We were lucky to leave one denizen of food culture, France, only to live in another, India. I’ve posted yesterday of a fairly typical meal you can find at a local restaurant and today I was sent one of my favourite images, a culinary map of France. I declare this week ‘Food Week’!
I first saw this map when I visited a museum in Lyon that’s dedicated to food (my favourite kind of museum). It’s great because each of the departments – and even every village or perhaps even hebergement (inn) – has their own speciality or dish. It’s easy – and enjoyable – to get lost among them; but having a map is, from my desk as a write, also a happy reminder, where I can wallow in nostalgia. Whilst I love Indian food, I still eat ‘western’ food out here, too, made much easier by the variety that comes with a big city like Delhi.
My passion for Indian food is no secret and you would think that that comparing two ostensibly different foods and the cultures from which they spring, to be an unusual and unedifying subject. That’s never stopped me before; besides, there are are huge similarities, at least when one considers them with the sweeping hand of generalisation, five of which are captured below.
Cuisine is nuanced by location – it’s true that each area has its own speciality in France, as the map shows; but this is equally true of Indian food. I had the great pleasure of spending the evening with a friend from Kolkata who, like everyone in the restaurant he took us to, was an expert in Bengali cuisine. The great care he applied to the order, ensuring that each dish was adequately spiced or nuanced to suit our palettes, and chose the dishes with an attention to their collective harmony like a conductor of an orchestra. The same is true in France. In every store, even the smallest corner-shop or magasin, there is a section called produits régionaux which collects the best of the local region. Mostly this will be wine or juices, or sausages or cheese. Whatever it is, it’s likely to be fresh, taste excellent and be a great source of pride – just like the Bengali meal in Kolkata.
Unafraid to use butter – in India, ghee, or clarified butter, is a staple of many dishes. Similarly, it would be a culinary crime for the French to replace their beloved la buerre with margarine. Despite this, all the French in the Rhône-Alpes region where I lived not only looked fit but were fit. Both uses of butter may have to be curbed, given the growing rates of obesity in each country: but both prize butter in some form and it’s an illustration of how both Indian and French cooking is, or at least is likely to be, wonderfully indulgent – and hard on the arteries.
Big flavours – it is highly unlikely that, outside of Paris or Lyon, you’ll find anything like authentic Indian food. I haven’t been to all Indian restaurants, of course; but I’ve been to a few and spoken to restauranteurs who tell me that authentic – read ‘spiced’ – Indian food is not appreciated by the French market. So, at worst, you’ll sometimes find a bechamel sauce replace a creamy masala in the French version. Similarly, in some places in India, it’s impossible for the restauranteur to imagine why you wouldn’t want more chillies, rather than less; and this can be difficult for the unfamiliar palette. But in both cases, French and Indian cuisine offers ‘big’ flavours, offering dishes that you can’t remain indifferent about, whether they are spicy or not.
Public dedication and love of great food – one thing both Indians and the French seem to share is the love of a food stall. If there is an event, both will assemble a flat table and make something delicious there and then to serve on it. In India, this might be a rack of spiced kebabs or an enormous cauldron of dal; in France, this might mean crushing part of the apple harvest to make cider or slavering tomme de chevre on thick slices of crusty fresh baguette, topped with tomato chutney. It’s this kind of public ritual which shows the love of food of both nations, it’s a public badge of the centrality of great fresh food – and long may it continue.
There is nothing to separate them – there is always a lot of talk about which kind of cuisine is best and where. Certainly, my own country – England – has received a lot of criticism in the past and rightly so, for its insipid dishes and uninspired cooking (I’m glad to say this has changed now; you can find some excellent food in England now). But, after all I’ve said about the similarities between the two ‘big’ cuisines, there is nothing to divide Indian and French food in terms of quality: one cannot be put above the other. Part of the reason for this is that they’re so different; but mainly it’s for some of the reasons above – you can’t separate the love and passion that both countries devote to their culinary culture and this is to the benefit of people like me, who like to enjoy and talk food with people who love to do the same.
But don’t take my word for it; if you’re lucky enough to visit or even live in one, or the other, then the food will do the talking.