How We Scuppered A Chance to Showcase India’s Cooking Talent to the World
SOME TIME BACK, I was talking to a well-connected friend about a senior diplomat for whom parties were being held all across the city in celebration of his posting as India’s ambassador to a European nation. Among the many things I was told about him was that he was the “serious type” who was more interested in strategic issues than in soft diplomacy. Food, my interlocutor added with emphasis (I guess because he was talking to me!), was not on his agenda.
How strange, I thought to myself. Worldwide, it is accepted wisdom that dinners are drivers of diplomacy. Sometimes, the most seemingly intractable issues are settled across a dinner table. No one understood this better than the ‘Prince of Diplomats’ and master of politics, Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord (more famous as just Talleyrand). He was, in the words of Karl Marx, one of the “three gods” (the other two being Austria’s Foreign Minister,Prince Metternich, and the unifier of Germany, Prussia’s Otto von Bismarck) who ruled Europe in the middle of the 19th century. The learned world traveller employed the continent’s “king of chefs and chef of kings”, Antoine Carim, and partly owned Bordeaux’s most respected First Growth wine label, Haut-Brion. History used to be shaped at the lavish state dinners he used to host.
The scant regard that the Indian Foreign Service has for ‘gastro diplomacy’ (a far cry from the days of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who’s blessed with fine tastes and a foster daughter and son-in-law who mastered the art of hospitality in the country’s finest hotels), and how it contrasts with the care and thought that goes into the state banquets hosted by the White House, was painfully evident from the menu for the Prime Minister’s Hyderabad Houselunch for President Barack Obama and then at the Rashtrapati Bhawan dinner hosted in honour of the visiting U.S. First Couple.
What could have been great opportunities to showcase the country’s finest cooking talent and agricultural produce became a celebration of the commonplace. Among other similarly everyday dishes, the VVIP visitors were served Bhuna Gosht Boti, Mixed Vegetable Kalonji and Gajar Ka Halwa for lunch and Paneer Malai Tikka, Kadhi Pakore (at lunch it was Gujarati Kadhi!) and Chhole (a bad idea for dinner!) at Rashtrapati Bhawan.
I was just comparing it with the White House dinner that President Obama and Michelle Obama hosted for Manmohan Singh and Gursharan Kaur in 2009. The hosts got Marcus Samuelsson, the Ethiopian-born, Swedish-raised American celebrity chef, to lay out a mostly vegetarian meal with the greens sourced from the White House vegetable garden, which has been Michelle Obama’s pet project. And very thoughtfully, the silverware chosen for the dinner was from the Dwight D. Eisenhower collection dating back to 1955 to commemorate the World War II hero and American President’s India visit in (well, no points for guessing!) 1955.
Samuelsson’s presence, naturally, ensured extensive media coverage of the dinner in publications and websites, ranging from the New York Times and London’s Daily Telegraph to Huffington Post and Politico (which, incidentally, calls Prime Minister Narendra Modi “Obama’s risky bet”). The Clintons, incidentally, started the White House practice of getting celebrity chefs to prepare state dinners, where, as in the one the Obamas hosted for the visiting French President Francois Hollande, the local producers got honourable mentions for the ingredients that went into the dishes that were served.
Anyone with even the slightest idea about food, and how it can be the introductory window to a country and its culture, should know that the kitchen of Hyderabad House, which is managed by the India Tourism Development Corporation (ITDC), owner of the ignominious Hotel Ashok, cannot be trusted to have either talent, or imagination. Rashtrapati Bhawan, which is a little empire in itself, also isn’t reputed to maintain a kitchen of any standing.
Isn’t it a good idea, then, to go back to the tradition established by Vajpayee of getting chefs of the stature of Hemant Oberoi of The Taj to prepare the menus for special banquets? I still remember the interest created by Oberoi’s politically significant Himalaya ki Choti (his take on the meringue-based cake called the Pavolva) when it was served at the end of the grand banquet that Vajpayee hosted for Parvez Musharraf.
Wouldn’t it be a great idea to get Indian Accent’s Manish Mehrotra to present his Modern Indian Cuisine? Or do a Hemant Oberoi redux? Or invite ITC’s Imtiaz Qureshi to prepare his kebabs and kormas in a jugalbandi with Kolkata’s Joy Banerjee, the man behind the Bohemian’s super success, or the cooks of Bhojohori Manna (that would gladden President Pranab Mukherjee’s heart)? Or call ITC’s Praveen Anand lay out a Dakshin banquet in combination with a Kashmiri feast from the sons of Ahad waza? The possibilities are endless. You must have the breadth of imagination to recognise this fact.
Finally, let me touch upon a long-standing sore point. OK, the government doesn’t wish to promote Indian wines (though it has become a major employer, forex earner and enabler of agricultural value additions) because of a Gandhian legacy, but why can’t it softly sell Indian fruits (juices made with Nagpur oranges and Mahabaleshwar strawberries, and desserts with Himachali apples), single-estate Indian coffees and top-of-the-line Indian teas (serve a Darjeeling first flush, for instance, with the petit fours)? We have so much to offer to the global food marketplace, but sadly, all the Make in India talk stops at the kitchen door.
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