Pushpesh Pant / Food expert. [Showkat Shafi/Al Jazeera]
For 40 years, food historian Pushpesh Pant has dedicated himself to the questions of how Indians used to eat and how they eat today [Showkat Shafi/Al Jazeera]

The chronicler of Indian food

For 40 years, food historian Pushpesh Pant has popularised ancient Indian food culture and inspired contemporary chefs.

Delhi, India – It is a winter afternoon and the food historian Dr Pushpesh Pant, 69, is sunning himself on the lawns of the India International Centre, one of his favourite cultural haunts since he first arrived in Delhi in the 1960s.

Pant has been talking rapidly from behind his fine white beard for a long time now, ruminating on the grand passion of his life, and, as far as he can tell, the primary theme of everyone else’s: food.

He wears his knowledge lightly, embellishing his theme with anecdotes about statesmen and cooks, royalty and artists – the gleanings of a social and peripatetic life spent talking, tasting, and travelling.

To be fussy about food, in Pant’s view, is irrefutable evidence that one is serious about life. He tells a story to illustrate his point:

“The great musician Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan was invited to sing somewhere. His hosts, however, were vegetarian and for three days he was made to eat vegetarian food. When the time came to perform, he did sing, but not in such a way as to thrill anybody.

“Afterwards, his hosts came up to him and said, ‘Ustadji, we had heard such great things about the power of your voice. That sometimes you sit by the sea to practise your alaap and you drown out even the roaring of the waves. Then what happened today?’ The Ustad paused for a moment and then replied, ‘Ey khaana toh ey gaana (For food like this, music like this).'”

The human pursuit of eating, and of making this experience pleasurable within the limits afforded by time, money and energy is, to Pant, the most characteristic activity of our species.

Eating, he explains, consumes “all five senses, just like sex does, and is marked by the same cycle of anticipation, ecstatic absorption and satiation, only this cycle is a much more frequent one”.

For four decades, Pant has dedicated himself to the questions of how Indians used to eat and how they eat today, to food as a key to understanding Indian history and geography, sensuality and spirituality, gender politics and labour relations, markets and morals.

Not all his reconstructions of old Indian cuisine are confined to texts. In October, the India International Centre was the scene for one of Pant’s greatest projects – a curated dinner for 300 people featuring meals eaten by the wandering protagonists across the thousands of pages of the Mahabharata, the great Indian epic composed around 400CE.

In the past decade came international renown with the publication of India: Cookbook, a New York Times bestseller and, at 1.5kg, probably the heaviest cookbook ever to come out of India.

Unusually for someone who is not in the business of food per se, Pant is to many the face of Indian food – a charismatic and sagacious custodian ensuring the passage of two millennia and more of culinary philosophy and practice into the 21st century with all its pleasures undiminished.

An entire generation of Indian chefs, at home and abroad, credit him with opening their eyes to the richness and strategic possibilities of Indian cooking traditions, making him the catalyst for a renaissance of Indian food the world over. For Atul Kochhar, the Indian Michelin-star chef of Benares restaurant in London, it was Pant who “brought the facts and theories of old India and its food to my generation of chefs” and “is still a huge hero for me”.

India has no dearth of food experts, but there is something unique about Pant’s combination of textual scholarship, encyclopaedic historical range, passionate advocacy, and infectious appetite for both food and its lore. Whether in person, on television, or on the page, his verbal sallies radiate a contagious pleasure in life’s richness and variety, and are narrated in an impish manner that frequently provokes listeners (though never himself) to laughter.

The DNA of taste

Pant’s career as a food expert had, depending on your point of view, an early or a late start.

He was born and grew up in the small town of Mukteshwar in the Himalayan foothills, in the Kumaon region. His father was a physician. His mother, a housewife, was a brilliant student, fluent in several languages, who at one point envisaged a career as a “reverse translator of lost Sanskrit texts that now only existed in old translations into Tibetan”. Having lived in many parts of India, she brought a great facility and versatility to the household’s kitchen.

