Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Dal Makhani : The National Dish

During a visit to Manipur some years ago, I remember checking into a hotel in Imphal and beginning the thought of relishing one of my earliest trips to the North East. I have always enjoyed traveling and imbibing the culture of the places I visit and if there is one piece of my job that I do enjoy, it is the opportunity to travel around in places that one usually does not go to. One of the many ways in which I pick up the local culture is in the matter of food – I have no attachment to any one kind of food and am forever open to trying out local food and preparations. So with a lot of anticipation, I opened the hotel menu card to order.

What I found was very unfortunate. The entire repertoire of the hotel consisted of items like Dal Makhani, Shahi Paneer and Alu Matar, dishes of the kind that I normally get to see in any of the local Dhabas in my area. It was an acute sense of disappointment that I discovered that in all of the hotels of Imphal(more or less), Manipuri cuisine was not available and to get a taste of it, one had to identify the fairly seedy street food establishments in the heart of town where the ambience was not too endearing, too say the least.

Imphal of course is not the only place where this cultural invasion has taken place. In fact it could be said that Punjabi food of the Dal Fry or Dal Makhani variety is to food what Bollywood movies is to cinema in india. They seem to be every where and have over shadowed every thing like some giant Banyan tree. Now whether such a phenomenon is good or bad could be up for debate of course – arguably in many ways Bollywood films have unified the country in ways that official policies could never have done; but then of course not every one agrees and there are places in the country where Hindi films are taboo because they are perceived to be stamping out local culture and identity. But whereas so far I have not heard of food being on any separatists’ agenda yet, I would argue perhaps that food is as much a bench mark of one’s identity as cinema and language.

The associations between food and people groups is so deep that it is actually the stuff of fable. The association between a Bengali and his fish, the Punjabi and his tandoori chicken and the “madrasi” and his idli and dosa are folk lore. And so it is a matter of some worry when one finds a slow and subtle domination of a particular type of food that is not indigenous to a region, and the creeping surrender of local food habits. Jokes alluding to the Tandoori Chicken or butter chicken as the “National Bird” are basically acknowledging the slow institutionalization of a phenomenon that has gradually begun. Of course there are aspects that are involved here, including the attribution to changing dietary habits to incipient food shortages in the country and I am not touching on these things. I am only making a fervent plea to preserve and propagate local foods and delicacies and preserve them as an integral and important elements of our culture. Let them not get subsumed by any one form of food as it seems to be happening - that is all I ask

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