Thursday, October 07, 2004

indian fast foods

Indians love to fast – festivities are an integral part of an Indian’s life and fasting is normally associated with any festivity. The reason is really very simple. On the excuse of fasting, one is able to taste any number of delicacies!!

However, fast food has got no relevance to fasting.

When one broaches the subject of fast food, one normally visualizes pizzas, hamburgers and coke because fast food is supposed to be a Western concept, an indication of a fast lifestyle. How poor our knowledge is!! Fast foods were known to Bengalis as far back as the fifties – there used to be a tele-bhaja shop near Beadon Street where people used to stand in queue to wait his turn of the deliciously hot, crisp tele-bhaja made of thin slices of brinjal or potatoes dipped in a batter of besan. The people standing in the queue would be from six to sixty years of age, men and women alike. It was rumored that the oil used to fry these delicacies was never changed – when the level became low, some more oil was just added to top up the level! The special taste of these tele-bhajas was attributable to this singular factor – that is what people say!! This is not to belittle the moghlai parathas and kaviraji cutlets which used to hold centre stage in the times when people still patronized the cinemas.

Then there are the singaras and the jilipis specific to the Bengalis. In other parts of the country, singaras are better known as samosas and jilipis as jilebis. The only difference is that in the Bengali culture, both these items are normally found in the breakfast menu and are seldom prepared after nine in the morning! The reason is not very far to discover – the fast food menu of Bengalis revolve around the umpteen plus one roadside stalls set up at nearly every street corner. A very practical method of tackling mass scale unemployment, each stall owner manages to break even and earn a reasonable amount of profit. They market various types of rolls – the egg roll, chicken roll, mutton roll along with Chinese dishes like noodles and chili chicken. Variety is the spice, so the saying goes, and the Bengalis have mastered the art of serving innumerable types of fast foods. With hundreds and thousand of hungry mouths to feed, they seldom face a shortage of customers. Whether it is a sultry summer evening or a wet monsoonish one, fast food is always in demand. The ingredients used in all such preparations, when mixed in the correct proportion and fried, emit such an out-of-the-world aroma that you would literally stop in your tracks to taste the final product. Our TV chefs would give millions to learn these secrets!!

Nowadays, the southern versions of fast foods are also making inroads into the cosmopolitan culture of large cities. Idli, dosa, uthappam, urid wada and upma are just a few names that have become popular in Bengali homes as well as in Punjabi homes. Cutting into a three inch diameter rawa idli with a generous topping of cashew nuts and a spoonful of pure ghee gradually vanishing into its innumerable pores is an experience by itself. The urid wada (spongy, like the soya bean doughnuts I had once tasted in an American exhibition in Calcutta in the fifties) comes in two versions – one, the dry type and the other with an accompanying concoction called sambhar in which tiny bits of pumpkin, onion, tomato, drumstick and brinjal float in a gravy of pulse and tamarind juice garnished with ground coconut.

In the north, the vote invariably goes to chats, golguppas, moong-ki-halwa and different types of pakoras. I specially remember the pakoras made of cauliflower. Large chunks of cauliflower would be dipped in a batter of besan and deep fried in a really large container. If you tasted one, you would certainly long for another – kya kare, control nehi hota! Moong-ki-halwa is another favorite of the north – if prepared with an abundance of ghee and garnished with cashew nuts and kish-mish, it converts into a dish fit only for the Kings. I had the pleasure of tasting the delicacy in a roadside stall in Delhi in the seventies and the taste still lingers on in my palate. Similar is the case with the chana-batura. A dish patronized by the north, I was pleasantly surprised to discover it on the menu-card of Kamat Hotel in Bangalore!

All these tiny examples go to prove that India is really a country where unity exists in diversity. During my first visit to Bangalore in the seventies, I was compelled to have curd rice packed in paper bags at the roadside eateries. Non-vegetarian dishes were taboo. Today, practically all hotels and restaurants cater to non vegetarian customers.

With every passing day, we keep on re-discovering our beloved India, in bits and pieces and our love keeps on growing. Corrupt politicians will come and go but there will always be people like you and me who will ensure that our tradition and culture are never lost.