Food & Culture

14 Honest Reasons Why I Eat Alone

Luncheon of the boating party by Pierre-Auguste Renoir.

Luncheon of the boating party by Pierre-Auguste Renoir.

1. I can have my meal anywhere. On the roadside, in an elevator, in the bathtub, at a table with or without cutlery. Anywhere.

2. I can chew as loud as I want.

3. I can chew as though sending an open invitation to all air borne creatures: with my mouth wide open.

4. I can read a book or listen to a podcast or have a virtual conversation with a friend sitting continents away – or all three at the same time.

5. Mess is a non-issue.

6. The five-second rule is flexible and no one’s going to secretly judge me while laughing companionably.

7.  Time is a non-issue. My meal can be over in 5 or 50 minutes and it won’t matter a whit to anyone.

Painting by Lee Price. http://www.leepricestudio.com/

Hyper-realistic painting by Lee Price, who probably understands my sentiments. http://www.leepricestudio.com/

8. The empty seats around me do not beseech my attention nor cast my way meaning-laden glances to which I am obliged to respond.

9. No eye contact necessary. Unless it’s with my cutlery.

10. Conversations take place within my head at thinking-speed, each requiring little to no resolution as one thought passes the baton to the next with unreal fluidity.

11. No empty, wordless silences during which my lunch/dinner partner and I masticate in what we think is an agreeable silence but we both secretly know is an awkward one.

12. No chance of looking at the other plate and wishing I ordered that spectacularly colourful, fattening and economically friendly meal rather than my own drab, healthy and expensive one.

13. That feeling when I see other tables with every chair occupied, and notice how every occupant is engaged on a supremely important task on their smartphones and tablets, hence ignoring the rest of civil society at the table? Priceless.

14. The freedom to leave at any time without waiting for ongoing conversations to die their natural death before popping the inevitable “Shall we?” question.

Exceptions: dining with my mother, or on a sailboat in the middle of the ocean with a non-English speaking fisherman as my sole companion.

The Merchant's Wife by Boris Kustodiev, 1918. Look at how happy the merchant's wife is.

The Merchant’s Wife by Boris Kustodiev, 1918. Look how happy she is.

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Article, Food & Culture, Food History

This is Saffron.

Flaming orange threads, thin and precious, like a natural resource going scarce.  Someone, in Iran, Turkey, Spain, India, bending in a field of crocus flowers, plucking each bloom from the earth with delicate fingers. 75,000 flaming orange filaments just to make one pound of this golden miracle. Each gram sold for as much as $15.

This is saffron, the world’s most expensive spice.

The crocus flower and its 3 orange-red filaments.

The crocus flower and its 3 orange-red filaments.

Etymology

There are two stories behind the saffron flower, and our poor protagonist dies at the end both.

There is an ancient Greek legend of Crocus and Mercury, who were dear friends. One day, the two friends were throwing a discus to each other. Mercury misjudged his throw and hit Crocus on the head, wounding him fatally. The young man collapsed and while dying, three drops of his blood fell onto the centre of a flower, which was how the lilac Crocus flower derived its three red filaments.

In another variation of the myth, the handsome youth Crocus sets out in pursuit of the nymph Smilax in the woods near Athens. Smilax is flattered by his amorous advances, but soon grows tired and resists his advances. Crocus, unable to get a hint, continues his pursuit. Irritated, Smilax finally puts an end to the whole affair and transforms him into a flower. Its radiant orange filaments were testimony to Crocus’ blazing passion.

The Seduction of Saffron

Highly prized saffron filaments

Highly prized saffron filaments

The world’s most expensive spice has gained patronage of history’s greatest names. Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, emptied a quarter-cup into her warm baths to benefit from its beautifying effects. She used it before commencing her liaisons with men, believing that saffron would heighten the pleasures of lovemaking.

