My experiments with religion, food and the Truth
By Anoothi Vishal
This Dussehra is going to be pretty much like all others. Pooja in the morning, in honour of Hanumanji, prime rescuer, helper of even the gods; complete with arati and a short ritual worshiping pen and ink, the two “weapons” of our Kayastha clan. A prashad of aloo ki kachori—essentially poori stuffed with potato paste will be offered. And then a more interesting lunch with beer, a well-done bhuna kaliya, goat meat curry, scooped up with hot poori or rice, as some of us prefer.
The meat curry has been the highlight of the festival always.
In my grandparents’ time, despite the fact that they were strict vegetarians in their later years, devoting a substantial part of their mornings everyday to reading the Sundarkand, the shortest and most beautiful of the kands in the Tulsi Ramayan, also supposed to bring peace and happiness in any home, the meat curry would come up for much debate and scrutiny.
It was the centrepiece of the dining table in the Mathur home of my ancestors. To know how to make a good kaliya was a skill, or a “talent” most women were supposed to master as much as Hindustani Classical (and “light”) music, sewing, painting and the fine arts. It was also a shauk of the men. To be able to cook it well on leisurely afternoons, as much as dabbling in shayari, and composing songs after pegs of whisky in the evenings.
And my grandmother, despite having been a strict vegetarian all her life, could not merely cook the meat curry well but critique it too—merely by looking at it.
You could not escape either the aloo kachori or the kaliya on Dussehra. They were ritualistic foods, meant to convey that the festive season was beginning. An auspicious time of plenty and plenty of joy. After the austerities of the Navratras, when people fasted and abstained, this was the time for feasting and celebration. The cycle that our Hindu world followed without fail; life-death-life, celebrate-abstain-celebrate; kaliya-no-onion-no-garlic-kaliya!
But even during the navratras, the family was not strict really. It was usually enough to fast on the first day and on Ashtami, when the period of abstaining would end with poori-halwa-chana. For the children, the rules were even more lax. We ate eggs to nourish us through the nine-day period, and onion and garlic went into all vegetarian dishes because, of course, the community loved its rich vegetarian cooking; the “rangat”, look, of the khana as important as the taste. The “halka” khana of the Brahmins and the Baniyas was unanimously looked down upon.
It was also considered regressive to be completely moribund, limited by rituals, even as you followed them. Karva Chauth was by far the strictest ritual observed. Unlike in many Punjabi homes, my grandmother scoffed, we the UP Kayasthas, were strict about not drinking any water– no rasgulla, no glass of milk—through the day. However, when the fast was broken with a family dinner, along with pue that the women primarily ate, the men would always drink Scotch! The fast could be “transferred” too. In case of illness, or medical emergencies or pregnancy or such—the husband undertook the fast, for his own long life, which was fair enough, I suppose!
The transference needn’t necessarily be spousal though. Of course, marital bonds were the strongest– supposedly, but sometimes a “good” daughter-in-law or sister-in-law could agree to complete the requisite fasting on your behalf.
You may have made an arrangement with god—with Sai Baba, for instance—who became the favourite deity of much of our family even as Ram remained the family god of the clan, that traced its descent from Koshalpur Raja (the prince of Kausala), to complete a 12-Thursdays fast in return for some specific boon. But if mid-way through the process, you ran out of steam or if “circumstances” like some travel abroad and such prevented you from completing the arrangement, a proxy could be arranged. And lo behold, all that no-meat, no-drinks, no-food on Thursdays could vanish in a trice!
It was pretty much like, as I discovered later during a grih shanti puja, paying a group of Brahmin priests to chant powerful incantations on your behalf for a specified number of days. You could be sitting in Seattle with a thread tied to your wrist. But with this intervention-through-proxy, things could be set right. Though, of course, you paid a dakshina.
Who is to say that ritual is not powerful? There have been times enough when lighting a diya or incense in front of a favourite deity has resulted in miracles. I am in fact a believer. There are realities and magic beyond us. And there are times when gods, whoever they be, are moved by deep, deep desire. When reading the Sai Charitra after a purifying bath, every Thursday may benefit in mysterious ways. Call it grace, call it the auto-suggestion.
