India’s fussy politicians a challenge for western diplomatic chefs
MUMBAI: A week before Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the US, the Indian and Indian-American media were already packing in stories about it. Meanwhile, mainstream American media had barely noticed he was coming, but a Washington Post blog had picked up on the peculiar problem he posed for the White House: how were they to do the usual formal dinner for a man on a strict fast?
This seems to be a specialty of Indian politicians. Many have personal dietary or restrictions imposed by their religion, and the chefs at the White House and similar places are used to dealing with them.
For example, a lot of salmon is served at these events, fish conveniently passes halal and kosher requirements and has a healthy reputation while salmon in particular seems luxurious enough and can be served largely boneless to prevent fears of the chief guest choking.
But Indian politicians appear to stump even the most experienced diplomatic chefs, and do it in a way that makes everyone else uncomfortable.
Perhaps it is a subtle way to score political points, and their food choices, or non-choices, do tend to cast them in a virtuous, if eccentric light. It certainly makes for memorable media moments, though actual long-term benefits might be questionable.
The practice really started with Mahatma Gandhi, though the British had long been aware of the pitfalls of political dining in India, and had learned to have separate cooks for different communities. Gandhi actually simplified matters by making his own food arrangements, which were often in the hands of Mirabehn, the Englishwoman who was originally Madeleine Slade. For Gandhi she was just a useful helper, but some racist Englishmen saw a white woman waiting on an Indian as deliberate provocation.
Lord Irwin, the viceroy, didn’t feel this way when, during the Gandhi-Irwin talks in 1931, she was told to bring Gandhi’s food to the viceroy’s lodge (now Rashtrapati Bhavan) so they didn’t have to break the talks to eat. In her autobiography, `The Spirit’s Pilgrimage’, she recalled that in those days his diet was mostly dates and goat’s milk, which she quickly packed along with the metal jail utensils that he had made a point of continuing to use.
On reaching the palace she was ushered into the viceroy’s huge study where, she says, he greeted her with perfect friendliness.The room had a fitted carpet and she didn’t want to risk spilling milk on it, but luckily she noticed a corner that was bare. She opened her basket there and poured the hot milk over the dates and gave it to Gandhi to eat.
The viceroy was intrigued and asked what it was: “`The Prophet’s food,’ said Bapu with a smile.” Irwin was a devout Christian and would have got the allusion to the Middle East, but could he also have got a perhaps joking reference by Gandhi’s own status?
The talks were followed by the Round Table conference for which Gandhi went to Europe. The food challenge this posed revolved around goats since Gandhi only drank their milk. It was almost the only protein he took so any shortfall soon had negative effects. Taking a goat on the ship to Europe was no problem, but it became harder once they got to Italy and took a train from there. At Paris, for example, Mirabehn recalled that a beautiful white goat had been provided, but the crowds that had come to see Gandhi were so great she couldn’t make her way to the goat.
Gandhi’s dietary needs didn’t affect his work. But this may not have been the case with Morarji Desai. The problem was not just that Desai had a very restricted diet, but that he tried putting restrictions on others as well. MO Matthai, Jawaharlal Nehru’s assistant, recalled how Desai tried to stop Delhi’s embassies from serving alcohol, which almost caused a diplomatic incident since embassies are technically not under the jurisdiction of the country they are in.
But MV Kamath, the journalist, recalled that the real problem came with a dinner for Richard Nixon. In the early 1960s, before he was president of the US, Nixon had come to Delhi and was met by Desai, then a senior minister in Nehru’s government. But Nixon was miffed at what he felt was “a meagre reception”, with only vegetarian food and no alcohol, a particular hardship for him. When he went to Pakistan after that and was treated lavishly, it fixed his dislike for India and preference for Pakistan, which would cause huge problems when the Bangladesh crisis broke out.
But the real problem came after Desai became PM in the Janata government and gave an interview to the British journal, the Spectator, where he admitted to following a health regimen of drinking a glass of his urine every day. After that it was the only thing the western media wanted to talk about, and it didn’t help that Desai was quite keen to promote urine therapy. Kamath, who was the Times of India’s Washington correspondent at the time, moaned that any attempt to convey the Indian government’s policy was wasted in talking about urine therapy.
