07/11/2015 8:11 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

What The Biryani Says About 'The Idea Of India'

The Washington Post via Getty Images
STERLING, VA - MAY 9: The hyderabadi chicken biryani is photographed at Akshaya Thursday May 9, 2013 in Sterling, VA. The restaurant features the Indo-Chinese cuisine. In the background at left is the lamb pepper fry. (Photo by Katherine Frey/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

"Say 'idea of India' one more time..." I challenged my friend angrily, pointing a fork towards him. My weapon still had crumbles of chicken stuck in its narrow tines. A moment ago it was deftly, with surgical precision, making its way through the meat in my delicious Thalassery biryani.

The quintessential Malayali is inherently political. No matter which part of the world we are in, no matter what the occasion or place, from marriage functions to funerals, wherever two or more Malayalis gather, politics will indispensably be there. Even the weekly Syrian Christian community prayers are incomplete without the usual dose of UDF-LDF reflections during the post-ceremony fellowship meal.

It was, therefore, no surprise that I found myself in yet another political debate during the course of a dinner with fine servings of the renowned Malabar biryani. The subject was the old but endless and frequently renewed argument on the different "ideas of India". As an insane gourmet, I calculate the likelihood of finding good food even at the most improbable of occasions, and sitting in front of one of man's most creative culinary inventions, this discussion on abstract notions of India was beyond me. So I ignored him, and decided to focus on the heavenly union of two souls -- the tender chicken and the spicy rice, a celebration of true love. It was only when I was unable to concentrate that the "idea of India" got on my nerves and I threatened my old friend with a fork-weapon.

" Were my apolitical plats du jour, in reality, agents promoting cultural wars? Was my humble biryani really a manifestation of the grand 'idea of India'?"

He was as calm as rookie political intellectuals are expected (read pretend) to be. With a confident demeanour he declared, "Don't fret, even the biryani you are eating is an example of an 'idea of India' and its myriad expressions."

"Keep my biryani out of your dirty rabble-rousing politics," I protested ,my fork back to its threatening stance. "Hear me out," he said and went on to explain:

"The biryani, like most of us, is uncertain of its origins. It probably came from outside of the subcontinent and blended itself into the Indian ethos. Mind you, though, the biryani was smart enough to quickly realise that there is no one Indian ethos or value system. To survive and to spread across the country, it had to adapt and integrate itself into as many different forms as there are cultures in India. And it did spread, from the high north to the deep south, from the far east to the distant west. For the Awadhi nawabs it shed its spicy strength and for their Brahmin bookkeepers it assumed the form of 'tahiri', substituting meat with potatoes. For the 'strictly veg' Jain Gujaratis it let go a part of its soul to become an onion-less vegetable biryani and for the 'reluctantly veg' eggetarians ,it reincarnated as the egg biryani. For the sweet-toothed Bengali, it adopted a flavour of sweetness and for those in the Northeast and here in Kerala, it added beef to its personality. For the 'melting pot' Hyderabad, it ingrained into itself a diversity of flavours and for the aloof Ambur, it blended into Arcot's local ingenuity. From Sindhis in the west to the communities of Kampur in the east, from the Jats in the north to the Nasranis in the south, the biryani became to everyone what they were. So you see friend, your favourite biryani is a true manifestation of the very idea of India, a discussion which vexes you."

I sat there motionless trying to make sense of a variety of emotions playing hardball in my belly. I was confused, agitated, feeling betrayed. Is being indifferent to political intellectualism a myth? Were my apolitical plats du jour, in reality, agents promoting cultural wars? Was my humble biryani really a manifestation of the grand "idea of India"? But I soon gathered my thoughts and as all experienced epicureans are expected to pretend , I declared casually," Did you say onion-less Jain Gujarati biryani? We must try that out next time."

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