You may fast, feel ritualistically pure and blessed and find that everything is moving perfectly synchronistically – this despite the fact that the very same Sai Charitra that you are bent on ritualistically reading has already told you about the meaningless-ness of impersonal ritualism. It doesn’t work if it is by rote. When you are only following some established convention. Because the gods themselves could be quite carefree really. On somedays, Sai Baba, we are told, would sit unbathed, “unclean” doling out prashad (and cures) to devotees from a handi, which, in fact, could contain a biryani too!
Like the Buddha, or Guru Nanak, or Mira Bai or Chaitanya and others spearheading “reforms” in Hinduism, guiding what was never a single, rigid religion any way, away from corrupted ritualism to spiritualism, the Baba, as late as early 20th century seems to have established his following by challenging Brahminical rituals, and responding to new social realities.
His garb of a fakir, the fact that his followers were primarily the poor, that both Hindus and Muslims were welcomed into the fold, and the fact that he sat in a broken masjid, on the fringes of rich civil society were powerful messages. Political messages. Spiritual messages. As was the prashad—of ashes and non-discriminating fare; sugar cubes one day, biryani potluck another, whatever, whoever gave him, but not rich sweetmeats arranged by the powerful, the politically well-connected, or the established.
In every tale, of every god, it is the same message that gets repeated. Eschew the established, the empty conventions and rituals. Make individual, true connections from the heart. I have not heard of a single morality tale—and I have heard most of them—when any Hindu god decides to reward established rituals of praying instead of seeking out truthful, personalised connections with powerless devotees who were either outside established “Dharmic” society or ostracised and punished by it.
My naani Krishna, totally devoted to Krishna, sang a beautiful bhajan every single day she lived. There are only strains of it that I remember. One line stands out: “Duryodhan ki mewa tyagi…” The Blue God did not stand up for the might and mewa of the established political power. He ate what Sudama brought him amongst the many tales of him standing up for the weak. Would it be far-fetched to think that this is a god who would have stood up for the weak and poor in Dadri too? Regardless of established rituals of who should eat what “pure” food?
The Later Vedic or the “Epic” Age saw many reactions to Vedic practices. As a “nature religion”, “sacrifice”, or the ceremonial offerings to agni, including of animals, plentiful and a symbol of wealth, had become wide-spread Vedic practices.
It is not hard to imagine a reform movement against this, protecting animal wealth as the society became more agrarian and gau became our mata in the Later Vedic/Epic Age of Krishna. Further down history, the austerities and monastic leanings of Jainism and Buddhism were a direct challenge to the Manu-wadism of the later Vedic Age that put women below cows, famously, in the caste hierarchy! Through both Jainism and Buddhism, established political and social conventions were challenged. Rituals and prayer became simpler, so did the food. How ironical it is then that militant Hinduism be influenced by the vegetarianism of these new, reactionary religions that had challenged the violence inherent in ritualistic Brahminism!
As for all our different gods, who have never championed majoritism in any case, surely, according to the truest Dharma, they have to be at odds with their supposed Bhakts today.
In fact, the concept of the Other has not really existed in the many different strands of Hinduism. This despite the fact that jhoota and untouchability became such established practices that they continue till today, including in the treatment of people belonging to other religions with whom a high-caste Hindu may not share his food, just as he would not with any lower-caste born. The Constitution of a free, enlightened India made this illegal.
But even within the folds of Vishnavism, both Ram and Krishna, the two most popular avatars have always championed the “Others”. From Shabri, whose jhoote ber Ram eats, breaking the untouchability taboo, to Nishad Raj, cowherds, and in fact even the non-human — monkeys and bears, not some powerful princes and priests– Vasihnavism’s most powerful gods have allied with marginalised beings.
