What's in a name?

Anand Venkateswaran
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Offbeat Does good food mean cooking gaffes or following grandma's diktats?


Aparticularly fulfilling meal brought about a bout of philosophy, which everyone knows is best had on a full stomach. As the last morsel sunk in, a question surfaced —does it matter what a dish is called, as long as it tastes great? And should new dishes, quite distinct in taste and texture, be allowed to adopt popular names?

Would kulfi taste as exotic in the South if it were just another kuchchi ice? And isn't mulligatawny soup beyond redemption, despite the heavy garnish of history?

But I'm swimming against the tide here. Any menu would tell you that nomenclature is how the customer is wooed. That subtle difference between veg biryani and handi biryani is often the clincher when with an ambivalent customer. Little words such as bhajnee, thalipeet, dhansak dal, ulava charu demand a second look, often prompting a “guess what's in it” game. On the other hand, there are the fried idlis and tandoori chickens of the world which call a spade a spade and still manage to be hugely popular. But what happens when a name is borrowed?

On a recent visit to cold, foggy Delhi, I visited a friend of mine, a food enthusiast who likes to dabble in South Indian cuisine. Now, there was a bowlful of sambar and there were a few dosas. The sambar was delicious and the dosas were uncharacteristically fluffy and crunchy at the same time, with an unfamiliar aroma and delicious texture. I expressed appreciation by stuffing my face some more.

However, I couldn't help but think those two simple dishes would scandalise conventional gourmets, who have unofficially but very obviously taken up the mantle of ‘guardian of grandma's recipe'. They tell you how something ‘ought to taste' and go on a monologue about genuine ingredients, pristine techniques and the mysterious kaimanam with a dangerous, glazed look in their eyes. Talk to them all you want, but eat with them, and your meal is ruined.

I would imagine we've missed out on hundreds of new recipes simply because the taste and the name didn't match. Flat idlis, fat dosas, meat in sweetish masalas, ketchup as a regular garnish, kuzhambus and sambars made with the wrong powder, and so on. Most of these are kitchen accidents, but haven't you ever felt that pang of guilt when you told the chef “This doesn't taste like it at all” but forgot to add, “But this is brilliant?”

What if I like my dosa made from plain flour, rice flour and curds? What if I like my noodles soupy or my dal runny? Food for thought, innit?

It comes down to what food means to you. To some, it is simply sustenance, so the name doesn't matter. Others impose their status and attitude on their eating habits. The name matters. There's a middle path, where you truly appreciate food for food's sake. If it's been named interestingly, you acknowledge the name. If it's been made deliciously, you enjoy the food. That way, there's always something to take away.

Anand Venkateswaran




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