On some weeks this column is torturous. This is one of those weeks. A free-flowing column on food sounds delightful in theory. So much to explain, so much to deduce, so much to record. In theory. The reality is that sometimes there's absolutely nothing new to say.
Discussing food trends seems like an obvious solution. Mineral water sommeliers? Done. Exotic table salt? Done. Herbal cocktails, spiced chocolates, civet coffee? Done, done, done.
Recession dining's already ‘so yesterday'. Once exciting molecular gastronomy seems to be headed in the same direction, along with fusion cooking, packaged cake mixes and stodgy blancmange. While the food world appears fairly capricious at first glance, if you study trends you will notice that they're heavily, and constantly, influenced by the world we live in. By political and economic upheavals. By pop culture, trendsetters and top ten lists. Chefs, cooks and food writers. King makers and pretenders. Like fashion, this is a volatile arena, which is what makes it so fascinating. Ayurveda says you are what you eat. So perhaps it's behoves us to study why we eat what we do.
Which, coming to think of it, provides a suitably high brow theme for this week's column. An added bonus: it also explains why food as a topic is important. It's the purest expression of a culture, and a people. No matter how eclectic your food habits are, when it comes to comfort food, you will cook yourself a simple meal that you grew up on: Curd rice and pickle. Kadhi-chawal. Dal-bhaat.
Trace a genre of food from its origin — the obvious examples include Anglo-Indian cooking, Goan-Portugese food and Tamil-French cooking. You get a smorgasbord of clues about each community by just studying their recipes, ingredients and cooking techniques. Their invaders and traders, travels and ideas, agriculture and beliefs — all laid out on a plate.
In today's world, how do you deconstruct a menu? Remember food is influenced by global forces, like fashion, for starters. What does Chanel's black dress have to do with your dinner? Well, from Twiggy to Kate Moss, fashion icons have dictated that ‘thin is in' and always will be. (Kate Moss famously explained her restraint at the table by saying “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.”) Hence over the last couple of decades, chefs and home cooks have been tweaking recipes, making them lighter, greener and more nutritious. Diets such as the South Beach and Atkins inspired a generation of recipes low on carbohydrates and high on protein. Buffets and brunches, dinner parties and cocktails were altered significantly as a result.
Then came the backlash — headed by the likes of Nigella Lawson, cooing about the pleasures of potatoes fried in goose fat and desserts lavished with butter. Austerity suddenly seemed rather square. The solution was to compromise. Brown bread, with butter not margarine. And thanks to contemporary Indian nutritionists stressing on the importance of respecting age-old wisdom and Ayurvedic cooking, ghee came back into fashion.
Don't discount the power of the economy. During recession, food became cheaper but more indulgent. Even as meals became lusher, with old school puddings coming back into fashion, because they were comforting, oversized exotica became crass. Power lunches lubricated by thousand dollar wines were deemed offensive. Even if people had money to throw around, it seemed vulgar to do so at a time when people were losing their jobs and sleeping in their cars. Foraging, which top rated Copenhagen-based Noma has made so fashionable, was triggered by this movement. Now chefs are proud to work with not just local ingredients, but also food they have sourced themselves.
Unfortunately there don't seem to be many Indian food trends capturing people's imagination as far as pop culture goes. We're a couple of beats behind America and Europe when it comes to food fashion — swimming about gleefully in cupcakes and cosmopolitans courtesy “Sex And The City”, while the rest of the world has moved on to pies, artisanal ice pops and ethnic sandwiches. A pity really. Given how rich and varied our food culture is, we should be the trendsetters instead of the lemmings. It would also make my job as a columnist far easier!