None more so than Shiva. Whose disdain for worldly things is legendary. Who drinks poison, the worst available “impure” ingredient surely instead of feasting on ritualistic goodies. What really does beef matter, then?
Every few years, I change my allegiance to a new god. It just happens automatically, without conscious decision-making. Till about three years ago, it was the Devi I connected with. Fasting every Friday, literally believing what the vrat text said: “Don’t worry about the rituals, if you have nothing in the house, a grain of sugar is enough to offer. The Devi is hungry for intent”.
Since “bhav” or intent was important, I would fast strictly all day, offering sugar as prashad when I felt too drained to make kasar, and then going out to a cocktail party in the evening, where I would eat vegetarian food but drink a glass or two of wine happily enough! My private ritual was clear. On days I was travelling, I would not fast at all; completing the tally, by extending the number of weeks.
The Devi has been kind. I don’t think it bothers her what I offered.
Now, Shankar, the more benevolent form of Shiva, is my personal god. A book on him stays at my bedside. And I draw my strength from him. Every Monday, I always offer him water in a copper pot. Not plastic bottle. I always forget to buy fruit to offer. So sometimes, instead of the supposed bel leaf, unavailable around Delhi’s high-rises, I pluck any leaf, or a small flower, and give him that.
The book at my bedside has a story– where the god is happier with a tribal boy who brings him water from a far off stream in his dripping locks of hair. Not with the wise priest who offers him ritualistically-correct offerings. It is the bhav that matters.
Which is why on Mondays, I don’t really worry about eating kebab with Shiraz.
The bar-crawl through SOBO’s poshest
By Miss Marmalade
Disclaimer: Advance apologies for excessive use of ‘air quotes’. Reader discretion is advised.
Every now and then, one has to prove that one is ‘happily’ single. And to do that, one has to do ‘single’ things. Go to a nightclub and dance till the ankles hurt because one is wearing heels after a year. Get drunk and stare at an ex-boyfriend’s Facebook profile picture and laugh because he now looks older than you, and cry because he is holidaying in Crete and you are stuck with shoddy company. Buy clothes that make you look ‘hotter’ when there’s no chance in hell that you’ll succeed.
See the thing is, being single is a lot of work. You're dealing with bad dates that should end before they begin, good dates that won't go anywhere because you're simply unfortunate, and the worst - mediocre dates because you are inching towards 'fine! I'll settle this time'. Plus, you’re constantly suspecting other singles who want to 'de-single' you. Which is why, the most important thing you can do is take a holiday with another single friend, just so you can leave all the shenanigans of romance behind for a change. I did the last one with absolute joy. Actually I’ve done all of the above, but the last one is the least painful.
My Dilliwali friend – let’s call her DF - needed a break too. She didn’t decide that. I did. So I ‘arm twisted’ her to come to Mumbai with me. “Arrey, we will eat and get fat. Drink and get dirty,” I told her. My sales pitch, no matter how sleazy, worked!
Checking into a posh hotel, complete with an absolutely useless bowl of terrarium in the room – actually I stared at it for a really long time and wondered of its purpose in life – and divine soft towels, we planned our ‘gastronomical’ vacay.
First stop was this lovely little joint in Bandra. In fact it is so little, that eavesdropping is almost customary. No one will frown at you if you overhear your neighbouring table talking about their friend’s bizarre romantic escapades. I love eavesdropping – it makes me feel human. I know so much about so many people that I don’t know, that I could start something called ‘wikipeople’.
DF and I gushed over a raw papaya salad for a while, and only because everything else we ate after that was so ‘meh’ that she and I began talking about another restaurant instead. Apparently, it’s rude. The crispy fried pork is the reason I need dentures. And what’s with people adding capsicum to things all the time? It’s like ‘when in doubt, add capsicum’. And there was no daaru to help us forget that afternoon either. But there was no way we were going to let our holiday be ruined by over-fried food.
Comfortably tucked under our blankets in the hotel room later in the afternoon, we decided to that we could do better than that. And better we did.
