It is a long cherished dream for me and my husband, to undertake a sort of ‘food tour’ across the country, visiting different places to savor the local foods there. While we may have covered barely one tenth of the country, we make it a point that wherever we go, we seek out the local food there.
This actually is becoming quite difficult in recent years, because there is a kind of pan Indian taste which is taking over. All North Indian food gets subsumed into the Punjabi category (even though it is not even true Punjabi) and if you go by restaurants which sell South Indian food in North, we only seem to be living on only Idli and Dosa. Local people themselves do not advocate the local food, but guide visitor to the places, where there is more common Indian food, which according to them, the visitor will like.
For instance, on a trip to Shirdi, around the shrine, we mostly saw Andhra messes and pale imitations of Gujarati food. When we asked the cab driver to take us to a place selling Maharashtrian food, he looked a bit blank, then replied that we would not like it. When we pushed him, he took us to a small restaurant, slightly far from the shrine. The waiter was again a bit skeptical about us, offering to serve us the conventional Punjabi food, but after a lot of pushing, he finally served us some yummy baakri, thaalipith (maharashtrian breads) pitla (a gram flour based side dish) and techa (ground nut based super spicy chutney).
Similarly, when we were visiting Hampi, in North Karnataka, our cab driver point blank refused to take us to the local Khanavali. Since I have traveled a bit in the region and know about their culture, I insisted on going to one, and his reply was that Khanavali was not a place for people like us, and we should stick to the Tourism department hotels. I had to dip into my limited knowledge of North Karnataka style Kannada, in order to convince him that I knew jolly well what I was asking for.
It is perhaps because of this love to explore regional varieties of food, that around the time of Pongal/Makar Sankranti/Lohri/Uttarayan, I organized a pot luck at home with all the invitees bringing in some kind of food unique to their region. So we had undhiyu from Gujarat, Kothmir Vada from Maharashtra, different kinds of Pongal from the south, Moong Dhal Pakoda from UP, different varieties of puri and thepla, Parippu curry from Kerala and Aloo Poshto from Bengal.
It is the last two items, which revealed some cultural vignettes. When my husband encouraged my Bengali neighbor to sample the Parippu Curry from Kerala, he remarked that the dish was very similar to something made in Bengal. It underlined the fact that these two states share a lot of similarities beyond their love for Marx. Or maybe it was through all the comrade bonding that recipes got exchanged and became localized.
The last item, Aloo Poshto, is seriously something. It is potatoes cooked in Khas Khas (poppy seeds) and seasoned with mustard oil. Khas khas is fairly expensive item, and seldom used in a large scale while cooking (at least by us Tamils), but this item was fairly dripping in it. When I spoke to the provider of the item later, I remarked that this was a really expensive item to cook. To which he explained that it was not the case traditionally. Large parts of Bihar and Bengal used to or were forced to cultivate poppy to feed the needs of the British run opium factories back in the eighteenth century. So Aloo poshto or even plain Poshto in mustard oil was a very logical food for many peasants. They simply ate what they grew. Now that poppy seed production is highly regulated, this item has become practically unattainable for many.
I hope India retains its diverse food and the stories that go with them, at least long enough for me to finish my food tour. And I hope that in places I visit in future, localites are not diffident about their cuisine but push us to eat it with pride.