Saffron was also prized as a perfume by professional Greek courtesans known as the hetaerae. The hetaerae were not just prostitutes; they were independent and well-educated women renowned for their achievements in music and dance. They actively participated in the male-dominated symposia, where their opinion and presence were welcomed. In fact, the hetaerae of Greece were a lot like the courtesan-poetesses tawaaif of Mughal India.

In India, too, Saffron is considered a potent aphrodisiac. I’ve seen so many Bollywood movies where newly-wed brides carry into their nuptial chamber a cup of milk and saffron (kesar, as it is known in Hindi) for their husbands to consume. (Something that, admittedly, strikes me as a strange custom because it assumes that only men are entitled to experience enjoyment of the nuptial night. Otherwise, why don’t both parties get high on saffron and get on with it?)

Saffron infused with pure sandalwood oil is an ancient perfume blend, or attar, that is steeped in the romance and intrigue of India. Because of its prohibitively high cost, kesar attar was used only by royalty and the very wealthy. It was customary for Hindu Rajput brides in ancient India to be given this expensive oil as part of their dowry. The active ingredients, saffron and sandalwood, were and are believed to be aphrodisiac in nature. Upon wearing the perfume, a slight stimulation of the nervous system takes place, which in turn releases the right chemicals for love.

Bathed with milk and saffron. Photo by Karoki Lewis

Bathed with milk and saffron. Photo by Karoki Lewis.

Saffron’s power is sacred, too. Roman and Indian deities have been offered saffron since ancient times. The Mahamastakabhisheka, an important Jain festival, is held in veneration of an immense 18-meter high statue. Since 978-993 AD, the statue has been bathed with milk, sugar cane juice and saffron paste.

Historically, saffron played an essential part in the arena of ancient medicine and magical potions. During his Asian campaigns, Alexander the Great used Persian saffron in his infusions, rice, and baths as a curative for battle wounds. The Persians themselves scattered saffron threads across beds and mixed them into hot teas as a curative for bouts of melancholy. The Sumerians used saffron as an ingredient in their remedies and magical potions. Egyptian healers, too, used saffron as a treatment for all varieties of gastrointestinal ailments. An ancient Egyptian treatment for stomach pain consisted of saffron crocus seeds mixed and crushed together with aager-tree remnants, ox fat, coriander, and myrrh.

The Soul of Saffron

Mohammed Yusuf Teng, a poet and expert on the ancient culture of Kashmir, told BBC correspondent Daniel Lak* that “the indigenous people of Kashmir grew saffron more than 2,000 years ago, a fact that’s mentioned in the epics written during the era of Tantric Hindu kings.”

Saffron is ceremoniously used in Tantra, a mystical dimension of Hinduism, for awakening the kundalini (an unconscious, instinctive force or Shakti), which lies coiled at the base of the spine. According to one Tantric ritual I’ve come across in my research**, saffron is used in the basic ‘anointing’ of the Yogini. Jasmine oil is applied to her hands, patchouli to her throat and the pure essence of saffron to her feet.

This is saffron.

Associated with sex and romance, ancient potions and medicines, Queens and conquerors, the most expensive spice in the world comes to us through an intriguing, mysterious history riding on the reins of 3 fragile, flaming orange threads.

*http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/213043.stm

** http://www.rahoorkhuit.net/library/yoga/tantra/rituals/ritual_3.html

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creative writing, Food & Culture

An Ode to the Gol Gappa

I sing a thousand praises in your name, O Inventor of Gol Gappa*. Were you aware that with this one humble recipe from your Benarasi kitchen, you had changed the innocent landscape of India’s street food scene forever? That long after your death, children would be pestering their mothers for a round of gol gappay from their favourite panipuri wallah**? That after leaving for greener pastures, Indians in every corner of the world would fondly recall this unassuming, humble snack and pine for it the way a lover pines for his beloved? And somehow, even Indians who never knew that motherland would discover a recessive gene that mysteriously craves for an explosive combination of sweet and sour? After all, what is a gol gappa? A hollowed out shell of a mini puri punctured at its crown, stuffed with a tangy mix of potatoes, meethi^ chutney and shudderingly sour tamarind water; small enough to be eaten whole and big enough to make the whole exercise an example of how food can be such delicious fun. Did you name it yourself, knowing that gol, meaning round in Hindi, refers to the shape of the snack, but is no doubt also a description of the delightful O your mouth needs to shape into to accommodate it?

