One of her earliest memories of food, Shylashri Shankar tells you, is of eating dark rich ber (Indian jujube berry) dipped in a sour berkhoot powder outside her convent school in Nagpur and sabudana khichdi post-school hours. “Exuberant pluralism is at the core of Indian cuisine. Indian food almost echoes VS Naipaul’s description of the country as ‘a million mutinies’.
Many regional cuisines make up the mosaic bundle that we call ‘Indian’, which rests, heavily or lightly, on layers of history,” says Shankar, whose latest book, Turmeric Nation, traces the myriad patterns that have formed Indian food cultures, taste preferences and cooking traditions. The Delhi-based writer—also a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research—draws on personal experiences, history, archaeological findings, sociology and popular culture, to present a biography of food of this diverse land.
As a Tamil-speaking person who grew up in Nagpur, Hyderabad and Delhi, and went on to study in England and work in the US, she switched to eating meat after the initial 18 years of vegetarian food. Today she is back in the land of her birth and tends to favour vegetarian food. “My ‘mosaic bundle’ (a term she has borrowed from Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor) would include a hankering for the tastes of my childhood and a nod to my decades spent abroad,” she smiles.
Little wonder that she cannot eat Indian food on a hot summer evening and instead prefers cold beetroot soup, spinach quiche, or a cold pasta salad. “This is how our food choices inform identity, and how our identity informs our food choices,” she says, adding, “Our food habits come from a particular context—a culture, religion, geography, our travels and what we are exposed to at different stages of our lives and in different seasons.” It’s not just these. Our food choices and identity are also impacted by our upbringing within a particular religion, and our travels and relatability to certain foods as we age.
Ber, sabudana… it makes you ask whether we are slowly losing native foods in our quest for urbanisation. “The question we have to ask ourselves is what do we want to save and why?” she asks. But she is in no doubt that traditional recipes shall triumph. In fact, the many new menus across the length and breadth of Indian professional kitchens bear her out. From Marwari, Anglo-Indian, Colonial, Kayastha, Northeastern, Sahayadri tribal, chefs today are not afraid to bring regional dishes to the table, without diluting its essence. Before we wrap up, we ask her about the importance of food in fasting and feasting, or celebration and mourning. “Food is identified with feasts and fasts.
You have the Navratra fast followed by the Diwali feast. You have the Christmas feast followed by the Lent fast. You have the Ramzan fast followed by the Eid feast. Food is also connected to mourning. It helps to restore a sense of control to the mourner, a control we have lost in the unexpectedness—for example, you decide when the coriander seeds have been roasted enough, when the vegetable is done to a crunchy bite, and when the chana is cooked,” she says as she turns back to her go-to recipe book, The Moti Mahal Cook Book by Monish Gujral.
“Many regional cuisines make up the mosaic bundle that we call ‘Indian’, which rests, heavily or lightly, on layers of history.”