On Comprehending Indian Cuisine (or any other)

In the early 1980s Varadarajan, a Minister at the Indian High Commission in London, organized a remarkable series of intimate recitals by some of India’s greatest classical musicians. These were held at the October Gallery, where my sound studio occupied the basement, and so I was asked to amplify, balance and record the concerts.


I had listened casually and with pleasure to Indian classical music, but knew nothing of its intricacies. There were no scores; no books could tell me what I had to hear. And so I placed microphones where I was told and made adjustments as instructed by the musicians who left the ensemble one by one and listened to the balance among those remaining.


Gradually over several concerts I began to feel the music as an entity. I was able to anticipate and adjust as one musician, then another emerged from the texture for an extended improvisation (which a jazz musician would call a riff) and then submerged again into the totality. A smattering of applause would often see him out, and I began to appreciate just what had given the audience pleasure. My proudest moment came when the great Ravi Shankar ended a pre-concert sound check after a couple of minutes with the comment, “It is good. Don’t change anything.”


This is very much the way that children growing up in a community learn to understand the strange noises that float about their ears, gradually realizing that many of these sounds convey information. There is no instruction, only repetition, in which certain sounds accompany particular objects, events or emotions. These sounds become “words” and begin to relate to each other; gradually a “generative grammar” gives them a collective meaning.


Children who grow up in a kitchen are apt to learn about food in much the same way. Step by step they may observe what takes place as what comes out of the basket turns into what goes into their mouths – in other words, they learn cause and effect. What they learn and the way they learn it will be conditioned by the cuisine that surrounds them, including the dishes, the tools, the pots and pans, the ingredients. These in turn will influence how the food is handled: whether it is chopped, cut or torn apart, whether ingredients are mixed by hand, by spoon, by fork or by machinery. What are the stages? Is there intermediary cooking or does everything go straight into the pot at once? Is there an effort to save time or are processes allowed to set their own inherent schedules?


For occidental and oriental cuisines there are very different answers to all these questions. For instance, to watch an Indian cook pulverize and sear the seeds and spices before adding the other ingredients one by one to the pan is to enter another culinary world. Even the manner of eating may be foreign to us. As M.F.K. Fisher observes in her introduction to Shizuo Tsuji’s Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art: “Our physical habits are different [from the Japanese], so that we chew and swallow and sip and raise food to our mouths differently, with different tools.”


In the West, our post-Beeton recipe-oriented approach to cookery assumes that any dish, no matter how foreign to our experience, can be created by measuring out the specified ingredients and following a sequence of instructions. But as John Thorne reminds us in his Simple Cooking, “[C]reativity is a one-way street: very few cooks are willing or even able to afterward evoke the ferment, the confusion, the groping before the moment that shaped the dish. What we get instead is a rationale that works backward from the finished dish, a rationale that makes everything seem as if it had all been clear and obvious from the start.” If this is the case with dishes from our own gastronomic tradition, how much more are we deceived when a brief recipe pretends to include the relevant input of an entire foreign culture?


In an era in which we attach a monetary value to every aspect of our existence, we demand that the creative impulse behind the food we eat be established as someone’s intellectual property and quantified in relation to the competition. Thus the celebrity chef at the top of his profession must approach every new cuisine, not as part of a culture to be respected, but as a treasure to be confiscated. Sophisticated diners will come to his restaurant equipped with score cards on which they will rate his success in displaying his trophies so as to massage, seduce, astound or ravish their eager palates.


So how, finally, can we properly understand a foreign cuisine? Few of us have the opportunity of absorbing it directly from its masters, even those living in our own country. Even fewer may learn it as Fuchsia Dunlop absorbed Sichuan cuisine, by learning Chinese and going to live in the province for a couple of years. Our most probable source will be books written by those who know – or pretend to know – the cuisines we want to discover. But as Thorne wryly observes, most cookery book writers cite few sources, speaking as though they had invented their subject from scratch. And so we are forced to consult a selection of the most plausible authorities and observe carefully the various ways in which they argue among themselves. Trying them out in the kitchen, we learn gradually what methods and materials are best suited to our own tastes and resources.


In coming to terms with the foreign and the unfamiliar, we must above all approach it with humility. We can’t instantly transplant ourselves into an alien culture but neither should we attempt to force it into the straightjacket of our own culinary tradition. As Diana Kennedy constantly reminds us, we should never try to adapt one cuisine to another, but instead adjust the two of them to each other. This, after all, is what is happening throughout the world as the traditional barriers of time and place are broken down by migration and communication. Just remember – the ever-expanding and interlocking panorama of global cuisines is not solely the prerogative of the rich. The lowly Spam is now a native of Hawaii.


©2002 John Whiting


I wrote this for Suvir Saran when he was the moderator of the Indian forum for the food web site eGullet. He has since gone on to greater things.

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