture. Once an animal is killed in an Indian market it has started to become distinctively Indian food. The way in which fish is sliced, and skinless chicken and mutton is cut into bite-sized bone-in pieces, immediately transforms them into material for curry.

The process of cooking continues in the kitchen with the erasure of the connection of produce to the land by cleaning all soil residue, and the connection of meat to animals by removing the smell of raw flesh. The latter is quite difficult when the chicken arrives in the kitchen still warm from the market. Supermarkets and home cooks normally save you from facing the scandal of death but this is how I learned to appreciate some of the preliminary steps of Indian cooking like rubbing fish with antiseptic turmeric and salt. It is a soothing balm for both the fish and the cook.

 

Cleaning and preparing legumes and vegetables is a purer pleasure since it does not involve any guilt. It also provides many of the unsung delights of cooking. Only the cook gets to enjoy the dance of rice being washed in cold water, the snapping sound of beans coming out of their pods, the graininess of flour becoming smooth pliable dough, and the intoxicating aroma of onion, garlic, ginger and spices releasing the premiere of their aromas in the grinding stone. After cooking in this labour intensive way I realized that eating is only half the pleasure that food offers us. By the time my meals were ready I felt almost completely satisfied and needed to eat very little. I wonder whether the tendency to over-eat in industrialized societies is a way to compensate for the alienation from food production and preparation.

Eating a proper meal in India is a full sensual experience. Dishes of contrasting colours, aromas and tastes are enjoyed following a relatively flexible order. Learning to eat with my fingers was another revelation. Touching your food allows you to extend the pleasure of eating by anticipating how the texture of the food will feel in the mouth; it is an exquisite gastronomic foreplay. It was well worth struggling with the rules that govern eating with fingers, which are as hard to master as the proper use of knives and forks or chopsticks. Now I resent the mediation of the fork when eating in situations where eating with fingers is not considered appropriate.

 

When I returned to New York I had to admit that I was disappointed by most of the food, including what I cooked. The will to cook and to reproduce the regional dishes that I had become so fond of cannot make up for the poor quality of the ingredients. Big, bright and uniform fruits and vegetables consistently disappoint in flavour and texture, whether I buy them at the supermarket or at elite gourmet and organic stores. Milk and yogurt last for weeks in the refrigerator but the ultrapasteurization that makes this possible leaves little flavour behind.

My experience in India taught me that the modern food industry provides convenience at the expense of taste. I also learned techniques to create many layers of taste in a single dish and how to exploit the different qualities of spices. However, even though the use of spices in India is so sophisticated, cooking schools and fusion cooks in western countries often reduce it to the use of curry powder. Despite the current popularity of Indian cuisine, it still occupies a subordinate position as ‘ethnic’ or ‘exotic’ in the emerging canon of global cuisine.

 

The explanation for the subordinate status of Indian cuisine is not to be found in any inherent deficiency but rather in the lasting legacy of colonialism which still allows the use of western models as yardsticks with which to hierarchize the world. The discussion of food and colonialism in India routinely includes amazement about the fact that there were no chillies in India until the Portuguese brought them in the 16th century. The way in which facts like these are presented exemplifies that culinary history is still told from the perspective of the West as its main subject and agent.

Why give more importance to the simple fact of transporting chillies from the Americas to India than to the creative process through which Indians incorporated them into their cuisine? Whereas Europe has yet to learn how to use chillies in a sophisticated way, India has developed a distinctive way of using chillies which is different from the way in which they are used in their native region. By focusing on trade without an account of cultural transformation, historians seem to imply that Portuguese merchants are the main protagonists of the evolution of Indian food.

The creation of the modern world depended materially and epistemologically on the colonization of the Americas which provided the logical structure for the justification of subsequent colonial enterprises. The modern/colonial world system gave Europe the privilege of being the centre of enunciation by establishing Europe as the model and point of view from which all other histories and epistemologies are evaluated.1 In the field of culinary history, the modern/colonial cognitive system has established western cuisine, and particularly French cuisine, as the highest point of culinary development for the rest of the world to follow.

Contemporary accounts of the history of cuisine in the West take the familiar structure of a narrative of progress from the obscurantism of medieval cooking to the increasing refinement of modern cuisine. In medieval Europe spices were used liberally and cooking was determined by the principles of alchemy, humoral medicine and religion. The publication in 1651 of Le cuisinier François by Pierre La Varenne is considered the turning point that marks the beginning of modern cuisine. In his book the use of spices was minimized in favour of local herbs, and sweet dishes were confined to the end of the meal. Medieval European cooking was heavily influenced by Arab culinary knowledge and the creation of modern cuisine intended to separate Europe from that influence and to establish its own culinary identity and authority. The use of sugar and spices with the corresponding health and even alchemic claims, were all but banned in favour of what was seen as an emerging rationalization of cooking.

 

Because of the tendency to see history as a series of stages established by Europe for the rest of the world to follow, most people in the West associate the use of spices in cooking with a superseded past. Historians have been unable to dispel the misconceived notion that in the Middle Ages Europeans used spices to disguise the stench of rotting meat. Supposedly, the modern hygienic supply of meat rendered the use of spices unnecessary. Modern western cuisines use very few spices and those that are used are used in a very simple way.

