Priya Basil on the Living Histories of Regional Cuisine
"A recipe is a story that can’t be plagiarized."
The way we cook for and eat with others is one of the more tangible, quotidian ways of measuring generosity. The type and amount of food offered, how it’s served and to whom—these things define hospitality at the table, and beyond. Around the world, more people may be spending less time cooking—in the UK, US and Germany right now it’s between five and six hours a week—and eating. In my family the ratio of food-time to life-time remains high, though, of course, we consider such a distinction spurious, because for us food is one of the most intense ways of living. We visit supermarkets as others do art galleries. We cook as others run marathons. We offer, at one spread, flavors of a number and variety that others might only encounter in a packet of pick ’n’ mix.
Our family line of food fanatics may well stretch back over generations: the greed-gene honed over eons, mutated to fixate on the gratifications of grub at the expense of everything else. However, for me, it all begins with my maternal grandmother, an ardent eater, force-feeder and devout believer in the stomach as the only way to the heart: Mumji, almost everybody calls her, the motherly moniker perhaps partly an acknowledgement of her role as arch-feeder. Her cooking swells sympathies and bellies, raises tempers and temperatures, sends some running and brings others back begging for more. She wields ingredients like weapons and has made food the front line in a fight for first place in the affections of the family. At her hob or her table, hospitality often holds hands with its brother word hostility. Both are birthed from ghos-ti, their ancient Indo-European root, which meant host, guest and stranger—the trio of roles through which we shift all our lives. So apt that this inescapable flux was once contained in a single word.
Food has long been wielded as a form of power, a potent means of commending or condemning, of flaunting extravagance and displaying largesse. Ancient Roman history is replete with tales of excess, feasts as the stage for vanity and vengeance, like the notorious Emperor Elagabalus whose legendary spreads were spiked with sadistic surprises: at the end of a lavish meal that might include nightingale tongues, parrot heads and peacock brains you could be escorted to a guestroom for the night, only to find a tiger inside ready to devour you.
Every century and every territory has its fables of exorbitance: the Manchu Han Imperial Feast hosted by Kangxi, the fourth emperor of the Qing Dynasty, where 108 courses were served to more than 2,500 guests. The hundred-dish spreads laid out regularly at the behest of the Mughal Emperor Akbar. The fifty-course banquet that marked the wedding of Marie de’ Medici to Henry IV, King of France, in Florence at the turn of the 17th century. The night in 1817 when the future George IV of England held a dinner in honor of the visiting Grand Duke Nicholas of Russia, where 127 dishes, prepared by Marie-Antoine Carême—then the greatest and most expensive chef in the world—were served. The 18 tons of food flown to Persepolis in 1971 for a three-day celebration, apparently “the most expensive party ever,” held by the Shah of Iran to mark his country’s 2,500th anniversary. Such occasions hint that excessive hospitality can be a form of hidden hostility: feasting as a friendly warning of the host’s means and power.
While some have been subjected to extravagance, food has also always been punitively withheld from others, sometimes on an enormous scale and with horrific consequences. Since grain became a free-market commodity in the 19th century, profit has often been prioritized over humanitarian protection. In his book Late Victorian Holocausts, the historian Mike Davis describes the extreme weather fluctuations in the last quarter of the 19th century that led to severe drought and monsoons in parts of the Global South, including China, Brazil, Egypt and India. Davis shows how colonial administrations exploited these natural disasters to trigger and exacerbate famines that led to mass deaths, which weakened the affected lands and therefore strengthened foreign control. When drought hit the Deccan Plateau in 1876 there was actually a net surplus of rice and wheat in India. Yet the viceroy, Lord Lytton, head of the British colonial administration in India, insisted the surplus be sent to England. Almost simultaneously, Lytton was planning a spectacular Imperial Assemblage in Delhi to proclaim Queen Victoria Empress of India. Its climax, Davis writes, “included a week-long feast for 68,000 officials, satraps and maharajas, the most colossal and expensive meal in world history.” During the course of that week, Davis adds, an estimated 100,000 Indians starved to death in Madras and Mysore.A recipe is a story that can’t be plagiarized.
At the height of the Indian famine, grain merchants exported a record 6.4 million hundredweight (320,000 tons) of wheat. Peasants starved, but government officials were directed “to discourage relief works in every possible way.” Davis’s book exposes Western imperialism at its most deliberately inhospitable: destroying people by keeping their own food stocks from them. Suffering colonized subjects were treated not like enemies or strangers, but as if they were not human. By 1902, between 12 and 29 million Indians had died as a result of British policies in the face of famine.
Power often asserts itself through excesses of both hostility and hospitality.
