Food: The Spirit of Being Truly Independent

By Madhulika Dash

On the eve of India’s 72nd Independence Day, Chef Ashish Bhasin looks at the spirit of freedom – and the single element that has defined it for centuries: Food.

72 years of Independence. And quizzically, for the past five decades our celebration of one of the most important event in the country’s history is a bevy of tri-coloured sweets and savouries. But ever wondered whether a tricolour dish is indeed a true celebration of freedom? Is that the best way to celebrate a day that gave us the opportunity to live, love and express freely?

For me, as a chef, it isn’t. Freedom is about going border-less, about experiencing different cultures, cuisine, perspective and then bringing it altogether to create something unique - a masterpiece, as they say. Or as the famous actor Shah Rukh Khan spelled it in Chak de India, “Mujhe states ka naam na toh sunai deta hai na dikhai”.

And as a chef that is what freedom means to me when it comes to our cuisine – it is not about the state, the sub cuisine or that even a community, it is about what makes Indian cuisine, one of the finest, traditional and yet most relevant to today’s time. Which begets the question: What really is Indian food? Is it limited to the butter chicken, dal makhana and naan as the world knows? Don’t get me wrong, as a proud North Indian, I am a huge fan of a well done butter chicken served accompanied with dal makhani, butter naan and samosa and jalebi just to up the experience, but Indian food is way more than that. It is a sum total of 26 different states and their sub communities – and a bit more.

It is much more than the single popular dish that we identify most Indian cuisine with: Kashmiri with roganjosh and gustaba; Rajasthani with laal maas, gatta curry and dal bati churma (which is a modern interpretation to the dal batti chutney); and the entire South of India dedicated to the likes of idli-dosa and sambhar, which are but only the starters.

But is this all we need to take pride on? Not really. If we look at the most recent history, most of our food habits were primarily designed by community who chose India their home and became the first of their breed restauranteurs doling out what they derived as an interesting amalgamation of their own food culture, local ingredients and their sensibility towards the environment. The stunning Parsi cuisine is one fine example of how culinary freedom led to the birth of a food culture that became popular beyond the community. Likewise with the North Indian chaats. What we claim to be ours was evolved by the North frontier settlers who made India home. Had it not been their ingenuity, we would have never known of a dish called Butter Chicken.

In fact, the Indian Chinese is by far the best example of culinary freedom and how it works in instilling the spirit among others. One community that seems to have practiced the real spirit of Independence are the Marwaris. A lot of chaats that we easily recognize (and take to) is courtesy the culinary ingenuity of this community that not only travelled far miles but also took their food culture to these regions and then tweaked it.

Result: Courtesy them, we have some of the most mind-blowing sweets and savouries that over the years have become subject of interest and brilliant culinary innovation. Not to forget hallmarks of slow food and sustainability. As a chef who has continued being charmed/surprised even bewildered by the different manner food and food culture has worked to shape us today, it is but given to feel the need to bring in those little gems to the fore.
After all, being “free” is also the ability to enjoy the new with the old. And what more delicious a way to do so than food. Indian food!