When the PM went abroad, jokes about urine therapy followed. Luckily President Jimmy Carter knew better than to refer to them when he hosted Desai, and toasted him with a glass of plain water, rather than the usual wine. The meal was referred to as a Working Dinner, perhaps to justify its simplicity. Much to the relief of diplomats, both Indian and those of the host countries, India’s other prime ministers have not posed such problems. Indira Gandhi seems to have liked most foods and in a visit during PV Narasimha Rao’s time, the German Chancellor Helmut Kohl recalled sending her German sausages, for which he got a letter of thanks that, tragically, he only got tragically, he only got two days after her assassination.
The previous BJP PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee was also happy to eat varied foods. On a visit to Cambodia, King Norodom Sihanouk, another food lover, served an Indian banquet with prawn curry and chicken tikka, for which he flew in chefs from Singapore and personally tried it all beforehand (one gets the impression the k ing used the visit as a way to indulge in Indian food!) At a dinner for Vajpayee thrown by President Bill Clinton, the White House kitchen, doubtless happy to put Desai’s disappointments behind them, tried Indo-American fusion with dishes such as chicken smoked in Darjeeling tea.
前人民党总理A．B．瓦杰帕伊(第11任印度总理）也喜欢吃各种食品。一次出访柬埔寨，诺罗埻．西哈努克亲王，另一位美食爱好者，举办了一次印度风味的宴会，摆上了咖喱对虾和鸡块，为此他从新加坡空运来厨师，並预先尝了个遍（给人的印象是这位亲王利用这次访问大饱印度美食口福！）在一次克林顿为瓦杰帕伊举办的宴会上，白宮厨房，毫无疑问很乐意忘却德赛的扫兴，试着做了印 – 美结合的风味菜肴，比如用大吉岭红茶（产于印度大吉岭）熏制的鸡肉。
The last PM, Manmohan Singh, was also a frugal eater, but didn’t impose his discipline on others. A dinner thrown for him by President George Bush in 2005 featured the inevitable fish (pan-roasted Halibut) with basmati rice as the one Indian accented accompaniment. The dessert though featured chocolate lotuses to eat with ice cream and one wonders what Singh made of this edible symbol of the opposing party.Perhaps it is just as well for the White House that PM Modi’s water diet will prevent even an inadvertent food faux pas like this from being served.
Chills Abraham (USA)
Quirky? 1. We are PURE… vegetarians.. 2. I am vegetarian on Tuesdays and Thursdays 3. I do fasting every alternative Saturdays or during odd (opposite of even) weeks. 4. Beef strictly no. (but in USA and abroad, animals are not holy) 5. Please ensure proper tadka. 6. Do you have ghee? Do you have curd? Do you have Salaaadh? Do you have paan? 7. Something must be there.. even beer will do.
古怪？1. 我们是纯粹的…素食者… 2．我每逢周二、周四吃素 3. 我隔周或在单（非双数）周周六禁食。4. 严禁牛肉（但在美国或海外，动物並非圣物）5. 务保正确回锅爆香。6）有（印度）酥油（印度液态奶油）吗？有酸奶吗？…
Hemant Khanna (Mumbai(Bombay))
Maybe western chefs are not smart enough – Indian chefs wouldn’t be complaining. Practice of ones religious beliefs is paramount.
可能西方厨师不够精明 – 印度厨子不会抱怨。践行个人宗教信仰至高无上。
Actually Western chefs have less idea of India’s diverse food habits. One of my friend who is a vegetarian once ordered a Veg Sandwich in an US food outlet just outside his office. To his utter annoyance the guy serving the sandwich garnished it with Egg Mayonnaise before serving, totally unaware of the vegan food habits.
Sameer Rai (Unknown)
Wonderful article and it is not politician – even if as a common man we are invited by westerners they are really stressed on what to offer in the food…… luckily Indian cuisine is famous across the globe so no hassles now 🙂
好文章。而且不光是政客 – 即使作为普通人当我们受西人邀请时，他们都为请吃什么而烦心…幸好印度饭菜闻名全球，所以现在不用烦心了
Serving vegetarians like Modi should be the easiest thing on earth. The rule is : No fish, no meat, no chicken and no egg. Vegetables only.