Events like selling cattle or its consumption wouldn’t be all over the headlines of the local dailies in Assam, some decades ago. If you ask the elderly folk, they’ll tell you that eating is a sacred practice; it must bring happiness and bliss. Conflicting thoughts and negative energy must be kept at bay, lest it interfere with the communion with God. When I met some joke-cracking uncles in a food festival a year back, they’d re-emphasised the same. “Laugh and merry,” they’d said, sipping glasses of local rice beer.
Pretty sure they’d be quite upset with the state of affairs in the Northeast now. It is this humour and culturally tolerant behaviour that is missing today. Perhaps Pushpesh Pant indicated the same when he admired Bhagwaan ke Pakwaan - Food of the Gods (Penguin) a newly released book co-authored by Varud Gupta and Devang Singh. “If there’s a God, and He lays his hands on a copy of Bhagwaan Ke Pakwaan, he’d I’m sure roar with laughter, working up a healthy appetite,” Pant said. Pant’s predicament isn’t entirely false; it does try to carve out a different kind of food narrative.
But, why do most food books try and peddle along in search of “Indian-ness”? Be as debatable as that term maybe in different corners of the sub-continent, food documentation must move beyond the assumed (and much sellable) category of “Indian” cuisine. It is the tendency to find a lost “Indian” taste that so many diverse tastes have to be absorbed. Due to this, we now have locally made breads being compared to rotis, locally made pulses being compared to dal tadka and so on. Bhagwaan Ke Pakwaan, too, unconsciously suffers from this complex.
In an exploration of the cuisine of Karbis in Meghalaya, the authors have made a careful note of the past where multiple faiths collided. There’s delectable cicada chutney, fish both cooked and prepared inside a bamboo shoot and there’s the slow-cooked pork belly with mustard greens. Karbi kitchen, they say, is the most sacred of domestic spaces where ingredients of boiled and fermented preparations are kept in store.
There is also a gist of the continuation of indigenous faith amidst the spread of Christianity. But there’s very little on how the doctrines of civilising the natives manifest themselves in culinary styles.
“Becoming Christian has made this community no less Indian,” the book says, taking the example of a national flag hung outside a church. Someone from the Northeast would immediately point out that the observation is too simplistic.
And then, there’s the danger of being erased if you critique anything that’s “Indian”. With food writing too, these labels and categories perform the same role. The unfortunate label of some kinds of meat as profane advocates silent culinary control over the country. The dominant castes and classes tend to not speak about the problematic of faith and food. It thus becomes necessary that food books confront the diverse connotation of “sacred-ness”. It all varies from region to region—and one can educate the uninitiated only if former models are thoroughly challenged.
Take for instance, the ethno-religious community of Baghdadi Jews of Kolkata. Their total population stands in the twenties and their former culinary practices are a rare find. There is a dynamic portrayal of their settlement in the book. It is mentioned, “The community continues to grow and assimilate into the Kolkatta lifestyle slowly discarding its Arabic attire and Judaeo-Arabic language in favour of local Raj-era styles and English.” These fusions and gradual merging into dominant eating styles tell an interesting story.
The Aloo Makallah (fried potatoes) with Hilbeh is one such dish. Hilbeh is used as an accompaniment with Yemenite soups and breads, though it was less spicy when in the Middle East. It has also remained a marker of the Yemeni diasporic identity mostly with its herby, bitter-ish taste. That taste is known to be full of fenugreek goodness with its countless health benefits. Cucumber Zalata which is a quick pickling of peeled cucumbers also came from the Baghdadi Jewish pantry.
Bhagwaan Ke Pakwaan, though not an extraordinary book, does one thing quite well—travel conversations. In a tête-à-tête with Ms Cohen, who works for the Jewish Girls’ School in Kolkata, the authors discuss the trials of adapting in a new homeland. Cohen has found peace in the banality of a new life so far. Thus, speaking of the future of the Baghdadi Jews, she states in Bangla, “Jaa kaupale lekha aachhe, sheyi haube” (What’s written in your destiny is bound to happen). But, as food clashes between faiths have shown us, the reality is far more brutal.
(Bagdadi Jews, Kolkata)
1tbsp fenugreek seeds
¾ cup cold water
½ cup coriander leaves
½ tbsp ginger paste
½ tbsp garlic paste
2-3 green chillies
2 tbsp lemon juice
Soak the fenugreek seeds overnight. Blend all the other ingredients together, adding the fenugreek seeds only at the end to avoid a slimy texture. The Hilbeh will thicken over time due to the fenugreek seeds. Serve chilled.
RECIPE 2: Cicada Chutney
(Karbis in Rongmesek, Meghalaya)
1 cup cicadas (from a reputable source)
Oil to deep fry
1bsp lemon juice
2-3 green peppers, sliced
1 tbsp ginger, sliced
½ onion, sliced
Heat oil in a pan and fry the cicadas until crisp. Remove and place on a paper towel for the oil to drain. Toss the fried cicadas with salt and lemon juice to coat them evenly. Mash the peppers, ginger, onions and fried cicadas together into a coarse paste. It will be a dry chutney.
(The author is a Guwahati-based independent writer and researcher)