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Anoothi Vishal's Mrs LC's Table

Friday, November 25, 2016Me! In words

I love reading books on food - in fact the more it delves into the history and culture of things, the more I enjoy it. And that is why Mrs LC's Table by Anoothi Vishal hit quite a few right notes with me. Mrs LC's Table is Anoothi's view point of the culinary world of the Kayasth community based on memories of her grandmother's heavily laden table. The book traces the lineage of Kayasth food as we know it today through anecdotes of growing up with a doting grandmother.
Through the book, you get an anthropological point of view of a food culture's evolution. Now that may sound very academic in nature, but the flow of language in this book is simple, informative and very personal. Anoothi, in an interview with me on this book, describes her style of writing as one that firmly believes food is a part of a larger cultural context. "You cannot look at food in isolation and it’s also not only about consumption. So my take on food always comes with a larger perspective and it has to be placed in a cultural or a sociological context. I also now specialize in tracing links. I like food history and I trace links between regions or communities and try and see how a particular dish has travelled down from wherever, where it has landed and what is its current manifestation".

And that is why you will read about the Muslim influence on Kayasth food and of elaborate descriptions on Kaccha khana and Pakka khana in this book. You will relive your grandma's love for seasonal produce. The book delves into how Kachri came to be used as tenderizer and the uniqueness of mock meat dishes comprising of a core ingredient of lentils that was developed for the vegetarian women of the community to indulge in meat-like preparations. In fact, the Dal ke Kofte recipe is on my to-do list!

In Anoothi's words you will find that the book touches on various aspects of the Kayasth food culture. It takes a look at how art, culture and music were an inherent part of everyday life and it is seen in the creation of dishes such as the Badam Pasanda and Yakhni Pulao. 

Another aspect the book touches on is vegetarian cooking. A lot of communities cook their vegetarian food very simply but with the Kayasths there was a lot of finesse. Everything was cooked in a very time consuming way; bhuna is very important. The third strand you find in the book is on meat. "I find it very interesting because you have 'liver' made of moong ki dal because a lot women were vegetarian even though they were cooking meat". The book also focuses on the drinking culture of the community, which again you don’t normally find. "We have this notion that in India we never had a drinking culture, but the Kayasth, because of their relation to the British administration, did". 

Anoothi Vishal -
Picture Credit -
Kunal Chandra

Kayasth Khatirdari, which is the route Anoothi took for the launch of her book, at Olive Beach in  Bangalore, is legendary and Anoothi describes it such, "We were part of the Mughal quad and then later the British administration and have always been bureaucrats, etc. 

We were a community that entertained a lot, so the table was always laid out. The food was a very important aspect and as was hospitality. The table was always laden with many delicacies and that’s Khatirdari (hospitality). Even ordinarily, for an everyday meal we would have at least a meat curry for dinner and two or three vegetarian dishes along with some condiments, freshly made pickle etc. Obviously for entertaining, inventive kind of dishes were laid and those are now part of the Kayasth Khatirdar". 

Anoothi's book is peppered with recipes of the Kayasth community and for a change these are listed in the chapter index at the beginning of the book rather than a glossary at the end. They are of course just a smattering from what the community collectively has. At Olive Beach she served up a buffet dinner with quite a few dishes that are not part of the book. Though the stars did not align enough for me to make it, Swapna Venkatesh of The Foodporn Diaries and Monika Manchanda of Sinamon Tales did. Swapna loved the slow cooked Mutton dish Kaliya which she was told was made in just a cup of oil for a quantity sufficient for a party. Great tasting mutton with the minimal use of fat is hard to achieve she adds. Monika loved the Kulle - an old Delhi Mathur style chaat with cucumber as the main ingredient. Monika felt this was a great take on chaat and very fresh on the palate.

Very few food writers are able excite hunger with their writing and Anoothi achieves that in quite a few places. I love how in one place in the book she describes the use of choti elaichi, javitri, and kebabchini to disguise the aroma of meatiness of dishes. And of course the making of the Yakhni Pulao under the watchful eye of Mrs LC aka Barima - from the choice of meat cuts - a little bit of thigh, few pieces of raan, gol boti - to the visual of a bubbling aromatic stock to the bhunaoing of the meat and finally it going together with the rice for that last stage of cooking. I could also picture sitting at the table, rubbing my hands in glee, watching that steaming hot vessel of Yakhni Pulao come in.

In fact I made the Yakhni Pulao myself - I used Sona Masuri rice instead of the said basmati, but it still did turn out very flavourful and made for a satisfying meal. I also made the Bharwan Bhindi, which had my fussy daughter licking the plate clean and my husband putting his rice straight into the bowl of bhindi and eating it all up. And so a head's up - this is one of those recipe books, where the recipes do work brilliantly. The same can't be said for many books in the market today.

Yakhni Pulao based on the recipe in the book

                                    Bharwan Bhindi from the book                                                   
Mrs LC aka Barima - on whose kitchen and wonderfully laden table this book is based

Anoothi says of her fondest memories of Barima, "I can’t get over the fact that my grandmother used to tell me recipes as bedtime stories and when I think back on it, perhaps it was natural. I don’t know why was she telling me recipes. I’ve never cooked Gajar ka Halwa in my life but as a two year old that is what she told me and that is what I remember. Even though she was not really into food, she was very culturally inclined.

When we were kids, there were 5 of us, siblings and cousins. Everyday in the morning she would take us to one sweet shop and we would individually choose a Mithai. We would take one piece of these five separate sweets and come back and it was like a morning ritual. We would go for morning walk, stop at that sweet shop, take one sweet and come back, I think that fabulous exposure to anything".

The book is a lovely read, made even better with the recipes that are provided. The book goes to show how food can be such a versatile subject - from being the focus of casual banter to serious discussions, to a reflection of the past and present and perhaps even a merger of the two. It shows how globalization may have taken over the world, but somewhere in all of us is a leaning towards a solid food heritage.

Title: Mrs LC's Table
Author: Anoothi Vishal
Publisher: Hachette India
Editor: Pouloumi Chaterjee
Price: Rs 350
Kindle Price: Rs 208.60

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