A lifetime affair with food and writing, an interest in the historicity of food, and culinary adventures with her Barima during her childhood – it was as if the universe was carving the making of Food Critic & Writer Anoothi Vishal with each move. It’s no surprise then that she chose to pen down the chronicles of Kayasth food and culture (something that she’s been born and brewed in throughout) and present us with her book, Mrs. LC’s Table.
This once we swapped roles, instead of hosting a supper we booked our spot at this table to unravel the tales that lay behind the making of this collective of food, culture, history, and of course, Mrs. LC’s reign over the kitchen. Identifying with communities isn’t the norm today, in fact, most would shy away from embracing this aspect of their Indian social existence. Anoothi, on the other hand, decided to open up the world of Kayasths to the rest, in a way shedding that wall of divide rather than building it up. She tells us what drove her to tread this path, “It reflects India’s syncretism, a blend of Hindu, Muslim and colonial influence. The story of the Kayasths thus, at least to me, exemplifies one essential truth about all of us: That nothing is isolated or exclusive. That when we talk of the idea of “traditional” or “original” Indian food, identity or culture, there is essentially nothing like that. All these are constructs that have come about as a result of intermingling with other influences and people. It is important to talk about this diversity within our cultural identities.” Looking into the history of food through the sociological monocle, Anoothi has hit the spot with Mrs LC’s Table when it comes to conveying our country’s miscellany.
That is what interests me as someone who looks at food in a historical and a sociological context. And that is what I have tried to convey through Mrs LC’s Table, even though it is about the food of a community.”
‘A reluctant Kayasth’ as she calls herself, Anoothi balances the absurdity of the caste & community systems, while bringing forth the fact that, “You cannot take away the cultural context from food at all. We talk about regional foods but there is nothing like “Rajasthani” food or even “Kerala” food. It would be Rajput food or tribal food or Marwari food even from the same region and state, each with its own distinct nuances. Similarly, it would be Syrian Christian food, or Mopllah food or the food of the Hindu community even within such a small state like Kerala. As I say in the book, caste and communities and even regional identities may be irrelevant to us in a modern globalised India, but if we study food history and why we eat what we eat, these would invariably come up.”
And so we were given a window into the world of Mrs. Swaroop Rani Mathur aka Mrs. LC. We ask her about the secret behind her grandmother’s moniker, turns out it’s not so secret after all! “My grandfather was Lakshmi Chandra Mathur, called ‘LC’ by his Railways colleagues. My grandmother was automatically ‘Mrs LC’. It is a bit reminiscent of the colonial club culture that is also a part of the urbane Kayasth identity.” Her Bari Ma not only cooked some finger-lickin’ non-vegetarian dishes, she did so without ever tasting those! Not uncommon in Indian households she says, “A lot of it has to do with the concept of “jhoota” in the Hindu world view. We drink water from a bottle without touching it to our lips, we don’t share the same spoon with anyone else etc., we don’t taste the prasad before offering it to the gods…and we don’t taste food before serving it. That is how traditional kitchens operated. So Bari Ma cooking without tasting was not unique at all. What is remarkable and unusual, however, is how Kayasth women including my Barima cooked meat were strict vegetarians and still cooked meat dishes perfectly all their lives. I haven’t found a parallel anywhere else.”
As she points out in her book, the community imbibes adaptability, peaking on inculcating local influences, she talks about how they became the Ganga-Jamuni composite culture, “The Kayasths were courtiers and scribes to the Mughal rules, their culture was a blend of Hindu and Muslim influences. This was the upper class composite culture of Delhi and UP, where influences seeped in into lifestyles and food of the elite, regardless of religion. Later, this Ganga-Jamuni culture was also influenced by the Colonial Victorian mores.”
Us Indians take our food seriously and it’s not unusual to see communities protect their culinary traditions across centuries. However, there’s a catch to that, which Anoothi talks about in her book, “Indian communities can be fairly rigid in their food traditions. But if we examine many of these closely we will find that other cultural influences have always seeped in. We may like to think of ourselves as “culturally pure”, but there is nothing like that in culinary terms. Potatoes, that is fasting food only came in with the Dutch. The commonest of Indian spices like coriander and cumin with the Greeks and so on…” Tipping their hats to this fundamental of food culture isn’t the only fact making Kayasths a distinct people, “The blend of Hindu and Muslim influences as exemplified in its rich meat dishes. The strand of faux non vegetarian dishes that is unparalleled. And also the treatment of vegetarian dishes with an emphasis on cooking techniques like bhun-na and dum.” is why they’re different from other communities, food wise.
Her grandmother’s expertise over pasandas, yakhni pulao, kele ki machchli, and more have us wanting to rush back to our kitchens and recreate the beautifully illustrated dishes. On being asked about her favourite creation by her Barima, she doesn’t point at a single one, “I am very experimental and have always been. So while I like things like shami kebab, bhindi and egg curry, there really are no favourites. I eat everything- depending on my mood that day! I find it impossible to follow recipes. The only way I can cook is to see what ingredients I have and then use them as I see fit. That’s the way I cook my family’s food as well- there are always changes to the original recipes.”
From grandmother to granddaughter, they certainly know how to ace the culinary game! Though Anoothi says there are no current plans for her to chart the food culture and history of other communities, we’re hoping for a turn around and reading about more culinary heritages someday.
On that note, before we put our napkins down, we fire up some questions for the kitschy Kayasth:
Q. Does Kayasth fare get to be your personal favourite cuisine as well? If not, then which cuisine is after your heart?
A. I like Asian food – Thai, Japanese, Chinese.
Q. It’s the last day on earth, as a Food Critic, what would your last sentence be to the F&B community?
A. Wouldn’t advise anyone on anything. But perhaps, if I had to, will tell people to be just true to themselves and try to raise the bar for their own selves.
Q. What has been your craziest experience while reviewing a restaurant?
A. A chef poking at the food on the plate with his hands, trying to explain what it was. And then looking at me expectantly, hoping I’d take a bite!
Q. If DSSC gives you a million rupees, how will you spend it for exploring the world of food further?
A. I’d travel, or do an Eat, Pray, Love, with a lot of food built in!
Q. If not a Food Writer & Critic, what would you be doing?
A. I would certainly be writing… if not on food then on anything else, or perhaps fiction
Q.One pearl of wisdom for budding food critics?
A. Ask yourself why are you doing this? And no it isn’t merely about the love of food.
Q. And another one for the restaurateurs hosting these reviewers?
A. Please stop pampering fools and taking them seriously!
This conversation is a part of the DSSC Secret Conversation Series, where we get candid with the ace of base industry disrupters.
Featured Image Courtesy: indulge.newindianexpress.com