Food…is one common factor across cultures that brings people together. And one doesn’t need to be a connoisseur of food to realise how important a role food plays in our life. People across the world bond over lunches and dinners. The conversations start flowing just as the food and drinks start flowing. Some people eat to live while others live to eat. But, nonetheless, food is important to both the categories of people. It gives people a reason to socialize and celebrate.
The topography of a place influences the food culture greatly. It’s not uncommon to see how the palate, the flavours, the spices and the preferences change as you travel the length and breadth of this country alone. But what remains constant is an Indian’s passion for food, no matter what part of the country he belongs to. In India, food is of supreme significance. Food is one indulgence Indians don’t feel guilty about. Indians like…er…love eating and they love feeding. Food is often a metric of host’s generosity in India. And for Indians, guests are really God-like, aren’t they? Atithi devo bhava.
Recently, my family and I were invited to a relative’s place for dinner. The occasion was …ummm…nothing special. Indians don’t need special occasions to call each other over for dinner. I had had a very busy day at work, followed by a rigorous hour at gym. I was tired to the core and wanted nothing more than to curl up with a book and hit the bed early. I almost decided to skip the celebration. But on everyone’s insistence I decided to tag along. I didn’t want a you-never-come-with-us-dialogue with mom.
We reached their home, one hour after the designated time. In India, no one ever goes to any occasion on time. Even the hosts don’t expect you on time. If you ever decide to show up at the decided time, be sure to catch the host in an awkward moment, dressed in old rags rushing through last minute preparations.
As we rang the doorbell, auntiji came rushing to usher us in. She embraced me in a bear hug so tight that her big locket pressed again my chest and left an angry red mark. After exchanging the pleasantries, we all settled in the warm and welcoming living room. Delicious aroma was wafting through the air and it made my stomach grumble. I was so hungry, I couln’t concentrate on the talks and couldn’t wait for dinner. Auntiji brought in tall glasses of lemon-ginger welcome drink, known to work up appetite. I refused saying I won’t be able to eat anything at all if I drank that much. In India, it’s almost considered rude to refuse something to eat or drink, when you are being offered. ‘You young girls, you are all very figure-conscious these days. It’s just water. Drink it. There is still some time to dinner.’ She sounded nearly admonishing. I exchanged a quick wary glance with mom and grabbed the glass grudgingly. I wanted to enjoy the delicious biryani for dinner. I didn’t want to feel full with this.
The conversation shifted to what auntiji’s daughter was up to. She had recently joined a new company where she was drawing a hefty 5-figure salary. Of course, that information was passed in a very subtle-matter-of-fact manner. Like it was the most obvious thing to mention. Her daughter, that is my cousin, looked up at me and her face looked flushed with embarrassment. Auntiji didn’t waste any time in getting updates on what was happening in my life, and didn’t for a second hesitate in asking how much money I made. Since everyone was bragging, I made no bones about announcing I was going to be promoted. And I was glad she let the topic pass, without getting in to the details of my CTC. She exchanged a quick word with uncleji, ‘…something something…her son MBA…something…something.’ She opened her mouth to say something to my mom but before the discussion about my marriage or her daughter’s marriage could start, I intervened. “Aunty, the food smells delicious, and I can’t wait to eat.” I breathed a deep sigh. My cousin, also of marriageable age, looked relieved.
The dinner was a lavish feast. I think auntyji had made enough food to feed 20 people. The delicious dishes were spread out on the table. 2 kinds of vegetables, 2 kinds of mithai (sweets), Rotis, salads, raita, Dal, 2 kinds of namkeen (salty snacks), pickles, papads, curd, buttermilk and…biryani. We all gathered around the table. Auntyji heaped my plate with big ladle full of both the kinds of vegetable and generous portions of everything else. I tried to cover my plate with my hands, but she pushed my hands away to serve some more. “I‘d like some biryani,” I said. “Later, after you finish this,” she said. My meek protests fell on deaf ears. I wanted to save my appetite for biryani. But I wasn’t allowed to skip any item. A hospitable Indian host will make sure that the guest is fed well. It is almost customary for the guest to refuse more helpings of food and the host to insist on at least one more helping. ‘You young girls nibble on your food like toddlers. You need to put on some weight. You will need all the health and strength in the world to deliver a baby someday.’ Suddenly all the eyes turned in my direction, but surprisingly, no one felt that anything out of ordinary was just spoken. I was tongue-tied and my face was as red as red could me. I met my cousin’s eyes once again and we both ducked our heads to look down on to our plates.
No doubt the food was sumptuous, but I was so full that even the thought of biryani didn’t sound exciting. The pace of eating had come down considerably. As I was talking to my cousin, my head was turned in her direction. I didn’t realise when auntiji heaped my plate with biryani. When I turned back to my plate, my mouth was left hanging open. “Auntiji, I cant eat that much.’ “But you love biryani, eat slowly, there is no rush.”
My favourite biryani felt like a punishment. I was so full that I felt I wouldn’t be able to eat a bite more without throwing up. I looked at my dad, even he was struggling with his food. Mom was lost in banter with devil-ji. How I managed to finish that heap, only I know. It required insurmountable amount of determination and just-do-it attitude. But, it put me off biryani for life.
Just as I settled back on couch, barely able to register what was happening around me, auntiji flowed in fat glasses of sitafhal (custard apple) milkshake with ice-cream. I knew better than to protest by now. I asked, “Can you perhaps have this packed aunty?” She gave a hearty laughter and exclaimed, “Funny girl!” She had obviously missed the point and thought I was kidding. I sat there holding the glass for as long as I remember.
I am sure most of you must have been in a situation similar to mine. Since, I really care for you my readers; I thought I will not let you find yourself in such a soup ever. Hence, I am sharing following tips with you. These might be handy whenever you are invited over for such big Indian feasts:
- If your host has a reputation for being extra generous (meaning extra loving in India), fast at least a day before the feast.
- Don’t praise the dishes too much, even if you really liked them; that will lead to magical appearance of more portions on your plate when you are found looking away.
- Carry an empty polythene bag in your purse. You can put away all the extra food here when the host is not looking and use that food later next day for lunch. It is advisable to microwave it for 20 seconds.
- Do 2 hours of rigorous cardio training before the designated feast time as this will make you as hungry as a dinosaur.
- Don’t refuse anything upfront, this is not taken kindly and the host will assume this to be a personal insult. Find alternative ways of avoiding.
- When the neighbouring person is engrossed in talking, smartly pass your extra food on to his plate. Make sure you look composed and innocent enough. He might not even really realise what you did.
- If you have absolutely made up your mind to not over-eat, be sure to carry a medical prescription that says suffering from diarrhoea to show it to your host. And pray that the host doesn’t come back to you with some ghar-ka-nuska (home made remedy).
- Make sure you are as generous as the host when you call them over to yours. This might be your chance for settling scores. After all, poison kills poison.