Updated: July 14, 2021 10:51:12 am
Panta bhat had a moment on food TV and, predictably, many South Asian viewers sniggered. It was served by Bangladeshi-origin contestant Kishwar Chowdhury on the grand finale of Masterchef Australia’s latest season, along with alu bhorta (mashed potato) and fried fish. It had been gussied up with white soy and smoke and was rechristened as Smoked Rice Water, but it was still recognisable to many viewers from the subcontinent’s rice-eating cultures as, variously, panta bhat, pakhala bhat, poita bhat, geel bhat, kanji and ganji.
Chowdhury explained her choice to the judges by describing panta bhat as the kind of food one would never find on a restaurant menu and this, according to many South Asian viewers, was precisely why her choice was shocking, confusing and — most damningly — ludicrous. Panta bhat is, after all, common people’s food, made by adding water to cooked rice and seasoning the resulting gruel with salt. It is sometimes allowed to ferment overnight, and can be livened up with green chillies, grated coconut, onion slices, crushed shallots, ginger, curd, raw mustard oil, lime juice, etc. At the end of the day, though, it still remains rice gruel, the food that one eats to use up leftovers, or soothe an upset stomach or, more frequently, because one can’t afford much more. It is that one thing that food under a spotlight, whether on television or in a restaurant, shouldn’t be — humble.
One must ask, though: Why shouldn’t panta bhat be served to and enjoyed by Masterchef judges? It is undeniably delicious and endlessly flexible in terms of the flavours and textures — chutney, bori (dried lentil dumplings), fried vegetables or fish, dried shrimps, etc — that can be added to it. It can even be “smoked”, as Chowdhury showed. And, not that this factor mattered on the show, panta bhat really does make for a filling, wholesome meal.
What the derision that greeted Chowdhury’s choice shows is how much we are governed by what food studies scholar Krishnendu Ray describes in his book The Ethnic Restaurateur as the “global hierarchy of tastes”. This hierarchy places the cuisines of more powerful groups/nations right at the top, while the food of those with the least capital (economic and socio-cultural) is at the bottom. Ray built his idea from studying trends in US restaurants, noting that the more cultural or economic power a country has, the more prestigious and expensive its cuisine. So Japanese or French food is the popular choice for fancy meals, while a hurried, cheap takeout meal is more likely to be Mexican, Chinese, Indian or Thai.
Similar dynamics govern the hierarchy of tastes in India, where the region and caste origin of a food decides whether it is prestigious/restaurant-worthy or not. Not surprisingly, the greatest prestige is attached to food that is European or American (even if only tenuously so). Among Indian cuisines, food from the southern states, notably Kerala and Tamil Nadu, has wider acceptance than the food of, say, Bihar or Odisha, while the foods of historically marginalised groups are simply not on the table and, therefore, not part of the national imagination of what constitutes a cuisine. The most restaurant-worthy Indian dishes are the ones that are usually called “Mughlai”, but can really only be described as “restaurant cuisine”. They include such favourites as butter chicken and paneer makhanwala, which find wide acceptance precisely because, having been developed in restaurants, they can’t be located in terms of caste and/or region.
And, yet, there does seem to be pushback against this privileging of certain kinds of cuisines/dishes over others. For example, Chowdhury was mistaken when she said that panta bhat is not the kind of food that’s served in restaurants. Three years ago, its Odia cousin, pakhala bhat, was on the menu of the award-winning restaurant The Bombay Canteen, where it was served with kakharu phula bhaja (pumpkin flower fritters). When Chef Thomas Zacharias, who was then helming the restaurant’s kitchen, posted a photo of the dish on social media, the response was overwhelmingly positive. More than one Odia person expressed pride over its inclusion in the restaurant’s menu. A similar pride can be seen in the comments on Chowdhury’s Instagram page, with Bangladeshi users thanking her for putting “their” food on the map. Because that is the real significance of what Chowdhury did: In breaking away from the hierarchy of tastes that has such a hold on global food culture, she has helped make the high table a little more representative.
This column first appeared in the print edition on July 14, 2021 under the title ‘Pantha Bhat on the high table’. firstname.lastname@example.org
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