Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A Tale from Gastronome

Every country has its food habits. And every country has its guest etiquettes. The geographical distinctness of our vast motherland has allowed different cultures to thrive within its fold. Apart from the variation in cuisines, the treatment to guests also varies. I have the unique distinction of being a north Indian who was brought up in the furthest corner of south India and who subsequently married a south Indian. My insight into the way guests are treated in different parts of the country stems from my experiences.

In north India for example, it is considered detriment to the image as a welcoming host if their guests are not treated to foods cooked in clarified butter, with more than the required peppering of spices or sweet meats prepared with refined sugar and garnished with dry fruits. Not a thought is spared for the unfortunate guest who may be on a diet, may be unused to such food and may therefore be unable to digest it. This hospitality called ‘khatirdaari’ in Hindi is an essential part of the north Indian’s guest etiquettes, especially amongst the Marwari / Baniya communities and Punjabis.

Down south in a typical Malayali Christian household, breakfast may consist of steak, rice, the traditional sambar, poriyals (curries), idlis/puttu, chicken curry, prawn curry/fish curry, with an egg dish thrown in. I considered this to be a layout of mammoth proportions and as a child growing up in Kerala, I was often amazed by the sight. As I would take my seat at the dining table, I would imagine my friend and his family to be gigantic gluttons.

Sometimes it is the quantity of food he is expected to consume rather than the quality or variety that makes the guest feel like he is trapped in an underground mine. It happened to me when my husband and I dropped by at my sister-in-law’s place for lunch many years ago. She is married to a Telugu and had at that point just given birth to her twin boys. That my sister-in-law lived with her own parents-in-law had not seemed like double jeopardy to me. I have smartened up since then!

A brief background to the episode will be prudent here. My hubby and I were newly weds. As mentioned earlier, I am a north Indian and hubby from the south of India. Apart from the differences in our language and culture, we were often cross examined on the food I cooked. I was accused by his relatives of feeding my tam-bram (tamilian brahmin) husband rotis and chappatis, while my own set of relatives pitied me for switching to rice as staple food. That we were a multi cuisine couple who enjoyed rice and rotis just as well as pasta and falafals, could never be fathomed by any of them.

Anyway, so getting back to that afternoon, since I was a new bride, my sister-in-law’s in-laws took it upon themselves to introduce me to Andhra cuisine and the manner of eating it. I was forewarned by the authoritarian father-in-law that leftovers would mean disrespect to my hosts. As soon as we were seated on the dining table aunty (mom-in-law) served each of us an enormous plate of vegetable biryani. I used to be a small eater then and half way through the biryani I felt rather full. But I endeavoured to finish each morsel remembering the ominous warning I had received at the outset of the meal.

When aunty cleared the plates, I heaved an inward sigh of relief knowing that I had passed the test with flying colours. As we indulged in more small talk, aunty placed another plate before each of us. I looked up at her and wondered why anyone would serve dessert in a dinner plate. As I gloated over my table etiquettes and their lack of it, I saw aunty walk in with a few dishes. To my horror, the dishes did not contain varieties of dessert, but an entire meal.

Thereafter I was lead through the course of a proper Andhra meal that consisted of an unbelievable quantity of rice; Rice with pickle, followed by rice with curry, rice with sambar, rice with rasam and lastly, rice with curd. By this time, I was smilingly stuffing each morsel of food down my gullet and cursing my small appetite. I managed to survive the attack on my stomach, but only after I had firmly refused the curd-rice-with-mashed-banana combination. Despite my south Indian upbringing, rice with banana constitutes a meal faux pas for me.

This onslaught was followed by dessert consisting of four gulab jamuns. I was too shy to refuse the plate and looked beseechingly at my hubby. He performed the superman act and reminded aunty in Telugu that a bride could only eat so much. Despite uncle’s protests, I managed to get away with two gulab jamuns.

As we bade farewell to the in-laws and in-laws, I thanked God for my stupendous gullet control that held me in good stead till we reached our hotel; where I threw up the afternoon’s effort, literally down the drain!
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