“As a child,” Pant remembers, “we would eat food from our part of the world one day, that from Bengal [in east India] the next, something from Karnataka [in the southwest] the day after. I grew up thinking that all this was my food and was only disabused of this notion when I came to Delhi for higher studies, stayed at a hostel, and found the north Indians grumbling because dinner was ‘Madrasi’, or those used to eating rice at every meal unable to take rotis [an Indian bread].”

Since then, Pant has been interested in the dialogue between what he calls “the DNA of taste” and “the acquisition of taste” – the intrinsic character of any person’s palate, the food they were exposed to as children, and then the nature of the circumstances that led them to adapt, explore, innovate.

This also explains Pant’s particular interest in the eating habits of Indian classical musicians of yesteryear, gastronomic cross-pollinators who were patronised by royal and rich patrons and travelled to perform, often with their own cooks. Picking up new food habits on their travels, they would also leave behind traces of their own “DNA of taste”; they thought deeply about food, and saw a close connection between what they ate and how they performed.

At university, Pant chose to pursue a Bachelor of Arts in Sanskrit – a choice that had much to do with his early familiarity with the language instilled by his mother. This was later to prove invaluable as a base for reading ancient Indian treatises on food. He went on to a doctorate in international relations, and soon after, won tenure as a professor of international relations at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University.

This was to remain Pant’s “real job” until he retired four years ago in 2011. He has a life in Indian politics completely separate from his work in food.

He was once a Hindi speechwriter on the team of the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, and today his incisive observations on politics are in great demand on the daily debates on primetime in India’s feisty TV culture. 

Dr Pushpesh Pant, one of India's greatest food experts, has also been an international relations professor for much of his life [Showkat Shafi/Al Jazeera]
Dr Pushpesh Pant, one of India’s greatest food experts, has also been an international relations professor for much of his life [Showkat Shafi/Al Jazeera]

Ayurveda and Sanskrit

Crucially, for his life in food, Pant also in his 20s took three years to study for a degree in Ayurveda, the ancient Indian system of wellness and balance, health and healing. Although he had no intention yet of being a food historian, these studies were a natural prompt towards a more historically nuanced and intellectually rigorous view of eating.

Ayurveda divides the human constitution – something present at birth and not amenable to change – into variations of three basic doshas or types. Food itself is seen as being of three kinds: rajasik (stimulating), saatvik (calming) and tamasik (sedating). Disciplined eaters in the world of Ayurveda primarily eat foods that have a character opposite to their own nature in order to balance it.

Food can further be divided into six tastes or the shadrasa – sweet, sour, salty, bitter, astringent, pungent. Each must be given its due in a diet, as must the season: one tries to eat light and cooling food in summer, heavier and warming food in winter.

Ayurveda, explains Pant, is a theory of virtually bottomless gastronomic and philosophical implications, especially when lifted out of its source texts in Sanskrit. For example, the Sanskrit word for “taste”, rasa, is also the word for “emotion”, implying the continuity between food and states of mind alluded to by the musician Bade Ghulam Ali Khan in his riposte to his disappointed hosts.

Ayurveda reverberates through discussions of food across Indian history, and is a perennial reference point in Pant’s own thought.

“In recent times, it is the word yoga that has caught the imagination of the world as something that reveals the essence of India,” he says. “But to my mind rasa is just as interesting a concept.”

We are sitting now over lunch at Pant’s own sprawling two-storey home in Gurgaon, a satellite town of Delhi, where he lives with his son, daughter-in-law, grandchildren, two dogs, and a small posse of household staff, “one of whom makes shami kababs [soft patties of minced meat and pulses] as good as anything I have ever tasted,” he says.

As the maid makes fresh parathas on one tava, or griddle, and kababs on the other, Pant draws up to his nose with a ladle some of his own cooking – a rich, aromatic dish of goat (called mutton in India) cooked in its own fat and whole spices called ishtoo – its name a nod to stew.