What’s the best part of the gol gappa? Is it that first crunch that shatters the crispy fried dough? Is it the moment the sour tamarind floods your mouth while your eyebrows shoot upwards in response to that first shock of taste? Or when the meethi chutney’s sweetness cuts through the tamarind like a blessing and brings relief to your molars? Or could it be – and this is my favourite bit – that frantic journey the gol gappa makes from plate to mouth, the way you move extra quick when there are holes in the puri, how your lips stretch extra wide, knowing how absolutely stupid you must look, the self-consciousness bringing an inevitable grin to your face so you end up smiling with your mouth in a great big O?

Oh, what a riot.

Glossary

*Gol gappa is what this snack is called by in Delhi. Gol gappay is the plural of gol (round) gappa (something that is eaten in one bite).

** In Mumbai, gol gappa is known as pani (water) puri (fried dough/bread). A panipuri wallah is a street vendor who sells the snack.

^ meethi = sweet

Edit: I am so thrilled to see the response this post has gotten from gol gappay lovers all over the world! Thank you for sharing the locations of your favourite gol gappay wallahs and joining in my celebration of this super chaat. 

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Festivals, Food & Culture, Food History, The Mughals in India

It’s Fit For Royalty: Food Culture & The Mughal Empire

Whenever I think of India, I think of the Mughals. To me, the two are one and the same, synonymous, identical, superimposed upon each other, so that history, legend and fact are interchangeable.

What do you think of when I say Mughal?

Rich curries and pilaf, pistachios and almonds, apricots and peaches, a cuisine of refinement, sophistication, extravagance.

By the time the last Mughal was deposed by the British in 1858, Hindustan was changed forever. Three centuries of Mughal reign left behind an enduring legacy of culinary art that permanently altered the landscape of Indian cuisine. The Mughals were lavish and extravagant, connoisseurs of beauty. Courtly food of the Mughal Empire was sumptuous, rich and complex. Curries and gravies were made thicker and richer with creams and yogurts, and it was not uncommon for food to be decorated with fresh flower petals and edible thin foils of silver and gold.

Photo by Karan Verma CC-BY-SA 2.0.  An example of biryani cooked in the Mughal dum pukht style.

Photo by Karan Verma CC-BY-SA 2.0.
An example of biryani cooked in the Mughal dum pukht style.

Under Mughal rule, cuisine was distilled to perfection and refined into an art form. Biryani is one such dish that was polished in the royal kitchens of the Mughal Emperors. The word biryani comes from the Persian birian. It is basically a dish of rice and meat, not unlike the pilaf. This is no coincidence, because the word biryani was used interchangeably with pilaf as late as the sixteenth century. What we do know for sure is that as a cuisine, the biryani or pilaf was refined during the reign of the Mughals. Flavours were enhanced using exotic spices. The curry was made rich and smooth with cream and yogurt. Imperial cooks threw in spices like cloves, cinnamon and cardamom, and nuts such as cashews and almonds. The result was a fragrant, heady and flavourful dish fit for royalty. Till today, biryani is one of the cornerstones of Mughlai cuisine.

Diners took their place atop rich carpets. The centrepiece of the imperial spread was a dish of rice cooked with ghee, spices and meat. After their meals, they rinsed their hands with perfumed water poured from jugs held by servants.

The Mughal Emperors impressed courtiers, nobles, foreign guests and dignitaries at their dining table. The menu, finalized by the hakim (royal physician), would consist of about 100 dishes, each prepared by one cook. Diners took their place on the ground, atop rich carpets laid with protective white sheets. The centrepiece of the imperial spread was usually a dish of rice cooked with ghee, spices and meat: the pilaf. This was accompanied by a huge variety of game bird, fish, lamb, venison and beef cooked in different styles. After their meals, they rinsed their hands with perfumed water poured from jugs held by servants.

