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The great Indian culinary democracy

Colleen Taylor Sen.  

Chicago-based independent food historian Colleen Taylor Sen’s new book, Feasts and Fasts: A History of Food in India, documents food evolution in the country. A must-have for foodies, the book packs comprehensive information on various aspects of Indian food, right from the cultivation of agricultural crops to the medicinal value of chewing paan. Here are excerpts from an exclusive interview with the author:

How did you get interested in Indian food?

I’m a Canadian married to a Bengali. My late mother-in-law Arati Sen was a well-known Bengali journalist who wrote a column in Desh under the pen name Srimati. She wrote a lot about food.

Gradually, I started writing about travel and food as a freelancer for magazines and newspapers. My tryst with Indian food started way back in the 70s. I was focussing on regional cuisines which were unknown to most in the U.S. Later, I went on to present a paper at the Oxford Food Symposia, on the Portuguese Influence on Bengali Cuisine, which was very well received. I published my first book, Food Culture in India, in 2004, which was followed by three more books. I started research and ground work for Feasts and Fasts as early as 1978.

What according to you is the most striking feature of Indian cuisine?

In my opinion, vegetarianism is one of India’s greatest gifts to the world. The existence of a rich, varied vegetarian cuisine in each and every part of the country is the most distinctive feature of Indian cuisine. Lentils play a central role (be it gravies, vegetables, breads, sweets or savouries) ensuring adequate protein in the Indian diet.

The intensive and extensive use of spices is fascinating to me. For someone encountering Indian cuisine for the first time, the most striking aspect is the role of spices. Not the hotness as most think, but the aroma it gives to food.

As for techniques, most cooking techniques I see are common to other cuisines, except for the Indian ‘ bhuna’, adding water in small quantities while stirring.

What do you think is India’s main contribution to world cuisine?

Linguistic evidence indicates that coconuts were cultivated in South India 2,500-3,000 years ago. It had myriad uses as a source of fuel, drink and food — another example of how ancient the roots of Indian cuisine are.

Sugar cane seems to have been first domesticated in New Guinea around 8000 BCE but quickly spread to South East Asia and India. In the third century BCE, Indians found ways to convert sugar cane into gur (jaggery), molasses and crystal — a major contribution to world cuisine. In fact, the English word sugar comes from the Sanskrit sarkara.

The health benefits of food is a theme that runs through Indian culture. In Ayurveda, food is a panacea that both prevents and cures disease. The compendia of basic recipes compiled by the great Ayurvedic physicians are a major source of knowledge about ancient food. Then come the religious texts: In Krishna’s discussion of dharma in the Bhagavad Gita, he defines three basic qualities that are still central to Indian thinking about food: sattvic, rajasic, and tamasic.

Your observations on the temple kitchen and its unique characteristics.

Food plays a very important role in Hindu ceremonies. Milk, fruits and sweets are offered to deities and later distributed to devotees as prasad. Some temples have enormous kitchens and are famous for their food, such as the Venkateswara temple in Tirupathi (the world’s second-most visited holy place after the Vatican), which is famous for its kalyana laddu, and the Jagannath temple in Puri that serves more than 100 dishes. India’s most famous temple food comes from Udupi in Karnataka, where, in the 20th Century, some temple cooks opened their own restaurants serving vegetarian food — first locally, then all over the world. Today, Udupi cuisine is distinctive and popular.

How is Indian cuisine evolving?

Every time I visit India, I am amazed at how rapidly things are changing. On the downside, some of the old stalls are disappearing; for example, the paratha wallahs in Chandni Chowk. On the other hand, the past few years have also seen a great surge of interest in Indian food history — in television shows, in culinary groups; I even found a Facebook page called ‘Lost Recipes of India’.

Another fascinating feature is the rise in restaurants serving regional cuisine. When I first went to Kolkata 30 years ago, it was difficult to find a restaurant serving Bengali food. Now, there is a profusion of these establishments, ranging from simple to upscale. The last time I was in New Delhi, I even discovered a little restaurant specialising in Bihari cuisine!

What is your next project?

I am working on an Encyclopaedia of Indian Food, with well-known journalist Sourish Bhattacharyya as co-editor. The project is in its early stages and we are looking for funding.

Details about the books published by Colleen Sen are available at www.colleensen.com. A paperback edition of Feasts and Fasts has been published in India by Speaking Tiger Books and is priced at Rs. 699.

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