Sunday, October 23, 2011

of Bourdain, Kerala and politically charged chips (of the shoulder kind)

started off as a response to some comments on Kerala by a few facebookers, after Anthony Bourdain's visit to that state. this blog could be said to be  indirectly set off by all that.  Bourdain's sweeping statement about Indian food being not aesthetically pleasing, even though delicious, put my back up. Any food can be presented in a "cultured' way. I have tried to do it in my humble way, like my mom ( and many other moms do)  does it everyday without going overboard -- I am no professional. This ancient culture of mine has seen and done it all, and so called modern cultures are re-discovering it everyday --say,  in their adoption of vegetarianism, which has been a way of life for us for centuries.( well, my ancient culture is backward in one factor -- its treatment of its girls, but that's another story , or maybe not, come to think of it)

all right. It was interesting to find out what the thoroughly rebellious, but democratized Mr Bourdain would do to Kerala. Along with many other proud Mallus, I waited for the show to air.
After all, Kerala is the state with the highest rate of literacyin India. Because of the Marxist revolution, its people are relatively freer than their counterparts in some other states. No bonded labor here, a strong labor union etc. etc. There aren't many communal riots here, and our health care is on par with a wealthy European country. We have enjoyed trade relations with the known world from ancient times. This is  the fabled Malabar -the  spice land. This is the land about which Roman historian Pliny wrote, when Roman Senators complained about the flow of gold to India in return for  black pepper. You do not have to go far to look for the politics of food, if you look for the history of the need for black pepper and other spices. This is where the legendary port of Muziris was, from where gifts were sent to King Solomon! Where St Thomas the Apostle landed. We have defeated the Dutch in battle. Our Kings were more forward thinking and less flamboyant.  And it is not all Portuguese influence, as one person on Bourdain's show seemed to imply! Jews were there before Christ. I belong to that group - Nazrani. descendants of the ancient Jewish population in Kerala. Phoenicians, Arabs and Persians came there too. So did the Chinese. Kerala was from where they got their martial arts. Compared to all that the  Portuguese was a recent intrusion. And there was Christianity in Kerala before their arrival. They forcibly made us Roman Catholic, that is all. The Portuguese may have brought tomato to Kerala. But we already had various types of tamarinds, garcinia, and mangoes, so the cuisine did not suffer that much, I should say. Also, the Portuguese did not go empty-handed either. They took away more than they gave. Like all the rest of the  East India Company traders.
Kerala - Roman - Middle East connection

To see Kerala through Mr B's eyes, and stomach ( :) ) , was pleasantly engaging. of course, what he showed was just a little bit of street level Kerala. Very much a part of it, but just one part. But then we all know that is what Mr Bourdain does.And  I was happy, on the whole, as just seeing a bit of that greenery makes my day. He missed out on both Nazrani and Malabari/Muslim cuisines, along with all other traditional and also regional basics. So what if Mr B did not taste even the standard, run of the mill 'fish curry meal" , or notice the fact that we keralites eat a variety of rice that is different from most other states'? As it is, it is a special, nutritious and delicious rice which is not bleached but double-boiled with hints of  brown on it. Rich in thiamine. Or the "kanji" from that rice, with the Nazrani staple "beef and  raw banana varattiyathu". Mr B did not savor the aroma or the taste of pearl onions sauteed in ghee, poured over the above mentioned rice. !! Or the numerous jackfruit dishes, with or without coconut. Nor did he see or taste our "upperis" or "thorans" and "mezhukkupurattis" -- our versions of salads, where we make use of all kinds of veggies and greens, from the crunchy, white inside of the plantain trunk, to the tender, green shoots of the bean plant -- another standard, basic food of Keralites. And all the "appams"!! Come to think of it, I wonder at whoever acted as guides for this show?!!! oh well!

Then I happened to read the comments, and  I started to remember certain "facts" Mr Bourdain made in passing. For instance, the assumption that all elections in Kerala are rigged,. 1957 's was not a rigged election. Mr B! In fact, it was some of the enlightened "upper" caste leaders who lead that revolution.

Along with that it dawned on me that some people only see what is shown here. They will never see the rest of Kerala or India, or wouldn't want to, if they had the chance. So this is the only lesson they get! And that set me thinking again. Again conveniently reinforcing their exalted ideas about themselves and the opposite about others.
Someone said India should be a parking lot for Asia and other derogatory stuff, I have to remind them that not all nations get to throw up their superfluous onto other nations, and not all superfluous get to kill off the natives and grab all their land, and start a new nation from scratch. Nor do they get to start up wars anywhere they like so that they can fill up their dwindling coffers, at the same  time make their citizens' jingoist hearts swell with pride and patriotism.

And the caste system -- as if they are new to that! the slavery and the aftermath has been swept under the rug? of course, most people are drugged senseless here, by TV and shopping.
India is an ancient country, and it has an ancient culture, (not to speak of a different climate!) its landmass has been reduced by hook or by crook, and its people are just waking up from centuries of colonial abuse.

As for the concern about  cleanliness, of course we are too, actually I haven't seen or tasted much of what Mr Bourdain ate!! (And we do have breaded beef and starch dishes,  if that is the epitome of "civilization" and prettiness!!.) There is a huge majority who eat only clean, healthy (and also unhealthy, fatty , since that is a criterion for an advanced civilization!!!)  homemade food.