Emperor Zahir-ud-din Muhammad Babur, founder of the Mughal Empire

Emperor Zahir-ud-din Muhammad Babur, founder of the Mughal Empire

On normal days – as though any day in the life of a Mughal Emperor could ever be called normal – the Emperor ate his meals with his queens and concubines. Served by eunuchs, daily meals were no less extravagant. The Mughals followed the Indian custom of the time by beginning their meals with pickles, freshly sliced ginger and lime. They also ended the meal with chewing on betel nut, or paan. What they introduced was the tradition of desserts, that is, the eating of something sweet at the end of the meal, rather than at the start or in the middle.

While Emperor Babur had only disdain for mango, the jewel of Hindustan, Emperor Jahangir introduced it to the courtly tables. “Of all the fruits,” he says, “I am particularly fond of mango.”

Mughal cuisine was strongly influenced by the Persian cuisine of Iran, which featured dried fruits and nuts, ingredients commonly used by imperial cooks in meat and rice dishes. In fact, under the Mughals, fruit was not merely a food product. It was a symbol of sophistication and their elevated position in society. At the time of the Mughal rule, fruits and nuts were thought of as incredibly opulent and luxurious. Hence, a gift of fruits was a sign diplomacy and even a matter of protocol.

When Babur, India’s first Mughal Emperor, looked about his newly conquered northern territories, he did not like it. Coming from a food-loving culture, Hindustan seemed to him a land stripped of romance. He writes in The Baburnama, “There is no grapes, quality fruits, mask melons, candles”. He did not fancy the local Indian food, which lacked the spices and flavours he was accustomed to in his native Samarkand. And while he had only disdain for mango, the jewel of Hindustan, Emperor Jahangir introduced it to the courtly tables. “Of all the fruits,” he says, “I am particularly fond of mango.”

From Kashmir, they imported peaches, plums, apricots, apples, grapes and pears. They drank juices flavoured with essences. From the mountains, they brought down ice to keep their sherbets and desserts cool and palatable.

The formal gardens of the Mughal Empire were planted with fruit trees.

The formal gardens of the Mughal Empire were planted with fruit trees.

The Mughals were nothing if not lavish. From Kashmir, they imported temperate fruits unavailable in Delhi’s climate such as peaches, plums, apricots, apples, grapes and pears. They planted formal gardens of fruit trees over conquered territories and drank juices flavoured with essences. From the mountains, they brought down ice to keep their sherbets and desserts cool and palatable. Emperor Babur often drank heavily at his lavish feasts and smoked copious amounts of hashish. Emperor Akbar had his own kitchen garden which he watered daily with rosewater because it added to the flavour of food when cooked. Emperor Jahangir admitted to drinking at least twenty glasses of wine daily in his youth. Luckily, as he grew older, he decided on a less indulgent approach: “I drink wine solely to promote the digestion of my food.”

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Food & Culture

A Short History of Biryani

Under Mughal rule, cuisine was distilled to perfection and refined into an art form. Biryani is one such dish that was polished in the royal kitchens of the Mughal Emperors. The word biryanicomes from the Persian birian. It is basically a dish of rice and meat, not unlike the pilaf. This is no coincidence, because the wordbiryani was used interchangeably with pilaf as late as the sixteenth century.

What we do know for sure is that as a cuisine, the biryani or pilaf was refined during the reign of the Mughals. Flavours were enhanced using exotic spices. The curry was made rich and smooth with cream and yogurt. Imperial cooks threw in spices like cloves, cinnamon and cardamom, and nuts such as cashews and almonds. The result was a fragrant, heady and flavourful dish fit for royalty. Till today, biryani is one of the cornerstones of Mughlai cuisine.

Read the rest of the article here.

Read more about the food culture of the Mughal Empire.

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