Whether the great ilish divide or the salame dispute, food arguments can easily escalate into bitter war
An Italian couple I know get into a fight every time they throw a dinner. The wife will tell the husband to go and buy salame from her home region because the antipasti, the starters, have to be perfect. The husband, hailing from another region, will sarcastically ask why he should get the mediocre salame produced in the wife’s home area and insist on getting the ones from his own region, which, as everyone knows, makes the best salame in all of Italy.
This deadly insult to the salame beloved of her mother, grandmother and all her ancestors will make the wife take off on the culinary vandalism inflicted on Italy by the philistines populating her husband’s home region — ‘…it amazes me they know how to open their mouths and put food into it!’ At this point, any neutral bystander usually starts to slide the kitchen knives and heavy vessels out of sight.
I’ve seen other Italians argue intensely about the provenance of the best pesto and gnocchi, the French get sharp about different cheeses and wine, the English and Irish brewing killer stares over the life-and-death matter of whisky, and the Germans rising into high dudgeon over competing claims of bread and beer from different parts of their country.
Back home, the food arguments are equally epic. There is one South Indian friend, a great mimic, who has a whole stand-up comedy routine about utthapams: he goes into different Southy accents, each describing the ‘correct’ utthapam while deriding all the impostor recipes from other States.
Come to Bengal and you enter a constantly raging firefight of arguments about fish. There is the great ilish divide, where Ghotis from the west put the ilish from the Ganga on a pedestal while sneering at the ilish found in the Padma; in return Bangals from the east and Bangladeshis revere the queen of Padma — ‘what do Ghotis know of ilish? You can’t call that thing that swims in sewage and factory effluents by the sacred name of ilish!’
There is also the argument about how to cook the ilish: Ghotis claim that Bangals fry it and add too many spices, while the best way to respect the delicate piscatrious empress is to just slide it raw into rice that’s cooking and gently let it steam. Within Bangladesh too, there are arguments over, say, katol fish and rui fish, one wide, the other narrow, with people from eastern districts, votaries of rui, shaking their heads at the people from the western districts and their strange preference for katol. A Bengali will say about Bengalis from a different area: ‘They don’t know fish, we do.’
Now, if anybody knows their freshwater fish, it’s Bengalis, just as Italians know their salame. So what exactly is happening when two people or two groups of people argue about something that is unnis-bees, 19/20 in taste? Suddenly, I’m reminded of a friend who is deeply into Hindustani classical music. ‘You know, I’ve tried to like Carnatic, but I just can’t stand it,’ he once confessed. ‘The raag starts and it’s very familiar, but then they sing it wrong!’
I’m also reminded of the first time I drank tea at a roadside stall in Maharashtra and nearly spat it out. It was familiar, as in it was clearly related to the roadside tea in Calcutta, Delhi, Ahmedabad and Bombay, but it tasted wrong.
If you try food from a completely different culture, it’s possible you’ll find it alien. It’s also possible that you’ll fall head over heels in love with it as a whole, while missing out on the nuances, at least at first. So an Indian who becomes infatuated with Japanese food, say, may not be able to discern the subtle differences between the rice from Niigata and Yamagata prefectures while wolfing down everything Nipponese; and a Japanese who falls in love with Indian food may not be able to make out the difference between Karnataka-style sambhar and the type from Tamil Nadu.
The problem comes not from something that’s radically outside your experience but from something that is familiar yet betrays the expectations of your taste buds (or, in the case of music, your ears), something in which just one or two small components are changed from what you’ve previously experienced.
The Italian couple, for instance, love Indian food and whenever they visit India it’s like watching two gluttonous love birds. From my side, whenever I’ve seen them start to argue about their salame, I’ve jumped in and begged them to get different varieties from both their regions.
Ruchir Joshi is a filmmaker and columnist.