V. Gangadhar has a flashback about food writing, beginning with the popular Busybee.
Way back in 1968, the year I entered journalism in Ahmedabad, I would never have thought of asking my News Editor, if I could do a piece on the famous Kanda Bhajiyas (onion bhajiyas) of Raipur Chakla or interview the head Maharaj (cook) of the popular eating house Chandra Vilas known for its incomparable dal, jalebi, fafda-chutney and topless waiters. He would have questioned my sanity. The profession had rigid, clear ideas on what went into it. News was strictly divided into accepted Beats — government, politics, civic affairs, crime, education and a smattering of local affairs. Food and eating were strictly private and did not fit into this format. Advertisements occasionally covered accommodation and comforts offered by hotels, but not restaurants. Exceptions were women’s magazines like Femina and Eve’s Weekly which devoted one page to recipes. The westernised affluent readers sought out the British publication, Woman & Home, if they wanted to bake cakes.
The tradition-bound Indian society favoured eating in the privacy of homes. On my first foreign trip I was astonished at everyone eating and snacking on the roads. Roadside eateries were always crowded and one saw meat being grilled, roasted, fried and served. Bigger Indian cities took to this style of eating. Bade Miyan, just outside Mumbai’s Taj Mahal Hotel which specialised in kebabs, tandoori chicken and meat dishes became a popular roadside eatery and even attracted the five-star guests at the Taj. But food writing took time to develop. Times of India’s star reporter Behram Contractor (“Busybee”) made use of a daily column “Round and About” to write occasional pieces on city restaurants. His simple style and endearing human interest angles brought alive Bombay’s Irani Restaurants (Brun maska, Butter biscuits, Berry pulao and tea), Udupi restaurants and “idli-sambar-chutney” eating places of Matunga, Gujarati thali in special restaurants of Kalbadevi, fried fish joints at Sion-Koliwada.
The amazing variety of Bombay life would not be complete without references to its food and Busybee, though he did not rank his eating places, but did much to evolve the progress of food writing. The “Round And About” columns brought out in book form sold briskly. Busybee’s contribution continued with his talented wife, Farzana Contractor, bringing out the popular though expensive and glossy food magazine, Upper Crust.
Indian journalism from the 1990’s expanded. It became more colourful and began to reach a larger target audience with supplements, celebrity coverage and unexplored human interest angles. Economic liberalisation brought big money, foreign investment which boosted local media with hefty doses of advertisements.
More Indians went abroad and began to appreciate French, Italian, Mexican, Japanese and other international cuisine. These had to be written about and food writing got a big boost. Journalism suddenly had new stars, the food critics and food writers.
The New York Times already had eminent food writers like Craig Claiborne who brought fame and prestige to the paper, and Indian food writing gradually began to catch up. Initially, the process was not selective; any good feature writer was considered good enough to write on food.
“Food writing needs certain special qualities,” says Neha Sumitran, former food critic for Mumbai magazine Time Out now with National Geographic Explorer. “Good writing skills are a must along with deep interest in food from market to mouth. It helps if the food writer herself can cook. While ambience, service and other aspects did count, the final judgment was based on the quality of food.”
Former editor, columnist and TV personality Vir Sanghvi was as much at home with food writing as he was with national politics. Travelling within the country or abroad for at least 15 days a month and rubbing shoulders with celebrity chefs, Sanghvi pointed to the tremendous amount of research that went into food writing. On a visit to Turkey, Sanghvi spent days establishing links between Indian cuisine with dishes like pilaf, kebabs and the popular sweet jalebi which was served in several Middle East nations under different names — zulubiya, zellabiya, z’labia and zalabiya. These details may not enhance the taste and flavour of the jalebi but were appreciated by food connoisseurs.
Sanghvi and other food writers imparted knowledge because food writing was not just about the flavour, taste and ambience of dishes. Ignorance was not bliss in the art of cooking. He faults Indian chefs for ignoring dishes like deep-fried chicken pakora which were served only in a few restaurants like Delhi’s Moti Mahal. Food writing helped customers select the right kind of restaurants and order the right kind of dishes. Often food writers demolished the concept that the most expensive restaurants served the best food. The stress and tensions of modern world can be checked to a certain extent eating the right kind of food. HT Café carried a good piece on the importance of a good, nutritious breakfast, a formula strictly followed by Ian Fleming’s James Bond. Perhaps it made him fitter, enabling him to fight and love better!
Knowledge imparted by good food writing entertained us in many ways. It satisfied our longings for nostalgia (ask the readers of The Hindu, which is strong on nostalgia). One recent Music season piece recollected that Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer loved Milagu rasam, Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar asked for Chow Chow kootu, while ghatam S. Karthick went into raptures over Poricha kootu and Paruppu urundai kozhambu. Readers devoted to music reviews were also delighted with this kind of food writing.
One of the most readable additions to The Hindu Sunday Magazine was the Food Safari column which brought back long forgotten delights of Ramassery Idli and Kovilpatti Kadalai Mittai.
Similarly Mumbai readers were always thankful to Busybee for bringing back memories of Mawa cakes. As someone who stole and ate up grandmother Kaveri Patti’s special palaharam — Morkali, I was delighted to read about the comeback of traditional food items like kambankoozh, varagu biriyani, and parangi adai, which were far superior and healthier than today’s fancy junk food. But for good food writing these would be lost to us.
TV food programmes were also increasingly popular but housewives I talked to would rather go by print food journalism and cookery tips which gave them enough time to pore over varieties of ingredients and cooking details. They pointed out that TV food shows were more elitist, required ingredients which were not easily available, and more expensive. Perhaps these factors explained why the well-made foreign food shows were more popular than the desi versions.
Finally food ads added spice to our newspaper reading. Shanghai Annachi — what a cute name for a restaurant! I may never watch the film but I loved its title Kanna, laddu thinna asaya. I would rather have the laddu but what a title!