A festive feast

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Published: July 26, 2015 12:05:22 AM

Be it Eid or Diwali, food is a tie that binds and energises relationships not only between people, but between nations

THIS WEEK, the Pakistan High Commission hosted an Eid Milan and invited friends for an evening of festive food and friendly conversation. It was simple enough in premise, but the swarm of media personnel outside the venue was a clear indicator of how the goings on in this embassy are always of interest. Lodged opposite Nehru Gardens in Delhi, the Pakistan embassy boasts a majestic presence—its blue dome peeks over its tall gates and is all that is visible, lending this all too familiar nation the mystery that politics dictates. Security is usually tight and unlike, say, the American embassy, one rarely sees a bustle outside its gates. Then, to be greeted by a crowd on the evening of the Eid Milan left me a little surprised. So I asked a friend from the media who was waiting outside with his camera crew, “What are you doing here?” only to be asked back the same question!

But the answer to my question became evident when I walked in—the cameras were trying to capture the distinguished ambassador Abdul Basit in mid-handshake with Mirwaiz Umar Farooq. The media was there to see who had come from Kashmir. Syed Ali Shah Geelani, now the recipient of an Indian passport after a 20-year hiatus, had allegedly declined the invite, upset that the issue of Kashmir would not be discussed between the prime ministers of the two nations when they met. His sulk notwithstanding, it was difficult to say if he was missed. On the surface, it didn’t seem like it at all, as people mingled comfortably and the ambassador made a brief welcome speech that urged the two countries to move from confrontation to co-operation. The ladies of the embassy were beautifully attired and pulled out their phone cameras for photographs at regular intervals, capturing that effortless elegance that we often speak of in more relaxed circumstances and that we catch on their hugely popular television dramas.

The event, usually held in the vast lawns of the compound, had been moved indoors to provide escape from the muggy evening. But the guests still needed to return to its moist embrace because that is where the buffet was set up.

But before that, in its cool air-conditioned environs, liveried servers passed by with trays of soft beverages and appetisers on sticks that one would find at any Indian gathering: paneer tikka, chicken tikka, mutton seekh kebab and a fried fish fillet with tartare sauce. In many embassy soirees, including those from the West, hosts are careful to serve what appeals to the local palate, but here, there was a ‘homeliness’ that accompanied the food. Outside these gates, pertinent issues raged, but in the small confines of this ante room, there was an easy familiarity that could not be discounted.

As co-founder of the first Food for Thought festival (that focuses on building cultural harmony in south Asia through a shared culinary heritage) this October, my colleagues Maneesh Baheti, Sonali Anand and I have found—through our exploration of cuisine and its practitioners from Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka to Nepal (for this year)—that food is a tie that binds and energises relationships not only between people, but between nations. And in many ways, this Eid Milan served that purpose—even if news agencies missed this aspect and carried only interviews that spoke of geopolitics. Hence, I must, in this column, speak of the food and the atmosphere because that evening, it was really all about the food and conversation.

And the spread at the embassy did not disappoint, serving favourites like bharwai karela and the lip-smacking Lahori chana, which even the non-vegetarians could not resist and took multiple helpings of. Lahori chana, an ode to the rich culinary heritage of Lahore, had many takers at the party. The caterer for the evening told me that it is, in many ways, similar to our pindi chana. However, for this version, he had to thin the gravy to make it as close to authentic.

This culinary sleight of hand is, in many ways, an allegorical reference to our differences that, all too often, we hold too close.

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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