passing bite Food

Jugaad on the dining table

Getty images/ iStock

Getty images/ iStock  

Think of the many leaps culinary imagination must take to reproduce a native dish in a foreign land

I’m a great fan of Yotam Ottolenghi’s cookery writing. Ottolenghi moved to London from Israel in the late 90s and became really well known after he wrote a regular column in

The Guardian

presenting innovative vegetarian recipes. Since then Ottolenghi and his delis and restaurants have become an institution in the U.K. culinary scene, while his cookbooks — not all vegetarian — have become bestsellers. Though thoroughly knowledgeable about different cooking traditions and owing a lot to Middle Eastern cookery and the mind-boggling mix of food in his home city of Jerusalem, the special thing about Ottolenghi’s recipes is the startlingly unusual combinations of flavours and textures. The man once described his endeavours in a simple but evocative sentence ‘I want drama in the mouth’.

Now, it’s one thing if you happen to be living in London — widely regarded as the food capital of the world — when you try and execute a Yotam Ottolenghi recipe.

London is where you can find almost any ingredient from Polish to Brazilian, from Mozambican to Japanese, and that too without too much effort. Sourcing the raw materials for an Ottolenghi dish, therefore, is almost as pleasurable an adventure as cooking it.

Where’s the mushroom?

Things change, however, when you find yourself flipping through one of YO’s books in India.

Say you’re looking at the recipe for ‘marinated mushrooms with walnut and tahini yoghurt’, say you somehow access or make tahini and buy white wine vinegar and maple syrup in a supermarket, but where on earth will you find buna shimeji mushrooms?

For another recipe, where would you find the artichokes to go with the broad beans? Or merguez sausage, mirin wine or manouri cheese? YO is aware of this and sometimes sympathetic: ‘We always try to suggest alternatives for ingredients you have to work to find,’ he writes, but the next sentence goes: ‘Some things are so distinct, though, that their taste really is hard to replicate.’

The other day I found myself arguing with two young women, who are trained chefs. Discussing Ottolenghi recipes they said that so precise and subtle were his concoctions, it was impossible to really do justice to them without the exact ingredients. I realised that though all three of us were Calcuttans, none of us was a Bengali. With this came the realisation that my mother and my interlocutors’ Sindhi, Bihari and Marwari grandmothers would, 50-odd years ago, all have had to be inventive and flexible while reproducing recipes from their home cultures.

Big cities such as Bombay and Calcutta would have had a lot of stuff imported from Rajasthan, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu and Punjab to support their cosmopolitan populations, but even so the variety and availability of goods was nothing like today.

Going further back in history, I tried to imagine what it must have been like to miss a specific taste from home, a dish, a fish, a fruit, and the leaps of culinary imagination it would have taken to put together something resembling a meal from one’s native culture.

Think of our migrant communities: Biharis in the Caribbean, Tamilians in South Africa, Gujaratis in Africa, Sikhs in Canada and California, with ships bringing in craved-for foodstuffs only intermittently. Before that remember that Calcutta in its first hundred years was a melting pot and a major laboratory of inauthentic culinary jugaad.

From around the world

Think of the British and French missing their food and the advent of Anglo-Indian cookery, picture the Portuguese and Malabaris creating Goan cuisine. Imagine poor Wajid Ali Shah in exile in Behala with only a hundred khansamas trying to reproduce Lucknow on his plate, and finally adding the hand-grenade from the New World, the profane potato into the sacred biryani — the biryani which had itself travelled, coalesced and mutated so much from its take-off point in Iran. Around the same period, the samosa travelled from Turkey to find a shore in Calcutta, where you can now find distinct versions of it — all vegetarian — from UP, Marwar and Gujarat, not to mention the classic Bangali shengara.

Among the different communities which made up Calcutta were also Armenians, Chinese and Baghdadi Jews. Which brings us full circle back to Yotam Ottolenghi.

Perhaps one reason why Ottolenghi is so brilliant in his fusions is because he and one of his main cooking partners Sami Tamimi, an Arab Palestinian, both grew up in Jerusalem. Like Calcutta but obviously much older, Jerusalem is also a city where many different cultures meet and mix.

Syncretic food culture

For millennia people have travelled from Palestine and settled all over the world, and then returned, bringing back rich and varied food cultures. Even though Jerusalem has been torn apart from time to time by communal tensions and clashes, its syncretic food culture knows few equals.

Replacing ingredients and making new collages is part of their hard-wiring and the world is the richer for it. Given all this, I’m sure YO wouldn’t mind if I replace the artichoke with lotus stem in the recipe with broad beans or use goat meat and one of the local shaaks for his lamb meatballs with warm yoghurt and Swiss chard.

The writer is a filmmaker and columnist.

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Printable version | Apr 8, 2020 8:52:06 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/food/jugaad-on-the-dining-table/article31007970.ece

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