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

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.

Friday, July 24, 2009


Let's start this at the beginning. It was 2004. No it wasn't. I have a terrible memory for dates. Or even years. Don't trust a single word I say about the when, because I've either forgotten and confused or flat out lying. Anyway, it was some time after the whole Harry Potter craze (back when the craze was still about the books) had erupted. And like all crazes, this one too had antagonized me simply because everyone else seemed to love the little boy wizard and his broomstick. Odd I would be so aggressively anti Potter, because I have always loved fantasy. Even before I read adult or young adult fantasy, or even KNEW fantasy existed beyond the strictly-meant-for-preteens books I read as a child, I loved the IDEA of fantasy . So anyway, one night between 2004 and 2007, I was at my grandparents, bored and restless. I couldn't watch television of course, because the little angel would hear the wisps of the tendrils of sound and that would just ruin his education and career. I mean come on people, it's a child's future we're talking about here! I had nothing to read, unless of course I wanted to know the inner workings of the Uzbek novels of the blurgh! period, generally categorized in the library under the "suicidally depressing" category. Oh, and there was this book the little prince had brought home from school so that he could rip it up in one of his periodic fits of rage and his mom would have to buy a new copy as replacement. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. I knew nothing about Harry Potter, didn't know this was the second book and actively hated the hoopla around the series. I picked up the book, partly to spite it, partly to fall asleep at the third page.
Now I know, according to the rule of the cliched narrative, at this point I am to give a significant pause and say how the book wowed and amazed me and blew me away.

The book wowed and amazed me and blew me away. It really did. It was strange. I have seldom categorized books as unputdownable. This one was. Now don't get me wrong. At no point was I under the impression that I was reading one of the classics. I didn't (and still don't) consider Rowling to be a literary great. Maybe someday, but not now. So what was in that book that made my look up, bleary eyed and exhausted , eight hours after I picked it up and realize that I had finished the book in one go? Where was all my cynicism, and antagonism towards 'fads'? Rowling had weaved a world of magic, an imperfect, rough-around-the-edges world, but one that had the curious ability to transport me to it, warts and all. I SAW platform 9 and 3/4. I FELT the terror when the basilisk bared its fangs. I HEARD the whimpering voice of Pettigrew as he desperately went from character to character, begging for mercy. I was buying what Rowling was selling, and buying it in spades. I tracked down the other three books that were already out, and devoured them. I appreciated how the books started out as cheery fairy tales with horror-lite woven into them, but grew progressively darker as the series progressed. Yes, sometimes it was infuriating. Rowling's completely arbitrary magic system (point and wave, boys, and whoosh! happens) and her habit of introducing characters and artifacts that were strictly meant for single use only were head scratching and infuriating. But still I read on. I read on when the fifth book arrived, and couldn't afford to buy the sixth, so borrowed the book (something i rarely do). And yes, the seventh book was predictable, but can you blame Rowling? After a billion rabid fans dissect and analyze and pour over the preceding six chapters of the saga, no eventuality is left out of consideration.
Rowling has had her share of detractors. While the critics were all praise, at least for the initial set of books, criticism grew, as it always does, with the series' explosion in popularity. Even as the last four books went on to become the fastest selling books in history, some literary critics chose to heap scorn upon Harry, calling the books "derivative","ridden with cliches", "written for people whose imaginative lives are confined to TV cartoons, and the exaggerated mirror-worlds of soaps, reality TV and celebrity gossip".
I have more respect for critics than most people. I am a fan, a true fan of movie critic Roger Ebert, and I do believe that sometimes the mass audience is just plain wrong about the merits about any work of art, and it takes a true student, a true lover of said art, a critic to be exact, to tell us what is good and bad. But I also believe that sometimes critics so gleefully focus on the negative, maybe for effect, maybe because it irks them that the audience chooses to elevate flawed creations over better-crafted, more perfect ones, that they forget why people love to experience the arts. Is Harry Potter derivative? certainly. Rowling has cribbed from a vast landscape of literature, from Tolkein to Twain, to create her world of wizards and muggles. But she has done so with care, she has done so expertly and she has done so with a love for her own creation that shines through to create something that , even as a cocktail of borrowed ideas, is truly unique. True, there is no poetry in Rowling's language. She does not weave words like some authors do, words that seem to take a life of their own to enter your mind and set off little sparks of ideas and imagination . When she tries, she fails and the end result is pure, unadulterated pap. Her words are bricks, unremarkable and dull in themselves, and yes, sometimes cliched, but she uses them to create what is there in her own mind, and take you on a ride through HER imagination. So Diagon Alley comes alive and bustling with fantastic creatures, similar and yet distinct from the bustling markets of Ankh Morpork. So the halls of Hogwarts, stolen from so many other school stories by Blyton and Wodehouse become her own, with their looming Gothic architecture and portraits that have lives of their own. And Harry, Ron and Hermoine become more than the troubled jock, the stuffy brain and the good-natured comic sidekick to become creations and flesh and blood with an unique team dynamic. Snape evolves from being the antagonist, to the cool, brooding anti-hero in a black, to finally becoming a real man, with a history and a reason for his actions. Dumbledore is revealed to be more than a roguish headmaster or a godlike being with superpowers, he is a general who makes mistakes and is not above using a troubled boy to win a war. Harry Potter starts out as school stories and fantasy stories with all the stock character sets, but evolves with its readers. Rowling has made mistakes along the way, but Hogwarts hasn't missed a step.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Delhi on Auto-Pilot

