Sunday, June 16, 2024

Mapping India with Zac O’ Yeah’s palette

Disclaimer: You really do not have to be a foodie to enjoy Zac O’ Yeah’s ‘Digesting India: A Travel Writer’s Sub-Continental Adventures With The Tummy: A Memoir A La Carte’ (Speaking Tiger).

Even as it treads the diverse Indian food landscape – unheard of dishes and unique food habits, this Scandinavian-born author, settled in Bangalore, who has been exploring the sub-continent for over three decades now never ceases to surprise himself, and the reader with the everyday magic of India.

This time, he discovers it through food – as he journeys the country through the pleasures of drinking beer in Bengaluru, toddy in Kerala, eating boiled vegetables and masala-less curries in Sevagram, the Mahatma’s ashram in Maharashtra, or the rich ‘lal maas’ in royal Rajasthan.

The writer, who has 15 books including several fiction and non-fiction bestsellers to his credit, tells IANS that even before the Pandemic struck, he had been thinking of donating his boots to a museum considering he had been travel-writing for 25 years.

“When I started out in the previous millennium, one carried a portable, non-electrified typewriter in the backpack and sent stories by post to the magazines, it was a very Hemingway lifestyle still in the 1900s. Today, it is all about social media handles and hand sanitisers, and nobody swills gin and tonic for anti-malarial protection anymore.”

Feeling like a “dinosaur”, he thought it was time to focus on writing about history, rather than travel because that’s where dinosaurs belong. “I think when the pandemic came, lots of people found reasons to rethink their lives and what they value about being on this planet. I thought if I cannot go forward right now, it would be the perfect time to look backward instead. So, what initially looked like the end of my career, actually turned out to be the beginning. And this book is a result of that. So more than just a book about the best food you can eat in India, it’s existential philosophy in an enjoyable and adventurous format.”

Though it is a memoir, he did, during gaps in the lockdowns, revisit some favourite places, to see how they fared, however, the book is largely based on past experience as he mostly focuses on old and time-tested restaurants that have survived, in many cases, for over a hundred years and are likely to remain relevant for centuries to come.

“And many of the Indian cuisines I explore are thousands of years old. That’s where the research comes in, one has to check old sources – like say Sangam poetry to see what was written about millets in their poems, for example, and it actually gives a very interesting perspective considering that 2023 has been declared the year of millets, which is considered to be a power food that can save the world today, while in fact it was considered a royal food already then in ancient India. In between, humans perhaps lost sight of millets though in the south Karnataka region, millets never ceased to be relevant. I have been a great fan of ragimudde for decades, ever since I was introduced to it at a roadside shack around 2001. Best food ever.”

This founder-director of Bangalore’s ‘World-Famous Semi-Deluxe Writing Programme’, the first semi-professional writing school in India whose recent works include the novel ‘Tropical Detective’ and the travelogue ‘A Walk Through Barygaza’ says that writing about Indian food is a great challenge, and a very interesting one. Adding that in the past three decades, he has learned to appreciate the complexity of Indian food as this country is like an endless ocean of very different culinary philosophies.

“In South, food is very rice-based, even rotis are made of rice such as the lovely akki roti I had for lunch yesterday, then you go north and suddenly you are tempted by tandoori naans and aloo parathas, and if there’s rice at all on the table it will usually be in the form of mutton biryani. In the book I describe overland journeys and how just by moving from one town to the next, maybe only an hour away, you find yourself negotiating an entirely different food culture.”

Ask him if anything like ‘Indian food’ exists, and he is quick to assert that one cannot speak of an ‘Indian food’ but it should always be rephrased as the ‘foods of India’ which reflects the diversity of Indian culture in general. Adding that while in the West they think they know what Indian food is – tandoori chicken and palak paneer, which could probably be called the national dishes of Sweden considering how people in his home country love that classic dhaba combo, he says, here in India the scene is way more fascinating.

“Once I was besotted by aloo bonda, then my love became vada-sambhar, then I got a passion for mackerel recheado, then grew a life-long love for ragimudde, in between I had an affair with Bihari litti-chokha, and I also could not resist ker-sangri in Rajasthan, then I fell for pandi kari, and more recently I’ve been completely bewildered by the tribal foods of the Northeast and how they cook there – I even went to stay with a lady in Garohills last year and was her kitchen helper in order to understand how she cooked their typical dishes, like different kinds of dried fish. But when it boils down to what it boils down to, I think the best food in the world is probably dal-roti. When one just needs to eat well, like if you’re on a long trek in the Himalayas, nothing beats a bowl of dal and hot rotis. Having said that, I also think UNESCO should grant world heritage status to masala dosa and Udupi.”

As the conversation veers towards the fact that the viewpoint of an ‘outsider’ is mostly enriching, he remembers a chat with psychoanalyst, Sudhir Kakar, who made him realise that it is only when one goes abroad and stays outside one’s home country for some time, that one begins to understand one’s country.

“When one is where one is, he/she takes everything around for granted. So it is travel that broadens one’s vision. This is why Gandhi, to take one example which I discuss in my book, became the Mahatma – he went abroad in his late teens and returned when he was a successful professional, and he was able to see then what needed to be done to end colonialism. Of course, that’s to slightly simplify things, as it took until 1947 to achieve that, and many others contributed too, but his experiences from abroad were definitely crucial. And it also changed his perspectives on Indian food habits too. So, the insider-outsider vision can be very useful as it makes one examine things rather than take them for granted. And that’s the beauty of travel, you go somewhere and you become more aware of yourself – if you are mindful enough to notice the possibility. And once you become aware of yourself, you become aware of many other things that you may have been blind to before.”

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