The Finer Art of Taste

A couple of years ago my daughter brought a little kitten home.  It had such beautiful eyes and a furry tail with soft brown down, she decided to call her Cleopatra.  And Cleo– for short—fitted the description quite well with her regal up-bearing and disdain for what cats normally do for a living—hunting.  She seldom stirred outdoors and stayed indoors expecting us to feed her all the time.  However, on rare occasions when she did indulge in the chase she made it a point to drag whatever writhing thing she brought in on to her favorite carpet in our drawing room floor very much to the chagrin of all of us.  Cleo perhaps felt that this was the safest place on earth to relish her repast, and also she must have felt she was sharing her spoils with her family!

Like Cleo most of us often tend to have a special place, even a specific posture, or seat or where we ensconce ourselves to dig into our own delicacies.  We relish food all the more when we are at peace and in our familiar or preferred surroundings. Food and the way we consume it is certainly a matter of taste, something that depends a great deal on upbringing, social background, class, race, customs and manners of the times we are in.

The oft-cited truism that what one eats becomes one’s demeanor does really hold some truth in it.  The choice of food and the practices of making/cooking, and eating/ relishing it differs considerably from people to people and from person to person. And when people migrate, or are exposed to different cultural influences, most often their food habits are usually the last ones to change. Language, clothing, and ways of thinking even would change but not so easily their habits of food.

In south India for instance there are innumerable practices of cooking, serving, eating and tasting.  Of course for the most a great deal depends on whether you are a vegetarian or an omnivore.  And another depends for the most on your social standing and exposure. Alas! One could never cherish or relish what one could dream or desire!

For the most, a majority of people (who of course, could afford to obtain food) eat with their fingers. A certain large percentage cherishes their culinary delights served and dished out in spoons and ladles and with the help of forks and knives.  Much before the advent of European colonial cultures we south Indians were wont to rely on our own fingers for eating. And of course, for the gourmet there is nothing like one’s own dear hands for savouring food!  After all, there is the matter of individual taste! Even the posture of eating has changed over the years.  When we were little kids I recall I used to enjoy sitting cross legged on the floor with the plantain leaf spread before me while they served the delicacies from left to right following a specific order beginning with a sweet and rounding it off with another in the end.  Those were good old days, and now with the advent of bad new days we are wont to sit on comfortable chairs at the dining table in the dining room. The very idea of the dining table and chair has certainly changed and transformed the manner and mode of eating.

From the south Indian combo of Idly, Vadai, Sambhar and coconut Chutney, to the North Indian Roti and Sabji , the red-rice-meals of the far south to the white and/or basmati of the Indian peninsula,  the variety of foods and food habits are so dramatically different in the Indian subcontinent. Perhaps what our ubiquitous globalising economy has achieved for us is to make all varieties available to and within reach of almost everyone. Apart from our own daily meal wherever we are, we tend to look upon all other food varieties as delicacies and of a much dearer taste. Whatever other harms globalization has brought in, this aspect of bringing variety of taste into the lives of all and sundry apparently is certainly a good thing.  While on the one hand multinational companies like McDonald-s and Kentucky Fried Chicken–s thrive in ushering in homogeneity of taste, the roving tongue of the gourmet reaches for the overseas taste and varieties made available through the interchange of economies.

Eating is not merely an act in pursuit of survival but a great art indeed. When people eat one can certainly discern in them their character, culture, class, upbringing, and their family backgrounds. Some people can approach a delicate Masala Dosa like a warlord and tear it into ungainly bits and pieces so that the onlooker might not feel like eating anything for some days after that or even bring out! Still others can make the heady repast of smoked bacon and steak rounded off with a dash of a marmalade toast look so appealing that it could make mouths water!  The children’s writer, Enid Blyton, in her adventure stories takes so much pleasure in describing the taste and smells of food charming and most endearing to her readers. Even Tolstoy and Dostoevsky would like to describe the meals of their characters quite sumptuously.  Yet other instances are writers like Somerset Maugham ,H E Bates, Raja Rao and R.K. Narayan. The Indian writer in Malayalam O.V.Vijayan who has authored such magical-realistic works as The Saga of Khasak and other immortal works of fiction, towards the end of his life created a work of different sensibility like the Dharmapuranam, wherein he specifically resorted to the use of epithets of defecation and urination alongside the finer tastes of eating and relishing. The intention of course was to shock the readers from their complacent non-committed political positions.  However, the legacy of the culinary and the gourmet’s aesthetic are so wide and large indeed and spreads across cultures and continents.

Food easily becomes a habit with most people that they tend to uphold the maxim of eat to live as something sacred and inviolable. However, there is so much to the finer art of taste than what meets the eye at the outset. In relishing good food, the eye, the ear, the nose, the tongue and even the soul come into participation. Try eating food with your eyes closed and you will find out the difference yourself.  Similar is the case with the sense of smell.  Small wonder that food appears tasteless to one who suffers from a bad cold.

