Cuisines: National and regional
Should dhaniya be India's national herb?
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Yesterday was a ‘stop press! I need to write about this’ kind of a day. Something came up on my Twitter timeline that made me pause the current newsletter I am writing and open a new draft to just pour my thoughts out. This newsletter is more of a discussion…I may ramble so feel free to ramble along and leave your thoughts in the comments section or e-mail me. Now on to the newsletter.
Last evening I landed upon a Tweet (it was shared by someone I follow on Twitter) by Chef Ranveer Brar with a picture of him holding a placard that said, “petition to make dhaniya (coriander) the national herb”, with a link to an actual petition. Sharing the screenshot of the Tweet below for context. The last I checked at 6.09PM on 11th March, it had already received 7,688 signatures. That’s a lot of love for dhaniya! And rightly so. It’s a lovely ingredient when used wisely. And by wisely I mean with leaves, roots and stem to get a more wholesome flavour.
The newsletter, however, is not about whether or not dhaniya is great. I love it in appropriate amount, as much as I love curry leaves or pudina or any other herb we use in India. The tweet got me thinking about national dish/cuisine/ingredients and who gets to pick or decide what qualifies a food as national. The discussion here is also about whether national dishes/cuisines/ingredients are truly representative of the whole nation? Take dhaniya here for example, as a national ingredient is it truly representative of how we cook and garnish our food all across India? We probably use it a lot more in the north than in the south and probably not used at all in the north east. So then, what qualifies it to become the national herb? Someone I was talking to pointed out that its origin, unlike curry leaves, is not even Indian.
According to Sidney Mintz, national cuisines are not representative of a country’s food. Regional cuisines, on the other hand, are more authentic as there’s a distinctive use of local ingredients. When we term a dish, ingredient or a cuisine as national, it puts forth a monolithic imagination of that country’s food. And, through cookbooks and multi-cuisine restaurant menus, we’ve already created a homogenized idea of South Indian (idli, dosa) and North Indian (butter chicken, rajma chawal) food, eclipsing 100s of hyper-regional cuisines in the process.
The creation of national cuisines is a fairly new concept, a post-colonial notion that coincides with the rise of nation states. Much of it can be accredited to the French Revolution. I recently read an essay written by Palestinian author Reem Kassis on the illusion of national cuisines. The piece led me to reading about the non-Thai origins of pad Thai, the national dish of Thailand.
In recent past a similar effort was made to popularize khichdi as India’s national dish when Chef Sanjeev Kapoor was invited by the government to make ‘Brand India Khichdi’ on a massive scale. While the rumours of making it a national dish were curbed by the minister of Food Processing, media had already plunged into the discussion claiming khichdi to be an ubiquitous dish eaten from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, thus creating a homogenized imagination of a “mostly” vegetarian nation, while also subsuming other regional dishes made with rice and lentils into khichdi; all made with same or similar ingredients but vastly different from each other.
As Mintz explains, regional cuisines are not defined by the borders created by the nation state. Regional cuisines consist of foods of people living inside a socially and geographically determined region who use specific recipes, ingredients and cooking methods. The regional borders are more fluid, which means that the food of West Bengal will have more proximity to the food of Bangladesh and the cuisine of Punjab will have more similarity to the food on the other side of the Radcliffe line.
Having said that, I also tend to agree with Kassis’ point about the usefulness of national cuisines and how they form a certain sense of national identity for the immigrants. “[National cuisines are] a way for diasporic communities to access an uncomplicated pride in our homelands, to enjoy a totem of culture that feels constant,” she writes. The notions that “all Indian food is spicy” or “Indians add coriander to everything” is probably how the Diaspora connects over shared history. Other than that, I find the practice of the creation of a national cuisine/dish/food quite futile. When we assign a cuisine or a dish or an ingredient to a nation, we automatically abolish the cultural identity of various communities of that region. The claim to national singularity in any sense - food, language or attire - pushes the regional diversity to the margins, almost eliminating them.
My first published piece of 2022 for The Juggernaut: Maggi completed 40 years in India this year and I wrote about how it created a generation of experimental cooks.
One of the most evocative pieces I’ve read on commensality and alienation.
I recently read and loved this Eater piece on what it means for a cuisine to be Arabesque.
I am also reading Dr. Ambedkar’s Beef, Brahmins and Broken Men to better understand the caste oppression and identity politics centered around beef eating.