Food

RSS wants Indians to celebrate local food through ‘Nanaji thalis’, but don’t we do that anyway?

The right-wing Deendayal Research Institute is hardly the first to recognise that eating locally has a host of nutritional and environmental benefits.

“Healthy, locally sourced small plates that focus on seasonal produce” is a phrase one might associate with a man-bun-wearing West Coast chef who peddles farm-to-table menus and green smoothies in mason jars. And yet, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-backed think-tank Deendayal Research Institute has much the same idea for meeting India’s nutrition needs, only they are calling it “Nanaji thalis”.

The institute will hold a workshop in Shillong on June 23 and June 24 where agriculture ministry officials, nutritionists and social scientists will put together thalis in an effort to solve the country’s food security woes by championing the nutritional values of regional food. This meal will be named after the late Bharatiya Jan Sangh leader and rural self-reliance activist Nanaji Deshmukh.

The Bay Area hipster and the Deendayal Research Institute are hardly the first to recognise that eating locally has a host of nutritional and environmental benefits. Still, these efforts deserve appreciation at a time when industrialisation has made all kinds of regional and seasonal foods available all over the world all year round, all the while racking up a ridiculous carbon footprint (a new restaurant in Mumbai actually boasts about how many miles each of its ingredients travelled before it went into your pizza).

However, despite its seemingly good intentions, the institute’s plan begs the question: is there a need to slap on the name of an RSS member to appropriate a way of eating that has existed without his help for centuries? The thali tradition in South Asia, which predates India itself, has more or less exemplified what it means to be a “locavore” well before the Oxford American Dictionary decided to declare it its word of the year in 2007.

Malwani thali. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Malwani thali. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Microcosm on a plate

On a recent trip to Varkala, in western Kerala, I was dismayed to find that most restaurants there were so occupied with catering to the backpacking white tourists that there was more spaghetti on their menus than anything resembling a passable meen moilee. This changed when the owners of the cottage where I was staying asked if I wanted to join them for a thali made by one of the wives. Never one to pass up a meal created by a formidable aunty, I allowed myself to be treated to a variety of tangy pachadis, lightly stir-fried thorans, seasonal vegetables of all hues and textures, fresh green mango pickles and chutneys redolent with local curry leaves, all dotted around a giant mound of fragrant red rice. The meal ended with a small banana from their tree and a bowl of steaming payasam. I folded my banana leaf over and sleepily contemplated moving to Kerala for good, before remembering that a soporific thali is never too far away wherever you may be in the country.

The sheer variety in thalis in India is such that they are hard to categorise into distinct geographical areas. Thalis in Maharashtra, for instance, vary with distance from the sea, the availability of certain kinds of chillies and any number of other local circumstances. Head to Kolhapur, and you’ll find thalis lined with a variety of peppery rassas served alongside mutton or chicken, but step into Pune’s popular Shabree restaurant, and what they call an authentic Maharashtrian thali is completely different – and completely vegetarian.

Chettiar vegetarian thali. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Chettiar vegetarian thali. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Travel to the North East and you’ll find no basmati rice on a thali. The staple here comes instead in the black, red, sticky or a dozen other varieties, almost all of which are hard to find in most other parts of the country. Eating thalis in Assam alone is an education in rice varietals – you will come across the short-grained joha rice with its heady fragrance, the glutinous bora rice in sweet dishes, and the micronutrient rich autumn rice ahu and winter rice called sali. All of them are valued for keeping the state’s population with full bellies and farmers with a trade on which to survive.

In West Bengal, thalis are perhaps seen more often in homes than in restaurants. Son-in-laws find occasion for extra pampering on jamai shoshti, for instance, with a thali full of fried snacks, pulao, luchis, fish and mutton. Move northwards and rotis or parathas rise to a more central role in thalis, while in Rajasthan, thalis feature curries made using foraged desert shrubs. The enterprising Gujaratis, of course, have made multinational businesses out of their unlimited thali meals.

Gujarati thali. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Gujarati thali. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Let them eat thali

The flip side of this glorious tradition is that thali meals and the way they are organised have almost always been markers of class, caste and privilege. It is hard to separate the ritual values of purity and pollution from any conversation about Indian food and thalis are no different.

Archaeologist and historical anthropologist Kathleen Morrison notes how stone thalis, some round and others shaped like banana leaves, were unearthed from ruins of temples and elite city precincts in South India dating as far back as the 10th century CE. The raised rims of these thalis, she says, indicated that the meals they contained comprised a central portion of rice with semi-liquid contents around it. She uses this picture to further make the argument that as far back as the Middle Ages, rice was considered a food of “both the elite and the divine”, while other grains such as millets were relegated to the less powerful.

When restaurants like the MS Hotel in Karnataka’s Udupi started dishing out “Brahmin thalis” in the 1960s, the disposable banana leaves on which the food was served ensured that the restaurant’s varied clientele – students, tourists and office-goers – would not contaminate each other’s meals by using the same crockery. All over the country, it is still preferred that thali cooks be from the upper castes, and who gets to eat these often elaborate meals is still largely determined by economic and social capital.

The question of whether thalis can be made more nutritious by using locally sourced ingredients is moot – they already do so. Perhaps instead of expending energy on creating something that sounds trendy but already exists, think-tanks such as the Deendayal Research Institute should consider answering the harder questions of how caste, class and politics affect people’s access to what they are able to eat.

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From catching Goan dances in Lisbon to sampling langar in Munich

A guide to the surprising Indian connect in Lisbon and Munich.

