The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, June 16, 2002
Time Off

How about cultivating cuisine consciousness?
Manohar Malgonkar

THE French lead the world in the excellence of their cuisine — right? Wrong. For one thing, there are food experts who feel that the Chinese too have a strong claim. Then again, what do the French know about vegetarian dishes? That’s where we come in. I, for one, don’t believe that any other country can match the Gujarati festive thali of the panchapakwanna bash of Maharashatrian weddings. In Karnataka, they can conjure up delicious pallyas of such lowly vegetable as brinjals and pumpkin.

O.K. I’ll put it another way. For what is called ‘European food" the French are the real artistes in making it, the ustaads; recognised as such in Europe as well as America. There is one French speciality that has, as it were, not travelled well. At least, it is not known much outside France itself, and also, as well be seen, in areas once ruled by the French. It is more a common man’s dish than a delicacy. It is called boudin, and pronounced boo-dan. It is a sausage with minced pork and liver, seasoning and cooked rice, but its main ingredient is blood, which may well be the reason why the fancier restaurants don’t offer it to their customers. Even habitual meat-eaters are put off by the very thought: blood.

That is boudin, a common or garden staple of the French countryside, only narrowly known outside and, anyhow, nothing to make a song and dance about. So imagine my surprise when, not so long ago, I happened to read an article by an acknowledged American food expert, Calvin Trillin, describing his liking for boudin in rapturous terms.

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But not the boudin of the French countryside which Mr Trillin has never cared for. The boudin to which he had lost his heart is made in the U.S. itself, but alas, only in a pocket of the U.S. that once belonged to the French, Louisiana. It is a dish so delectable that Mr Trillin is firmly of the opinion that "about eighty per cent of it is consumed by the purchaser before he has left the parking lot, and that most of the rest of it is polished off in the car."

That’s how good it is. You drive up to the store which sells it, buy it, and then come home without it. I kept thinking that Diana, Mr Trilling’s wife who died a year or so ago, must have been an extremely tolerant lady, who was always willing to make to with a peanut-butter sandwich for herself whenever her husband offered to bring home some boudin to eat while they watched the ‘Late nite show’ on TV, because he had gobbled it all up on his way back.

Why, one is tempted to ask, did he not buy an extra couple of pounds of it? But that would have spoilt his story, wouldn’t it? ...and that, of for me, is sufficient reason. We writers must have our share of poetic licence.

Mr Trillin expresses concern about the possibility that his favourite make of boudin might one day go off the market. It is made by a family-owned firm, the Bonnins. The present proprietor, Waldo Bonnin who, presumably, knows the secret recipe of the firmboudin, is now past middle age, and his children, both daughters, are married and have found different careers. A son of one of these daughters, Emille, is now ten years old. He is the rightful inheritor of the Bonin family’s secret recipe for boudin.

But supposing — just supposing, that Emille Bonnin takes it into his head not to join the family’s business? Against such a dire contingency, Mr Trillin did some energetic factfinding of his own: to discover if any of the other brands of Luisiana boudin might be an acceptable substitute. The good news is that there are a couple of boudins that are nearly as good — still, it is his earnest hope that the Bonnin family remains in business for the foreseeable future.

All this disquiet for a little-known food item only locally available in a corner of America, is entertaining, even amusing. But is it honest? Is it meant to be taken seriously? And if so, are we then to assume that grown-up men can behave like impish schoolboys and eat up the goodies they have been sent out to bring home?

I tried to think of something equally delectable that we can buy in a shop which we’re tempted to eat on the way home. Vithal’s bhel-puri sold in a back-street near Bombay’s Chowpatty, the boti-kebabs cooking as you waited for them, after a cinema show in Calcutta. But neither, I told myself, could be called a meal. Both were ‘snacks’ meant to be devoured on the street itself, not ‘take-away’ dishes.

The one speciality-item that I have known people to make a longish car journey for, is the brown pedha that Babusing makes in his shop in Dharwad. Dharwad is more than an hour’s drive from my house, and yet people staying with me have travelled there just to buy those pedhas. You have to start early so as to be at the shop’s door at 8.30 a.m. when the doors open. A queue is already forming, but the service is quick because no one can buy more than one kilo at a time. The thing to do is to take a couple of friends along so that each of them can claim his allotment. By nine-thirty, or sooner if the stock runs out, the shutters come down. No more pedhas.

But still. I have not known of anyone polishing off, on the way back, the pedhas they bought to take home or to send to friends.

Or is it all an aspect of the cultural divide between us and the Americans? There, whenever someone asks you to a meal, you’ll be taken to a restaurant. In India, the host will take you to his own home. Here we believe that the best food there is what my wife or mum cooks at home.

Almost as the clinching proof of this conviction is that veritable brigade of Bombay’s dabbawals who have formed themselves into what must be the world’s most efficient door-to-door urban courier service: from homes in sleepy suburbs to desks in mid-town skyscrapers within a hundred minutes! Hundreds of thousands of ‘tiffin carriers’ collected from homes and containing satisfying meals. And before the office lunch-hour is over, the dabbawala has quietly whisked off the now-empty carrier, to take it back where it came from, to be washed and dried for the next day’s trip into town.

Most Indians prefer to eat their meals indoors. But there is roadside eating, too, and where else in the world will you get the variety of made-on-the spot snacks as in our country. The deep south has its chutney-filled dosas and wadas, Maharashtra its phodni pohe and bhajjias, and the north is famous for its chaat-shops: aloo-tikies frying as you wait, golgappas, pani-puris and a dozen other delights, but alas, all of them are vegetarian dishes, not likely to interest people such as Mr Trillin brought up on red meat. In any case, both golgappas and pani-puris need expert handling even to eat.

And then I thought of the one Indian delicacy that just might prove to Mr Trillin that we, too, have a finger-food that he might be tempted to eat while still in the car-park of the store, instead of taking it home. The bite-size, triangular samosa that the Parsis in Bombay make: minced meat cooked and stuffed into little envelopes made of wheat-flour and shortening-paper-thin, they crackle as you bite them. Delicious is not the word! Sure, these samosas, too are tea-time snacks. But I don’t believe there are many people who will mind making a meal of them — says a dozen or so.

The ones made by the Ratan Tata Institute in Bombay were as good as those made in the petit or Readymoney kitchens. It’s time they were introduced to the affluent west. Remember that even pizza was not known in America till the end of World War II.


This feature was published on June 9, 2002