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‘We can celebrate so much of our past and present without needless debates’: Sourish Bhattacharyya

Referring to the diversity of cuisines and culinary traditions in India, senior journalist Sourish Bhattacharyya said that there is much that can be celebrated about Indian history without controversy, at the launch of The Bloomsbury Handbook of Indian Cuisine (Rs 1,499, Bloomsbury India), edited by him and food critics Colleen Taylor Sen and Helen Saberi, at the Taj Mahal Hotel, New Delhi, on Thursday. Bhattacharyya was in conversation with writer Suhel Seth and some of the contributors of the volume.

“Our past has become a contentious issue today,” said Bhattacharyya, “but frankly there’s so much about our past and present that we can celebrate without needless debates. There’s so much the Mughals gave to us in terms of cuisine, and we gave back to cuisines which came from Central Asia. We gave them spices – the kebabs of Central Asia don’t taste as good as the ones here because of Indian spices.”

sourish bhattacharya Bhattacharyya shared the origin of the book, which goes back six years, when he got together with popular American food critic Colleen Taylor Sen. (Source: Express photo by Abhinav Saha)

Bhattacharyya was speaking about how his book celebrates the immense diversity of Indian cuisines by exploring individual states and union territories, their street food, popular brands over the decades, and culinary traditions winding in and out of the subcontinent over millennia. Seth said that instead of “rewriting history” we should be “revisiting the legacy that we have.”

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On how the book explores Northeastern cuisine in rare detail, Hoihnu Hauzel, one of the 26 contributors, said, “Northeast India is known for its medicinal plants and anthropological sanctuaries but the diversity of its food cultures may soon die out… It must have the same playing field as other states. Northeast Indian cuisine is not just one entity. Every state there is very complex and has its own defining foods.”

book launch Suhel Seth said that instead of “rewriting history” we should be “revisiting the legacy that we have.” (Source: Express photo by Abhinav Saha)

Seth commented on the book’s integration of trivia with history. For instance, the chapters on the commercial journey of soda brands such as Duke’s and Rimzim, which had a strong Indian presence in the second half of the 20th century, as well as the spread of alcoholic beverages and Indian-made foreign liquor.

Similar famous culinary artefacts explored in the book include Calcutta’s Sing Cheung chilli sauce, Orissa’s brace cutlets, Chhattisgarh’s red ant chutney, Kashmir’s spices, the Kejriwal sandwich, and railway food menus.

Bhattacharyya shared the origin of the book, which goes back six years, when he got together with popular American food critic Colleen Taylor Sen to follow up authoritative food encyclopaedias like KT Achaya’s A Historical Dictionary Of Indian Food and Alan Davidson and Helen Saberi’s The Oxford Companion to Food. After four years and contributions from 26 writers across the United States, United Kingdom and India, The Bloomsbury Handbook of Indian Cuisine came into being.

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The conversation shifted to the rising popularity of food criticism and speedy proliferation of restaurants in India, which Bhattacharyya was in support of.

“I’m all for democratisation of food criticism,” he said, “Whether it’s good, bad or ugly, more writing leads to more interest in food. Eventually, the wheat will be separated from the chaff. Home food was rediscovered (and repopularised) during COVID-19 due to home chefs… Young Indians in big cities are creating the demand for new restaurants.”

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