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

The Economic Times - - Saturday Feature -

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.

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