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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Gastronomic Gene


We were at Berco's, stuffing mediocre Chinese food down our gullets.
"So how many courses DOES an average Bengali meal involve?"
"Erm, I don't know,....four, maybe five ." I replied between sips of Fruit Beer (which was great) and mouthfuls of some starter or the other (which was merely adequate).
My co-lunchers eyebrows shot up high enough to ruffle her hair.
"Really, that many? Wow. We have like three on average."

Snobbery. It's as Bengali as Tagore, holidays in Puri and checking fish gills to gauge their freshness. Sometimes justified and sometimes not, but get two NRBs together and you can almost feel the air crystallize around them as they give the cold shoulder to their adopted home and compare notes on how such-and-such is just better in Bengal. Then there are the reverse snobs, snobs who believe they are better than others (mostly other Bengalis) because they believe they aren't snobs at all. Yes, wrinkling our metaphorical noses is just something we are genetically good at.
And of course, like all deeply held beliefs, this sense of superiority too is also a bunch of horse-eggs. Except food. From an early age I have eaten everything that was placed before me. Most of the times, those things were even edible. And slowly I have come to realize that, when it comes to pleasures of the plate, Bengalis take their vittles very, VERY seriously.
Part of it, of course, comes from us being game for absolutely anything. No dish is too weird, no ingredient too taboo. A certain Bengali pretend-singer of jibonmukhi (and thus, by god given right, an expert on all that is Bengali) once regaled a TV audience with an anecdote about how, on a recent trip to Australia with a few other Bengali gentlemen, they had gone to a restaurant for lunch. Apparently one of the nameless gentlemen, after frowning at the menu for several seconds, had called the waiter and asked "Ekhane kangaroor mangsho pawa jae?" ("Do you serve kangaroo meat here?"). The singer, who is reputed (by his PR people) to have abandoned all material pleasures in his pursuit of culture and the arts (well, except for his 4-packs of Marlbaros a day, his pot and his 2 mistresses) is of course one of those reverse snobs, mocking all things Bengali. Thus, the purpose of this anecdote was simply to reinforce the pot-bellied Bengali glutton stereotype, while making it very clear that HE wasn't part of THOSE Bengalis, oh no. At the risk of alienating my vegetarian friends though, my heart swelled with pride. At-a-boy I thought. Go for it. We are not conquerors. We are not fighters. We don't invade. We surrender, and then we take their cooks.
I have a mother who bought a non-stick pan back when they were expensive and we were staunchly lower-middle class just so she could make Dhosas. When she recovered after a long illness, my father gifted her a mixer-grinder. Before all you feminists out there (yes, I still pretend people read my blog) scream MCP, let me remind you that I have seen her completely unaffected by gifts of clothes and jewelery and books and whatnot, but on seeing that mixer-grinder, her face just lit up. She loves to cook, she loves to experiment, and among Bengalis, she is not unique. Just go around any random school playground in Bengal, popping open tiffin boxes, and if they don't call the cops, you will be faced with a dazzling array of snacks, meals and whatnot. Admittedly, some of the creations can be quite terrifying. Back when I was too young to know better, I had once agreed to swap tiffin boxes, contents unseen. I had been promised noodles, and I knew I had sandwiches, so licking my lips I flip open the lid. The unholy concoction that lay within was, technically, noodles yes. But, and this is where the story falls apart, it was noodles cooked with turmeric, peanuts and tamarind. I shit thee not. Too meek to protest, I finished the yellow mess. I still get letters of complaint from my taste buds, and I can't say I blame the fellows. The taste....lingers.
Anyway, my point is, even the devil spawn noodles proves my point about Bengalis being ready to experiment with anything and everything that has been proven to not be actually poisonous, and even then, they will give it a shot if there are qualified medical experts standing by. Compare that with say.....butter chicken. The de-facto chicken dish of the north. The culinary poster boy, so to speak. Is there a dish more derivative, more unimaginative, more boring ? Ingredients are exactly four. Cream, butter, chicken, and tomato puree. Some cashew nuts, maybe, and a thimble full of spices. The first mouthful is exactly the same as the last. It's like a guided tour through an empty museum. And the guide speaks only German. If there ever was a book called "Exotic North Indian Cooking", it would be the smallest book in the world. Here is how it would go.

Take normal food
Add enough butter to clog the arteries of a small town
Voila!!

OK that was harsh. There are stuff I like here.. The Dal Makhnis. The Palak Paneers. The Mutton Raras. But compare that to a Bengali Shukto. Anything between five to ten vegetables go in that dish alone. Or most Bengali meat dishes, which will have at least one ingredient apart from the meat. Usually the humble potato. Even the Biryianis are incomplete without a whole potato, dum cooked and steaming, straight out of the handi. Variety, experimentation and a willingness to try anything. It doesn't always work out great, but when it does, it's awesome.

1 comment:

Bedabrata said...

This is a proof that people still read your blogs after enough.....persuation. Well, you didn't actually chase me with a hatchet, so we shall leave it at that.
Jokes apart, this is a subject very close to my heart, in fact, like every 'patriotic' bengalee, just under it. Well, agreeing with you on this topic is not really a point to be discussed at all. I just feel you left out one aspect of the culinary veneration of this race. That a standard bengali meal can wrap a North and South Indian banquet without a burp in terms of no. of items (Which is not saying much, anyway) is merely a Statistics. Maybe, there are some Zulu tribes which can offer you a lot more varieties with your own intricate body parts (balls in kidney sauce, heart-'o'-lung pie, spine soup with a sprinkle of pubic hairs, and so on....). However, the bengalees stand out in the last item of their meals, the one after desserts. Its called "The discussion!!!" No race in the world perhaps starts planning the dinner while washing after lunch. Food is not just for the meals at all for Bengali, its a culture. If two bengalees are shipwrecked on an uninhabited island, you can bet your ancestral home that nine out of ten times the first thing they'll be discussing is whether the wild boar for lunch should be roasted with a spot of garlic, or whether a little ginger paste should do the trick. Mind you, this count is including two persons of different sex, both being heterosexual. The bengalee believe in the motto, "Dinner before sex, with light snacks in between." When you tell a bengalee friend you had been to a wedding last night, the first (and perhaps the only) question is "ki khawalo?"(What was for food?) Then you go on about the dissection of the items, compatibility with each other and comparative staudy with the wedding meals in the recent past (i.e. since you learnt to taste). Your friend doesn't care whose marriage it was or even whether you sneaked in without an invitation. At most, if they learn you were thrown out just after the starters, they retire to a moody silence after you sign off with the philosophical remark..."Jakge, pakoray dhonepata bhaloo lage na amar.."(Leave it, I don't like corriander in meat balls anyway...)