"If music be the food of love, play on" said the Bard, but this time of the year, food is definitely the music of love. The fancy of Tennyson's young man may turn lightly to love in the spring, but come holiday season, the fancy of every man (and woman) turns to food and there is nothing light about it either. Post-monsoon, if you prefer vegetarian fare - much in favour these days - you begin to drool at the thought of matar-paneer, gobi masala, elaborate undhiyu, or even the more humble sarson ka saag and makke ki roti. If you are a confirmed goshtkhor, rogan josh, illish maachh or chettinad chicken tempt you. And the sweet tooth is lured by jalebi, maalpua and sundry kheers and payasams. Roast turkey, suckling piglets, stuffed hams and a bewildering variety of cakes and pies cast their spells on our friends in the West. Pages of the glossies are filled as much with mouth-watering colour spreads of gastronomic delights as they are with the latest gadgetry.
Virtually every second day was on my mother's list of religious observances, for which she had a specific menu. Come to think of it, most great places of pilgrimage in India have strong food associations. The gurudwaras of the North as well as the many mutts of the South daily serve their multitudes of faithful wholesome and delicious food, mostly free. Even the otherwise ascetic Jains do not send back visitors to their temples hungry.
Television has unquestionably played Cupid to our ever-more consuming affair with elaborate food. Once upon a time not too long ago, desperate housewives were nightly absorbed in the affairs of the bold and the beautiful of Santa Barbara and other exotic locales. Not anymore. Joan Collins no longer presides over our current electronic dynasties; the even more glamorous Nigella Lawson reigns supreme in our fantasies, with her fetching recipes accompanied by a matching sensuous presence.
The enormously popular and greatly imitated - alas! but poorly - MasterChef Australia presented by restaurateur Gary Mehigan, chef George Calombaris and food critic Matt Preston has taught us that there is much more to Australia than its great sports culture and G 'day mate! natives. Its rich produce and scenic spots are now as familiar to us as is the wondrous food the contestants turn out in what must be the most extraordinary spirit of competitive camaraderie, doubtless fostered by the affable and nurturing judges. That is sadly missing in the American version presided over by the rather nasty but hugely talented Gordon Ramsay. All these worthies are now unlikely superstars of the small screen, along with the likes of Anthony Bourdain, Jaime Oliver and Kylie Kwong.
Credit is due to our own home-grown Sanjeev Kapoor, whose khazana of khana and simple recipes have been the staple of our cable television from its very start. Many me-too shows, some in regional languages as well, have not dimmed his appeal even two decades later. Sterling efforts by the doyenne of Indian cookbooks, Tarla Dalal must have brought domestic bliss to countless millions of young couples, even as the magisterial Madhur Jaffrey and the celebrity Padma Lakshmi introduced Indian delicacies to audiences abroad.
One unsung achievement of this food fascination - at least as far as India is concerned - is the dent it has made in the gender barrier to cooking. Most great chefs may have been men, but domestic cooking in India was always women's preserve, with men ordering their preferences in the manner befitting the lords and masters they fancied themselves to be. No longer, I suspect. Thanks to the ever-present cookery shows and even more ubiquitous availability of recipes in print and on the net, men are slowly but surely entering the kitchen as active, if not full, participants. Recently my classmates settled in the US of A, all worthy and pioneering technocrats now in their well-earned retirement, vied with each other to provide recipes and tips for holiday spreads learnt and perfected through long experience. Their one piece of common advice: keep women out!
My reading is only a tad less voracious and eclectic than my eating. I have enormously relished two books lately: Atul Gawande's deeply reflective Being Mortal provided me metaphysical sustenance, while Asha Khatau's The Best of Epicurean Gujarati Cuisine, finely written and richly produced, offered me sensory pleasures like nothing else.
The last word in this ode to food surely belongs to my lady. She has instructed us all that when her time comes, we should place not Gangajal but a sliver of fine dark chocolate on her tongue to ensure her swift passage to Gourmet Paradise.
The writer taught at Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, and helped set up Institute of Rural Management, Anand