Recently I was racking my brains to answer an interesting question that James from Tripzuki posed to me: My five must-haves among Indian food. It got me thinking of how, despite my love for food from all over the world, I have always been in great awe of the food of this subcontinent. I can bake you a bread or a cake or a complicated dessert in my sleep but setting out to cook a good curry – that gives me sleepless nights. Making a great curry isn’t just about throwing in a few great ingredients in the right order. It’s about understanding which spice can achieve what and how the next one will affect the flavour profile you are creating. It’s about layering all those different ingredients and knowing exactly how much to cook before you add the next to get the effect you want. It’s about how you can tweak a recipe to work with what you have at hand. From proportion to timing, vessel, spice blend – everything is critical. The most amazing part – accomplished home-cooks do this at the blink of an eye, not a recipe in sight.
What’s more, I firmly believe that the true magic of India (or the world at large for that matter) lies in its diversity. A rainbow hue of differences that you only notice if you open yourself truly and get close enough to appreciate it. An endless universe to discover. From our rich and complex history dating back to among the oldest in the world to an active trade route and influences from various outsiders who we have been welcomed into our folds – every bit has resulted in a beautiful diverse cornucopia of people, thoughts, ideas, languages, music, literature, architecture and definitely not the least, cuisine.
Given the rich diversity of India’s flora and fauna as well as cultural and religious traditions, it’s no surprise that as you travel across the country you see flavour profiles undergo a slow but sure transition based on the local produce, geography and culture. For example, it’s interesting to note how the souring agents change as you go down the coast from Maharashtra to Kerala and along with it, altering the flavours of the local fish curries. Or how almost every state has its own signature blend of garam masala and every household has its own variation that makes it special. It’s no wonder that there are as many dishes in India as there are stars in the sky.
And this is why I have a problem with the declaration of Misal (from Aswad) as the tastiest vegetarian dish in the world at the Foodie Hub Awards. That the missal is definitely a genius of a dish with its fiery blend of spices and textures is undisputable. But is it the best in India let alone the best in a world where just one country like India has so much mind-boggling diversity to offer? It’s a bit like the beauty industry sponsored pageant that crowns one woman as the most beautiful female in the Universe (based on western notions of beauty) out of a few thousand that supposedly represent 3.5 billion on earth and then planets that no earthling has been to. Sure, the lists of what-to-eat-where are sexy, helpful and great candidates for going viral but do we really need to run a pageant of dishes where we haven’t met all the contestants? After all appreciating food is a subjective issue beyond the technicality of cooking, textures and flavours. Whose aesthetic are we adapting as a yardstick to make these decisions? In this post-colonial era, it maybe the norm to adapt the French Cordon Blue or Modern Masterchef-esque influenced aesthetic as the yardstick for all things delicious but are they really inclusive of how most of the world eats food?
With my hangups regarding electing ‘bests’ juxtaposed against my conviction that the best Indian cooking is almost always inevitably homestyle, I had a real dilemma. As I mentioned to the folks at Tripzuki, the only thing I can say with confidence is that I don’t know all or even enough about Indian food. But I do know that to experience the food of India, you need to have experienced food from across the country. Dishes that are different from each other and cover the myriad ingredients, techniques and styles that make up Indian cooking. Also included should be an ample dose of history and time-tested nostalgia that is unique to this rich heritage. My rather unhelpful conclusion was that I cannot pick the best, but I did share a few favourites that they then wrote of.
As for me, I’ve concluded that there isn’t much to be gained in creating these diktats of what is in vs what is out. On the contrary, there is a lot for us to lose. At a time where we are already suffering the schizophrenia of living in the era of mass production crossed with exclusivism, mono-culture is wiping out a lot of the world’s culinary heritage along with its diversity in flora and fauna. The further reduction to a ‘best of’ declaration is a dangerous path. What I would rather be celebrating instead, is diversity.
What do you think? Is missal the best vegetarian dish in India?