The drama of food
My vicarious relationship with other people's cooking started early.
My mum had a folder of recipe pages torn from Femina and Eve’s Weekly. These featured a prize for the best reader’s recipe, usually traditional regional cuisine, with a slight twist. Nothing too out of the box or alien. Even aged seven, I would spend hours looking at these.
My parents came from different communities, as had my maternal grandparents, so our home food was quite mixed. We were an air-force family, so there was the angrezi mess/club type of food too — cauliflower au gratin, custard and kidneys on toast, not to mention various local dishes — bagharay baingan or gattha — picked up through over various postings and the diverse social make-up of cantonments. My mum wore saris but also polka dotted maxis (it was the 1970s). We spoke English or Hindi at home and ate off glass plates, not steel.
In comparison, the prize-winning Eve’s Weekly ladies seemed exotic and mysterious to me, via their recipes. I imagined Mrs Prema Shah, looking like Vidya Sinha, serving me her prize winning sprouted moong bhel in a steel plate on a formica-top table, speaking anything but English or Hindi. They represented a world quite different, seemingly more rooted, than ours — and their recipes made little mix-and-match me feel like I had partaken of some apparently “authentic” experience.
Then, TV came along. Sanjeev Kapoor, a pleasant middle-class boy, became the nation’s favourite son-in-law, making even 14 year olds feel mother-in-lawish. He was an updated Eve’s Weekly recipe lady with his familiar-with-a-twist dishes. By then, I’d lived alongside all types of friends, shared their tehri dinners and litti lunches and begun cooking all sorts of things myself and got over childish notions of traditional exotica and purity. But TV had someone for me tucked away in a little corner.
Rupa Gulati did a 3-minute recipe on NDTV’s breakfast show. The food was quick, eclectic and experimental. Her warm, generous personality, and big smile seemed to mirror this openness: a little South Delhi, but joyfully un-snobby, equally enthusiastic about kanji and sushi. With her desi British accent, she was our Nigella before we knew Nigella. I found her eclecticism reassuring, and a little bit like home.
Food shows have a strong element of fantasy. My vegetarian colleague loves to watch MasterChef, though most of the dishes on it feature meats. For her, MasterChef Australia is soft-porn and USA is S&M. I love My Kitchen Rules to indulge my abiding fantasy — running a mini-restaurant in my little Bombay flat.
But we also relate to the personalities of the contestants. Their fundamental ways of being — technically perfect but safe; creative but unpredictable; flamboyant or systematic — are really what’s at stake via the contest between their foods.
So, food shows are also powerful soaps — except, unlike most TV fare, they’re about the real way we live — all mixed-up, and not the homogenous, so-called traditional exotica of a Kanjeevaram nightie world, which might help in expanding certain markets but is more Maharaja Mac than soul food.
The encounter with other cuisines, watching people try out foods foreign to them, either confirming or overcoming their prejudices and stereotypes mirrors how we cope with the world once we go out into it as adults. We encounter so much difference, have complex and surprising responses to these encounters, learn to understand and accept others and ourselves. It’s our myriad journeys between the worlds we came from and the worlds we’ve chosen that come together in unexpected dishes in those TV kitchens.
Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevi.com.
The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.