An Official Push for the Gravy Train
The president and prime minister need to let the world know who cooks the meals for important state guests, and how food is used to strike a responsive chord
quets have stuck to template meals that have probably not changed from the 1950s. This was fine, up to a point, but now we are in the midst of a global cuisine revolution.
From molecular gastronomy to foraged food, modern cuisine has paradoxically encompassed both science and anti technology. But more than all that, nations have officially recognised food as a great tool of soft diplomacy. If once food was seen as a tool of political hegemony - witness the furore over the spread of American culture via hamburgers and hotdogs - attitudes have now changed exponentially.
Back in the early days after Independence, the Indian establishment – including the political and social elites – probably had more diverse tastes. But over the decades, socialism and decreased exposure also had an effect on what was served in the highest tables in the land. The deleterious effect of this isolation was also seen in Air India, whose famed First Class fare of caviar and other delicacies disappeared.
In New Delhi, Rashtrapati Bhavan left its kitchens to the tender mercies of its antediluvian cooks, initially trained by the British but then never brought up to date subsequently, and overseen even today by stodgy Armed Services brass. Hyderabad House – used by the PM and other high dignitaries for official meals – has mostly been the domain of the India Tourism Development Corporation.
In the past two years, however, there have been tentative measures to include other cuisines and other chefs from outside the official ambit. The conferring of a Padma Shri this year for the first time to a practising chef -Imtiaz Quereshi, the most famous exponent of dum pukht cuisine - hopefully signals that the government has finally taken note of the importance of showcasing India’s culinary might too. The significance of changing the menus at Rashtrapati Bhavan and Hyderabad House - or indeed Raj Bhavans and CMs’ houses - cannot be underestimated. For anything that gets official endorsement has a knock-on effect down the line. There will be a push by others too, to look beyond the usual and tap into India’s vast culinary repertoire. But the measures obviously cannot be limited to just that.
The president and prime minister need to let the world know who cooks the meals for important state guests, and how food is used to strike a responsive chord. Quite a few times in the recent past, chefs have used either special ingredients - like say saffron - or a particular cooking genre - like Anglo- Indian - to spice up official banquets. But arcane rules of protocol prevent this from being publicised.
Last week, Krishnendu Ray, chair of the department of nutrition and food studies at NYU told The Times of India that the rankings of popular cuisines are linked to “culinary prestige”. Basically, the value of cuisines rise with the quality of its endorsers. India has all the ingredients - increasing international importance as a country, a powerful diaspora and great chefs. A push from certain quarters is all it needs.
Presidential palaces the world over publicise what was put on the table for visiting dignitaries and let their most talented chefs also take a bow whenever possible. It is time Official India also does its bit to showcase India’s culinary diversity and its exponents the way other countries do. That will go a long way in helping Indian cuisine break into the top table - the economic benefits of which are obvious.