Political scientist and culinary expert Pushpesh Pant on menus, cookbooks and being finicky about food
Pushpesh Pant’s formidable CV on the website of Jawaharlal Nehru University, whose School of International Studies he retired from a few years back, has a list of 12 publications in it. The books, largely addressing Indian foreign policy, have been written over a career spanning nearly four decades. For almost the entirety of this duration, Pant has also been obsessed with food.
And this obsession, as he will himself point out gleefully, is better documented. Indeed, food for Pant is not a quotidian matter; it is more important than politics, foreign policy or psephology. “There are two subjects which are really important: food and sex. And in that order, because if a person is not nourished how can he think of sex,” he says, not entirely mischievously.
We are at Aangan, the Indian specialty restaurant, at Hyatt Regency, Bhikaji Cama Place, for a quiet meal on a Saturday afternoon. Pant is renewing a two-decade-old association with the restaurant; he and his friend, the renowned Chef Jiggs Kalra, were instrumental in setting up the menu in the restaurant’s earlier avatar in the early 1990s.
“My association with Jiggs started because he knew his research wasn’t very sound. So he wanted to have someone whose researching skills would be beyond reproach. He made me work as hard as I did for my Ph.D. We used to go out on field trips, there was lots of archival research, lots of reverse engineering…It was not only about deciding menus and recipes, but also sourcing ingredients, sourcing karigars and ensuring that the hotel can consistently deliver those recipes of the same standard,” Pant says.
On seeing the menu, however, Pant’s first feeling is one of disappointment. He calls it out for its lazy, imprecise descriptions (“cracked pepper”). We eventually settle for the paturi macch, subz mewa ki seekh, rarra gosht, dal tadka and what he thinks is their toughest dish — gucchi methi malai matar. He fears that malai might overwhelm the delicate flavour of gucchi. The fear proves correct but the rest of the order is more than a pleasant surprise. The subz mewa ki seekh is a triumph, for it closely mimics the non-vegetarian seekh, Pant declares.
Although one could accuse him of being finicky with food, it is a useful trait. It opens food up in a way that would not otherwise have been possible. This attention to detail is evident also in the books Pant has produced. His “India: The Cookbook”, called one of the best cookbooks of 2010 by the New York Times, is a 1.5 kg compilation of over a 1000 recipes. He is also the author of “Hindu Soul Recipes” and “Buddhist Peace Recipes”, and forthcoming books on temple and street foods of India. Pant also plans to translate the “First Food” by Sunita Narain and Vibha Varshney, which he calls a combination of “evocative writing, sensitive editing and brilliant photography”, into Hindi. A book on paan, which should have come out by now, is still in the works. “It’s like cooking. Everything’s over but you want to garnish it a little.”
From the titles, it should be clear that Pant’s attitude towards food — be it Buddhist or Hindu, off the streets or from home, of the temple or from a royal kitchen, of the rich or the poor — isn’t discriminating.
He credits his parents for the same. His father, a doctor, taught him about the therapeutic properties of food while his mother, “a polymath and a brilliant cook”, who had assimilated influences from Bengal, Assam, Mysore, Saurashtra, Kathiawar, and U.P, taught him that food was a way of knowing India. “The holistic perception of food I realised very early in my childhood…There is a chemistry of food, a psychology of food, a sociology of food. But most of us are reluctant to look at it that way.”
Pushpesh has infected his son, a cinematographer, with his obsession. They are now making a film on Indian food, which he is confident will not be finished anytime soon. “It’s going to last his lifetime and my lifetime,” he smiles, before heading out to a news studio, where a discussion on flavour of the season Narendra Modi awaits his insights.