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Food should unite all of us, even when it is different

Do Indian regional dishes have a specific geographical origin?

And does it matter? I ask because there has been so much controversy – if not outright maara-maari – on the subject recently.


The Odias kicked off this round of the conflict when they made an impassioned plea to have the rasgulla declared as their own to the horror of Bengalis everywhere. Say what you like about Bengali food, but the one thing you can’t easily take away from them are their sweets.


   All over India, what we could just call mithai is distinguished by the term ‘Bengali sweets’. Not only do mithai wallahs claim to sell ‘Bengali sweets’ but many chaat shops will use names like ‘Bengali Sweet Mart’ because they have a mithai counter at the front of the shop, even though the majority of the guests are tucking into very non-Bengali dishes like channa-bhaturas. (You will look in vain for large clusters of Bengalis in Delhi’s Bengali market, for example.)


   There is a long history to the Bengali sweet tradition. Legend has it that sweets made from milk (as most Bengali sweets are) only became possible after the Portuguese taught Bengalis how to split milk, defying some ancient Hindu injunction. The Bengalis loved the idea so much, they quickly developed sandesh and all the mithai we know today. (It has never been clear to me why the Portuguese didn’t teach the Goans this technique. Or perhaps they did and Goans were too bored/laidback/ lazy to go off and invent mithai. Otherwise, surely a Portuguese innovation would have emerged first in their principal colony and not just in Bengal.)


   Most Bengali sweets only became famous in the 20th century, and proud Bengalis will tell you how each mithai was invented and by whom.


   This version of history has been the received wisdom for years but over the last decade, it has become the subject of dispute because Odias have strongly contested the claim that a Bengali, Nobin Chandra Das (his family founded the KC Das mithai company and began canning their rasgullas in 1930), was the creator of the dish.


   They claim that an early version of the rasgulla has been offered at the Jagannath Temple at Puri since the 12th century.


   Nonsense, say the Bengalis. This is a made-up tradition with no historical basis. Besides, they argue, the Odia rasgullas are brown, unlike the gleaming white Bengali versions. To this, the Odias retort that the Bengalis are whitewashing history (in more ways than one). And on and on it goes.


   You might chuckle, but this is no laughing matter. The Odisha government even appointed a commission to investigate the matter, which decided (Wow! Really?) that Odisha was in the right. The Bengalis retaliated by asking for GI status, a largely meaningless distinction when it relates to cooked food.


   They got the GI tag but the GI office said Odisha was free to apply for the same tag for their version of the dish.


   I have long been planning to visit sweet makers in Bengal and Odisha to make up my own mind. But frankly I find the whole thing slightly silly. I am as amused by other state vs. state battles. Who invented shrikhand? Maharashtrians say they did. We Gujaratis say we did. Who created the first puran poli? Maharashtrians or Gujaratis? (Frankly, Maharashtra can keep the damn thing. I loathe it.)


"The creation of linguistic states in the 1950s, has reinforced the erroneous notion that India is a coalition of distinct states."

   It is the same with the South. Nearly everywhere I have gone, I have eaten some version of the dosa, no matter whether they call it dosai or dosha. Yet, anytime I post a photo of a dosa on Instagram or Twitter, I am told by Tamils that it is really their dish; their contribution to pan-Indian food.


   Fair enough. I do not doubt that they make terrific dosas in Tamil Nadu. And I am prepared to concede the point that my friend, food historian Shri Bala, often makes; that Tamil is the real ancient South Indian civilisation. So perhaps the original dosa was created by this ancient Tamil civilisation.


   But does this mean that Tamils hold the copyright on all versions of the dosa? Let’s be honest. The dosa that most of us know in North India was popularised by restaurateurs from Karnataka (and Udupi, in particular).


   The only reason Punjabis think of it as a Tamil dish is because  many were brought up to foolishly think of all South Indians as ‘Madrasis’. (You would be surprised by how much this offensive term is still in currency. Somebody tweeted it to me in a comment on a dosa picture I had posted, last week!)


   Historians like Shri Bala argue that the sambhar served by Karnataka’s travelling restaurateurs is not the one that is made in their own region but is a poor copy of a Tamil sambhar. I don’t dispute that either. But the fact that there are Tamil sambhars and Karnataka sambhars should tell us how pointless it is to try and restrict any dish to any one state.


   The Bong-Odia rivalry strikes me as being particularly pointless. I went a fortnight ago to a pop-up at Gurgaon’s Whisky Samba, where Vikramjit Roy, easily the most successful Bengali chef of his generation, had collaborated with a home cook, Pushpa Patnaik, to create an Odia feast, served with Vikram’s flair for presentation. So many of the dishes could have been Bengali that it was hard to deny that the two cuisines had a lot in common.


   Theories abound as to why this should be so. The Odias say, probably accurately, that theirs is the older civilisation so the style of cooking was created by them. (Like the Tamils, I guess.) The Bengalis take the slightly classist line that in the Golden Age of Bengal (not sure when exactly that was, frankly), the Bengali aristocracy (zamindars mostly) would employ Odias as cooks. In fact, such was the lack of opportunity in Odisha that the men would emigrate to Calcutta, take jobs on ships and at clubs as cooks.


   According to fair-minded Bongs, these Odias brought their own style of cooking with them and forever influenced Bengali cooking. Less fair-minded Bongs suggest that these cooks learnt Bengali recipes and took them back to Odisha with them.


   The well-known food blogger Kalyan Karmakar, (who is a cosmopolitan Bengali, married to a Parsi, and lives in Mumbai), points out that the Bong vs. Odia rivalry misses a larger picture: “The Assamese and the Biharis make some of the same dishes too though it has been reduced to a bipolar tussle…. And then there is the continuum, which spreads into Bangladesh. The boundaries between the food in Bangladesh and Assam are rather fluid, and that has come in to the West (Bengal) too after Partition.”


    Moreover, says Kalyan, different versions of the same dish pop up all over a large area, encompassing many states. One of his Instagram posts deals with Alu Sheddo, the Bengali mashed potato dish, which turns up all over the place. It is called Alu Pitika in Assam, Alu Chokha in Bihar, Alu Bharta in UP and pops up in Bangladesh. So can anyone state claim to have invented it?


   I think Kalyan has it just about right. The creation of linguistic states in the 1950s, has reinforced the erroneous notion that India is a coalition of distinct states.


   We are not.


   We are one country, an ancient civilisation with a shared culture and a cuisine that may vary substantially from region to region but certainly does not respect recently created political state borders. Yes, some dishes may have travelled from one part of a region to another (the rasgulla or the dosa, for instance) but nothing is to be gained from trying to make political capital out of them.


   It is silly for the Odisha government to set up a committee to examine the ownership of the rasgulla and as silly for Mamata Banerjee’s government to demand a GI certification for the white Bengali version.


   Food should unite all of us, even when it is different. And cuisine is too important a subject to be left to politicians.




  • Jaimin Rajani 22 Jul 2019

    Insightful. Thanks for the write-up, Mr. Sanghvi. I'm amazed how food is constantly evolving. Being a Gujarati in Calcutta, I ask my mother to prepare Gujarati food in mustard oil. Interestingly, a dosawala (from Chennai) in Gariahat has started to add peanuts to Masala Dosas ever since many of his regular Bengali customers requested him to do so. I was delighted by how delicious the dosa tasted with this addition / alteration. Bon Appétit.

Posted On: 20 Jul 2019 10:10 AM
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