Passing Bite | Society

Indigenous food is now meant only for the elite. The poor can eat cake

The venue for the event is a posh club in Calcutta. As my companions and I approach, we quickly find myself ensnared in a maze of various expensive automobiles. The policemen direct traffic lazily as only Cal cops can, gently caressing the cars as they stand nose to nose.

At the ticket counter, a man bearing an uncanny resemblance to the current Home Minister tries to jump the queue by pushing his large paunch in between two people. When several of us glare at him, he reluctantly moves back a few inches. Then he gestures with his hand to convey a ‘pehle aap’ as if he’s displaying utmost graciousness and good upbringing.

Inside the club, the ‘festival’ has the air of the last days of the Romanov empire, if the czarist aristocracy can be imagined to be jostling on a tropical lawn next to an unfrozen body of water, vying to quaff different strictly vegetarian grub at a ‘natural’ food and horticultural festival. The range of alimentation-related produce is slightly startling, if for nothing else than for having finally reached this city where the parsimoniousness of the wealthy is legendary. The elite in Bangalore, Bombay and Delhi have doubtless been exposed to this sort of stuff for a long time but for small entrepreneurs to attempt to breach this eastern fortress of tighfistedness can only be admired as shocking bravery.

Wallet in pocket

At first we confirm that this is, indeed, an exclusively vegetarian affair. Sure enough, there is no dead animal produce to be found, no salami from origin-denominated pigs, no delicately flavoured carpaccio of beef, no chicken stock made from birds individually massaged in saffron and honey.

There are, however, several pâtisseries and cake shops and we check these out first. The range of confectionery is impressive but my wallet stays in my pocket. However, things are touch-and-go when one sees some croissants on display. I am a sucker when it comes to croissants, they are my weak underbelly, my Achilles heel, my Duryodhan thigh-spot, and I like to try different ones, even if they look terrible. I look at the ones here and think about it, failing to convince myself that ₹145 for a croissant is not a lot.

When we eat, it’s at two adjacent stalls. My companions choose the vegetarian khow suey over various fusion quesadilla and vegetarian ‘Korean’ combos. I stick to my roots and purchase, from the Gujarati stall, the most extortionately priced small bowl of undhiyu and two theplas I have ever eaten. The khow suey is apparently good, though it desperately needs chicken; my undhiyu and theplas are perfectly serviceable though they need to be about 200 bucks cheaper.

Stomachs filled, hungry eyes brought back to size, we wander some more. There are two encounters, the first of which is with someone trying to sell locally grown turmeric at ₹546 for 300g and locally extricated ghee (organic, of course, why do you even ask?) at ₹1,100 a kilo. The second tete-a-tete is with a pair of young women who have baked some bread. They have classic sourdough, sourdough with various fillings, and one kind with ‘active charcoal’ lurking inside. I taste the cheapest basic model and it’s okay; the texture is a bit woolly, the chewiness requisite in sourdough completely absent, but I would eat it again. Not at ₹245 a loaf (the charcoal variant is over ₹300) though. I point out that the best available bread, the nearest competition in town, sells a lesser loaf but at ₹65. Bas, khatam. The young woman takes off on how that bread is industrial, full of additives, including sugar, etc. etc. All true, but still, the price? “When it comes to health, price cannot be an issue!”

Imaginary onions

In a sentence, a world-view is laid out: health is now a luxury only available to the elite; they can now appropriate everyday indigenous foods and diets that include bajra, ragi, fresh produce, etc., repackage it as ‘organic’, ‘hand-crafted’, ‘artisanal’ and sell it at exorbitant prices to the rich; the poor, from whom these diets have been snatched, for whom they’ve been put out of reach, can eat cake, or imaginary onions.

There is, of course, a different trajectory that has been followed by organisations working with fair trade — with profits going to the producers, and the final products too priced reasonably. Some young people are also trying to follow this business model but there is only one lone example of this in the fair. We make our way to the stall where two young men are selling organically grown seasonal vegetables, reasonably priced, and which, unlike other stalls, are not wrapped in three layers of cling film. What is most heartening about their approach is that they speak about how they are learning from the local farmers in the hinterland, rather than trying to do it the other way around. Hope grows unevenly and in the oddest places.

The writer is a filmmaker and columnist.

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Printable version | Jul 29, 2021 6:58:15 PM |

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