Dishes and digs
Archaeologist and chef extraordinaire Kurush Dalal on why we should be biting again into the food of our ancestors
Son of archaeologist and Parsi cookery legend Katy Dalal, Kurush Dalal, 46, uniquely marries his inherited passions digging for remains of the past in the present and dissecting the evolution of modern foods—all the while running a thriving culinary business. Recently in Mumbai he delivered a brilliant lecture, “Reconstructing Ancient Food Habits – An Archaeological Perspective”. As rare-themed as it was engaging, it essentially asked why we eat what we eat, and how these choices come to be made down the centuries.
Edited excerpts from an interview that covered digs and diets, foods and fads, learning and teaching:
Why do we hear of few archaeologists outside research circles?
Only those who love the discipline for itself usually end up here, thanks to the perception that there is little or no scope (read jobs). I’m very grateful that archaeology has gifted me a truer understanding; it is only by going into its smallest villages and mofussil towns that you realize the India of cities is no reality. And my vocation—cookery—has made me learn respect for food, the feeling that you can’t take it for granted.
Choosing to take on both your mother’s métiers, how much of the work is something you take pride in as a continuing legacy, and how much involves playing a pioneering role?
My mother would rather I had not. She felt a PhD took too much out of one and the catering business was full of ungrateful people. That said, she was inordinately proud of my achievements. I did archaeology because I wanted to, knowing it wouldn’t put food on my table. I did catering knowing it wouldn’t make me rich but would make sure I never starved.
You acknowledge lasting relationships with the teachers, students and friends you have gathered through archaeology. Who have been among your strongest influences?
My mother Katy, my PhD guide V.N. Misra, my teachers at Deccan College in Pune, my current mentor, A.P. Jamkhedkar, and my wife Rhea, whom I met via archaeology. I was once with a group of hungry students on a dig, with nothing to eat found for miles around except a vada pav stall. I pointed out that there’s nothing local about this snack, Portuguese in origin, but for thebesan (gram flour). It’s interesting to record where these food journeys begin.
How do you see the weight- loss craze making us replace nutritious millets, staple pulses and grains, local vegetables and condiments, with fancy foods?
The fad is linked to status symbols, being able to eat things foreign, non-essential to survival and often not suited to the Indian palate or diet. Because they’re expensive, they’re sought after. Kale chips, chased by the elite, are nothing but dehydrated bits of a kind of cabbage. Quinoa is touted as a wonder food as it has 14% protein; so does our own nachni, with more health benefits at one-tenth the cost. We go searching for imported cranberries, neglecting the ber we have. India has always had tons of “super foods”, yet we’ve mono-dieted ourselves. Millets like rajgira are disappearing in a rush. Barely five to six wheat varieties are cultivated now. Fundamental foods are losing their “cool quotient”.
Which recipe serves as a good example of a potpourri of cultures, though we might mistakenly see it as quintessentially Parsi or Gujarati?
My favourite is Saas Ni Machhi. The Portuguese vinegar, with the pomfret from the west coast of India, the egg custard of English cuisine deftly adapted to rice flour instead of maida (refined flour) and the topping of Iranian favourites like onions and a sprinkle of fried garlic…. For most people, this is quintessentially Parsi when it is anything but.