If there ever is a tour of all the kitchens in India,its path would be long,winding and packed with variety at every step. Few things divide India more than food. In a pinch of condiments and a toss of herbs,the flavours of the North get separated from that of the Northeast,and the colours of a Southern thali become distinct from the taste of the West. Now,two documentaries by Public Service Broadcasting Trust explore how food is not just good enough to eat,it is also a calling card for a community,family and individual and these identities are constantly asserting themselves.
Vani Subramaniam,best known for the documentary,Ayodhya Gatha,turns her attention to food in her latest work,Stir.Fry.Simmer. Arun Kumar TR,on the other hand,combines his filmmaking career of 25 years with a lifelong passion for cooking in his film Beyond Chicken Tikka Masala.
A Malayalee brought up on traditional fare since childhood,Kumar,in his fifties,had found out early that the worldwide definition of Indian food did not include the meals that his mother made and served. To the whole world,Indian food seemed to be restricted to tandoori,kebab,tikka and curry. I didnt identify with this. It seemed like somebody had created a mould and was trying to fit me into it, he says. Beyond Chicken Tikka Masala begins with Chef Sanjeev Kapoor stating as much: If somebody rubbishes chicken tikka masala,they dont know the power of chicken tikka masala.
What follows is a narrative that sprinkles together a long list of ingredients,from the medicinal properties of spices to the myth that desi cuisine is hot. Finally,Kumar reveals his punchline in the US and the UK,food experts have signalled the arrival of a new kind of Indian cuisine regional. The world,it seems,is starting to look beyond chicken tikka masala.
As a country becomes economically stronger,it acquires a confidence in its own identity,chiefly its food, says Kumar. No longer are we modifying our food to suit global tastes. Now,we have the confidence that our original flavours will be accepted, he adds.
Not all traditional tastes,however,are accepted even in mainstream India. In Osmania University in Hyderabad a few years ago,students had held a beef festival,which became the centre of large-scale riots.
Stir.Fry.Simmer juxtaposes these riots against anecdotes about a young entrepreneur who names her lifestyle brand Pure Ghee. (It had the right connotations for what I was trying to do. It was Indian,it was handmade, says Aditi Prakash) and a Kerala-based band that has named itself after a mixed vegetable dish called Avial (When we sing in Malayalam,it is more open,more free. We had a feeling that we were expressing something right, says a band member.)
Food is a marker of where you belong and where you dont belong. While Pure Ghee was trying for a pan-Indian identity,Avial was firm about its roots, says Subramaniam. She herself is a vegetarian but casual about people around her eating meat. Then,one day while filming,she came across the Musahars and baulked at the thought of people eating rats. My instinctive reaction was of disgust, she says,before explaining how the hardline borders in her own mind suddenly became obvious. The film is packed with hard-hitting facts and Subramaniam contrasts this with mouthwatering shots of food. I didnt want the audience to forget their taste buds, she says.