In order to cater to the habits of the western clientele, the use of spices is toned down in most Indian restaurants. Rather than accepting an inability to appreciate multilayered tastes, it is tempting to reduce the use of spices in Indian cooking to outdated beliefs about their medicinal properties. Similarly it is argued that spicy hot condiments are used by the poor as a means to stretch their scarce food supply. To explain their own intolerance of the heat of chillies, many people argue that people who eat chilli regularly eventually kill their taste buds making them need increasingly spicier food. The fact that taste buds are constantly being replaced does not make them stop to reconsider this argument.

 

Many westerners have indeed embraced Indian cuisine and have learned to appreciate food from a different and equally valid taste paradigm but the majority still holds on to the colonial cultural authority of the West to declare that Indian food is not only different but inferior and in need of refinement. By refinement they mean the adoption of western culinary ideals, including the ‘spice taboo’, as if such ideals were universal and not the result of a local history and culture.

The culinary authority of Europe has been reinforced by the systematic use of writing as a means of standardization and transmission. The French have been particularly active in this regard. Carême and Escoffier, the most influential chefs of the 19th and 20th century respectively, codified the cuisine in writing with formulas that are considered to be rational and perfected over time. Alphabetic writing and the printed letter have been tools in the colonization of subaltern languages, memories and epistemologies.2

Modernity delegitimized systems of knowledge that are not in writing as limited and variable. Cultures that put their cognitive systems in print, like those with access to gunpowder or the atomic bomb, have been able to impose their views on the others. We can understand what French cuisine is all about after reading a few books, but understanding the cuisine of Rajasthan or Nagaland, among many others, implies travel, meeting people, and challenging the very categories on which Eurocentric culinary knowledge is based. The proliferation of so-called ethnic cookbooks does not necessarily solve this problem since the genre itself imposes the categories and structures of European cooking, failing to grasp the epistemologies that shape different culinary systems.

 

The world has been impoverished by the modern bias in favour of the printed word. Indian culinary knowledge has indeed been codified throughout the centuries without the use of the printing press. Oral transmission and apprenticeship guaranteed the passing down of formulas that served as the base for constant innovations. The problem in India today is that there is a discontinuity between the oral transmission of culinary knowledge and the modernizing project of cookbook writing.

Cookbooks that intend to pre-sent different kinds of traditional Indian cooking are almost exclusively based on family recipes of elite families. There is a need for cookbooks based on systematic interviews with the non-literate professional cooks that have kept and improved recipes for generations in the different regions of India. Disturbingly, this kind of research is being done today, not in order to allow more people to explore and appreciate a vast cultural heritage but for the benefit of the companies that are patenting old recipes.

In contrast, the culinary system codified by the French was exported worldwide through a genre of writing about food from their perspective and through modern professional restaurants which are considered a unique French creation. Science, rationalization and standardization was the modern faith that French/European cooking counterpoised to cuisines that were regarded as guided and limited by religion. But instead of creating a truly universal cuisine, the French created a cuisine driven by the need for efficiency in the restaurant kitchen. By limiting the number of dishes and creating a system in which many steps can be performed ahead of time, a very exportable and learnable cuisine was created. The system of French cuisine is ironically in a continuum with the system of fast food restaurants. The success of both has more to do with ease of production and predictability than with taste.

 

Many high-end Indian restaurants whether in Bombay, Delhi, London or New York, force Indian dishes into western restaurant guidelines which more often than not results in an unsatisfactory dining experience. One of the main problems is the centrality that sauces have in the modern restaurant system. A French-style restaurant depends on a number of mother sauces which are used to produce different variations to dress meat, fish or vegetables that have been cooked separately. Indian restaurants were quick to adapt this system by creating a master curry sauce with which they cook almost everything on the menu. They just add a few more spices as needed to customize each dish.3 This is a far cry from the traditional slow-cooked dishes made with freshly ground masalas and in which complex layers of flavour merge seamlessly. My point is not in favour of authenticity as if Indian cooking has to remain frozen in the past, but is against the uncritical acceptance of western cultural authority.

 

In spite of the celebration of multi-culturalism, most professional cooking schools in the world still teach using a French technical framework. French-style restaurants dominate because in the modern/colonial world they are considered a mark of civilization and development, but also because they are relatively easy to set up. Even with the increasing interest in other cuisines it is much easier to become a French cook than any other kind. Six months at the Cordon Bleu, the elite cooking school with franchises all over the world, guarantee a successful career whereas there is no neatly packaged way to become an expert on Indian cuisine. Cuisines that have not codified their culinary knowledge in a way that makes it easy for outsiders to learn and efficient for a restaurant kitchen, are at a disadvantage.

In the global culture that is emerging we should not perpetuate the hierarchies established by modernity that allowed a few regional cultures to stand as universal. As Indian cuisine becomes better known I hope that Indian culinary knowledge would not only claim a niche but also challenge the culinary hegemony of Europe and the United States.

Instead of accepting the hilsa that was offered to me in New York, I have decided to prepare a sorsé jhol using our local shad fish.

 

Footnotes:

1. Walter Mignolo, ‘The Enduring Enchantment (Or the Epistemic Privilege of Modernity and Where to Go from Here),’ South Atlantic Quarterly 101(4), 2002, 927-54.

2. Walter Mignolo, The Darker Side of the Renaissance. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1995, p. 204.

3. Chris Dhillon, The Curry Secret: Indian Restaurant Cooking at Home. Jaico Publishing, Mumbai, 1996, p. 20.

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