"Jhandwala chalenge?"
"Aap kitna dete hai?"

"Pachas dijie"
Huh ?? I mean humminy humminy huh?? In my two years in this city, I confess I have completely failed to understand the thought process of Delhi auto drivers. Neither rain, nor drought, nor a blizzard. Empty autos positively littering the streets. I have JUST informed the dude that I pay thirty for the ride, so why exactly does he even expect that I am going to pay the twenty extra bucks? Time an again I have had this conversation with auto guys (allowing for differences in denomination and destination, of course.) and time and again I have failed to understand what exactly it is in my expression that makes me look like a retarded millionaire who would dole out extra money for absolutely no reason.
However, I will give this to Delhi autos. They are extremely good losers. Seldom have I lost a bargaining battle with them, (the trick is to not appear desperate and when they quote a figure too high, act as if they told you to stuff a live rattlesnake down your pants, startled incredulity with a tinge of have-you-lost-your-fucking-mind.)and while all hostility and/or desperate pleas that I am snatching the last crumbs of stale bread from the lips of their starving children, once the bargaining is over they are good humor personified. Some even strike up friendly conversations, as if five minutes ago they weren't arguing with me that a mere fifty bucks over and above the meter is just way too little. The fact that I would pay the extra money just to get them to shut up is, of course, another issue altogether. Nor do they haggle over the money(again!) at the end of the journey , as many Calcutta auto drivers do .
Of course that does not excuse them from the horrible habit of asking you to change autos in the middle of the trip. Noida autos do this more frequently than others, and they generally drop me off without a word of warning at the Delhi border, making me feel more like a piece of contraband or a Mexican illegal immigrant. And of course the unwritten rule here seems to be that the more inoffensive, short, semi balding runt your original driver was, the more intimidating and incredibly hulk-ish the alternative seems to be. You know, the kind you hope is merely a horrible axe murderer and not something worse, like a previously convicted axe murderer who has developed a taste for prison rape. Of course they always end up being nice people in general, but it's hard to notice that when I'm trying to meld with the fabric of the backseat every time he glances in the rear-view mirror.
I do love the adorable little hunks of metal they strap to the front seat backrest though. Officially, they're meters. Unofficially, they're the keep-cops-away magic box. And of course they have to be on, so some enterprising gentlemen keep them on all day long. This has, of course, led to some bizarre instances. Like when I came home from CP one night. Fare : 50 Rupees. On the meter : 278 Rupees. Or on one of my regular trips to Noida. Fare : 130 rupees. On the Meter : 544 Rupees. But nothing quite beat the moment when an auto I was on got stopped by the cops a few minutes away from home. It looked like a routine check. The cop popped his head in and asked " Ap kahan se a rahe hain?"
" Karol Bagh" (Karol Bagh is about a kilometer or two away from my house)
The cop looks at the blinking meter . 944 Rupees.
I walked home that night, but I couldn't help but feel a twinge of sympathy for the guy who forgot to just restart his meter all day. Poor fool.