Bar hopping is always a solution to emotional problems. And you could be a teetotaller too. Who cares? Just walk into a hip bar, order the quintessential lemon soda because most bars in this country consider the simply syrup to be the key ingredient of a mocktail, and watch people. Also eat. Eat so much that you need to be sent home in a taxi later.
But DF and I had ‘posh’ plans.
Bar #1: An evening in a classy new bar means blow-dried hair and lots of lipstick. DF and I looked rather dapper, even if I say so myself, as we made the bartender change her one cocktail only about three times. They simple wouldn’t get it right. I on the other hand couldn’t decide between a whisky and a Bloody Mary, and therefore I had both. Now I love popcorn - how delightfully plebeian you’d think – and can eat them even when it’s flavoured with exotic spices. But some of the other appetisers were more complicated than my last relationship. Now here’s the thing – I love experimenting with food. But I never did well at chemistry. And when it comes to art, I prefer stories, not abstract ‘colour blocking on canvas’ that sells for millions. But a lot of the food, while it tasted good – good textures, flavours, and even portioned right – went wayyyy over my head when it came to the complexity of the presentation. Probably because I was a little too tipsy to notice the little nuances, and we really had to get to the next bar.
Bar #2: Here, my dear friends, ‘haleem’ was on the menu. Now, unless you absolutely trust the haleem maker, you must never eat it after midnight. It’s not written anywhere, but someone ought to. That haleem was the worst I have ever had. And not because it was bad, but because it tasted of, guess what, NOTHING. My cocktail was equally blah, for the lack of a more appropriate term. So I let both of them ‘age’ on the table. DF and another friend, who’d joined us by then, were much nicer to their drinks. The three of us then tottered out in the lovely rainy night of Mumbai – never wear a white dress when it’s raining – because Sia sang Never Give Up. It goes something like this: “But I won't never give up, no, never give up, no, no. No, I won't never give up, no, never give up, no, no.” You get the drift right?
Bar #3: WHY? Why would you have a cocktail menu where the drinks have more description under their names than one can read? And why would these cocktails taste like a bad film where the lead actors should have never been paired together? Something like a Kareena Kapoor-Akshay Kumar flick. This is when selfies come to the rescue. Take enough photos of yourself so that the trauma of having to drink something more complex than the Cold War is alleviated.
Tottering outside at a godforsaken hour, we went back to our hotel room, feeling so delightfully single.
We also switched to diet soda the following day, and ate a cheese platter and stir-fried crabs – like posh people – at a lovely restaurant at one of Mumbai’s suburban business districts. That’s when DF and I realised that many restaurants don’t want you to pay for what you eat. We tried all sorts of gestures – except the obvious one – to ask for the bill. But no, these blokes were completely unwilling to oblige. Ideally, I would have walked off, but we aren’t in college anymore. Why is the service industry in this country as efficient as our country’s civic workers?
We also decided not to eat like that again. I don’t know about DF but my whole enthusiasm towards “let’s eat and get fat” had gone a bit far. And now I am munching on carrots and celery sticks and wondering what to wear to rather weird date tonight. More on that later…
(Single and ready to mingle in restaurants, Miss Marmalade, our new humour columnist, is highly discerning when it comes to both food and people)
In which Miss Marmalade makes toast of a youthful breakfast/pub/who cares place
By Miss Marmalade
There are a few places in town one should not even think of going to after one has crossed 30. I only wish that this thought had come to me before, and not after, I was already at a place that I should not have thought of going to, now that I am way on the wrong side of 30. This sentence ought to confuse you as much as it confused me when I wrote it. If it hasn’t, you have achieved inner peace. Congratulations.
Now ideally it would require a cranelift to get me out of the house on a Sunday. I keep the day for my domestic chores, and they are sacrosanct. For instance, not making the bed; ordering in coffee when it takes me only five minutes or so to make a mug; watering both my disgruntled plants and going back to bed; skipping breakfast; ordering lunch; binge-watching murder related things on the internet. I don’t always do these alone; there’s always another equally committed soul around to share these tasks.
