Saturday, October 17, 2009

Anatomy of a gourmet

I think it was a character in John Le-Carre’s latest book – who calls herself a ‘water gourmet’. Can’t claim that ,despite my frequent attempts at alcohol sabbatical, I have reached that stage of ‘evolution’ yet - but, over the years I have come to appreciate more the virtues of aqua-pura.

good food and rude words

Till a few years back, I liked to believe that – I knew a little about food . But, now I am extremely careful and self-conscious while talking on food – even among friends - as practically every other person I meet considers himself or herself a ‘foodie’. Over the past few years, food columns have erupted all over in newspapers and magazines as, indeed, “Food Shows” are hogging prime time on TV. I don’t have the statistics, but I suspect that the maximum number of blogs are written on food. (There is a theory that, the less people cook at home – the more they like to read about food – explaining the booming sales of recipe books and the soaring popularity of TV Chefs like the late lamented Keith Floyd or our own desi-boy Sanjeev Kapur).

[You may call it synchronicity – but while I was writing this piece, I came across on a friend’s tweet the link to an essay written by Buddhadeb Bose on Bengali Cuisine and Food habits way back in the 70s. That’s what I call real food-writing (to read Bose’s full article click here).

One of the finest ‘food-writing’ by an Indian that I have come across is a series “Sukhadyo Subachan” by Pratap Kumar Roy that used to be carried many years ago in the Bengali newspaper AajKal – much before ‘foodies’ and ‘food columnists’ had become so ubiquitous. The pieces have later been compiled into a book called “Mahabhoj” – by Ananda publishers. Those amongst you who can read Bengali and are fans of the pretentious "Rude Food" writings of a celebrity editor, may like to browse thru the book if you can lay your hands on a copy somewhere].

Bruni or Belucci

When it comes to wines – I am quite an illiterate. My repertoire doesn’t go much beyond the Sula, Grover or Nasik Valley and I can hardly tell a Bourdeux from a Barolo - my preference for the latter has more to do with my fascination for Italian beauties like Monica Belucci ( not Carla Bruni tho’ – who to me is neither wholly Italian nor French ) than my love of Italian food. I fashionably dislike Californian wines (just as anything American) be it Napa or Sonoma and feign disdain for Australian Shiraz more as a mark of inverse racial snobbery, just as I praise Chilean vintages as an expression of ‘new world’ solidarity. But, in short – I know nothing about wines – except that the tannins in reds help me get rid of meat morsels from my cavities.

Till such time boot-legged JW Black Label reigned supreme at parties and Chivas was considered a rarity – reserved for special guests on occasions, I could hold forth with impunity on the merits of Islay Malts over their Spey-side brethrens. But not any more, since the Laphroigs and Lagavulins have invaded the living rooms of the yuppy set – who now look down upon the Glen sisters (..fiddich, …livet and …morangie) as passe and for whom the 'age' of Macallans' is only a number on the bottle. Belonging to a generation who grew up on ACP (Aristocrat Premium) and DSP (Directors’ Special) , when Peter Scot was the ultimate toast of social refinement – I, therefore, find ‘Single Origin’ Darjeeling Tea a much safer subject of party conversation. Tho’ hearing of the relative merits of a second - "flush" Makaibari over a Castleton many turn instinctively towards the mens’ room.

In Coffee – Coorg and Colombian were both ‘c’ words for me. Over time – I have learnt that there are a few more alphabets in between like B, J and K…. as in Brazil, Jamaica and Kenya . But, not much has ever happened to me over coffee.

As for Cheese, I don’t even wish to get started. Every time I have tried expound on the anthropology of Indian cheeses - and claim that, the Bandel Smoked Cheese and Kalimpong do indeed have indigenous roots - I have been snubbed short.

the last bastion of a retired parvenu

However, there is still one unclaimed territory remaining – over which I can claim some degree of proprietorship. I fancy myself as something of a massage (as distinct from ‘masseuse’) connoisseur.

I was probably initiated into the pleasures of a gentle oil rub soon after birth by the nurse, who used to subject me to a daily dose of olive oil treatment. But, my earliest memory of a wholesome massage go back to childhood – when we used to go for family weekend retreats to my maternal village home on the outskirts of Calcutta.

After breakfast – the men-folk (including the boys ) would line up in the courtyard with a thin and skimpy “gamccha” wrapped around their waists and would take turns to spread themselves on a mat – under the mellow winter sun. Sohan-lal – our good Chowkidar cum Care-taker of Bihari roots, who was a wrestler in his youth – would give each one of us a vigorous kneading with mustard oil – before pouring buckets of cold water over us straight from the deep-well (‘paat- kua) – while we rinsed ourselves with generous dollops of ‘khol’ (fresh mustard cake) brought from the nearby oil-mill for use as a natural body-scrub.

Though there are European forms of massage – such as the Swedish, I think massage is essentially an oriental art form. It is only in the East that we attach so much importance to the body in relation to the internal physical well-being of a person (referring to it as a ‘temple’ etc) given our more holistic approach to health (think of Aurveda, Yoga or Chinese Medicine with all its emphasis of Yin, Yang and ‘Qui’ - in the latter lies the origins of "cross-gender" massage). In the West, generally – the physique has more of an external connotation as a symbol of sexuality, as it were. Therefore – benefits of massage are not seen beyond ephedrine inducing muscle relaxation or, at best, sensual arousal.

of an ancient art and an ancient trade

In comparison, we give a greater stress on the therapeutic effects of massage. In the orient – I think there are essentially 2 broad systems of massage. The first based on acupressure along the meridians - such as Shiatsu- and the other that involves stretching of muscles and rotation of joints - as in Thai Massage – which, I consider to be something like, “passive yoga”. Variants such as the Balinese Massage combine a bit of both the systems – adding to it elements such as aroma-therapy, which appeals to the western tourist as well as help Spas charge an extra premium.

It took me a while to figure out – “Ancient Thai Massage” was not a reference to the “ancient” lady masseurs in Pat-pong Massage joints – but to the art form taught in Monasteries such as Wat-Po in Bangkok traditionally to blind people due to their heightened sense of touch.

Though Kerala Massage Parlors are sprouting like wild mushrooms everywhere – even up in the Himalayan Hill-stations – it’s not my kind of stuff. I don’t quite relish the veritable oil-bath with the masseurs’ hands running down in rapid motions along the slippery contours of the anatomy. Also, I am deeply skeptical of its much-professed medical benefits being really commensurate with the quantity of oil that is spent in the process.

But, at the end of the day – there is nothing like a good Hindustani Massage. Contrary to popular belief – a good North-Indian ‘maalish’ is not all about pounding, kneading and twisting. A well-trained masseur – usually from the barber (‘Nai’ or ‘Napit’) community – would know basic elements of osteopathy and physio-therapy and use it to r good effect for alleviating many minor ailments of the bones, muscles and, at times also, nerves.

My quest for a good massage has sometimes landed me into odd predicaments. No, not in the Sois of Sukhumvit – as you might jump to conclusion – but in strange places like the Circuit House in Bhedhaghat near Jabalpur, where we had gone to see the Marble Rocks and Duandhar Falls. Half-way through the session, the masseur ran away leaving me dripping in oil and shivering in the cold. I couldn’t even go for a bath as he hadn’t heated the oil on the wood-fired chullah. He returned only after an hour to say with a grin that he had gone off to watch the latest episode of the Ramayana, which ruled the air-waves on TV those days and brought the entire ‘cow-belt’ to a virtual stand-still every Sunday morning.