Tuesday, 11 October 2016

The Art Of Culinary Diplomacy

Last weekend, I had the pleasure of tasting some very good food served by a local caterer. One of the dishes was a wee bit too salty, but the lunch was overall extremely good. I remembered a Tamil phrase that I've heard from older ladies in my family, and it got me thinking about some subtle aspects of culture.

In the Mahaabhaarata, one comes across the characters NaLa and Bheema. In addition to their other heroic qualities, both men were reputed to be very good cooks, so much so that an ancient book of recipes (Paaka darpana, or "cooking mirror") is attributed to NaLa.

NaLa (as Baahuka) and Bheema (as Vallabha) doing their culinary thing

Now here's the twist. Although both men were said to be excellent cooks, NaLa's cooking had just an extra hint of salt, and Bheema's cooking was just a tad sweeter than optimal.

When discussing someone's cooking, I've heard people in my family use the Tamil phrase "NaLa paakam" (more colloquially, "NaLa baaham"), or Nala's cooking, to mean that the food had too much salt in it, and "Bheema baaham" to mean that it was too sweet.

In fact, I was told it was a diplomatic way to provide feedback while praising someone's cooking. Congratulating someone on their cooking by comparing them to NaLa or Bheema was a form of praise that also gently hinted to them to hold the salt or sugar the next time around.

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