Friday, September 03, 2010

The spirit of a cuisine....

Whenever I have a discussion about what authentically belongs to a cuisine and what does not, I remember this quote from Carl Sagan's Pale Blue Dot (page 50) " How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, “This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant. God must be even greater than we dreamed“? Instead they say, “No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.”

This argument holds well for food too! Like religion, people can be very finicky about food - many still believe their cuisines are about using certain ingredients and cooking techniques. It is an immature cuisine which focuses too much on recipes. A mature cuisine does not bother about recipes - it evolves broad themes into which you can slot in any ingredient and cooking technique. For example one broad theme evolved by Indian cuisine is that " Knead an edible flour with a liquid, roll into thin sheets and cook on a hot skillet into a flat bread". The beauty of this theme is that it can slot in flours Indians never knew existed! It is the genius of a cuisine which can make sweeping generalizations like this. The spirit of a cuisine lives in its themes - not in its recipes. Using new ingredients / cooking techniques does not make a recipe unauthentic. When Indians settled abroad, it was natural for them to use fruits / vegetables available in the new lands into their recipes - does it make the recipe unIndian ? No !

The spirit of a cuisine is a reflection of the beliefs of a culture. A recipe becomes unauthentic only if it goes against the spirit of a cuisine. Stick true to the spirit of a cuisine and you don't have to worry about authenticity anymore !

If I had Carl Sagan's way with words, I wish I had said "How is it that hardly any major cookbook author has looked their cuisine and concluded, "This is better than we thought! Our cuisine is much richer than our elders said, grander, more subtle, more elegant. It can even accommodate ingredients and techniques we never knew about. It must be even greater than we dreamed"? Instead they say, "No, no, no! My cuisine is a little cuisine, made only with ingredients and techniques I know and I want it to stay that way !"

1 comment:

Naveen Roy said...

Wow - well said!

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Okay, let me start from the very beginning. 1500 crore years ago, with a Big Bang, the Universe is born. It expands dramatically. Hydrogen forms, contracts under gravity and lights up, forming stars. Some stars explode, dusting space with the building blocks of life. These condense into planets, one of which is Earth. Over time, self replicating molecules appear, multiply and become more complex. They create elaborate survival machines (cells, plants, animals). A variety of lifeforms evolve. Soon, humans arise, discover fire, invent language, agriculture and religion. Civilisations rise and fall. Alexander marches into India. Moguls establish an empire. Britain follows. Independence. Partition. Bloodshed. The license raj is in full sway. I'm born. India struggles to find its place. Liberalisation. The Internet arrives! I move from Tirupur to Chennai. Start a company. Expand into Malaysia, Singapore and the Middle East. Poof! Dot com bust. Funding dries up. Struggle. Retire. Discover the joy of cooking, giving, friendships and the pleasures of a simple life. Life seems less complicated. Pizza Republic, Pita Bite and Bhojan Express bloom !

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