Anyway  I guess it is much better than eating almost-touched -by fire raw meat, and fish. Or drinking milk from cows that aren't cows anymore. I mean a herbivorous animal fed on meat! or the sausages, and the chickens and the eggs and so on and so on.
Or the mush that they serve here in the name of "curry" or the "curry powder" that they sell as spice!!!
and they add that thing to everything, and call it Indian!!

I know it is a natural tendency of many of  the so called First World to assume that they are the superior ones in everything, and  smugly watch the misery of others, pretending all is cool with them and their lot. I would be ideal if people knew that every culture is different, and that India has a huge population, in which each state, each district, each community, and each family is different. There is no standardized, assembly line home style food making here, for good or bad. For a westerner, it is an almost incomprehensible unique individualistic but collective identity that is India. Also, talking about differences in culture, and a foreigner's perception and expectations when they visit India, in this case, Kerala, let me give an example, esp. since Bourdain is taking us not to high end restaurants but to the low end eateries. Well, there lies the rub. For instance take the beach culture that you can experience almost anywhere in the world. But come to Kerala with its beautiful beaches -- there is no such culture here. Not many outdoor eateries where the whole family or women can go. Yes, the class structure even thoug hit is slowly dissolving is still very much there. Does that mean people do not eat good food? They do, but mostly at home. If Bourdain wanted to see low-end eateries serving tasty Kerala food, he should have gone to college or university students, youngsters at workplaces. But even then, he may not srike luck, because again, these will be mostly the male sex, thereby missing a whole chunk of ideas from the majority of the population.( The reason for a  lack of a beach and outdoor and a commercialized foodie culture in Kerala can be traced to the traditional ways of controlling women. Sadly. That needless to say has many other consequences, least of all being that the people there seem to be idiots, again, sadly. Add to that the idea that has been ingrained in the patriarchal minds about cooking as a whole -- it is a woman's job. And a woman's place is in the kitchen of her own home. And the work she does there is not appreciated or valued or considered important. So there is no real incentive to take that cooking out to the public. Granted, there is an instance of untapped potential resourcewise and marketwise, with regards to local food taken to the public stage. As it is, it is mostly a man's world. Things are changing, of course, but slowly. But I still have hopes for my state -- not to blindly ape western habits, for example, please stick to drinking water! not Coke and Pepsi, and keep using those spices, and not cheese and salt and sugar -- but treat the women as human beings.)

 But I don't think Mr Bourdain meant that to happen. I hope not! Because I always admired his lack of condescension and ability to get along with everyone.  Accepting them for what they are, even respecting them, without that sense of superiority that plagues others. Which makes one distrustful... .He never seemed to  be one of those show persons who show only the Magnificent Miles of their own country, and went a-scavenging in others.(anyway, it is taken for granted that the white world is rich and happy, they needn't be afraid that people will misunderstand!) Showing just this bit of Kerala cuisine makes it rather representative of the whole state's cuisine, which is far from reality. Almost like me assuming that eating opossums and innards is representative of white American cuisine, thinking those are the the only things that the whites eat. Or that everything is porridgy or "custardly" and are in a rather dastardly manner pushed through various implements to form curls or swirls and slivers. Bourdain's disdain for simple food is unhealthy -- the less processed and breaded, the more nutritious. Anyway, reduction should stay as a culinary technique, not as a method to reduce the cuisine of a whole civilization. Like they did with the branding, 'curry".For the colonial powers it was a systematic reduction of everything that was Indian, of course, their history, philosophy, religion etc -- part of their exploitation agenda, and placing imperialist machinery of law, politics, and education in their place. for instance, see Macaulay's educational ''reforms' tailored for Indians, which we sadly follow even now.

But getting back to the Bourdain matter,  the boorish comments from the viewers color the whole thing for me -- negatively. makes me wonder if here is just another white guy pretending.....another phony.... or just human? after all, not everyone can be a Henning Mankell. could it be another instance of "all are equal, some are more..."? I want to be proved wrong.

Still, all this, including my reaction, ( because I know that I can't blame Mr B for the comments from a few of his fans, but that is what triggered these thoughts)  leaves a bad taste in the mouth, and I will stay clear off Bourdain's show  at least for a while.
Aah! that feels better -- end of rant.

And something else -- Mallu TV channels broadcast the "fact" that Mr B came all the way from America   in order to discover the favorite foods of Mammootty, Kerala's beloved actor. :D


PS: I just read this again. and my goodness! I wince! what an embarrassing rant! but there it is. :) I have to agree that things can be better.
I realize I have to work on this piece some more. later, when I have the time and patience. for instance why do I have pictures of our food here? Do I need to prove that our food is better and tastier than any other? but it is inevitable that the second rate world citizen gets angry, because in his mind, he is not second rate, but he knows that in their eyes he is, or they prefer to think he is so.
someone once told me that the proletarian and the feminist have one thing in common -- they whine.
I should also add, they become defensive too. and not just them -- well -- I guess it is a part of the  subaltern effect.

(UPDATE: $20 billion - Temple's secret vaults yield treasure - World news - South and Central Asia -
wonder how the Brits overlooked this bit of treasure. one reason could be the lack of flamboyance on the part of Kerala kings. the British, and the others, did take a lot (an understatement, if I didn't make it clear) - one gets an inkling of the enormity of their loot from the kingdoms of India. .)

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