On an idle afternoon I was musing about all the dishes that have ‘siblings’ and ‘cousins’. These could well be ‘separated at birth’, for some of them have their duplicates and triplicates in far-flung places of the country and even the world, like humans having second and third cousins. You could say that foods have their own ‘taste-alikes’ just as we humans are supposed to have seven lookalikes each in the world..
As my imagination meandered, what do you think I came across? Nothing less than the news of a Meet-up of Food Cousins! Note that it was not a food mela or festival, of which there are so many throughout the year, but a Meet-up of Indian Food Cousins, no less! It promised to be an exciting journey of discovery. Like all such national events, it also promised to be replete with drama, hype and loads of fun and information—in that order.
(Let me begin with the disclaimer that I am not a food historian, nor am I a food researcher. Therefore, the article might not be comprehensive in listing the Indian foods that have their twins and triplets scattered far and near. I request my readers’ help in making this more comprehensive, informative and interesting.)
At the venue, I decided to first talk to the organisers. The moment I asked my first question, a wary look came on the face of the young man. ‘Which publication are you from?’ he asked me.
I had to reassure him that I was a harmless old blogger, who didn’t even have a following worth the name, before he relaxed a little. He told me about the elaborate preparations they had made over the past couple of years.
Since the conference was to feature dishes that had other versions across the length and breadth of the country, the organisers had roped in people belonging to those regions who had actually gone around collecting the recipes of the iconic dishes of the regions and comparing them with similar ones from other regions. The various categories had been created based on this. The invitations had been finally sent out only after meticulously checking all details. There were foreign delegates too in several categories.
The meetings were lengthy and often heated, especially about the methodology of grouping dishes – whether it should be based on the ingredients, their names or the method of preparation. Categorisation based on names was very confusing. For instance, there had been a lot of discussion about including sabudana khichdi in the category of khichdis before finally clubbing it with upmas, because the preparation was more akin to the latter, despite its name. There had been a lengthy correspondence before the categorization was agreed to by Sabudana khichdi.
There were other problems too–whether to have a single category for dosas or to divide them into sub-categories. As it is, dosa had one of the largest representations: regular dosas, dhirade, amboli, millet dosas, rava dosas wheat dosas, dosas without dals etc. etc. Then there were the crispy dosas, bun dosas, sponge dosas and the masala dosas with zillions of varieties of fillings and uttappams, each of which demanded separate categories.
I was told that they had invited the American pancakes in one of the sub-categories of dosas. Actually, many foods had either migrated from or to India or perhaps two different peoples had had the same inspiration to make similar dishes in their respective parts of the world. For instance, did you know that the suji halwa or sheera has an Egyptian cousin called basbousa cake? They both have semolina as the main ingredient and the only difference is that the latter has desiccated coconut, is baked and is sweeter.
‘And the ready made, instant foods!’ snorted a senior official joining us. ‘We didn’t want to include them at all, but there was an international ruckus over our decision with prime time debates and so we took them, but clubbed them all together!’ He looked peeved that they had to be included at all, but also oddly satisfied that the traditional dishes had not been disgraced by the addition of the ‘instant’ versions at their respective tables!
I nodded sympathetically. My head was already spinning with all the food names and the problems faced by the organisers!
Suddenly there was a commotion at the entrance.
‘Sir, this is a conference for Indian foods. If you had wanted to participate you should have registered as a foreign delegate beforehand and given references of your Indian cousins with recipes and pictures,’ an official was telling an agitated Chinese gentleman by name Mr. Hakka Noodles. Those near him sniffed the air and looked at him with suspicion. He didn’t smell anything like the hakka noodles they got from their neighbourhood chowmeinwala! Perhaps he was a spy sent by China to disrupt the event.
‘I have not come to participate, but to give this memorandum of protest. We are filing a copyright infringement case in China against Indian street food vendors who are mangling our identity and appropriating our name. Why, I just saw a chap selling Chinese bhel and Szechuan chutney. Now, what are those, may I ask?’ Mr. Noodles was going apoplectic and the official wrung his hands, looking around frantically for his boss. But his woes were not yet over.
Behind Mr. Noodles was Mr.Pizza. ‘I have come with a memorandum too,’ he harrumphed. ‘Because of all the horrible toppings you Indians use, I have become persona non-grata in our country and am being accused of being a poor upholder of our traditions overseas. My grandmother has actually disowned me!’ he looked angry, but also on the verge of tears at this ultimate affront.’
Just then, an important looking lady came into view and the official practically ran to her looking like a man who has been rescued from the hangman’s noose in the nick of the moment. I let them sort it out with the enraged foreigners and strolled back into the hall.
It was jam-packed and redolent with wonderful aromas. The sweet aroma of cardamom and spices was clashing with the overpowering smell of garlic and onions. The delegates were steadily filling up the hall, with many tables being already occupied to capacity.
There were delighted shrieks of recognition and tearful re-unions between many of them. Others who kept running into each other, notably from the idli and dosa families, merely nodded at each other, for they were never separated as some of the others had been. In fact, their problem was over population, if one might call it that, what with so many inter-regional marriages, with new varieties coming up with regular frequency. Little wonder then that these two categories were divided into several sub-groups. The instant varieties in these categories seemed to have more relatives than even the traditional ones!
The organisers also spoke about the category of no-onion, no-garlic recipes, which refused to share the same table as the others. ‘Since we already had a Jain food table, we gave them the option of joining that table or stay with the others in their own category,’ said another official. ‘We don’t have a vegan category in this edition, but have assured the increasing number of applicants that we would consider having one in the next one,’ she added.
Though the event was a predominantly vegetarian one, the organisers had included several non-vegetarian items too. To mark them apart, they were provided with a red ribbon. This was creating resentment among the ‘marked’ delegates, who were now beginning to protest rather vociferously about their ‘badge of discrimination’. ‘Our fingers and toes are crossed that this protest dies away soon,’ said the official, looking decidedly worried.
‘I just saw Bekar Kofta walk in,’ said a senior official coming to join us, looking even more harried than his staff.
‘Oh, no! I had warned against inviting Idli to this meet-up. Now there will be the very same BCD propaganda that we have been told to avoid so strictly, said one of them.
‘Oh come on! In India, everything gets a caste colour in the media.There was no way we could have avoided inviting such an iconic food as the Idli. We have to deal with it as best as we can. Everyone to their posts and on your toes!’ barked the senior before hurrying away.
‘What does BCD stand for?’ I asked curiously.
‘Brahminism, Caste and Dalits,’ replied the official grimly. I understood why they were terrified of Bekar Kofta!
Things were beginning to warm up. I rubbed my hands in glee as I sauntered towards the biggest table.
…..to be continued.
Basbousa cake: http://www.sweetspicycooking.com/
Chinese bhel: https://navbharattimes.indiatimes.com/
Chicken tikka pizza: http://www.bawarchi.com/