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Why a Western critic’s outdated views on Indian food captures nothing of its versatility

They show, instead, how easily people can live in isolated cocoons from which they feel safe to tear down the practices, joys,loves and indulgences of another

Written by Suvir Saran |
Updated: September 5, 2021 1:39:56 pm
suvir saran illustrationThe range of Indian food, its flavours, styles and tastes, across the country’s length and breadth, is a mystery to those not knowledgeable about it (Illustration: Suvir Saran)

Reading what Gene Weingarten wrote so casually and confidently about Indian food wasn’t as appalling to me as finding his words in a newspaper of The Washington Post’s character and reputation. In an article dated August 19, he wrote, “If you think Indian curries taste like something that could knock a vulture off a meat wagon, you do not like a lot of Indian food. I don’t get it, as a culinary principle.” But I suppose newspapers must print such things; otherwise, they wouldn’t be telling us what’s going on in the minds and hearts of people. So as sad and unfortunate as it is that Weingarten’s screed was given space in The Washington Post, it’s almost a blessing. Now the onus is upon those of us who know better to react.

Weingarten’s article shows us how easily people can live in isolated cocoons from which they feel safe to tear down the practices, joys, loves and indulgences of another. The Western world has had its fair share of dominance of “the third world” as it’s often called, because they have driven the narrative for so long. I am aggrieved but no longer shocked that the food I grew up eating, the regional attire, the architectural sensibilities, the decorative arts – those things from the past that connect me to my birthplace – are considered “ethnic”. Italian, German, French fare and commodities, all celebrated for their northern European provenance, are called “food”, “design”, “art” and “dress”, while what I left behind and came back craving to become one with again is labelled with the disparaging adjective ethnic – “ethnic clothing”, “ethnic food”, “ethnic art”, “ethnic dress”. The term ethnic and attitudes like the one expressed by Weingarten in The Washington Post perpetuate the stereotypes and deepen the divides that damage our human collective.

Let’s put India into perspective. A land of 1.4 billion people and growing, it is a land where you can find people of all colours, people who have a million gods, and people who have no gods in their lives. People who live in colour, and those who live lives bereft of colour. There are Indians who are below the poverty line, and those who are richer than the rich, whose lives are so staggeringly posh and opulent that the rest of the world’s rich look obscenely poor in comparison.

Take a kaleidoscope, shake it as hard and as long as you will, and when you look into it, what you see will not be as rich or varied in hue as India. India is a land that is mindbogglingly diverse, a land of extremities. And its cuisine is as writ and varied, as nuanced and storied, as full of discovery as the people it represents. You will find food that’s packed with heat and spice and food that’s bereft of any. You will find food that’s full of flavour and aromatics, you will find food that has none at all.

The Indian palate is one of the most sophisticated palates in the world. Our home cooking is so refined that our taste buds are the sorts that dreams are made of. Over the length and breadth of India, in its different homes, rich and poor, one comes across a wide range of flavours, styles and tastes. It is safe to say that magic happens in Indian kitchens.

Indian food, its life, its breath, its pulsating flavours of aromatics, is all defined in that Pandora’s box that Indians open several times a day. We take from it flavours, textures, colours, heady aromas and seductive tastes that together create dishes that are a mix of hot, sour, salty, sweet, bitter, astringent and aromatic all at once. And in that alchemy, we reach perfect sync and harmony that is a celebration of the taste buds.

Indians are greedy for flavour. We live for flavour, and we live beautifully with abundance even in abject poverty. From this abundance we put together a culinary landscape that is simple yet tasty, heady yet sophisticated, rich but easily digestible. It’s a journey of great discoveries, of humble beginnings, a journey towards a richer society. And that is what Indian food is all about.

It is sad that people like Weingarten are robbing themselves of opportunities to grow. Too afraid to develop new habits, to learn new tricks, to experience a new culture, they would rather cast judgements from their isolation about subjects they know nothing about. What Weingarten is calling dirty, smelly and nasty and not to his flavour, someone else is romancing and rejoicing about and celebrating.

It is said that what occupies minds today in the Western world, Mother India has long ago digested, disposed of, and stopped worrying about. The little things those in the West worry or ache about and are broken by, Mother India has already seen, understood, forgotten about and moved on. So, let us become more aware of where we are in our lives, where we stand, where we look at the world from. We should all take it upon ourselves to be people who go from discovery to acceptance to embracing and bringing back the best we see in the rest of the world. We can then put what we have discovered into practice in our own lives and teach those we love how we grow as human beings, how we evolve, how we celebrate diversity and become better citizens of the world we live in.

(Suvir Saran is a chef, author, educator and world traveller)

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