Essay for Humblogistani 07: Revolution in a Thali

I am really sorry I have not hyperlinked the blogs and their recipes that Ive mentioned in my essay submission. My apologies. My only excuse is that I was in a tearing hurry. I hope to correct the omission within a week

UPDATE: Corrections and links hyperlinked March 26/08




I argue that India and Indians have a unique approach to food and that our predisposition to multicuisines is cultural and has been part of our capacity to absorb and assimilate various cultures over the centuries. I then look at how I think blogging has accelerated this process and laid the foundations of a cultural revolution.I then end by speculating on how far the new approach and the technology are going to take us.

In the first book I reviewed for my blog , Light of India, poet and philosopher Octavio Paz said of Indian food, “in India, the various dishes come together on a single plate. Neither a succession nor a parade, but a conglomeration and superimposition of things and tastes: a synchronic cuisine. A fusion of flavors, a fusion of times.”

The gujarati thali or the South Indian Banana Leaf, wherever I look at food in India his observation seems to ring true. In places I go to, Benares, the oldest cosmopolitan city in India I think- Idlis are being served steaming hot in one place and in another , its famous Banarsi Lassi. "Multicuisine" restaurants seem to dominate the Indian restaurant scene.But the best example I can give is close to home - my Mother because when I think food- good food, I usually think of my mother's cooking.

My mother makes dishes from her native Kanchipuram,or from occasional recipe swaps with her Gujarati neighbors and colleagues from all over India. Only now, over the last five years has she started cooking stuff shown on the television. Nothing unusual about this story, I am sure many people growing up in an Indian home had a similar experience. A fusion of flavors from different parts of India, but evolving rather slowly in spurts and starts.

Now think of the same process sped up and on steroids.
Every day, for atleast one meal, over a year.

That is exactly what I am doing these days. I blog about food and look at the work of fellow food bloggers-some indian and some international. A typical lunch, google vangi baath and and make it. Dinner the next day, Husband wants something different – its eggplant rollatini with linguini.

India's propensity towards “multi cuisine” has led to easy stereotyping of regions both in Indian homes and restaurants. South Indian means Idli Dosa, North Indian means naan and paneer butter masala. You will find paneer butter masala even in a remote hilltop in kerala and idlis in the equally remote kulu manali. True regional food rooted in the soil is mainly found in homes or perhaps the five star hotels. A mist of cheap ubiquity has shrouded the complex regional cuisines of India. The sharp focus on regional cuisine characteristic of Indian food bloggers has brought in focus the true complex tapestry that regional cuisine in India is.

Recipes like Kobbari kaaam podi from Indira or even Perugulu Ringulu from Asvadha, Bhakri from Kajals dreams or Chokha from Jugalbandi are traditional regional recipes from India. I could never have known about these recipes easily in America. My understanding of regional recipes and flavors of India are mostly from the food blogging world.

I envy the rootedness in regional cuisine that many Indian foodblogs have. In their cases, traditional seems easier to define, as the everyday food of a particular region in India. The food I make is not entirely the result of being an immigrant twice over, first from my native Tamilnadu to Gujarat and then to America. You could call it the schizophrenic food of a short attention span generation yuppie or quirk of my particular nature....or a way of life spawned by the multitude of mouth watering choices offered by the internet and more specifically food blogging .

Food blogging is very different from Food writing and instruction in traditional media like the television or books and creates a way of life with new traditions. It means readily accessible, high quality information on Indian and International food at any time of the day. Most other differences are part and parcel of the structural aspects of the internet and blogging.

Food blogging is an interactive experience. I know I have been been inspired not only the posts on some of the food blogs that I like, but I am also energized by the comments. I get a sense of community and food history from the comments. Food events are organized on a regular basis, from the JFI series to the AFAM. I participate in events that use ingredients or are about regional foods that I know nothing about. It only gives me an opportunity to understand and learn a little more about that culture or ingredient.

Food blogging is not only about food. Its vibrant personality and interests are as big as the person behind them. Its about photography, sustainability, food politics in my case, charitable work, arts and crafts. It can be controversial, thoughtful, insightful. Even when it is about the food, there is a skilled many times funny narrative, of mistakes made towards reaching that perfect phulka or the description of eating the first mango of the season.

Food blogging also enjoys freedom of expression. None of that boring flat politically correct stuff. I find a foodie book aunty like , I can call it aunty like. And then no need to keep my hands on my head to ward the brickbats away. In that sense, the internet is an hydroponic medium. No gravity, just become what you want to be.

Indian Food blogging breathes new life into traditional regional food by recording them but also gives birth to a new tradition of “authentic multi cuisine” by the access to recipes in India and world wide. It increases the focus on regional cuisines but also increases the scope of multicuisine in Indian homes. Will there be a breaking point? Will the balance tip? I now include Mexican and some baking in my already crowded repertoire of Continental, Gujarati, South Indian and Punjabi dishes. I think that Indian food blogging has now reached a critical mass of bloggers and readers to qualify as a genuine cultural revolution in the making.

It is a cultural revolution that betters my understanding of genuine regional cuisines, Indian and world. Unlike the established perception of cultural revolutions, the food blogging revolution does not undermine tradition – but supports it. Will Kanchipuram be the new Provence? I sure hope so.


sra said...

This made nice reading. Was struck by how you mentioned your mom only recently took to experimenting from TV - while my kitchen and I are typical of the multicultural-foodie-Indian you described in this piece, it struck me that when it comes to the food made at home, my parents, both working, well-travelled and quite open to new food, rarely cook anything not traditional. But that doesn't mean they don't eat non-traditional food - all the paneer, chaat, etc comes from a hotel or a packet, just that it's not made at home.

Jayashree said...

Very well written essay....enjoyed reading it.

ms said...

Hi sra,actually thats cool - your parents get to have the cake and eat it too! Nice way of not getting boggled up by too many cuisines.

Hey Jayashree, thanks for taking the time to read the article and leaving a comment.