Food and religion have always been closely tied, enmeshed in ritual and often embroiled in controversy. They can come together to create traditions that are beautiful and poignant, but they can also combine to create divisive controversy. In present times, religion and food have been used to exacerbate differences, spread a theology of hate, and strategically leveraged to further political agendas.
In this atmosphere, where talking about food and religion demands a gentle treading on eggshells, Bhagwaan ke Pakwaan is loud and light-hearted. Co-authors Varud Gupta and Devang Singh tell stories with a cheerful disregard for formality, and are unafraid of being silly. Between them, one an atheist and the other an agnostic, this book on culture, history and cuisine is exactly what the century ordered. Looking not just at how faith informs community, but instead at how community and cuisine influence faith, the pair travels to meet communities whose Indian-ness has influenced the religions they have adopted, and tell a story quite different from the dominant narrative of starchy, intolerant spiritual practice. From Jewish synagogues to Parsi agiaries and intimate rituals in tribal ceremonies, excitement, music and dance surround religious tradition.
In Rongmesek, Meghalaya, the authors witness the Karbi tribe’s practices of drinking rice beer and reading chicken entrails, which have been seamlessly absorbed into Christian practice. They look at how the Baghdadi Jews in Kolkata use local ingredients to circumvent the strict rules of kosher and Shabbat, and why meat consumption is the norm among Buddhist monks in the stark landscapes of Spiti. Gupta and Singh find stories that are both fascinating and delicious.
While it is possible to be put off by the casual, almost childish, tone of the writing, a closer read reveals incredible legwork and significant research. What could have become a tome of heavy information is instead an easy read that sneaks in a tonne of historical and cultural information in an easy, good-natured voice. Their insight into a community’s cultural history is strengthened by interviews with unique characters, who come to life through intriguing and compelling exchanges: be it Flower Silliman, one of Kolkata’s last remaining Jews, who explains the close ties between Muslim and Jewish communities, tracing back to cultural exchanges that first took place in the kitchen, or Vinod Bhai, who in colourful sun-baked Udvada, still makes hand-churned ice-cream with seasonal fruits for every Parsi celebration in the town.
The book is as much a photo-book as it is a book of essays, and a fascinating one at that. The photographs by Singh straddle that fine line between art and documentary, capturing the essence of a people and their cuisine with a keen eye. Food photography tends towards being sterile and romanticised, but the full-page glossy photographs in Bhagwaan ke Pakwaan, including a particularly eye-catching one of raw dried meat hanging from the ceiling, challenge the norm.
Although this is a book that has recipes, it is not a recipe book. And perhaps this helps in circumventing some of the conundrums faced by cookbooks these days, especially those that feature traditional recipes – like staying true to the time-consuming techniques and hard-to-source ingredients, or adapting the recipe, or providing shortcuts and substitutes to make it friendlier to a modern urban-kitchen. Bhagwaan ke Pakwaan makes a clear choice – the recipes in the book are unapologetic in their authenticity. Several have unusual ingredients such as gemune (dried onion or garlic leaves) or sattu (roasted barley flour) or cicadas (insects that have a penchant for disappearing for years at a time), while a few are very technique-driven.
In an age in which books are constantly cajoling the reader to step into the kitchen and cook by providing recipes that are over-simplified and dumbed down, it is gratifying to see one present recipes as they are cooked in their respective cultures – reminding us that documenting traditional recipes has its own value, whether outsiders cook from them or not.
That said, should you want to bring to life one of these fascinating recipes, you will find that the instructions are easy to follow, clear and specific. The Chicken Chitanee is a sweet and sour gravy that is cooked by the Baghdadi Jews on Friday nights, celebrating the oncoming Shabbat. It is the first recipe that we try from the book, and it turns out exactly as promised. Mellow, with a hint of sweetness from the tomatoes and a dash of sugar, and sourness from the tamarind, the flavours are familiar and comforting.
Religion is often seen as a divisive factor when it comes to cuisine (nobody needs a reminder about the beef debate). While it is true that religion has been used to exercise control over our plates, it is also true that religious practices have led to some of the most spectacular, inventive and diverse food found in India. Bhagwaan ke Pakwaan tells this side of the story with grace, humour and compassion, celebrating the alchemy that is created when devotion and creativity step together into the kitchen.
Chicken Chitanee (Serves 4)
2 tbsp oil
3-4 yellow onions, diced finely
1 tbsp ginger paste
1 tbsp garlic paste
2-3 red chillies, chopped
2 tsp coriander powder
2 tsp cumin powder
4 tomatoes, pureed
3 tbsp tamarind liquid
6-8 pieces of chicken (thigh, drum or wings)
2 tsp salt
2 tsp sugar
Water, as needed
Lemon juice, as needed
Heat the oil in a pan and sauté the onions, adding the garlic, ginger and chillies once they start to brown.
Next, add the cumin and coriander powders.
When the spices become fragrant, but haven’t yet browned, add the tomatoes and tamarind liquid with the salt and sugar.
As the mixture thickens into a paste-like consistency, add ¾ cup water.
Once the gravy comes to a boil, add the chicken and simmer, covered, until the chicken is cooked through, about 10-15 minutes.
Remove the lid and allow some of the moisture to evaporate so that the gravy can thicken.
Squeeze a lemon on top and serve hot with rice.