Culinary tales: Preparation of Indian food brings to fore philosophical axis of Indic civilisation

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Published: December 23, 2018 1:59:53 AM

Earlier this week, the first Conference on Soft Power was held in New Delhi under the auspices of the India Foundation.

Culinary tales, indian food, philosophical axis, Indic civilisationAlthough Indian food is one of the most labour-intensive cuisines in the world, it is perceived as “cheap”.

Earlier this week, the first Conference on Soft Power was held in New Delhi under the auspices of the India Foundation.

For too long, there has been little strategic emphasis placed on the civilisational wealth of experiences we have to offer to the world. A few years ago, when I lived in Myanmar, as the country emerged from military rule, I encountered in a span of a few months, two soft power interventions by the Koreans and the Chinese. Admittedly, the youth in Myanmar was more drawn to South Korean movie stars and pop icons than Chinese. However, apart from investment in infrastructure, the latter was not willing to be left behind, drawing resonance with the Chinese-origin diaspora in Myanmar. Of course, we in India, despite our deep cultural roots with Myanmar, were doing little to engage with our neighbour, an oversight leaders, including Daw Su, have articulated. This was prior to PM Modi’s Act East policy. However, at that point of time, I felt frustration at the lack of initiative, knowing through conversations with Burmese friends that Indian TV soaps and Bollywood, as well as our fabrics/fashion were wildly popular there—not to mention the presence of a sizeable population of Indian-origin Burmese there, as well as the dosas sold as street food in Yangon.

Last year, I organised a conclave called Words Count: The Festival of Words, which had a panel discussion on soft power, with representatives from across the arts, including cuisine, fashion and more. Brand and image guru Dilip Cherian also participated, providing a holistic perspective on the issue. So this year, when an entire conference was dedicated to this purpose, arranged by Indic champion and mentor to social entrepreneurs Hari Kiran Vadlamani, it was with unreserved delight that I participated.

My session was on cuisine and I moderated a panel with chefs Vikas Khanna and Manjit Gill, and Rohit Khattar of Old World Hospitality. Each one of the panelists brought a unique perspective and, amidst themselves, about 100 years of combined experience in the world of cuisine!

Khanna is a Michelin-star Indian celebrity chef who has crossed over to the mainstream in America. Raised in Amritsar, he spoke eloquently of his first exposure to cooking at the Golden Temple and the many langars served by community kitchens in gurudwaras. The inclusivity of this practice, underscored by generosity, brought people together. His message was simple: food brought people together. Gill, a legend in the hospitality profession, touched upon the spiritual and philosophical bearings of Indian food. The preparation, based on approximations, brought to fore the philosophical axis of Hindu or Indic civilisation—all-embracing and not one of strong measures or tones. He spoke of how Indian cuisine was not only about flavour, but also texture.

Khattar, a successful restaurateur known especially for Indian Accent (which has had a successful run in London and New York), spoke of the challenges he faced and how a famous American chef once told him that his “adventure” into the American market was doomed for failure and wouldn’t last a year—the restaurant is now in its third year. Krishendu Ray, a professor at New York University who has been studying the rise of the cuisine for a decade now, believes that there is a $30 threshold when it comes to Indian food, which essentially means that it’s difficult to sell it for more than that amount.

Although Indian food is one of the most labour-intensive cuisines in the world, it is perceived as “cheap”. This perception can be directly pinned on a lack of awareness about the effort it takes to prepare it. But fine-dining restaurants like Indian Accent are bucking that trend to some extent. However, an information campaign is required as well. But this assessment, although valid, doesn’t mean that one must be put off by the challenges. Also, it is entirely possible that the cuisine will find its greatest resonance and possibility of mainstreaming with a QSR avatar, much in the way McDonald’s has done it for the US—McDonald’s is often cited as the US’ biggest soft power export along with Hollywood. High cuisine or “fast” food, when it works, serves as an enduring goodwill ambassador for a country and the attempt to reach that goal is worth the effort.

Advaita Kala is a writer, most recently of the film Kahaani. She is also a former hotelier having worked in restaurants in India and abroad

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