Thursday, December 5, 2013

Marla and me: Day 1

It is no wonder that Merlyn and I chose the same topic in our task of 'Discovering the city of Bhuj' on the first day of the Winter Institute. Our topic was 'exploring culture through food', and we were aiming to understand the city through its traditional and not so traditional cuisines. Sandeep ji, the CEO of Hunnarshaala, had asked us to get a feel of the city in a way that we may be able to grasp the most- by talking to people. We divided ourselves into groups of two and headed out to understand heritage, economy, administration, culture, perspectives of workers, women, children, NGO officials, etc.

Merlyn and I decided that we will begin by going to the most commonplace areas for food that would give a taste of what Bhuj was all about. We were also keen on understanding the change in the Kutchi food through the years, and if there were patterns that would tell us some interesting stories. Being foodies ourselves, we were also keen on exploring the unique flavors of this city and state. We were joined in our pursuits by Jigna ben from Hunaarshaala, who turned out to be both knowledgeable and curious about the mission we were about to undertake. She added her own delicious tadka to our explorations.

Now, as Marla and me understood, food was either bland, or spicy, or sweet, or with masala. But soon we found out that in Kutch, one flavor was not enough. The interesting thing about Kutchi food was that it encompassed both sweet and spicy in one go, a unique blend. It was also in the way they said it. That two flavors in the same dish were better than one. And surprisingly, the Kutchi dabli we tried that day and the Kutchi aloo we tried consecutively, did complete justice to that statement.

We also discovered a pride for all things Kutchi, while we went about in our explorations. Many of the dishes in the region had names like Kutchi peda, Kutchi pakwaan, etc. Although it was difficult for us to understand the difference between Gujrati and Kutchi food, the localites were very clear about it. It helped us understand how important the identity was to the people here, a very important piece of information.

Marla and me were also interested in understanding the new flavors in the city. We had presumed that migration in the post Bhuj disaster phase had brought new flavors into the city. Our findings were as follows:

- Most migrants from other states like Rajhasthan, UP, Bihar, etc came here for work, but ate food cooked by themselves. Manual labor had fixed hours that left them with some time to shop and cook for themselves. Hence all the migrants we spoke to said that they didn't eat food outside but made their own food. On Sundays and holidays when they decided to eat out they would find places to eat that made food without sugar. But such instances were not frequent.

Tourists have shaped the change of taste buds of the locals more than the residing migrant population. The Rann of Kutch festival has grown in popularity in recent years and many tourists from other parts of India as well as outside come here to visit and have brought with them the fast food culture as well. Their most favorite food, Dabeli has been followed by Pav Bhaji, Chinese and Italian food. But the elders even today prefer the tastes of the village with its bhakri nu rotla and ghee, cooked on the chula.

Bhuj is a city of vegetarians, but eggs are quite popular and meat is catching on. Peoples reaction to non vegetarian food was dramatically different, some dispelling it as a minute phenomenon , others guiltily admitting that everyone eats eggs on the sly. Families seemed intolerant while individuals were indulging. This phenomenon was very interesting to watch, as it unfolded in front of us.

The city Marla and me experienced within its cuisines was somewhere stuck in between the forever authentic and the somewhat transitioning, with a hint of hidden flavors, some that can be tasted, others that seem invisible. A little bit like the city itself. 

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