Friday, August 10, 2007

I dislike your cooking

I love Indian food. I love Indian cooking. Most people I know are fabulous cooks (especially motherly Indian women with a child or two). Quite a few people I know make the best food I have ever eaten. This includes many aunts, parents of friends, and a lot of my friends.

With a small exception (roadside vendors in India are awesome), the greatest Indian food is at Indian homes.

But I cannot openly praise it. Especially when I am at the person's house, enjoying this delicious food. Can not praise it, for fear of being force fed.

This is how it works: In India, the guest is supposed to God-like. Even if guests like me look more like little hungry rascals rather than divine creatures. So the tradition is that every guest is to be offered the best food. This happens even if Indians move outside India, and this custom is out of place. I remember offering a repair-man some orange juice. Being an American, and a stranger to Indian customs, he was surprised. But it was a fairly hot day, and he was visibly relieved after a glass. Indians continue to treat guests in a special way, even if they aren't in India, or even if the guests aren't Indian.

So the standard is supposed to be to make the Guest feel comfortable at helping himself. No self-respecting Indian will complain if the guest has seconds or thirds, or focuses a little much on the sweet-dish. Often, Indian kids game the system by ignoring the main course, and focusing completely on the sweet dish. I know, I used to be one of them. Especially when I visited some aunts who were notorious for keeping the sweet-section well stocked.

But over time, the convention of politely allowing your guest to gorge himself has changed to a convention of force feeding him. It is not unusual for a guest to have to continue saying, "Oh I'm done. This has been too much." all throughout the meal. Since the host keeps asking you, you are better off starting out with a story of how you are already full, and cannot possibly eat much more. Then the hosts continues offering you food, knowing that you aren't done, and you continue refusing, while gently eating a slight bit. At no point must you admit you love a specific dish. If you do, a lot of it will be forcibly dumped on your plate. If you can finish it, more will be dumped. If you cannot, the host will quip, "Oh, you must not have liked it after all." The arms race is fierce. Especially to an untrained cadet like me.

If you eat too little, the host will complain, "Oh, you didn't eat much at all", "अजी आपने तो कुछ भी नहीं चखा". So that is a bad strategy because a good cook will feel their cooking was no good. If you eat too much, more will be placed on your plate, and you will end up stuffing yourself silly, "If you liked it, here, have some more", "आपको तो यह पसन्द आया, आप तो और लीजिए".
It is a disaster, of epic proportions, as you are next to all this delicious cooking, but you cannot help yourself. Wasting food by leaving it on the plate is a bad idea (host is offended), so you must finish everything. But if you have a bit more of the parantha, the host might pop some more on your plate. On the other hand, it was absolutely heavenly parantha. Got to risk it. A few people are good at this art. They start out with some fabricated story of how they are already stuffed from a previous meal or meeting. Cannot possible eat any more, see. Oh, well, I'll help myself to just one parantha to give you company at the table.

Man, what a mind-game!

I can remember many settings where I would have loved to eat some more, but the game didn't let me. Or where I wanted to tell the person that she (usually Indian women are remarkable cooks!) was one of the best cooks this side of the Himalayas.

At the other end of the exchange, I've been told to be a better host. Offer stuff to everyone. If they say "no" the first time, continue offering. They're just being polite. They're too polite to say yes, why don't you dump some on their plate anyway?

Ever seen Indian gatherings, where the host has a spoonful of stuff positioned dangerously on the guests's plate, and the guest has both his hands blocking his plate.

What has the world come to!? I much enjoy visiting my friends, who are also very good cooks. Just so I can be honest with them. People my age are less trained in this warfare. I can be open with them. I can tell them that I love their chicken curry, and they should watch me dive in a third time. Or that I'm really hungry, having ignored both dinner and breakfast when I was told that they were cooking chicken curry.

Hey, I'm only human. Not a God.