I imagine Mumji first truly understood the power of food in her own small way after she used it to save her future husband’s life. Soon after their betrothal in India, in the summer of 1947, my grandfather, Papaji, got caught in the brutal upheavals of Partition. He had travelled from Amritsar to Lahore, intending to head on from there to the village of Gujranwala, where he’d been born and where his family had lived before migrating to Kenya in the 1930s. The borders arbitrarily drawn up by the British as they withdrew from India in 1947 left Gujranwala part of a new country called Pakistan. Papaji became one of the millions displaced by the chaos that accompanied the division of India—considered predominantly Hindu—to create Pakistan—conceived from the outset as an Islamic republic. This led to splits along ethnic lines across the whole subcontinent. The announcement of the new borders on August 17, two days after the declaration of independence, triggered a mass movement of people who, fearful of what the change might mean, sought the supposed security of being amongst their own kind: Muslims in India headed to Pakistan, while Hindus and Sikhs in the territory that had become Pakistan left for India.
Around 15 million people were uprooted. Communal violence erupted among all groups and up to a million died either in the fighting or from one of the diseases that were rife in the hundreds of refugee camps at which so many ended up. Papaji was stuck in one such camp for several weeks and caught typhoid. Eventually he managed to travel, with the help of a relative, back to Mumji’s family home in Amritsar. He arrived utterly wasted, hardly able to walk. She had to save him. He was her only chance to escape an existence marred by a youthful mistake: a brief love affair that had ended in pregnancy and an illegitimate child. Papaji, having come from abroad, knew none of this—yet. She needed him to get well so she could get away. And so she cooked.
She painstakingly prepared all the most restorative foods, like khichari, the classic Indian comfort food, a one-pot meal of rice and lentils cooked for the ill with almost no spices so it’s easier to digest. Mumji laced hers with fat dollops of butter to help Papaji gain weight faster. Soon she had him on panjiri, a delectable crumble of wheat flour, nuts and spices browned in ghee, traditionally given to nursing mothers as a nutritional supplement. Spoonful by spoonful she restored him to health. Months later, when he was fine again, they were married and traveled together to Kenya. There, Mumji often told the story of how she had saved Papaji, but other rumors were already circulating about who had really saved whom. So many hearts to win, so many tongues to still! How would Mumji manage? As with many women of her background and era, her means were limited. Food was one force she could harness, and so the kitchen became her combat zone. She would destroy any doubts about her past by cooking up a most flavorsome present.
In English to cook something up means to prepare food, but also to invent stories or schemes, to concoct something out of fantasy. When I first started writing I also baked a lot, mostly on days when the writing wasn’t going well. It soothed me, alongside the slow and intangible creation of a novel, to cook up something that was quickly ready and edible. A cake can bring simple, instant self-gratification and appreciation from others, whereas writing—for all its rewards—is always accompanied by self-doubt. Moreover, the reactions of others, even when positive, are rarely enough for me. I’m perpetually hungry for some extra validation, which nobody in the world can give. Only in the act of writing is that hunger satisfied, for I become, briefly, bigger than myself, capable of hosting the entire universe and yet treating every single person in it as if they were my only guest. This feat feeds and sates my ravenous self, my need to be and to have everything.You need to successfully make a recipe only once to feel it is your own. Make it three more times and suddenly it’s tradition.
Stories enact a form of mutual hospitality. What is story if not an enticement to stay? You’re invited in, but right away you must reciprocate and host the story back, through concentration: whether you read or hear a narrative—from a book or a person—you need to listen to really understand. Granting complete attention is like giving a silent ovation. Story and listener open, unfold into and harbor each other.
A recipe is a story that can’t be plagiarized. Compare cookbooks by cuisine and you’ll find recipes that are almost identical, distinguished by minor variations of ingredient quantity or slight deviations in procedure. Debts are gladly acknowledged, sometimes in the name—“Julia’s Apple Tart”— or in a sub-line—“Adapted from Yotam Ottolenghi.” Recipes represent one of the easiest, most generous forms of exchange between people and cultures, especially nowadays, with online food blogs abounding and all kinds of once-exotic ingredients available at your local supermarket. Recipes are the original open source, offering building blocks that may be adjusted across time, place and seasons to create infinite dishes. You need to successfully make a recipe only once to feel it is your own. Make it three more times and suddenly it’s tradition.
No wonder different societies claim the same food as their definitive, national dish. Hummus in the Middle East may well be the most contested case in point. Fed up of the endless, inconclusive debates about the true origins of this popular chickpea dip, a group of Lebanese hummus aficionados decided to settle the matter once and for all by setting the record for making the largest tub of hummus ever in the hope that the feat would irrevocably associate hummus with Lebanon above all. The idea of consolidating their ur-hummus credentials by producing such an excess is fitting in the context of the famously profuse Arab hospitality, summed up in the half-joking warning to guests: you’ll need to fast for two days before and two days after eating in an Arab household. A year after the Lebanese set their hummus record, the title was taken by a group in Israel who filled a satellite dish with four tonnes of the dip. Months later the Lebanese managed to top that and reclaim the Guinness World Record title. The dispute continues, a mild incarnation of the greater, more intractable regional conflict. I should probably refrain from dipping my finger into such loaded contests about the humble chickpea, but I adore hummus, and my favorite version is one made by a Palestinian friend—without a trace of garlic. And, of course, she is certain hummus was invented in her village.
Excerpted from Be My Guest: Reflections on Food, Community, and the Meaning of Generosity by Priya Basil. Translation copyright © 2019 by Priya Basil. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.