I like my food as much as any other non-malnourished, non-starving Indian (no, not all of them are NRIs; a few still live in India). But I’m no foodie. By ‘foodie’, I mean anyone who, in any social setting, be it lunch, dinner, coffee, or even a boat ride on the Seine under moonlight, will only talk about food.
They typically begin by talking about the restaurant menu, move on to publicising their private dilemmas about what to order, weighing the merits and demerits of every appetiser, main course and side dish, and then, long after the meal has been consumed, dessert polished off and bill paid, you’ll still find them talking about some random stuff, such as asafoetida.
Or couscous. How the world’s best couscous salad is to be had only at this floating restaurant in Casablanca and not at the sinking one in Sinkiang. Or how, if you’ve never tried Quebecois ice wine with the couscous salad de la seruppu, you deserve to be beaten with your own seruppu, etc.
If you ask them to stop, they’ll tell you how it’s important to appreciate the enormous diversity of global cuisines. But if I want to learn, say, about the national dish of Burkina Faso, I’ll either visit Burkina Faso or google the national dish of Burkina Faso. Why do I have to hear about it from someone who went to Burkina Faso on a junket?
I am a strong believer in the philosophy that food should be eaten and not talked about — except for beef, of course, where it’s the other way round. When I sit down to eat my roti-sabzi or curd rice, I don’t want to hear about how to make bergamot parfait with portobello mushroom or how to combine bok choy with bouillabaisse.
But with foodies mushrooming (sorry) all over the place, thanks to Western influences such as Masterchef, I often end up getting mugged, figuratively speaking, by foodie fanatics.
But now I know how to put them in their place. It’s a strategy inspired by our honourable ministers. Have you noticed how, every time you want to ask them about jobs or the economy, they shift the conversation to Pakistan-sponsored terrorists killing Indian soldiers? Same strategy.
Last week, for instance, I was at a dinner with a group of journalists-turned-nationalists. As the evening progressed, each one of them turned out to be a bigger foodie than the other. One of them, a Tamilian, began talking about her plans to quit her job and open a restaurant in Goa that will only serve those who come first.
“I’m sorry?” I said. “What about other customers who may come in second, third, fourth, or twenty-fourth? Or do you plan to have only one table in your restaurant?”
Twelve heads around the table turned to glare at me. Then one of them said, “She didn’t say she’ll serve ‘pehle’, she said ‘payale’.”
I was shocked. “Endha payale?” I said. “This is getting worse! Is she going to be serving only boys, in which case it is gender discrimination, or is she going to be serving only boys, in which case it is cannibalism? Which one is it?”
Finally, one of the waiters intervened. “Sir, it is not pehle and it’s not payale, it is pai-eh-luh, a famous rice dish from Spain.”
“Why didn’t you say you wanted to open a paella place in the first place?” I said. “Still, I must say it’s a very irresponsible and anti-national thing to do.”
“How do you mean?” Ms. Paella said. “It’s just a dish. May be a little exotic in India, but people who appreciate good food will love it.”
I shook my head sadly. “There are millions of Indians who are malnourished. Millions more who are starving. And here we are, sitting in a high-end restaurant, and all we can talk about is a foreign dish like paella that not even 0.05% of Indians have heard of, and only 0.01% will ever get to taste.”
My words, backed up by hard data, must have struck a chord, for one of the journalist-nationalists who had been quiet all evening piped up, “I was thinking the same thing. Soldiers are dying in Kashmir, and you are talking about polio?”
“It’s paella,” said Ms. Paella.
“Whatever,” I said. “If you really loved your country, you would be offering Indian dishes, not a Spanish one.”
“That’s right,” someone said, and everyone else nodded in agreement. “Why paella? Why not pakoda? Is a pakoda restaurant inferior to a paella restaurant?”
“Exactly,” said another. “India needs pakodas, not paellas. Clean trains, not bullet trains. Living trees, not tree stumps.”
“True,” I said. “The real tragedy is that no one cares about what India needs.” This was the first time I had actually enjoyed a conversation about food.