THE latest gyrations on the swadeshi issue are bizarre. Sundry groups, some of whom are Hindu nationalist, are attacking Kentucky Fried Chicken as junk food. Shiv Sena Supremo Bal Thackeray has declared he will not allow such food to be served in Maharashtra.
Hindu nationalists remain silent on one basic issue—that the very concept of junk food is vide-shi, and runs counter to swadeshi notions of good food. Americans have conquered almost all the diseases which affected humanity through the centuries, and so find that heart disease and cancer have become the chief remaining threats. Americans eat enormous quantities of food, and to the extent, their diet includes oils and fats, this greatly increases the cholesterol content of their blood, apart from making obesity a common ailment. Both cholesterol and obesity increase the risk of heart disease. So the American elite has become very calorie-conscious and weight-conscious, and condemns food with a high fat content as junk food. The American working classes continue to guzzle hamburgers, fried chicken and pizzas.
So too do the American poor, and it may surprise Indians to know that obesity is common among poor black women. The US elite tells you, disparagingly, that this is because the poor waste their welfare money on junk food.
So in America you have the paradox of the rich being slim and the poor being fat, a reversal of the pattern that prevailed through all history, and still prevails in India today. In India, a beggar’s ribs stick out in the US, his stomach may. I once gave alms to a beggar in the US, who promptly went into a McDonald ‘s store to spend it on a hamburger and ice-cream. This greatly unsettled me. I had grown up in a country where hamburgers and ice cream were middle-class luxuries. In my college days in Delhi, hamburgers and ice cream were treats that students could indulge in only a few times a month.
Once a month or so, we could afford to go to Moti Mahal restaurant to eat the finest Indian food in the city. One of its specialities was chicken pakora, which we students regarded with culinary reverence. Having this background, I naturally find the ruckus about Kentucky Fried Chicken incomprehensible. The bird itself is bred by Venky’s, a desi breeder. Only the batter is a special formula of the US company. Once the batter is spread over the chicken and fried, what you get is a chicken pakora.
So, far from being an alien invention, Kentucky Fried Chicken is merely a chicken pakora. It is a belated American discovery of an ancient Indian delight.
Through the centuries, the chicken pakora has never been regarded as junk food. On the contrary, it has always been regarded as a delicacy fit for the aristocracy. The American elite regard it as junk, and I can understand some globalisers adopting the same view. What I cannot understand is why the BJP and Shiv Sena, supposedly Hindu nationalists, are adopting this totally videshi view of the chicken pakora.
In India, butter and fatty foods have always been regarded as excellent cuisine, the sort to be served to an honoured guest. All high quality curries are deep fried. Almonds, cashew nuts and other high-fat nuts are prized delicacies. All the most famous Indian sweets are made with dollops of fat.
The swadeshi view of life never regarded a fat person as unhealthy or a slim one as healthy. On the contrary, the unhealthy poor were slim (because they did not have enough to eat) and the rich — who were the healthiest, since they could afford the best medicine — had large pot-bellies.
In North India the world “healthy” is a synonym for “fat”. When marriage ads advertise prospective girls as “healthy”, they intimate prospective grooms (with pride) that the girls have considerable girth. This is a swadeshi concept. Equating “healthy” with “slim” is a videshi concept of very recent origin.
Since the BJP and Shiv Sena seem, inexplicably, to have fallen for the American view of junk food, perhaps they will take this to its logical conclusion. The Lord Krishna used to steal butter. Perhaps BJP posters should now depict Krishna as stealing junk food. In the old days milk was seen as the best of all foods, and the most prized milk was that of the buffalo, because its fat content was almost double that of cow’s milk. Perhaps the BJP would now like to depict Krishna’s Yadav clan as purveyors of health hazards. Perhaps it would like to ban all curries, pakoras and mithai as junk.
There is, of course, an alternative. This is to accept that a chicken pakora by any other name is equally delicious, and that the Americans have simply rediscovered a dish known in India for centuries. True, this dish may raise your cholesterol level and add to your weight, but that has been the hallmark of superior foods right through Indian history. Unlike the US, we are not yet a country where the rich are slim and the poor are fat.