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'Bhagwaan ke Pakwaan': A book in search of food and faith

Varud Gupta and Devang Singh Thukral’s book is as much a travelogue as it’s a photodiary and cookbook, says Rushina Munshaw Ghildiyal

March 27, 2019 07:48 pm | Updated March 29, 2019 12:15 pm IST

Food catharsis: (clockwise from top left) A copy of Bhagwaan ke Pakwaan: Food Of The Gods; preparation of chhapan bhog at Jagannath Temple in Odisha; A member of the Karbi Tribe drinking rice beer in Meghalaya; Varud Gupta and Devang Singh

Food catharsis: (clockwise from top left) A copy of Bhagwaan ke Pakwaan: Food Of The Gods; preparation of chhapan bhog at Jagannath Temple in Odisha; A member of the Karbi Tribe drinking rice beer in Meghalaya; Varud Gupta and Devang Singh

I finally received my copy of Bhagwaan ke Pakwaan: Food Of The Gods by Varud Gupta and Devang Singh Thukral a few days ago. It opened on the chapter on Spiti, with a soul-stirring picture of the landscape that drew me in. I was lost to imagery and only surfaced a few hours later at dawn, pulled out of my stupor, rather fittingly by the muezzzin’s call to prayer from the nearby mosque...

Happy food discoveries

What I expected was a tome of heavily researched insight into foods served to Gods, a topic that is rich and worth documenting. What I got, instead was a pleasant surprise. Far from heavy reading, Bhagwaan ke Pakwaan is a travelogue/photodiary/cookbook. Rather than documenting the bhog or traditional meals served to the Gods that factor into religious rituals, the book is at the intersection of food and faith. Gupta and Singh (one a self-professed atheist and the other an agnostic), cut through all the gravitas that usually surrounds topics of religion to tell stories that connect at a basic level and circumvent formality. The tone is light-hearted and the information is well-researched. The beautiful photographs are supplemented by candid, sometimes almost visceral, sometimes high-on-something (rice beer maybe) conversations about locales and happy food discoveries.

The narrative is deft, poignant and stirring, with insights into the evolution of many lesser-known culinary cultures. It is strengthened by interviews with unique local characters. Of particular interest was Jagannath Temple 56-course Mahaprasad food that has to be coma-inducing. When locale shifts to Kolkatta, they showcase the cuisine of the Baghdadi Jews, highlighting how the community adapted local ingredients to circumvent the strict rules of Kosher and Shabbat. In Spiti they explore why meat consumption is the norm among Buddhist monks. In Meghalaya, they discover how rice beer and chicken entrails, have been integrated into the Karbi tribe’s Christian practices. I read with fascination accounts of Ladakhi people, drooled over soul satisfying barley porridges, positively slobbered over the descriptions of mutton momos and thupkas.

Unapologetically authentic

That said, while there are recipes at the end of each chapter with food pictures that are larger than life, Bhagwaan ke Pakwaan is not a book I’ll cook from too often. This is largely because the recipes are unapologetic in their authenticity, which is commendable. Too much of our traditional food knowledge gets misrepresented because it is adapted it to fit readers requirements. Several recipes call for unusual local ingredients such as gemune (dried onion or garlic leaves) or cicadas that I don’t have access to, while some call for specific techniques I’d need to watch to replicate. However, I did try out a recipe in the interest of this feature. A recipe from a temple in Odisha, the potol paneer was my choice. It has parval (pointed gourd) and paneer that’s first deep-fried, then cooked in a creamy gravy. The dish was full of texture, from the crisply fried potol and paneer in the creamy subtly sweet gravy with spiced nuances. Following the recipe was easy enough, as it was complete with lucid instructions that were easy to follow.

Authors Varud Gupta and Devang Singh Thukral, Bhagwaan ke Pakwaan, published by Penguin Random House, Indiawill be in conversation with Kunal Vijayakar on March 29, at Mustard, Atria Mall from 5.30 p.m. onwards .

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