Generally, a book on food is also called a cookbook, helpfully instructing the following: 1. How to cook (obviously) and 2. What to eat (read: diets-cholesterol-obesity-diabetes), littered with clichés, the usual ‘pepper to taste’ ‘simmer-simmer-simmer’, the slightly nuanced ‘lip-smacking’, ‘wafting aromas’ et al. Not fair to belittle all food writing as hackneyed, but there is a certain generalised framework it is deliberated within.
In that sense, Alka Pande’s Mukhwas is refreshing, quite like the homegrown breath-freshener it is named after. It is well researched with detail that is vetted and fretted over and a writing style that is simplistic, educational and like a good piece of academic writing, it starts off on a predicament. This is the ‘Mcdonaldisation’ or the blatant standardisation of flavour in a menu so limited, people are expected to know it by heart. A rather predictable way to admire culinary diversity one might think, but her novelty lies in the various real life situations she sketches out to stress this culinary wealth. Quite justifiably, she is also discontent with the Indian mindset of excessive spending on imported wine and cheese that is coupled with the hesitation of spending on home-grown ingredients. Hugely debatable, but her argument serves as a reasonable pretext for the culinary spectrum she’s going to expose the reader to.
She speaks of seasons and rituals and how these brought to the fore the colours and aromas of regional cuisines. Making it all relatable, she’s woven instances from her life, like a litti-chokha she devoured at a Bihari friend’s house, hot malpuas her aunt kept her warm with during monsoons and the summertime activity of climbing trees to squash one mango after another; all the sentiment is intact. Pande, Consultant Arts Advisor and Curator of the Visual Arts Gallery at the India Habitat Centre, has intellectualised the Indian practice of food consumption. There’s an emphasis on mythology that runs across the book. Wherever necessary, she’s used Sanskrit names, like Latin botanical terms textbooks are besieged with. She brings in maxims from Ayurveda, in fact, each and every one that’s connected to food. Carefully detailed is the almost bureaucratic Hindu calendar and the fasting and feasting it prescribes. Also outlined are the vata-pita-kaapha body types which diet charts should be medically synced with, should the goal be holistic wellness.
In each chapter, there’s a literary skill. In Colonial Cuisines there’s a childlike enthusiasm about Anglo-Indian practices; In Kitchens of Coastal States one walks through coconut groves, rice fields, even beach shacks. Everything from Gita to Mirza Ghalib and Marco Polo has been artistically associated with concept of food. What Pande has penned is a pedagogic anthology to the sociology of Indian food, nothing more, nothing less.
Lasun Chutney in Sesame Oil Ingredients
■ 1 cup peeled garlic pods
■ 1 tablespoon lightly roasted cumin seeds
■ 8-10 dried red chillies, more or less to taste
■ 100g jaggery or gur
■ 1 heaped tablespoon salt
■ Sesame oil as required
■ Roughly grind together the garlic, cumin seeds, chillies and gur. This is preferably done on a slab of stone to give it an authentic flavour.
■ When still of a rough consistency, remove from the stone slab and add salt.
■ Pour a bit of sesame oil over the ground mixture as a kind of a preservative as well as taste enhancer.