Taking food seriously


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‘THERE are two types of women,’ my best friend’s mom told me when I reached the age to take women out, ‘those who whine, and those who dine.’ Taking that forward for the other gender, one could say, some men wine and dine because they have to live. There is another lot who live to wine and dine. Within the second category there exist real hardliners who also love to read and write about food and its accompaniments. These are the ones to watch out for because they take enormous pains over their food. I know one remarkable gentleman who admits that his life’s ambition is to complete what he calls ‘the gourmet’s grand slam’ – to eat in every single Michelin starred restaurant. Food, like humour, is serious business and cannot be taken lightly.

Lizzie Collingham in Curry: A Biography (London, 2005) notes that one of the earliest Muslim cookery books from Baghdad described food as ‘the noblest and most consequential’ of the six pleasures, the other five being drink, clothes, sex, scent and sound. The Muslim arts of cooking have had a very strong influence on the Indian cuisine and produced, as is well-known, the great Indian favourite, the biryani. The Mughals brought with them the pilau, the art of slow cooking meat and rice in layers, from Persia. The pilau also travelled to Turkey and became pilav, to Spain where it became the paella and to Italy as the risotto. In India, it underwent a profound and delectable transformation. Here is Collingham describing how biryani was made in the imperial kitchens of the Mughals:

‘One of the most distinctive Persian culinary techniques was to marinate meat in curds. For biryani, onions, garlic, almonds and spices were added to the curds, to make a thick paste which coated the meat. Once it had marinated, the meat was briefly fried, before being transferred to a pot. Then, following the cooking technique for pilau, partially cooked rice was heaped over the meat. Saffron soaked in milk was poured over the rice to give it colour and aroma, and the whole dish was covered tightly and cooked slowly, with hot coals on the lid and around the bottom of the pot, just as with pilau.’

It is commonly believed that the biryani attained its sophistication in Lucknow, especially under the last king of Awadh, Wajid Ali Shah. But Abdul Halim Sharar, the chronicler of Lucknow culture, commented that the biryani was the most popular food in Delhi; in Lucknow the taste was more for pilau. He wrote, ‘In the view of gourmets a biryani is a clumsy and ill-conceived meal in comparison with a really good pilau and for that reason the latter was more popular in Lucknow.’ (Abdul Halim Sharar: Lucknow: The Last Phase of an Oriental Culture, Delhi, repr., 1989).


The pilau and the biryani were both demoted when the British Raj sat at the table. In food and in table etiquette, the British in India attempted to replicate the habits and practices of the upper classes ‘back home’. British food was bland as compared to the products of ‘native’ kitchens. But the maintenance of this distinction was important for the preservation of British social status and prestige. Soup, roast meat, custards and pudding entered India, particularly among the upper classes, as did the practice of structured course-based dining. But it did not take long for Indian tastes to influence the palates of the rulers. The entry of the baburchi into the memsahib’s kitchen facilitated this process, and soon British dishes were Indianized. Meat casseroles, usually made with carrots and celery in a wine-based sauce thickened with flour, added Indian masalas to them to bring a distinct flavour.


A similar innovation was the pot or the masala roast in which instead of stuffing the chicken with bread crumbs and herbs, the baburchi cooked the meat in coriander, cumin and pepper in a pot. The good old English cutlet was also made tastier in Indian cooking by mixing the meat with garlic, onions, ginger and other ingredients. Through this process developed the Anglo-Indian cuisine which brought forth such delicacies as jhal firazee and the mulligatawny soup. Very soon the memsahib’s kitchen was altered by the aroma of Indian spices and vegetables. That remarkable book, Curries and Bugles: A Cookbook of the British Raj by Jennifer Brennan (Delhi, 1990) contains recipes for tiffin (that lovely name the British in India gave to luncheon) which carry distinct Indian flavours. How else does one describe what was called ‘eshepherd’s pie’?

