Off-Centre Society

Morel lessons: It will need the combined will of each one of us to reverse the decline and heal the planet

Combo meal: A scene from a Kolkata street.   | Photo Credit: AFP

Hot on the heels of the fabled rosogolla wars there’s a new battle being fought between the layers of the fragrant beds of biryani. It is best to declare that what Kolkata eats today will be on the nation’s tables tomorrow.

If Mumbai is the commercial heart of India, Kolkata is its stomach. Some will call it the underbelly. Its street food is quite as inventive as its bastions of privilege. The sandesh this season has already stamped itself out in miniature tribute to the spiky contours the COVID-19 virus. When the Titanic won at the Oscars, sandesh floated into the market in the shape of ships.

While experts waste time arguing whether the addition of small balls of sweetened figs to biryani entitles its maker to call it ‘rosogolla biryani’, I can safely predict that this too will soon go places. In this season of luxury lockdown weddings, the demand is for visual gratification. The only arbiter of taste today is social media. Last year, morels or guchhi — the endangered truffles found in the valleys of Himachal Pradesh — was included in every celebrity menu. Its decimation by herdsman hounded by epicureans has led to artificially enhanced morels being imported from Europe.

Chow for all seasons

Does it matter that Bengal’s biryani is itself an import from the kitchens of Oudh, brought in by the exiled last nawab, Wajid Ali Shah? Or that the local bawarchis added potatoes to give it a uniquely local texture (and save on meat)? Did the nawab and his retinue also bring with them their exquisite custom of offering paan with crushed pearls and other intoxicating ingredients? And, along with that, the public service of marking walls and sidewalks with the red juice of the chewed gob.

But the most significant addition to Kolkata’s culinary stock exchange has to be Chinese food. Two centuries after the first Chinese traders arrived in Calcutta with their woks and noodles, the conquest of Manchuria by Marwari tastebuds is now complete. Chow (the noodles, not the dog) appears in every roadside dhaba and hotel. It is both Indian and Chinese, the flagship of the new bourgeoisie.

Let’s forget for now that an authentic Chinese dinner consists of a number of courses that alternate between soups, delicately wrapped wonton parcels, bowls of steamed and stir-fried morsels, ending with rice. Nothing is wasted here: if the chief ingredient is duck, every fragment of the bird is consumed except for its quack, as the saying goes. The Kolkata avatar of Chinese food, is, however, mostly vegetarian. The mushrooms, broccoli and baby corn may be sliced obliquely according to custom, but they are deep-fried and doused in hot-sweet-sour sauces of a spectacular colour and uniform taste enhanced with MSG.

I was inspired to write this after watching the documentary, A Life on Our Planet, presented by the 93-year-old David Attenborough as a final testament to his life-long search for nature in the wilder reaches of the earth. Is there a certain irony in the fact that the first foreign footprints on the banks of the Hooghly were left by his predecessors?

Greatest happiness

William Hickey, the 18th-century British diarist and chronicler, exemplified what it meant to be king of the table in Calcutta’s golden era. His descriptions of gargantuan meals are the forerunners of the chicken country captains and trifle puddings that still survive in the planters’ clubs in hill stations.

The exquisitely detailed oil paintings of the era also underline the opulent lifestyle born out of a capital merger between the old feudal order and colonial enterprise. It allowed one to believe that consumption by the elite is the greatest happiness for those who produce it.

The Bengal famine of 1943, which led to death by starvation of three million people because food supplies were diverted by the British to their troops, is called an anthropogenic or man-made catastrophe. As the Gandhian revolutionary, Freda Bedi, wrote of that time, it was “not just the problem of rice and the availability of rice. It was the problem of society in fragments.”

This is exactly the conclusion Attenborough arrives at towards the end of the documentary. We are a multitude of people living in fragments. It will need the combined will of each one of us to reverse the decline and heal the planet. In the wake of the pandemic, as we look at ways to heal ourselves, it is best we make do with simulations — float figs in biryani — rather than hunt all the truffles we can find to pander to our insatiable desires.

The Chennai-based writer is a critic and cultural commentator.

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Printable version | Jan 17, 2021 6:41:21 AM |

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