India Off the Beaten Track: An Itinerant’s Encounters of the Gastronomic Kind

By Shashishekhar Gavai

It is risky business these days in our country that is Bharat to disclose one’s preferences for one kind of sustenance or the other – at best you may be denied membership of a housing society and at worst you could be butchered for transporting what is suspected to be the wrong kind of animal protein. And somewhere in the middle your good friend, who has been a carnivore for close to 4 decades but has now seen the light, may harangue you on the horrors of non vegetarianism. His is the zeal of the convert, the proverbial cat on a pilgrimage after gobbling up a hundred mice.

This dietary intolerance has made it difficult to sample some of the culinary delights of Mumbai where I live. Over the years I have come to relish the crispy mutton samosa served mainly in minority-owned establishments. Today it has disappeared from the menu of many of them and has been replaced by the feeble chicken samosa. The owner of one such restaurant admitted hesitatingly that he had stopped making the mutton samosa because he was afraid that the filling may be mistaken for the wrong kind of meat landing him in serious trouble. So much for the fundamental right to eat what one wishes to eat which is so dear to the gastronome.

I must confess that I wasn’t born a gastronome(I dare not use the term ‘gourmand’ given my modest appetite – the spirit being willing but the flesh being weak). Until my early teens my experience of food was largely limited to the staid fare of dal, roti, sabzi and mutton curry(for Sunday lunch). It took a few years for my mother to discover her culinary talent and that opened up for the family the brave new world of pasta, shepherd pie, hamburgers and several vegetarian delicacies. All these recipes she wrote down very assiduously for the benefit of posterity. The moderate quantum of servings on the table however, scarcely matched our appetites, obliging my kid brother and I to keep a vigilant eye on each other to ensure that not an extra spoonful was had by the adversary.

The realisation that quality beats quantity dawned over me one day when I was home from college on vacation. The virtually inedible food that is served in most college hostels turns their inmates into voracious predators and I was no exception. Mother had made a huge quantity of vada sambar, a substantial portion of which I devoured in one sitting as if there was no tomorrow and with complete disregard for my poor stomach which lodged a strong protest with my palate. For several years after I suffered from the ‘vada sambhar syndrome’, meaning I couldn’t look at a vada in its eye without feeling sick.

A fresh chapter in my gastronomic journey opened in the mid 70s in Delhi where I was a foreign service trainee officer. The restaurants on Pandara Road and the dhabas in the outer circle of Connaught Place introduced me to the pleasures of butter chicken and other goodies. It was also the 70s which took me on my first posting abroad to the former Yugoslavia (it subsequently broke up into seven countries ….no fault of mine of course). Those were the days when vegetarianism outside of India was either a fad or was unheard of and a couple of my strictly herbivorous service batchmates were reported to be close to starvation in the capitals they served (but they mercifully survived and by all accounts are quite hale and hearty now). Restaurants in Yugoslavia had beef this, pork that, chicken this and that, fish so on and so forth, but a vegetarian could at best have bread, butter and salad. The “vegetable” soup he could only order at his own peril as it was prepared in a beef stock. In one of her letters( no email or internet calls in those ancient times…) Mother anxiously enquired if I was consuming bovines so sacred to us. Instead of a direct answer I responded rather facetiously that the Yugoslav cow was a different kettle of fish altogether and had not attained any level of sanctity whatsoever.

From Yugoslavia my diplomatic career took me to several countries. German food was a lot of sausage – bratwurst, bockwurst, bregenwurst, rindswurst, even currywurst(perhaps to make the Indian expat feel at home).It was truly a Wurst case scenario(if you pardon the pun), because there’s only so much sausage that you can eat. British food of course is famous as a culinary disaster. Scotland where I served, prided itself on its haggis, its traditional national dish which is sheep’s offal boiled with oatmeal and stuffed in the same animal’s stomach. To me it looked like something that the cat brought in and tasted similar. The Scots though more than made up for it by dazzling (and sozzling) the world with scotch whisky(although if reports are to be believed more of the stuff is produced in India than the place of its origin). The Scots also have their salmon and trout aplenty, the latter being introduced by the Brits in the cold rivers of Kashmir and Himachal in the 19th century. So avoiding haggis entirely I consumed a lot of these species of fish, almost to the point of falling victim to my ‘vada sambhar syndrome’.

South of Scotland lies what nationalistic Scots refer to as the ‘Auld Enemy’, meaning of course England. They do have some decent pies and cakes but overall the traditional English stuff as I discovered was best avoided. Even after ruling over India for a 150 years all they could bring back from the incredibly rich variety of our cuisine was a bastardised version of good old ‘rasam’, the mulligatawny soup. Nor did they leave much of a culinary legacy behind. However, the post colonial period did bring about the realisation that tandoori chicken and masala dosa are vastly superior to roast beef and Yorkshire pudding so the English then concocted the chicken tikka masala and declared it as their national dish. But in the typical British culinary tradition they have messed this up too. What you have essentially is chicken boiled in a sweet tomato sauce. Lamentably our present day Mir Jafars have slavishly adopted this abomination and pass it off as butter chicken in Pandara Road and most other places, as I discovered to my utter horror some time ago. There should be a law against such atrocities !!! That being said there were some honourable exceptions to the unrefined British tastebuds. Warren Hastings, the first governor general of India, was apparently a fan of Indian food. A recipe for ‘kebaub khataee’, obtained from the Nawab of Lucknow and written in his own hand in his private diary, exists in the British Library.

Warren Hastings’ kebab recipe

Unlike the Brits some colonial powers have indeed left their epicurean mark on former colonies. The influence of Turkish cuisine is evident even today in the former Ottoman Empire – from the Balkans, through Greece, the Middle East into Central Asia. During a visit to Turkey I tried one of their desserts -Irmik Helvasi which was almost exactly like our Sooji Halva and made from the same ingredients (It was perhaps introduced in India during the Delhi Sultanate period as the rulers were of Turkish origin). In Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos I have eaten exquisite french breads and pastries from local patisseries and have sampled ‘haute cuisine’ in restaurants. Some like the Dutch had nothing to offer to their subjects in terms of fine dining. But as I learnt in Indonesia they took some of the best native dishes and created a ‘thali’ – the Rijsstafel or rice table and took it home to Holland.

I just read a news item which claims that sweat-infused rice balls shaped in the armpits of young women have become a culinary hit in Japan and are being sold at ten times the price of their traditional version ‘onigiri’. If this sweaty delicacy does achieve international popularity, I fear the deodorant industry may be in serious trouble. This is indeed extreme cuisine and brings to mind ‘Bizarre Foods’ a popular TV show hosted by Chef Andrew Zimmern . I was an avid viewer and watched with a mixture of awe and revulsion as the man nonchalantly devoured scorpions, tarantulas, maggots and rotten fish. Morbid curiosity indeed! I can never hope to match the gastronomic gumption of Zimmern but I too have partaken of stuff that would set a vegetarian stomach churning and may even cause a flutter in the average non – vegetarian belly.

In addition to the inedible haggis, I have sampled at different times and in various corners of the world, durian( the South East Asian fruit which stinks to the high heavens); frogs legs and snails ( great delicacies in France ); tartar steak ( finely minced raw meat which must have been greatly fancied by our Stone Age ancestors before they discovered fire ); and crocodile tail ( which tasted like rubbery chicken). I know for sure that I will never be able to eat scorpion, tarantula, maggot, rotten fish and other exotic species that Andrew Zimmern consumes with such elan. We all have our limits , the red line that cannot be crossed. Even Chef Zimmern does ! He just cannot bring himself to eat , believe it or not , walnuts and oatmeal. Now ain’t that just cute !