Feud for thought
As a recent social media furore over idlis shows, the age-old war of regional cuisines continues on without any hope for reasonable conclusions
Indians have thick-skinned stomachs and can consume butter-laden paranthas in grimy 'dhabas' with the same ease with which they drink 'Consommé Aux Pommes d'Amour' which is basically the humble clear tomato soup served in sanitised five-star hotels. The same however cannot be said of our fragile egos. A certain Mr Anderson has declared idlis to be boring, igniting a storm of indignant "Aiyohs" and bringing out the idli lovers with their gun powders blazing!
Either Mr Anderson really knows his onions or his marriage with a Kerala native has peppered his opinion. After all, you cannot substitute an Englishman's morning ham and eggs with idlis without putting him in a 'saambar' mood provoking dark thoughts! However, I cannot resist the temptation to add my own flavour to the broth cooked by Mr Anderson and hope that some good 'korma' will come my way!
North Indians are often seen as only too willing to round off conversations and meals with arguments where fists speak louder than words. South Indians on the other hand have this image of a polite people who speak mostly with hand gestures and shaking of the head, rarely letting an argument go beyond a few well-chosen English words. Northerners can also break out in a rash of English but only after a bottle of 'Angrezi'. The opposite approaches to life may have something to do with the first meal of the day. Bhaturas dripping with high-performance oil partaken with thick curries that look like the clogged Yamuna on winter mornings make a man think that he can get the 'butter' of anyone who gets in his way. On the other hand, a gentle serving of a south Indian breakfast with free-flowing rasam can make you 'dosa(ile)'. Thus while a North Indian steps out of his house with sleeves rolled up, a South Indian rarely goes beyond rolling his eyes and making a mental note to shoot off an acerbic letter to the Editor of 'The Hindu' should he encounter any 'naan-sense'!
However, the humble idli can be a very misleading mascot for Southern gastronomy. For those amongst us who like to see butter slabs slide across our aloo paranthas like Olympic skaters, a visit to Delhi's Andhra Bhawan canteen can leave you feeling vitamin ghee deficient! As you enter its hallowed portals and wait to be seated, waiters rush around balancing bowls of red hot chilli sambar, puris and papads, rice, assorted vegetables, dals, sweet dishes and ladles of ghee which is generously poured over every item. For the carnivorously inclined, triple fried chunks of mutton and chicken liver wrapped in a thick layer of the chef's special oil can be ordered separately. The service is swift, seamless and ruthless as tables are cleared within seconds of a meal being finished and one is hustled towards the exit to make space for the next person. It is no place to 'idli' away your time!
The natives of the North-East region are not very fussy eaters. But their cuisine is not always for the faint-hearted. The old saying that the locals are partial to anything that flies but is not a plane or anything with four legs except a piece of furniture may not hold true entirely but this is one place where clearly paneer doesn't 'mutter' anymore! I gave up the science stream due to my aversion to catching frogs and pinning them to laboratory tables for dissection classes. Many years later a visit to a local market brought me face to face with my nemesis as I peered into a bucket and found a pair of protruding eyes staring back at me! Well, this was one frog that was not going to be transformed into a prince any day soon. You might think me batty but I suspect monkey business was also afoot in the market.
But this ghoulish reputation is ill-deserved and will have Northeasterners shouting, "Fowl!" They have one of the most healthy food habits and their daily intake of calories includes a surprisingly large proportion of green leafy vegetables and negligible oil. The Manipuri 'chaak', consisting 20 or so dishes, is a feast for kings served both in the humblest of homes and the abodes of the rich and powerful. It mainly consists of different vegetables and lentils infused with local spices and is ceremoniously prepared and served by Brahmin cooks. A full serving of the Manipuri 'chaak' can eliminate the need to eat for at least a few weeks. After generous helpings of 'ngari', 'iromba','ooti', 'champhhut', 'singju', 'morok','kangou', 'chahao' to name just a few of the delicacies offered, one often has to be airlifted to the nearest sofa to slowly recover from the indulgence like an Amazonian anaconda who has swallowed a herd of deer.
My father always personally prepared his 'berma' dry fish chutney along with another Tripuri favourite, 'Wahan Mosdenga', a mix of pork, onion, coriander leaves and green chilli not trusting my mother, a non-Tripuri, to do so even after 50 years of marriage! In Tripura, we used to keep a large pot of rice which would slowly mutate into a local brew and when the family shifted to Delhi, the pot disappeared but the fish and the pork dishes continued to be religiously prepared by him till the end such was his attachment to his native food! The Nagas also love their dry fish and pork but they often prepare it with a strong-smelling fermented soya bean sauce called 'akuni' as I learnt after my marriage. Unlike Mr Anderson however, I will not venture to be 'over-currygeous' in expressing my views on the wife's culinary heritage.
Truth is, there shall never be a 'meating' point in this internecine war of regional cuisines. After all, one man's dosa is another man's samosa!
Views expressed are personal