What does French Pasta, Turkish Coffee (and its tradition), Mexican Michoacan, Korean Khimjang and Japanese Washoku have in common?
Aside from being one of the key components of their respective country’s cuisine, these cultural driven traditional food items (and cooking style) are a part of the UNESCO Intangible Heritage Tag list. