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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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

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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.