In the aesthetic canon of Classical Indian art discourses among the sixty four arts equal importance is set apart for the finer art of taste in terms of cookery. However it is not merely in making delicacies but also in partaking of these in the right manner does the culinary delight lie. A good cook is also a gourmet.

For the most the Northern part of India is a wheat growing belt while the South produces lot of rice—this accounts for the staple food habits of the people as well.  South Indians use a lot of rice in their cooking while the north Indians resort to wheat and maize. This does not necessarily mean that people of the north do not relish Idlis and Dosas nor that the south Indians do not dote on Pooris, Chappathis and Paranthas. In most households people eat three meals a day. Lunch is the heaviest usually. And the south Indian rice repast is a whole meal and an art in itself in its highest form.

Kerala Brahmins are especially well-known for their gourmet tastes and there are innumerable tales revolving round the feudal Brahmin often depicted with his large pot-belly—a creature of caricature no doubt! Nevertheless the Kerala Brahmin is also credited with a highly evolved sense of taste in almost all the finer arts mentioned. There is this repartee of a Namboothiri who was specially tested by a certain King: he had been treated to a large and sumptuous meal upon completion of which he remarked blissfully that he was so full that he could eat no more! The clever King then slyly informed him that there was a special course of Palada Pradaman (a sweet rice pudding) to follow. The Nambothiri in his characteristic sparkle of wit informed the king that when the bedecked elephant arrives the crowd for all its mass makes way for it somehow!

The Chinese are said to have an equally highly evolved sense of taste. Much before Europe’s geographical explorations began, the Chinese had sailed the vast oceans and landed in all the continents. The southwest coast of Kerala likewise had had contact with the Chinese from a long time ago. Among the innumerable tales of travelers from overseas there is this one about a Chinese traveler who was shipwrecked near the south west coast and he sought asylum in a poor villager’s home. The Malayalee couple although extremely poor took good care of the man who happened to be a trader, and upon getting well, while he bade adieu to them he asked whether he could leave behind some of the big jars that he had brought his wares in (which were washed ashore along with the wreck) and which he could collect later when he could sail back in a new ship eventually. He explained that the sealed jars contained pickled tender-mangoes. The couple agreed and the Chinese sailor was on his way. After many days when they were in dire straits and couldn’t find anything to eat, the man of the house thinking that he could help themselves to a few bits of pickled mangoes from the Chinese pot opened one and thrust his hand in. Very much to his surprise what he drew out was not mangoes but gold coins!  The pot held gold coins! He made use of a few coins and tided over their difficult times. Eventually their house prospered and they became quite well off. It was years later that the Chinese came back to retrieve his pots.  The man of the house returned all the pots and told the whole story of how he helped himself to a few coins from one of the pots. He also added that he had replaced what he had taken. The Chinese traveler was quite taken aback by the honesty of the people of the household and as a token of his gratitude he gifted some of the pots to them and was on his way soon. The honest man’s house prospered and became quite well-off.  Many years afterwards when they had finished all the gold coins they used the Chinese pots for pickling tender mangoes.  The taste of these mangoes has gone down into Kerala’s legends and history.  Even to this day people talk of the heavenly taste of the tender mangoes pickled in the Kodan Bharani of Pandan Parambu! (One of the Chinese pots had a twisted mouth and hence came to be known as Kodan (Crooked) Bharani)

There are a million tales of this kind regarding the finer art of taste. Over the centuries this art too has evolved with the human beings and their history.

Let me conclude with another relating to the same series of the Chinese pots. A certain king overheard one Brahmin talking to another while partaking of the feast given to them that the meal would have tasted far better had there been a tiny morsel of tender mango pickle from the famed Kodan Bharani of Pandan Paramabu!   The King sent his courtiers forth to search for the legendary mango pickles far and wide.  Eventually they traced the Chinese pots and fetched the tender mangoes which were served alongside the other stuff at the feast the next year.  The king was a casual observer this year too and then the very same Brahman exclaimed: Wow! Now the feast is complete! We have here the legendary tender mangoes too! The king was very pleased and rewarded the Brahmin suitably for his rich taste buds that could detect such finer tastes.

If beauty is in the eyes of the beholder then taste is in the tongue of the relisher. In our blind process of ultra-fast  development and globalization where in we hasten to eat like the American in the fast-food style joints of MacDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chickens, what we are tragically laying aside are our unique taste buds which could distinguish fine and finer tastes. In a globalised village of the future technology there could be but one master taste which everyone would have to relish. Where is fled the glory and the taste of yore!

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