But last Sunday was different. Firstly because I was going to check out a place everyone was talking about – mostly for its ambience – and secondly, I had made the plan four days earlier, and was threatened of dire consequences if I cancelled. Some of you might know how that feels. This joint’s other brothers exude a cool and funky vibe. And I wanted to be cool. The drinks are mostly rubbish, and the food makes little sense to me. Except for their cheese chilli toast. But it’s a place where you can hang out at without having to worry about your clothes. Plus the beer is cheap, and I have cheap friends.
So there I was, with my ultra-intelligent and ultra-single friend at this seriously pretty restaurant. Or is a café? Or a pub? Oh, who gives a damn. It was eleven in the morning, which typically would still be Saturday night for me. But I had promised. I also realised that once in a while one has to be mature enough to make exceptions. Plus the thought of bacon, scrambled eggs, crisp toast (I am quite allergic to gluten) with jam, and other delicious and forbidden things were as tempting as Tom Hiddleston. I got to the restaraurant/café/pub (GAH!) as fast as my Uber perennially-on-the-phone-driver could take me.
Dear chef, revenge is a dish best served cold. Not breakfast. Unless I order yoghurt with various exotic fruits and berries and seeds, or cereal with cold milk, or something similar.
Toast cannot be cold.
Scrambled eggs cannot be served at room temperature.
Bacon cannot be cold. Most definitely not. No way Jose!
But you chose the one day I lugged myself out of the house to remind me that I had reached my threshold for BS five years ago. And I truly am way on the wrong side of 32. They didn’t warn you about us at culinary school, did they?
Having said that, I have to give it to them for making hash browns the way I like it, because I don’t like hash browns. And the baked beans came out of a tin (hurrah!), and the scrambled eggs hadn’t yet begun to turn rubbery because the eggs were feeling a little slow that day, and probably also because bacon said: “Hey, it’s my turn to taste like cardboard today!”
The toast looked toasted, but tasted like it was done the previous afternoon. And they forgot the butter, and when they eventually did remember (after I reminded them twice), they gave the butter and jam in the same little dipping bowl. Together.
“This is a place for the youngsters. They don’t care if a tiny drop of jam touches the butter. Don’t be a punctilious b****,” my other self kept reminding me. My friend was blissfully unaware of this ‘breakfast’ that was sitting on the table. He’s the kind you can talk to about politics and art for hours – and I don’t know much about either. This was the only time the chewy bacon came handy. Stuff your face with it and no one cares to know about your political affiliations. He was sipping on cappuccino that, and I kid you not, comes in a goblet like thing whose handle is literally near the base. “The centre of gravity of this thing is all wrong,” he says to me. But I was in no position to respond. My mouth was stuffed with bacon that I had already been chewing for the last hour.
We managed to stay there for an hour and a half – chewy bacon, smoke breaks, waiting for that darn butter for the toast – and got out. I needed a seriously calorific chocolate éclair later from a place near my house to recover from the trauma.
(Single and ready to mingle in restaurants, Miss Marmalade, our humour columnist, is highly discerning when it comes to food and people)
In a no holds barred piece, chef Floyd Cardoz tells us where to find the best Indian food in the US; and why he thinks restaurant in the “West” generally do a better job than Indian restaurants in India!
By Floyd Cardoz
When I moved to the US in 1988, the only good Indian food you could eat out was the dosa. I didn’t see any of the Maharashtrian or Goan Catholic food I had grown up on. It’s ironic that over the years the expression of Indian food in NYC only became all the more bastardised. It was the same saag paneer and chicken tikka masala, and theone-pot curries that were being adapted to fit many dishes. And that practice continues even today.
It’s probably one of the reasons why I never wanted to start an Indian restaurant back then.
