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Kitchen of five senses

Kiran Bhushi looks at the world and humanity from the prism of food. Cooking is her way of saying ‘I care’

Humans are the only animals who cook. Taming of fire was a significant achievement in the history of humanity. And food, in this sense, is a story of cultural evolution of homo sapiens. People in different parts of the world eat different cuisines that developed over thousands of years, it’s an identity marker.

For Kiran Bhushi, professor of sociology at Indira Gandhi Open University and co-founder of the famous eatery Gunpowder, cooking is a mode of self-expression – and, one has to say, she’s very expressive. Kiran is gifted, the food she cooks is more than tasty. It has a quality that touches hearts, its flavours stirring up joy. She loves to cook and feed people. Her friends are the beneficiaries. She travels all over the world and within the country sampling food, understanding the language of flavours.

Food is a complex thing. It is not just about tantalising the taste buds, for Kiran it has to appeal to all the five senses: the aroma, the texture, the feel, all are important. Cooking is a process of deconstruction to the level of ingredients, the farmers who produce it and the farms where it was produced. She has a house in the hills of Uttarakhand, does farming there with the help of a Nepali family on a crop-sharing basis. She only eats potatoes from her farm. It’s not a fad, the produce of the land captures a part of the earth and the atmosphere.

She doesn’t take long to cook, is known to have cooked for more than 50 people in less than five hours with five dishes to choose from. Her palate is a symphony of flavours and ingredients. To cook, for Kiran, is to relive a memory. She was 10 years old when she started down this line. She would have “specific cravings for specific dishes” as she puts it. She made gulab jamuns when she was only 12 years old — some six or seven of them — polished them off in quick time and cleared up the scene of “crime” before others in the family would even have the faintest idea. Initially, she’d cook for herself, and then for others — it’s her way of sharing joy.

She was recently at the Kochi Biennale — India’s largest contemporary art event — with Anumitra Ghosh Dastidar, a chef and a close friend. She participated in “edible archive” and made fish curry that her mother used to cook. And when it was done, she felt the curry is not red enough, added some chilli powder. Thinking aloud while cooking, she told the English lad who was assisting her, “My mother used sea salt.” And, think of it, “Cooking is a process and I’m performing here. Memory is fiction. In food, there are no true copies. Every act is an intervention.”

She is a woman of literature from Andhra, studied in Jawaharlal Nehru University, lived in Chicago for six years, before settling down in Delhi to the life of an academic.

When she craves for a French or an Italian dish, she collects the available ingredients — a variety of herbs and spices neatly sitting on her kitchen shelves from all over the world — and creates something ‘quintessentially Kiran’ to quench her cravings. She calls it ‘jugaad’ cooking, the whole process being very organic.

“Food tells so many things about the place it belongs to,” she says at an experiential level — the life, the people, the customs, the land and what not? She talks about the cultural significance of wine in France. “Wine is revered. It’s like ghee in India. They say wine is the blood of Jesus, harbinger of good times.” She dubs food as the “personality of a society.” She recently edited a book called Farm to Fingers – The Culture and Politics of Food in India.

Kiran not surprised that slang nomenclature of people and places is derived from food, like English call people from Indian subcontinent as “curry eaters” while they pejoratively refer to French as “frog legs”; Italian are called ‘macaroni in England as in the mid-18th century it was a term to describe a person with much disdain, who, as they say, “exceeded the ordinary bounds of fashion” in terms of clothes, eating and gambling. The yeomen warders of Queen’s royal palace and fortress are called the “beefeaters”. Back home, denizens of Tamil Nadu are referred to as sambar and Goans’ love for bread has earned them the title “Macapaos” is derived from “maka pao de” that literally means “give me bread”. Even the cosmos is represented by various grains, herbs and spices. Navdanya means nine planets or nav-graha.

In this connected world, ethnic cuisines have a global presence, often getting adapted to the local palate. Kiran is worried, irony is writ large on her face, as though all kinds of cuisines are available everywhere in the world, “There’s growing malnutrition and hunger.” She feeds people and cats liberally.

Food is a manifestation of deeper consciousness of a society that has evolved over hundreds of years. Cooking, in traditional sense, is a set of activities — like making of jaggery, pickling, pounding or rice or wheat — over which people meet, chat, share joys and sorrows, collaborate and become a community. Kitchen or rasoi is a place where family would meet, cook local, eat seasonal and exist as a cohesive unit. Kiran often has friends over, cooks after the guests have arrived, sipping into a glass of wine, talking about her travels, people she met, students, as she manipulates ingredients to make divine food

Thinking loudly, she says, “Everything and every being is someone’s else’s food. Even the moisture devours iron by rusting it.” And then she adds after collecting her thoughts, “Unfortunately humans are not. That’s why they are destroying everything.” The only saving grace is that humans can cook and some, like Kiran, are maestros.