For several decades, a trip to Europe simply meant a visit to London, Paris and the Alps of Switzerland. Indians today, though, are looking beyond the tried and tested destinations and making an attempt to explore the rest of Europe as well. A more integrated global economy, moreover, has resulted in a more widespread Indian diaspora. Indeed, if you know where to look, you’ll find traces of Indian culture even in some unlikely cities. Lisbon and Munich are good cities to include in your European sojourn as they both offer compelling reasons to visit, thanks to a vibrant cultural life. Here’s a guide to everything Indian at Lisbon and Munich, when you wish to take a break from all the sight-seeing and bar crawling you’re likely to indulge in.

Lisbon

Lisbon is known as one of the most vibrant cities in Western Europe. On its streets, the ancient and the modern co-exist in effortless harmony. This shows in the fact that the patron saint day festivities every June make way for a summer that celebrates the arts with rock, jazz and fado concerts, theatre performances and art exhibitions taking place around the city. Every two years, Lisbon also hosts the largest Rock festival in the world, Rock in Rio Lisboa, that sees a staggering footfall.

The cultural life of the city has seen a revival of sorts under the current Prime Minister, Antonio Costa. Costa is of Indian origin, and like many other Indian-origin citizens prominent in Portugal’s political, business and entertainment scenes, he exemplifies Lisbon’s deep Indian connect. Starting from Vasco Da Gama’s voyage to India, Lisbon’s historic connection to Goa is well-documented. Its traces can be still be seen on the streets of both to this day.

While the Indian population in Lisbon is largely integrated with the local population, a few diaspora groups are trying to keep their cultural roots alive. Casa de Goa, formed in the ‘90s, is an association of people of Goans, Damanese and Diuese origins residing in Lisbon. Ekvat (literally meaning ‘roots’ in Konkani) is their art and culture arm that aims to preserve Goan heritage in Portugal. Through all of its almost 30-year-long existence, Ekvat has been presenting traditional Goan dance and music performances in Portugal and internationally.

Be sure to visit the Champlimaud Centre for the Unknown, hailed a masterpiece of contemporary architecture, which was designed by the critically-acclaimed Goan architect Charles Correa. If you pay attention, you can find ancient Indian influences, like cut-out windows and stand-alone pillars. The National Museum of Ancient Art also has on display a collection of intricately-crafted traditional Goan jewellery. At LOSTIn - Esplanada Bar, half of the people can be found lounging about in kurtas and Indian shawls. There’s also a mural of Bal Krishna and a traditional Rajasthani-style door to complete the desi picture. But it’s not just the cultural landmarks that reflect this connection. The integration of Goans in Lisbon is so deep that most households tend to have Goa-inspired textiles and furniture as a part of their home decor, and most families have adapted Goan curries in their cuisine. In the past two decades, the city has seen a surge in the number of non-Goan Indians as well. North Indian delicacies, for example, are readily available and can be found on Zomato, which has a presence in the city.

If you wish to avoid the crowds of the peak tourist season, you can even consider a visit to Lisbon during winter. To plan your trip, check out your travel options here.

Munich

Munich’s biggest draw remains the Oktoberfest – the world’s largest beer festival for which millions of people from around the world converge in this historic city. Apart from the flowing Oktoberfest beer, it also offers a great way to get acquainted with the Bavarian folk culture and sample their traditional foods such as Sauerkraut (red cabbage) and Weißwurst (a white sausage).

If you plan to make the most of the Oktoberfest, along with the Bavarian hospitality you also have access to the services of the Indian diaspora settled in Munich. Though the Indian community in Munich is smaller than in other major European destinations, it does offer enough of a desi connect to satisfy your needs. The ISKCON temple at Munich observes all major rituals and welcomes everyone to their Sunday feasts. It’s not unusual to find Germans, dressed in saris and dhotis, engrossed in the bhajans. The Art of Living centre offers yoga and meditation programmes and discourses on various spiritual topics. The atmosphere at the Gurdwara Sri Guru Nanak Sabha is similarly said to be peaceful and accommodating of people of all faiths. They even organise guided tours for the benefit of the non-Sikhs who are curious to learn more about the religion. Their langar is not to be missed.

There are more options that’ll help make your stay more comfortable. Some Indian grocery stores in the city stock all kinds of Indian spices and condiments. In some, like Asien Bazar, you can even bargain in Hindi! Once or twice a month, Indian film screenings do take place in the cinema halls, but the best way to catch up on developments in Indian cinema is to rent video cassettes and VCDs. Kohinoor sells a wide range of Bollywood VCDs, whereas Kumaras Asean Trades sells Tamil cassettes. The local population of Munich, and indeed most Germans too, are largely enamoured by Bollywood. Workshops on Bollywood dance are quite popular, as are Bollywood-themed events like DJ nights and dance parties.

The most attractive time to visit is during the Oktoberfest, but if you can brave the weather, Munich during Christmas is also a sight to behold. You can book your tickets here.

Thanks to the efforts of the Indian diaspora abroad, even lesser-known European destinations offer a satisfying desi connect to the proud Indian traveller. Lufthansa, which offers connectivity to Lisbon and Munich, caters to its Indian flyers’ priorities and understands how proud they are of their culture. In all its India-bound flights and flights departing from India, flyers can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options, making the airline More Indian than You Think. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalised by Lufthansa to the extent that they now offer a definitive Indian flying experience.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.