There were a few exceptions though. The erstwhile Raga by The Taj group, at Rockerfeller Centre had incredible food, for instance. It’s not that the chefs and cooks who came to work in the US in the first place didn’t know anything about Indian food – they were knowledgeable - but replacing them was arduous. And then immigrants, who were primarily famers and truck drivers started to work at the restaurants. Most of them had never cooked before, and the game of Chinese Whispers with recipes began. That led to guests who had practically no clue about about good Indian food. A wide gap developed between those who loved the cuisine, and those who didn’t. And therefore were probably more haters.
In 1997, Danny (Meyer) asked me to join hands with him to open the Indian restaurantTabla. It was an opportunity for me to introduce a new perspective to the cuisine, and to familiarize people with the flavours of India – one that was not really Indian per se, but had an Indian soul. We began to give Americans the food they hadn’t eaten before - Patrani Machhi for instance - and not the 6th Street (also known as Little India) versions. And these dishes were presented in a way Americans could connect with. We sourced local ingredients, and not ingredients only from India.
In fact, what I am doing today is sourcing farmers in the United States who are willing to grown Indian ingredients in the seasons they are supposed to be grown in the US – squashes and greens for example.
When Tabla closed in 2011, I thought someone would take over the work I had started and continue to cook food that was user friendly, but nothing happened. Smaller places came and went, and we reached status quo. Indian food went back to its good old place, and no one was willing to take a chance. But the most interesting part is that American chefs were all the while travelling to India to explore our amazing cuisine.
Americans are adventurous, and they are willing to try. Of course there are still those who go back for the curry and kebab, but a lot of them are now eating new dishes not seen in the West - fish reachado, sorpotol, pao and choriz for instance – things they’ve never seen anywhere else.
To me, modern Indian food (and I use the term loosely) is all about looking at food differently. Really old recipes that you pull out, ones that people haven’t really seen, and execute it with ingredients from that region, and serve it in a non-traditional way. For instance, you should be able to eat multiple small plates, such as a pakoda, balchao, and kebab, so that you can try more dishes. Traditional Indian food was not like that in the US – it was all about big dishes.
There are quite a few chefs here that are doing a good job with the cuisine today. There’s Vishwesh Bhatt of Snackbar at Oxford, Mississippi; Anita Jaisinghani of Pondicheri in New York, Asha Gomez (owner of Spice to Table, and Third Space) from Atlanta, and Srijith Gopinathan at Taj Campton Place, and Vikram Vij in Vancouver – all these guys are doing great things with Indian food.
Now if you look at Indian food back in India – I find that the chefs in the West do a much better job. There are of course a few chefs here who are doing good work too. They bring the knowledge and passion on to the table – something that’s extremely important. But restaurants in the West believe food should first speak to the soul of the guest, instead of trying to shock them. Very few chefs in India get the fact that it’s important to consider all the important elements in a dish. Chefs in the US are much better at balancing all the right flavours.
Restaurants in India use a lot of smoke and mirrors; it’s almost Bollywood-isation of the cuisine. But chefs who are successful connect with the soul, and it takes a lot for them to break down the barriers and say, “I have the guts to do things differently because I believe in them”. That’s what we wanted to do with Bombay Canteen in Mumbai. Our vision was simple; serve food we had grown up on, and source local ingredients. That’s what makes restaurants special.
Over time Americans have come to understand that Indian food is not just about flavour but also about health benefits. Take the turmeric drink for instance; it’s quite the rage here.My journey in this business has been a big learning curve. Today I am unafraid to present what I want to, and I don’t have to explain myself to anyone.
And to get there, passion is key, at least nine out of 10 times. You just have to cook from a place within your soul.
Floyd Cardoz, the celebrated Indian-American Chef, is the Culinary Director and Partner at The Bombay Canteen, Bombay. He is also Chef –Owner of the recently opened modern Indian restaurant ‘Paowalla’, in NYC. Winner of Top Chef Masters Season 3 in 2012, Floyd is also the author of two cookbooks, One Spice Two Spice and Flavorwalla. A four-time James Beard Award nominee,Floyd regularly works with Share our Strength, City Harvest, C-CAP: Careers through Culinary Arts Program, and Young Scientists Foundation.