The preponderance of food in today’s social media, rapidly multiplying food reality shows on television and the emergence of an entire cheer-leading squad in the form of food bloggers, reviewers and critics?—?can create a sense that we are living in some kind of a gastronomic golden age.
In the bigger cities today it is possible to experience a full-course meal of professional standards, served at the chef’s home. Food is being sampled from Nagaland, Chattisgarh and a bunch of other places, never considered before. Family food traditions are being experienced by the new generation in a manner that is often incomprehensible to their mothers and grandmothers. Food is at once a career, an obsession, a quest, tradition, performance and a compelling carrier of contemporary cultural expressiveness.
Food has in the process become a means of crossing boundaries that usually evoked a sense of ambivalence in people. During a recent food related excursion to Lucknow, a khandaani type confessed to his occasional craving for ‘dehati chicken’ at a suburban restaurant, that served versions of rustic food from Chattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh. Eating sushi has become another way to experience the tantalizing appeal of crossing over in cities. The line one has to cross is that between cooked and raw, and when raw flesh is involved, the cultural distance traversed increases substantially. At a much broader level, a line that was considered inviolable is crossed very often and with ease today. Traditional Indian homes were designed such that the kitchen could be managed as a kind of an inner sanctum, with clear restrictions of who could or could be allowed in or served food there. Today, homes in most urban areas have dining tables in the living room. In the process, a very inner-directed culture around food, where its consumption was an affirmation of cultural purity seems to be innocuously giving way to an engagement where shorn of their cultural baggage, our senses are allowed to travel, mingling freely with others.
In smaller towns, the crossing of boundaries with food often manifests itself tangibly through the creation of spaces and language, through which one must venture to literally step into a new culinary world. At home an entire cultural value and nutrition system is compressed into something as everyday as a roti or sambhar, when stepping out to eat people here seem to literally imagine themselves on one of those well advertised ‘group tours’ that promise 5 days of magical Thailand or Swiss delight. Both the new concept restaurants that are mushrooming in small town India and the now well-established category of package tours seem to have a few things in common. These are both a form of mid to large sized group activity. In the eateries they occur in the form of birthday dinners and kitty lunches. Like many tour operators who carry cooks and chefs to ensure Indian palates aren’t polluted by alien cultural DNA, what characterizes the menu in these eateries is the reassuring presence of familiar ‘tandoori dishes’ while the thematic cuisine is either toned down or Indianised. Young people, who have returned from a stint abroad, run a number of these restaurant ventures across cities like Jhansi, Lucknow and Ranchi. It is surprising how many of them travel to places like Australia or New Zealand to pursue a culinary career. These establishments are marked by the distance between their thematic content and what is for offer on the table. For instance a ‘Roasted Rooster cafe’ with a coffee and burger theme, served a plate of tangdi kabab as a complimentary tasting dish, when made aware of our visit as a part of a food project. The journey to new culinary lands, just as the journey to new countries is predominantly outside in. In the absence of sensory reference points, a symbolic crossing over to new realms of culinary experiences must suffice.
Cafes, no matter where they are in India represent another kind of crossing over. A sense of this crossover becomes a clear when we read into the message inherent in their design. Its furniture is often mismatched and they invite us from simply sitting to lounging. Very often a café, will be partially open and on the street, if not it will use glass to create an illusion of being open to the street, that makes your lounging visible to the world at large and you in turn can sit idly ‘watching the wheels go round and round’. The café also carries notices of cultural events and cool things one can add to the social calendar. In doing so, they present a way of crossing into the world of leisure, even if it’s only for a while. A place that says you’re not in hot pursuit but chilling and allowing life to unfold before you, a place that gives procrastination an air of purposefulness.
In this whole prevailing narrative of plenty the line that is often obscured is that of hunger. Today it isn’t possible to talk about hunger without referring to the tragic conditions of those around the world that are unable to meet their nutritional needs for basic survival. The subject of hunger in this context evokes guilt so burdensome, that the world groans collectively under its weight. It seems as though, in our desire to eradicate hunger as a life threatening condition from this world, we have banished all personal association with hunger itself. This disassociation between food and hunger can be traced back to the point in history when civilizations decided to fix arbitrary meal times, so instead of eating when we were hungry we ate when the factory bells rang, or when prime time television was on. Back when famines and scarcity would occur from time to time, hunger often informed the rituals around community and welfare. There were boons to be earned by rituals of feeding young children, or beggars outside temple gates. In rural Gujarat the practice among several shopkeepers of serving khichdi and sweets on a particular day of weeks to the poor, serves as a reminder to the locals of great famines past and the generosity of a few that sustained many. Food is inextricably connected to our memories, one that has endured in mine was the evening ‘jol-khabar’ (a Bengali term for something that’s neither a snack nor a full meal) after school and play time and before being sat down with homework. It would be a simple meal of a begun bhaja or a light aloo sabzi with rotis. I remember eating as if it was the only thing that mattered in the world. Actually it was the only meal I could get through without a book to read. It was a primal giving in to hunger, where everything else fades away.
Today hunger has become an abstraction in our lives, where we at best encounter it in the form of Government press releases on poverty level data. It is as if, the true face of hunger holds the potential for serious disruption and must be kept away from people at all costs. In recent years we have seen a rise in ritual fasting supposedly brought on by its picturisation in popular cinema. Regions that had no prior history of such observances have since taken to these rituals with gusto. It is interesting to note that while fasting has gained currency, every precaution has been taken in the form of a well-developed range of ‘packaged fasting food’, to ensure that we fast without really allowing ourselves to feel hungry.
The gradual invisibility of hunger from everyday life has a bearing on how we as people react to its sudden occurrence. Today it is difficult to imagine a child begging out of sheer hunger, even when they ask us to buy them food from a nearby grocer; our hearts are clouded by a possibility of some ulterior scheme or nexus between the child and the shopkeeper, even on the odd occasion when we ‘fall for’ their pleas of being hungry. It is as if, hunger simply cannot be the real motive anymore and we just cannot bring ourselves to accept its presence in our midst.
While food and the excitement around it have successfully dissolved many lines and blurred others, over time the line separating us from being ‘hungry’ has only been reiterated. Today food traditions intermarry and in turn challenge the boundaries of our palate and imagination with their clever crossbreeding, there seems to be some room to interact more with those who reside in the shadow realms of hunger.
It wouldn’t be an entirely bad idea to reacquaint ourselves with what it really means to be hungry. To experience how hunger at its peak can elevate the simplest of fares to an exalted experience, to be able to acknowledge that there are those for whom it’s an everyday struggle. Of all the lines we’ve crossed with food, that’s the one we need to cross as often as we can.