THREE FOOD HIS­TO­RI­ANS TALKABOUT TIMES AND TASTE

Meet three food his­to­ri­ans who’ve spent a life­time study­ing In­dian food. They tell us how it got so great!

Hindustan Times - Brunch - - BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS - Text by Ru­pali Dean // Pho­tos by Raj K Raj brunch­let­[email protected]­dus­tan­times.com Fol­low @HTBrunch on Twit­ter

H ere’s the thing about In­dian cui­sine: there is no In­dian cui­sine. In­stead, there are hun­dreds, if not thou­sands, of food styles, cre­ated from the In­dian soil and for the di­ets of the var­i­ous com­mu­ni­ties of In­dia, some over­ar­ch­ing, some tiny and spe­cific, all dif­fer­ent in more sub­tle ways.

Here’s the other thing about In­dian cuisines: for a long time the only per­son who ex­plored their his­tory in any sig­nif­i­cant way was the late his­to­rian K. T. Achaya. Now there are many more food his­to­ri­ans be­cause ev­ery­one wants to know where it all be­gan.

Meet three ex­plor­ers of the ori­gins of your rozi roti.

THE MAN WHO IS OUT TO CRE­ATE A FOOD AT­LAS OF IN­DIA PADMA SHRI DR PUSHPESH PANT

Work­ing on what’s vir­tu­ally a food at­las of In­dia, Padma Shri Dr Pushpesh Pant has one aim: “To dis­pel the myth of Mughlai, over­throw the tyranny of tan­door and get rid of the curse of curry!”

He ex­plains his fas­ci­na­tion with the his­tory of In­dian foods. “My mother wasn’t only a bril­liant cook, but a daz­zling poly­glot. Her love for lan­guages made her re­cep­tive to di­verse culi­nary in­flu­ences. At home, we cooked Gu­jarati, Kan­nada, Ben­gali, Awadhi dishes. My fa­ther, a doc­tor, kept quizzing my mother, a San­skrit scholar, about the roots of the dishes and the Ayurveda pre­cepts that un­der­pinned them. That got me hooked.”

Over the last 40 years, he’s trav­elled all over In­dia ex­cept Arunachal Pradesh and Ma­nipur. “My re­search in the realm of food fol­lows the same rig­or­ous rou­tine that I was trained in so­cial sci­ences, cul­tural his­tory and in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions,” he says. “Recipes are tried out thrice, and food tri­als al­most fol­low clin­i­cal trial pro­to­cols. Qual­i­ta­tive and quan­ti­ta­tive meth­ods are em­ployed.”

THE RE­GIONAL FOOD SPE­CIAL­IST PRITHA SEN

For Pritha Sen, re­searcher and re­gional food ex­pert, food is about who she is. Her in­ter­est lies in the foods of eastern In­dia with a par­tic­u­lar fo­cus on her home re­gion, un­di­vided Ben­gal. “It’s my en­tire iden­tity on a plate,” she says.

Sen’s in­ter­est in the food of her home re­gion food be­gan when she was a teen.

“We lived in rail­way colonies, the last bas­tions of colo­nial cul­ture with a cos­mopoli­tan en­vi­ron­ment. It was only when I ar­rived in Kolkata as a teenager and was ad­mit­ted to a school, which took pride in pro­mot­ing Ben­gali cul­ture, that I got a sense of be­ing dif­fer­ent,” she says. “My class­mates laughed at the way I spoke, calling me ‘Ban­gaal’ (used deroga­to­rily for refugees from East Ben­gal). I went to their homes and found they ate dif­fer­ently. My fam­ily had moved from Dhaka to Delhi in 1947. That was when I be­gan to feel the need for roots.”

Sen’s had the good for­tune to be able to work very closely with the late Jaya Chal­iha, well known Kolkata an­ti­quar­ian, jour­nal­ist, his­to­rian and co-au­thor of The

Cal­cutta Cook­book. “She in­stilled in me the re­spect for our tra­di­tions, yet the need to ques­tion till I ar­rived at a sat­is­fac­tory an­swer,” she says.

IN PUR­SUIT OF ROYAL FOODS SALMA HU­SAIN

Salma Hu­sain’s in­ter­est in the royal kitchens of In­dia grew from her pas­sion to en­ter­tain. “Since the suc­cess of my par­ties de­pended on the food I served, I was proud of my find­ings. Grad­u­ally, the habit to ex­plore cuisines from dif­fer­ent cul­tures led me deep into the world of re­search.”

Hu­sain’s ease with an­cient doc­u­ments comes from her work at The Na­tional Archives of In­dia. She’s pub­lished a book on the sher­bets of In­dia, and trans­lated pu­lao recipes from the orig­i­nal Per­sian man­u­script Nushkha-e-Shah­ja­hani.

Her re­search for ke­babs took her to Turkey, Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, Jor­dan, Is­rael, and all Mid­dle Eastern coun­tries. Next on the anvil is a trip to Spain to ex­plore the Mus­lim cui­sine in Spain. “One can­not change his­tory, but one can make it in­ter­est­ing with dis­cov­er­ies,” she says.

PADMA SHRI DR PANT HAS ONE AIM: “TO DIS­PEL THE MYTH OF MUGHLAI, OVER­THROW THE TYRANNY OF TAN­DOOR AND GET RID OF THE CURSE OF CURRY!”

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