Pant writes from a study in the basement, where his own considerable list of published books (many now out of print) lie tucked behind the doors of a wooden cupboard, even as a large library of books on Indian history, religion, politics and food, are arrayed on open bookshelves. At his desk is an iMac and a copy of the great 19th century Sanskritist Monier Monier-Williams’ Sanskrit-English Dictionary, opened to the page listing the many verbal progressions of the root-syllable ra, which means heat or light.  

Pant bemoans the falling of Sanskrit – the ur-language from which many modern Indian languages derive their roots – off the menu of compulsory education in India. The opposition to Sanskrit stems from the sense in some sections of the intelligentsia that its revival is part of a right-wing cultural project, advocated by those very people who want India to become a Hindu nation.

“People mistakenly see it as a religious or a liturgical language. But remember, this is the language in which both the Yoga Sutra and the Kama Sutra were written.”

For Pant, Sanskrit is a common inheritance for all Indians, and its texts a treasure trove of fascinating thoughts on ethics, grammar, logic, astronomy – and food.

In an essay on the temple food of India, he translates into prose a few verses from an ancient Sanskrit text, the Maitri Upanishad.

“If one does not eat his life ebbs, he becomes a non-thinker, non-seer, non-hearer, non-speaker and finally, as the vital breath departs, non-existent … Food truly is the source of this world.”

Pant, photographed in his home, tends to a dish of goat ishtoo - a name that is a nod to the word stew [Showkat Shafi/Al Jazeera]
Pant, photographed in his home, tends to a dish of goat ishtoo – a name that is a nod to the word stew [Showkat Shafi/Al Jazeera]

A collaboration

In the 1970s, Pant met J Inder Singh “Jiggs” Kalra, a food columnist and another unusual and influential figure in modern Indian food.

Kalra shared Pant’s love for heritage cooking while also possessing an entrepreneurial imagination. At this point, “Indian food” enjoyed no great cachet in five-star hotels in India, normally the sites where the great traditions would be kept alive. But all that was to change.

Over a 10-year collaboration, Pant and Kalra generated a stream of intricately researched hotel menus funded by the major Indian hotel chains (ITC, the Oberoi group), food festivals at home and abroad, cook books about the great regional cuisines of India (Punjabi, say, or Awadhi), and even India’s first cooking shows, such as Daawat, or The Banquet, on state and private television. Pant also travelled the length and breadth of the subcontinent for his travel show Zaike Ka Safar (A Journey In Search of Taste).

Kalra’s influence brought many great heritage cooks, such as Imtiaz Qureshi, out of the shadows and into the limelight, making India’s regional cuisines as charismatic as they might have been in the royal kitchens of centuries past.

It also brought Pant into close contact for the first time with the chefs of hotel and restaurant kitchens, allowing him to bring a new dimension to his food writing – to populate his work with living masters alongside the great thinkers and eaters of old.

He says  that not a day passes when he doesn’t think of Mohammad Farooq, the chef Jiggs brought to India from Dubai who “became the best-known exponent of Awadhi cuisine in India”.

“His knowledge was vast, he would recite from the scriptures as he worked; he cooked like a dream.”

For 12 years now, Pant has written a weekly food column for the Punjab-based newspaper The Tribune. His work is notable not just for the range of his preoccupations – a small meditation on the history of jackfruit in India, a panoramic survey of the sweets of the subcontinent – but for the charm and bantering comedy of the voice. In one piece about the health-giving properties of fish, we read, “Fish fingers, naughty things, do curl up and lead us astray once in a while”.

A prolific writer and speaker on ancient Indian food, Pant has written India's largest compendium of recipes and penned a food column for more than 12 years [Showkat Shafi/Al Jazeera]
A prolific writer and speaker on ancient Indian food, Pant has written India’s largest compendium of recipes and penned a food column for more than 12 years [Showkat Shafi/Al Jazeera]

Food: a social signifier

After university, Pant lived for a time in bachelor lodgings in the central Delhi neighbourhood of Rajendra Nagar, where he became aware of how powerfully food can signify not just who one is, but who one wants to be. “There, I would buy my rotis at five paise (about 10 cents) apiece from a lady, Kaushalya, who sold nothing but rotis. One day when I went to collect a batch, I saw Kaushalya’s little son eating a piece of white, sliced bread, made from maida (processed flour), almost empty of nutritional content.

