Passing Bite | Society

Deep-frying the nation batch by batch

Image: Wiki Commons

Image: Wiki Commons  

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Do you love your onions enough to defy an authoritarian regime?

I don’t know if you eat onions in your house, in my house I certainly do. Sometimes foreigners ask me: “You say you’re from a Hindu background and you grew up vegetarian — does that mean garlic and onions were also banned from your house?” I have to hasten to deny that my family had any quarrel with onions and garlic. “It’s observant Jains who don’t let garlic and onions into their house,” I explain. “In fact,” I point out, “onions and garlic were two of the great pillars on which our type of Gujarati cuisine stood.”

Ah, I remember onions very well. All sorts of food in the house would be totally dependent on onions, which in Gujarati we call dungali or kanda. Then, in the streets outside, one would get the waft of the classic Bengali piyaaj philluri, onion filluries — basically laces of onion dipped in spice and chilli-flavoured chickpea flour and then deep-fried. The commonly used names for this snack are philluri or piyaaji, with the latter also doubling as an insult — ekta piyaaji — meaning a person who’s a sidey, of as little consequence as a strandy onion bhajiya.

Going to the nearby South Indian eateries, the vengayam was to be found in the sambar, in the pearl onion rasam, or embedded in the uttapam or onion rava dosa. Later, graduating to eggs, onion also appeared in omelettes and anda bhurji. Moving to non-veg, the doughty and versatile pyaaz was, of course, ubiquitous in everything from kababs to chicken and mutton gravies. One of my best memories is of lunches at a mid-level Bombay inn near Kala Ghoda, which served a very nice dish of dry roast beef and onions to accompany the beer. In all this time of growing up, I rarely came across people or households that shunned onions.

Know your onions

Going abroad, you realised that there were many different kinds of onions: not just the dark purple ones but white ones, small ones and large ones, with different shapes and subspecies with different names, such as leek/ poireau and shallots/ echalottes. You discovered that the onion was the background kingpin of so many different cuisines. You came across it served raw in salads or woven deep into the most complex sauces. Returning to India, you found onion on the plates of the urban rich and you found it served in the poorest village homes, a wedge served alongside a green chilli to go with the simplest meals. Like green chillies, onions contain vitamin C, plus other vitamins and nutrients. They also contain antioxidants and potassium and have antibacterial properties. All in all, onions are a good thing to eat, and, besides the great taste, the allium provides good, cheap nutrition. Well, cheap, that is, until recently.

Now, someone who is indifferent to onions could find themselves in a position of great power in this country. In fact, that person — perhaps an important minister — may even detest onions. Echoing the French queen who sneered at the poorest in her country and said, “If they don’t have bread, let them eat cake,” the minister could say, “They don’t have much to eat, so let them also not eat onions.”

Layers and layers

That wouldn’t be fair or just, but perhaps the minister might be part of a cabinet that wasn’t interested in being fair or just. In fact, it could be that the cabinet and its captain and vice-captain were actually eager to be unfair and unjust. Perhaps they might see themselves as followers of a particular religion, a great and complex religion, which contained myriad variations in its practice, but these powerful people might want to impose their version of the narrow sect of the religion they claim to follow. Impose it not only on their co-religionists but on people of every religion in the country. Totally totalitarian, unfair and unjust, but hey, perhaps that’s exactly what they want to be.

It would then depend on you and how much you love your onions in all their variety. Or how much you love your freedom to worship or not worship the way you choose. Depending on that, you would have to decide whether you accept what is being imposed or protest and fight back. It could be that this leader, his deputy, the cheerleader cabinet and the vassal political parties in the ruling coalition all want to turn a large section of the population into second- or even third-class citizens. It would be up to you to accept or resist this agenda. If you accept that a large section of your compatriots can be legislated into people of no consequence, then remember, it might be you and your section of society that is being deep-fried in the next batch of human piyaajis being cooked.

The writer is a filmmaker and columnist.

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Printable version | Jan 26, 2020 1:44:10 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/deep-frying-the-nation-batch-by-batch/article30297325.ece

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