If there ever is a tour of all the kitchens in India, its path would be long, winding and packed with variety at every step. Few things divide India more than food. In a pinch of condiments and a toss of herbs, the flavours of the North get separated from that of the Northeast, and the colours of a Southern thali become distinct from the taste of the West. Now, two documentaries by Public Service Broadcasting Trust explore how food is not just good enough to eat. It is also a calling card for a community, family and individual — and these identities are constantly asserting themselves.
Vani Subramaniam, best known for the documentary, Ayodhya Gatha, turns her attention to food in her latest work, Stir.Fry.Simmer. Arun Kumar TR, on the other hand, combines his filmmaking career of 25 years with a lifelong passion for cooking in his film Beyond Chicken
A Malayalee brought up on traditional fare since childhood, Kumar, in his fifties, had found out early that the worldwide definition of Indian food did not include the meals that his mother made and served. “To the whole world, Indian food seemed to be restricted to tandoori, kebab, tikka and curry. I didn’t identify with this. It seemed like somebody had created a mould and was trying to fit me into it,” he says. Beyond Chicken Tikka Masala begins with chef
Sanjeev Kapoor stating as much: “If somebody rubbishes chicken tikka masala, they don’t know the power of chicken tikka masala.”
What follows is a narrative that sprinkles together a long list of ingredients, from the medicinal properties of spices to the myth that desi cuisine is hot. Finally, Kumar reveals his punchline — in the US and the UK, food experts have signalled the arrival of a new kind of Indian cuisine — regional. The world, it seems, is starting to look beyond chicken tikka masala. “As a country becomes economically stronger, it acquires a confidence in its own identity, chiefly its food,” says Kumar. “No longer are we modifying our food to suit global tastes. Now, we have the confidence that our original flavours will be accepted,” he adds.
Not all traditional tastes, however, are accepted even in mainstream India. In Osmania University in Hyderabad a few years ago, students had held a beef festival — and became the centre of large-scale riots. Stir.Fry.Simmer juxtaposes these riots against anecdotes