Readers of Brennan’s extraordinary cookbook cum nostalgia will note two innovations that the British brought to Indian styles of eating. One was the picnic – eating outdoors, close to nature. The Mughals had also eaten around camp fires but this was per force, when the emperor was on the move. The British ate outdoors for sheer pleasure in the winter months. Sometimes outdoor eating was occasioned by a shooting party organized by a maharaja but often it was an outing with family and friends. Out in the open dining formalities disappeared and the sahibs and memsahibs condescended to eat what they called ‘finger food’ like chapattis and parathas. Brennan gives the following graphic description of one such al fresco meal:

‘The guests sat at round tables and were served with thalis (metal trays) with the food arranged in silver bowls. There were chicken and meat curries, birds and game, lentil dishes and hot chapattis and parathas passed around by servants. Boiled rice was in the middle of each tray. After the meal, silver bowls of scented water were passed around for the guests to wash their hands.’

Lady Curzon noted other aspects of eating outdoors during a shoot:

‘Luncheon and tea we had under an enormous banyan tree, and as huge kites swoop down and carry off the food on your plate native servants stand about with great sticks which they wave at them.’

It was for picnics that such dishes like aloo chops and steam-roller chickens were cooked up by the baburchi. Brennan includes nimboo pani in her list of recipes for outdoor occasions.


The other innovation introduced by the sahibs was the afternoon tea. There existed no Indian equivalent to this repast. Brennan paints the perfect picture and evokes an irrecoverable ambience: ‘The late afternoon sun paints broad bars across the pillars of the veranda... It glints on the silver tea pot and hot water jug on the lace covered tea trolley… Sandwiches have been arranged in precise geometric stacks on the doily covered plates by the bearer. The cakes and scones are elevated in tiers on the silver cake stand. Little blue glass beads edge the net cap over the milk jug and tinkle gently… A few feet away, the dogs lie obediently but attentive; their eyes following the movements of our hands.’

Here too there was a give and take of culinary ideas. The drop scones made in the kitchens of westernized Indian families were as different from the scones served in English homes and tea houses as the pot roast is from the standard British roast. The club sandwich has no British equivalent. These survive as tributes to the sheer genius of the Indian baburchis.


The art of cooking and the art of eating are both thus closely related to an intermingling of prevalent cultures. Tastes are acquired and exchanged, as are ideas of cooking. A familiar dish is adopted to local conditions to produce a new dish altogether. Such examples can be drawn from elsewhere, away from India. That bible of cookery books, The Constance Spry Cookery Book by Constance Spry and Rosemary Hume (London, 2004, repr.) forcefully made the following point as early as 1956 when it was first published, long before French cuisine became popular in Britain:

‘There is a lot of nonsense thought and said about French cooking. There is an idea that it is "high-falutin fancy", overdressed and not suitable for good sound English taste. The fact is that Frenchwomen, for various economic and historic reasons, are good housekeepers and good shoppers, cooking with skill, economy and imagination, wasting nothing, disregarding nothing that may be turned pleasantly and profitably to account. It is because of this, because of their attention to detail, that Rosemary and I both think French cooking is the best basis for teaching practice. This does not preclude appreciation of all that is good in English and other traditions. The marriage of our excellent materials to French methods is a good union.’

The last line reiterates a point that Indian cooks in the days of the Raj had instinctively realized.


What is it in French cooking that makes it the anchor of making good food? Julia Child, who from no knowledge/interest in cooking made herself into a cordon bleu chef, (see Julia Child, My Life in France, New York, 2006) captured the essence of it:

‘At the Restaurant des Artistes, on Rue Lepic, Chef Mangelatte offered a beautifully roasted perdreau nesting on a toasty crouton, surrounded by sprigs of very fresh watercress and a small haystack of just-cooked crisp shoestring potatoes... The patron beautifully and swiftly carved off legs, wings, and breast, and served each person an entire bird... He had placed the breast upon the canapé, an oval shaped slice of white bread browned in clarified butter, topped with the liver – which had been chopped fine with a little fresh bacon – then mixed with drops of port wine and seasonings before a brief run under the broiler. The sauce? A simple deglazing of the roasting juices with a little port and a swirl of butter... It was classic French cooking, where the ingredients have been carefully selected and beautifully and knowingly prepared.’

It was ‘food that tastes of what it is.’ The words, Child tells her readers, are those of the famous gastronome Curnonsky.

Good food and the art of producing it have a culture of their own that cuts across the borders of nation. Something tasty conquers prejudices as the triumph of French food and more recently the popularity of good Indian food have demonstrated. The word culture is used advisedly since the art of cooking and eating is producing – like all other supreme cultural attainments – books that are worth reading.