“But why wasn’t he eating the same good rotis that his mother made? That’s when I understood how food could be aspirational as well. For Kaushalya, sliced bread and toast were what rich people ate, and she wanted her son not to be denied the taste of that bread of the rich, even if it was not rich bread.”

Decades later, in the 1990s, the same aspirational instinct marked the desire of India’s post-liberalisation generation to experience, as conspicuously as possible, the branded fast-food subcultures of the West.

Big Macs, thin-crust pizza, pasta, and milkshakes seemed particularly delicious just because of the sound of the words themselves and the images they conveyed of membership in a flat, globalised world.

Pant has looked on with interest, empathy, amusement and a touch of regret as Indians, long locked up inside their own country by decades of socialism and “the Hindu rate of growth”, have embraced the world, and the world has come to India.

Once a fairly provincial city foodwise, Delhi (and many other major Indian cities) today teems with cuisines from around the world, and a vast, many-layered middle class eager to sample something new every week.

On the weekends, three or four generations of family assemble in the food courts of a mall. Each member, bringing a very different imagination and history of food to the group meal, is able to order a different cuisine as they eat together.

Homogenisation of taste

Yet, underneath the plenitude and openness to new “acquisitions of taste”, Pant sees also a debilitating homogenisation of food and a constriction of awareness and memory. Many wedding feasts no longer have any traditional dishes from the communities of the newlyweds, but a generic Punjabised menu supplemented by a “chow mein” stall. Little of the food lore of old has passed down to the urban kitchen of the nuclear family. In an older, more feudal world, the cooks employed by well-off families once used to bring their own fine awareness of a particular tradition, now there is little connection between local traditions and what is served up on the table.

“The well-travelled and well-heeled Indian today,” Pant writes, “is far more discriminating when the cuisine in question is European, Chinese, Japanese, Arab or Mediterranean. The dazzling diversity of Indian inheritance remains to be discovered.”

To his mind, the threats to that “Indian inheritance” are as much internal as they are external. Like any great interpreter of a culture, Pant is in conversation a merciless, if entertaining, assailant of culinary pretension, snobbery, laziness and ignorance.

Among his pet peeves are this alliterative trio: The “tyranny of the tandoor” – the large, versatile clay oven from the northwest, used to cook both breads and meat, that has now become ubiquitous all over India; the “curse of the curry” – “that generic word for any gravy-based Indian dish introduced by the British, who couldn’t discriminate between a qorma and a salan, and now repeated idiotically by ourselves”; and “the myth of Moghlai” – the heavily spiced, rich, creamy food widely offered in Indian restaurants as the sort of food eaten by the Mughals, the Islamic dynasty that ruled over large swaths of the subcontinent before the rise of the British, when it is really a modern invention.

This trio condenses the tendency of people in a newly prosperous consumer culture to abandon narrow but deep knowledge for fuzzy concepts and blind imitation. Pant wants the Indian eater to have a wider palate and larger imagination.

At present, Pant is at work on a book to be called A History of Food in India, one that will devote itself to the place of food in the making of Indian identity and will delineate the many “zones of taste” in the Indic food universe, which for Pant – who takes great pleasure in overturning present-day categories – is not limited to the lines of the modern Indian nation-state and includes present-day Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka.

“Even the post-independence reorganisation of Indian states themselves on linguistic lines by Jawaharlal Nehru has confused us completely,” he says, “and when we think of maps for different kinds of food now, we trace out the lines of the states we learned in school.

“I want to make a different kind of food map of India, one in which zones are demarcated based on what they traditionally use as a souring agent – tamarind or kokum, dried mango or vinegar, starfruit or lime – or what is the base spice for their gravies.”

Among the many charms of India’s greatest living food connoisseur and cataloguer, this one stands out: Pushpesh Pant always sounds like his journey in food is just beginning.

Chandrahas Choudhury is a writer based in New Delhi

You can follow Chandrahas on Twitter at @Hashestweets