What role has food played in bringing Indian society closer and also in contemporary times dividing the nation?
See, in the larger picture India has two communities – Hindu for whom beef is taboo and Muslims for whom pork is taboo; but there are Indians who eat both and there might be Hindus who at some point in the past have eaten beef. The question again arises on the freedom of choice of an individual and his right to choose his eating habits, where I believe there should be no restrictions. On the contrary, in India we see spices from Kerala going to Kashmir and being used therewith, Kashmir grown kesar going to Kerala. Here, although Kashmir is not, technically speaking, closer to Indian culture, food is playing its role in bringing about convergence.
What are your views on mob lynching in context to beef consumption?
Many governments and voluntary research organizations have exploded the myth that most of the country is vegetarian and also equally that Hindus dont eat meat. The ban on Beef imposed by some state governments has given birth to self-styled vigilantes spreading a clime of terror. The situation is so that someone can enter your house and kill you on mere suspicion of eating beef and later he or she may be decorated with garlands. Even the prime minister has now issued a warning against these gau-rakshaks. Beef has been in many states an integral part of food habits- from Kerala beef roast to UP Bihari kebab and also in the North East. You can choose not to eat, but why stop others?
What is your take on Sanjay Leela Bhansalis Padmavati which was accused of distorting history?
Whenever you discuss a historical film in this country, whether it deals with Jodha-Akbar, whether it deals with Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, whether it deals with Baba Sahab Ambedkar, there are people who are blind devotees and self-styled custodians of history and patriotism, who have objections to most things. And in the past, the people in the film industry have not been averse to generating controversy during the shooting of the film or after the film is about to be released so it generates enough interest in the film and affects the box-office receipts favourably.
You are researching on Kashmir food culture. Tell us something about it.
I feel what is exciting about Kashmiri food is that it is the most prominent example of the legacy of Indian food. It has flavours from central Asia, from Jammu and from different eras like from the time of Ashok, Mughals, Shikander Shah. Kashmiri food has always been an amalgamation of many cultures and this is still evident in the eating habits of the valley.
In this era of globalization is Indian food diversity under threat?
It has both pros and cons! We have seen that when McDonalds came to India it had to make changes, inculcate vegetarian and paneer dishes, as well as chicken tikka and such on its menu, and so has been with other transnational food joints be it Pizza Hut or Dominos. This change does bring with itself the threat of homogenization but it also brings us closer to our roots. Indian youth is not eating pure Italian food; it is eating Italian food with our Indian flavours in it.
Delhi, as you know, is an amalgamation of many cultures, food being prominent in each one of them. Any insights on Delhis history in the context of food?
The city in the 18th and 19th centuries was not a place where many could indulge in the good life or cultivate culinary taste, the city lay in ruins but lovers of good food survived. People like Mir, Ghalib for instance, didnt desert Delhi and continued to patronize their favourite kebabiya, nanbai or halwai. In the first decade of the 20th century, memories remained green of Maseeta and Ghummi who manned their braziers on the steps of the grand Jama Masjid to produce sublime kebabs. There were other master craftsmen who specialized in nihari and biryani. Mouthwatering temptations of Delhi were not confined to meaty dishes. Berhvin and methi ki chutney, along with halwa sohan were recognized signature dishes as much as the ishtoo. I personally dont identify Delhi with Qutub Minar, Birla Mandir, I identify Delhi with Sohan Halwa. Four distinct culinary streams traditionally have intermingled and enriched Delhis pluralistic culinary repertoire: Hindu Kayastha and Baniya Moslem and Punjabi (non-refugee) segments of populations have all contributed to the rich store of recipes.
What have been your most memorable food experience?
My most memorable food experience has to be a field trip to research cuisines of Benaras or Varanasi. It began with a kachori breakfast at Chachis, washed down with pehalvan ki lassi at Lanka, and ended with a mind-blowing dinner at the home of art historian Rai Anand Krishna. It is a place I discovered to be a confluence where diverse culinary streams mingle.
About the Interviewee: Pushpesh Pant is a noted Indian academic, food critic and historian. He retired as a Professor of International relations from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. He is one of India’s leading experts on International Relations as well as Indian cuisine, and as a columnist has written for a number of major publications like Forbes, Open, Outlook, Times of India and The Tribune.