Which is the country that has the largest variety of cuisines in the world? What country produces and consumes the largest amount of spices in the world? Where would you go for a vast variety of fruits and vegetables? The answer to all three questions is India. But the awareness is staggeringly low. Let’s take a few examples.
Look at a tourist map of any state, say, Rajasthan. All the popular tourist destinations are marked prominently. Most of these are forts, palaces and other built structures. Also marked clearly are temples and other religious places of worship. The chief geographical features and maybe even the crops of the state will, in all probability, be delineated. Hence, you will know that Sam and Khuri are beyond Jaisalmer and are where the state’s sand dunes lie; you will know that Merta City is where the legend of Meerabai started. You will even know that bajra, jowar and moong dal are important crops in certain parts of the state. But you will never know that zeera (cumin), saunf (fennel), methi (fenugreek), chillies and a bit of dhania (coriander seed) is grown across the state, including in the arid regions. And, even after poring over the map for half an hour, you will not know that ghewar, ghotuwa and gatta are but three of the many glories of Rajasthani cuisine or that ghee and milk are more plentiful than water in the Jodhpur, Jaisalmer and Bikaner region. It is almost a conspiracy of silence.
More than any other country except perhaps China, India has an enormous treasure trove in its culinary heritage. And here, we are referring to ingredients, preparations in private homes, restaurant food and street food across communities, cities, towns and villages, all over the country. We are referring to temple food as in Puri or Udupi, devotional offerings to deities like Lord Venkateshwara at Tirupati, where the laddoos contain a hint of pure saffron, thanks to the generosity of the devotees. Or even the langar at every gurudwara in the country, where free meals are prepared by people from the community wanting to serve the gurudwara by chopping vegetables and rolling out chapattis.
We often hear the truism that “the real Indian food is cooked in private homes”. It is also served in other places like at weddings (away from the metros), at street corners that cater to the migrant working population and at highway dhabas, more or less all across the country.
That, in itself, along with the chaat stalls that are thick on the ground, being India’s snack of choice, are excellent places to complete a network of options on which to base a culinary tour of India. And no! Chaat is not too unsafe for a tourist to consume. Ask Anubhav Sapra of Delhi Food Walks. He had to give up his day job to pursue his hobby: taking friends and friends of friends out to sample the chaat, biryani and kulfi at a few iconic yet difficult to find stalls in the labyrinthine lanes of Chandni Chowk and Jama Masjid, Delhi. When tourists from the western world got word of these walks, they started asking to be taken along while making their hotel bookings.
It is the same in Mumbai, where food blogger Kalyan Karmakar aka Finely Chopped has been taking local residents of Mumbai, people from other cities and foreign tourists, to cafes in Bandra, seafood restaurants across the city and its suburbs and the hidden gems of Fort. In Pune, Jayesh Paranjpe of The Western Routes leads a series of customized trails that showcase the incomparable food of the Puneri Brahmins, with its rich tradition of snacks and all-vegetarian thalis. Goda masala is a mixed spice – you could think of it as the garam masala of parts of Maharashtra – that is added to a selected range of rice and dal preparations. Further south on the west coast, two souring agents are extensively used. They are garcinia Indica and garcinia cambogia. In other parts of the country, tamarind is used as a souring agent, and in Coorg, garcinia cambogia is made into a thick viscid souring agent, somewhat comparable to the Italian aceto balsimico.
However, that is where the comparison ends. Aceto balsamico is available in fine stores all over the world. People aspire to buy and use it in their kitchens and share recipes using it on social media. Mention kachimpuli to anyone outside Coorg and you will encounter blank stares. But India is not short of such fascinating ingredients as these, from paunk in Surat that is available when fresh millet appears in the fields to Bengali notun gur – a highly seasonal product that is made from date palm sap. Trees are climbed at dead of night, terracotta pots are tied to the spot where the sap will collect once an incision is made and then collected the next day at dawn. This only happens for a couple of months a year.
Or take Indore, where, once the jewellers of Sarafa Bazar have closed their shops, the pavements are taken over by an army of street food sellers who sell their wares till late at night. Bhutte ki kees and other treats can only be sampled here. In any other part of the world, it would be a heritage site and would attract tourists in droves. In Coorg, Goa, Pune, Bengal, Surat and Indore however, it is only the local belief in tradition that keeps the flame of ancient ingredients alive.
It is tempting to scoff at European tourists ‘not wanting’ to trawl through the maniacal chaos of Chandni Chowk and to offer tourists a sanitized brick and mortar structure with seating, running water and seating facilities in an easily accessible part of town, where chosen chaat-walas will be allowed to set up stalls for a couple of weeks at a time, but that would be missing the point completely. The whole experience has to be to showcase what already exists: not what ought to exist in an ideal world.
Says Anubhav Sapra of Delhi Food Walks, “I never take overseas visitors to gol-gappa stalls, because of the perils of untreated water. But aloo tikkis hot off the griddle and even bhalla papdi are safe for most overseas guests. Biryani, nihari and mithai are other, even safer, options in the same vicinity. And then, there is food shopping where visitors can be taken to a spice shop in the bowels of Sadar Bazar.
And we haven’t even spoken of cooking classes, where a handful of guests who have signed up are taught to make three or four dishes. Having attended such classes in cities strung out across the globe, I can vouch for the fact that local colour is what is the most memorable aspect. In Bangkok, situated on a khlong, was the villa of Madame Tam, in which she ran her cooking school. After three hours of wandering about in her charmingly overgrown garden, identifying black pepper, lemongrass and ginger, nine of us learnt how to cook three dishes. I may not have turned into a David Thompson, but the fun all of us had coupled with the insights into Thai culture and cuisine will stay with me for the rest of my life.
Is it too much to expect a few cooking schools that cater to the young Indian as well as tourists that combine fun with a tiny slice of our vast culinary heritage? Or an early morning visit to a plantation in 24 Parganas to watch sap being turned into a gourmet treat. The only thing is that it will have to be implemented before the last toddy tapper has hung up his boots because his sons have decided that it is a thankless profession and they’re better off working in some office.