Indian Taste – An Elusive Chimera

Jug Suraiya demolishes the theory that there is such a thing as a uniform Indian palate for food and wine pairing

I once asked a somm why, by and large, I found Indian wines, particularly the reds, a little too sweet. “They’re made that way,” the somm informed me, “to suit the Indian taste.”

The Indian taste? He made it sound like one of those immutable truths that govern not just our lives, but all of nature. Like Planck’s Constant and E=MC2, and Murphy’s First Law which says that if something can go wrong it will, and Murphy’s Second Law, that if nothing can go wrong, it will.

We Indians are a very tasteful lot. We have a lot of gusto, which in Italian is pronounced goose-toh, and means taste or flavour. But do we have one unifying taste, born of a generic and common palate which defines and circumscribes us? Sanjeev Kapoor forbid. Not to mention Tarla Dalal, Madhur Jaffrey and Manish Mehrotra.

In the unity that is India, there is a great diversity of tastes, in the emphatically plural, not singular. Punjabi taste is as manifestly robust as those who embody it. Giving it’s metaphoric moustachios a stimulating twirl, Punjabi taste homes in on hearty rajma-chawal, and its cujjin brother, kadhi-chawal. In the hot summer, it chills out on lassi — legendarily churned in washing machines repurposed for the exercise in the Pind — so thick you can stand a spoon upright in it, and sweet as the remembrance of childhood tales told by nani.

In the blanket-huddled chill of winter, the Punjabi taste seeks the heart-warming comfort of makki di roti with sarson da saag, as welcoming as the jhappi of a hail-fellow-well-met, followed by a steaming bowl of piping hot gajjar halwa, which adheres to the ribs like an internal puffy jacket.

Spiced okra with parathas: Indian cuisine embraces a wide diversity of tastes

Down south, the deceptively mild breakfast fare of idli-dosa is followed by the prandian post-script of fiery Tamil Chettinad curry, and the even more volcanic fare of Andhra, aflame as the ardour of a lover’s sigh.

Bangla Ranna, Bengali cuisine, is as dulcet as the language itself, mellifluous as Rabindra Sangeet, and supple as the speaker’s tongue, which is said to be able to separate the fine bones of ilish maach, hilsa fish, in the act of mastication, so that the flesh can be safely ingested, and the skeletal remains discreetly ejected from the side of the mouth. Ki chomotkar is that? How marvellous!

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Across the breadth of the country from Bengal, Gujarat has the knack of marrying sweet, sour and savoury flavours into a tangy admixture called bhel puri, a snack which often stands in for a meal. Gujarat has a long-standing culinary border dispute with neighbouring Maharashtra, both laying claim to the thick roti stuffed with sweetened lentil paste, and called puran puri in Gujarat, and pura poli in Maharashtra. Though Kutch, where my family originated, is part of Gujarat, its food is as distinct from that of Gujarat as the Kutchi dialect is from the Gujarati language. Kutch is a desert, and its fare, like the crisp bread called khakra, best eaten with a sharp pickle made of unripe mango, is as lean and uncluttered as its minimalist landscape of windswept sand and scrub.

In my memories of childhood, I recall how nothing was wasted in my mother’s kitchen. When peas were cooked, the pea pods were not discarded, but turned into a separate and surprisingly tasty preparation, as were the potato peels when a potato subzi was made. In Calcutta, the desert-born thrift of Kutch bloomed amid the lush abundance of Bengal.

In the mango season, after the flesh of the fruit had been eaten, my mother would bake the mango stone in the embers of the chula and crack it open to uncover a tiny inner kernel with a nutty flavour that was enhanced by the revelation of its secret concealment.

When you add to this vast subcontinental smorgasbord the increasing number of trans-regional matrimonial and other alliances taking place, you get an often bewildering eclecticism of what constitutes edible India.

There’s no such thing as a homogenised Indian palate. And that’s a fact, tried and tasted. Even Robert Parker would be hard put to find the perfect pairing for that elusive chimera called the Indian taste.