What’s on your plate?

Sakal Times,January 3, 2016

‘Today I am going to teach you an easy tender coconut jelly,’ Tia Rosa told me one hot summer morning. Damudor had plucked the matured coconuts the day before and was requested by Tia Rosa to bring down three tender coconuts as well. Now they lay gleaming like polished, waxed footballs larger than my face. With expert flicks of her wrist, Carmeline the maid exposed the Calangute white, sand-coloured flesh, scooping the top off in sabre stroke to reveal the clear juice within. Drained into a glass bowl, chopped scrapings of the tender coconut flesh was added to the coconut juice. Goan molasses coloured the coconut water a golden Muscatel wine hue. Melting a few strands of china grass gelatin, Tia Rosa expertly blended the gelatinous liquid with the tender coconut water.

‘Now, my child, this is the regular recipe. What do you want to add to it?’

‘Why don’t we add you to the recipe?’ I replied, winking at her.

‘Excellent idea! Go to the garden and bring two pink roses.’

That night, Tia Rosa said a special ‘Grace before Meals’, extolling the virtues of my creativity with the dessert. I was in raptures at the end of the meal when everyone commented that the rose petals perfumed the golden jelly, but did not overpower the taste of the coconut. Subtlety was a key ingredient I had learnt from my aunt.

The above excerpts are from an essay written by fashion designer Wendell Rodricks. While reading this part, we can visualise the aunt and the little boy that Rodricks was, in the kitchen, conjuring up the delicious tender coconut jelly that we so want to eat a mouthful of.

That’s the beauty of writing on food. Mita Kapur, CEO of Siyahi — a literary consultancy — who has curated the food anthology, Chillies and Porridge, to which Rodricks has contributed, says, “You don’t need to be a trained chef to write on food. You just need to have your own connection with the food and understand it well. Wendell knows his food and region’s cuisine, that’s why it had the power to touch those who read it.”

Food certainly seems to be the flavour of the moment. There are so many cookery books, region specific food narratives that talk about the diversity of the Indian culinary landscape, food blogs and anthologies. Kapur is quick to correct us, explaining, “I don’t think there’s too much writing on food in India as compared to the rest of the world. The last food anthology in India came out in late ’90s or early 2000. And now after 15 years, we have another anthology. As far as cookery books are concerned, yes, they have been coming out regularly. But I think there’s lot that needs to be done as far as archiving, documenting, researching and preserving geographical food traditions that are fast vanishing. In India, every region, in fact every district has its own cuisine because as the topography changes, so does the availability of ingredients. And, hence there’s a different take on the same dish.”

However, Kapur agrees that there is certainly more discussion around food in the public arena. “Television has opened up new culinary world for us. Suddenly people are experimenting and trying out the new palate. There’s the food blogging scene which is fantastic. The glamour around it is superb. But I still feel the explosion on food scene is yet to come,” she says.

The anthology has 23 articles written by some known and others relatively unknown personalities from all walks of life. Janice Pariat has written on being woken up early morning by the scraping of a vessel. Pariat’s granny would be emptying the porridge pot in the kitchen and that was the stimuli for Pariat to talk about the dish and her granny.

Naintara Maya Oberoi has written about ‘Inheritance’. Born to Punjabi parents, who conversed in Assamese and Meghalaya amongst themselves, Oberoi couldn’t initially fathom her grandparents’ (refugees from West Punjab) fascination for the Tandoori Roti. Till she finally made it her own.

It must have been tough getting all the 23 writers on board, we ask. “It was a very natural and organic process. Some names came up over brain-storming with my publisher, my team, friends. And that’s why it was so much fun doing it. We worked on the anthology for slightly over a year.”

Each essay appealed differently to Kapur and so she couldn’t pinpoint one favourite. “When you are editing or putting together a compilation, there is an understanding of where each writer is coming from. You know the specialty of each contributor and if they have done justice to their contribution, that became a favourite piece,” she says.

Kapur, who is a complete foodie, didn’t think of contributing to Chillies…because “an editor ideally would not write, and just stick to the editing and curating part. Karthika from the publishing team and I thought that another essay wasn’t required by the editor.” But if she had to write, what would be her focus?
“I would probably write on home food tradition that’s fast disappearing. That’s my main concern,” adds Kapur. It could be the topic for her next anthology, we suggest.

“Maybe we need to have a special focus for the next one. I might work on it or it will be another book that I would edit. But we need more clarity,” she says.
Till then, Bon Appétit!


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