A friend recently posted on Facebook a picture of a summer meal from the Oh Calcutta restaurant (in their Delhi outlet), featuring their seasonal special: the Kalboishakhi, a deep-green, viscous cocktail of mango panna, spices and vodka. I haven’t had the chance to try it yet, but have posted it on my mental list of the improbable-yet-delicious concoctions that mark new tastes and new selves: nolen gur icecream with warm gur sauce; vodka pani-puris (I do realize that vodka is making too frequent an appearance on this short list); keema do pyaaza pizza; sticky, spicy and disgusting-sounding honey mustard chilli masala French fries.
I should confess that am in fact a vocal opponent of “fusion” restaurants and “fusion” food, which (especially in my experience in the US) all too often present a mishmash of incongruent flavors, watered-down seasonings, and confusing juxtapositions. Witness the spam sushi popular in Hawaii, or “Indian pizza” in the Bay area which plops already abhorrent components (the ubiquitous “orange” food of Indian buffets such as navratan curry and aloo gobi) on to sad naan dough. In my cooking, I vastly prefer experiments re-creating classic mythical dishes or the well-kept secrets of regional specialties: a long day’s work over Julia Child’s Boeuf Bourguignon with buttered mushrooms and brown-braised onions was the perfect satisfying finish to having watched the film Julie and Julia. The Basa Gede base sauce we intently learnt at a cooking lesson in Bali opened up a range of local variations on a delicious theme. Unexpectedly finding Gonghura or red sorrel in our local Indian store, we could re-visit my favorite dish from last year’s trip to Hyderabad, Gonghura Mutton (yes, more favorite than even the Biriyanis). My favorite Indian things to cook are deeply embedded in memories of people and the places they are from: a family friend’s fish jhal with tomatoes and mustard (very different from my family formulae of the same); my maternal grandmother’s deviled eggs; a late uncle-in-law’s vindaloo from his old Goan friend; a Kashmiri aunt’s roghan josh. I have been known to have a meltdown or two at a local Indian restaurant’s “mix and match” formula of combining proteins and vegetables with random sauces, e.g. a tofu vindaloo, as if boiling substance x in liquid y is just the same as long-braising depth of flavors.
This is not good behavior on the part of an anthropologist. When we swear our Levi-Straussian professional code (just like the one to Hippocrates, only ours is to the recently deceased French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss), we sign on for being enthusiastic champions of evolutionary innovation, no matter how many false starts and odd combinations result. [For example, I am going to grant the KFC Bacon Sandwich with Fried Chicken as “Bread” or the Doughnut “Bun” Burger high points for ingeniousness and low possibilities for widespread cultural adaptation.] Cultural isolation (and its “authentic” difference) is ultimately static, unproductive. Humans encounter all kinds of cultural stimuli, some by curiosity, some by contact, some by coercion. As I often remind my students who despair that the world is being overtaken by trashy monocultures and “losing” authenticity, humans respond actively rather than passively to their cultural stimuli, adapting to the things that seem convenient, commodious or even fun and challenging. The most triumphant example here is of course the hot chili pepper’s origin in the Americas and its rapid and enthusiastic adaptation, indeed efflorescence, in Asia. Tea has traveled with a vector going the other way. The curry powder of Kurrywurst and other related abominations (remember I’m an unrepentant judgmental anthropologist) are imagined as being of Indian rather than British origin. Music, clothing, language and religion travel similarly, and bi-directionally.
Last year, a friend (terrific cook, Bengali restaurateur in Pune) and I were enthusiastically airing our mutual dislike of fusion food along the lines of the rant above when her husband (also terrific cook and restaurateur) reminded us of the “authenticity” of the Bengali food we were pompously lauding: the green chilies that Bengalis consider iconic and indispensable can at earliest have come to us through colonial contact, in this case the Portuguese. We could not imagine a formal Bengali meal without tomato chutney, but I remember my grandmother narrating that tomatoes were so new culturally in her childhood that they called them “biliti begun,” foreign eggplant. The basis of sandesh and other chchana-based sweets, pride of Bengalis, is Dutch cheese-processing techniques. The potato of the alur dom was transmitted worldwide by the Spanish, who called it “batata” from the (Haitian) Carib word for sweet potato (and the Arabic word batata carries this along, rather than being the origin). My personal favorite in Bengali cuisine, the posto genre, is an outcome of coerced and indentured opium cultivation in the eighteenth century, I learnt just recently from reading Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies. I could go on about other favorites: dhnyarosh/ bhindi/ okra from Africa; rum from the Caribbean; language and architecture and roasted breads and so much more from Central Asia….
Cultures and identities (and more recently, nations), in other words, live and thrive through each other, fluidly merging their imaginaries and their most intimate of material objects. Our culinary morsels are traces in these transactions: the Hawaiian spam sushi which marks a history of military supplies, and my attempts to recreate Gonghura mutton through a supply chain ending in Lexington, KY, no matter my opinion of their relative tastiness, are mirror images in re-fashioning history and memory. The Californian Julia Child’s interpretation of a French classic which inspired a blog and a movie seems to me to have no greater claim to authenticity than the ubiquitous baked yogurt recipe Bengalis commonly make in the US, which I have anointed “Diasporic bhapa doi” (you all know that one, mix a can of evaporated milk and a can of condensed milk with equal parts of yogurt, and bake); my version comes to me via my Marathi spouse who got it from his aunt in Indiana who got it from a Maryland-born colleague who used to be married to a man originally from Barisal, slightly adapted at each turn, if you want to map one trail. It’s all fusion; really, it’s all always been fusion, including the intensely, intimately local, forged somewhere through imagination and movement and sharing, with things easily at hand.
Could we remember that as a talisman against the slaughter and trauma and horror over boundaries in South Adia (and associated religious and regional identities) in which Bengal has been a focal point, and against exclusions of imagined “non-Bengali” authenticity and veiled suspicions of caste and religion and origin? Perhaps a cup of (once Chinese) tea and a plate of (once Persian) samosas might help in the persuasion.
[Credits go to Debarati Sen, Abhijit De, Nandini Sengupta De, and Brinda Bose for providing yummy material support, both intellectual and culinary, for “research.”]
Srimati Basu is Associate Professor, Department of Gender and Women’s Studies, University of Kentucky, Lexington.