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!
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!”