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Table togetherness: Communal dining in India

International food events try to nudge Indians towards communal dining at restaurants.

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Last Updated: Dec 21, 2019, 10.40 PM IST
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"They eat not willingly with us,” laments Sir Thomas Roe in The Embassy of Sir Thomas Roe to The Court of The Great Mogul, 1615-1619. It’s a complaint whose poignancy resonates with us, 400 years later.

As the ambassador of James I in the court of Jahangir, Roe’s primary task was to get trade concessions for the English East India Company. History tells us that he grew to be a favourite of Jahangir, who quizzed him, among other things, on distilled spirits popular in Europe at the time. For all this familiarity, Roe found it impossible to get a dinner invitation from the emperor — or even from his courtiers. Nobody was willing to eat with a firang, he said.

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Communal dining in India has always been fraught with complexities. On the one hand, the dastarkhwan was meant to promote close bonding between members of a family or a community. However, it was also an exercise in exclusion, where those belonging to different social groups, castes or classes could not eat together.

Can communal dining work in restaurants in India? For a while, restaurants, cafes and bars have been trying to promote the idea of shared tables in cities like Delhi and Mumbai. Though millennials are far more open to the idea of food as a shared social experience, it has had limited success in the country so far. In Delhi, for instance, it is still rather difficult to sit at a bar and converse with a stranger. In most Indian cities, despite pop-ups with shared tables or coworking spaces that double as cafes, dining is far more insular than in many global cities. However, experiences aided by social media and technology may eventually nudge consumers to shake off an old exclusivist culture.

At the Grand Gelinaz! Shuffle, a worldwide food event which took place globally early in December, 148 chefs from 38 countries swapped recipes for an eight-course menu. Two Indian chefs —Prateek Sadhu of Masque and Thomas Zacharias of The Bombay Canteen — participated in it.

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While Sadhu did an Indianised version of Italian recipes from a restaurant in Hong Kong, his own recipes went to a one Michelin star restaurant in Paris, which tried to recreate pani puri and more in its own way. If the event was meant for chefs to have fun and break boundaries, as the YouTube videos put up by the restaurants suggest, for diners, too, this was an exercise in breaking conventions and preconceived notions about haute dining. Says Sadhu: “It was a fun experiment. You get a matrix of recipes from any of the participating restaurants and then you rework them. They are not proper recipes with measurements, just ideas of dishes or a list of ingredients, so that chefs are free to experiment.” Though this is a prestigious event with top chefs participating, customers were given specific instructions. “Don’t go mooning around like a prima donna just because you managed to secure yourself a ticket for the Gelinaz gig,” said the website. It went on: “Don’t ask for extra salt or tabasco sauce: eat your greens the way they are and shut up. Use instead your breath to be chatty-chatty and flirt with your neighbour. This is a communal sitting operation, a high promiscuity thing.”

How did this go down with Indian customers? According to Sadhu, Masque had a few communal tables to facilitate conversation between courses. “There were many regulars and quite a few firsttime visitors, including solo diners and those who had come down from other cities. We saw them interact and talk to each other about the food… that was the point of it,” says Sadhu.

Another experiment that I participated in recently was a unique 3-D streaming of a film called Le Petit Chef, on plates at a long communal table at The Grand Hyatt, Mumbai. Part of a global experiment, these videos have been created by the Belgian company Skullmapping which projects the movie on dinner plates.

Le Petit Chef, “the world’s smallest chef”, as he calls himself, goes on culinary expeditions across the Silk Route in one of the films. In another, the fictional chef plates a six-course meal —catching fish, foraging, grilling virtually — even as the same food, or interpretations of it, is dished out in the real world.

One of the early dining experiments was conducted to resounding success in Napa Valley by chefs from the Culinary Institute of America. One of the key ideas behind the experiment is interaction: between the diner and the food as well as between disparate diners, who share the novelty of the experience. As we step into the 2020s, newer ways of food experiences — sans barriers — beckon us.

The writer looks at food and culinary traditions.
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this column are that of the writer. The facts and opinions expressed here do not reflect the views of www.economictimes.com.)
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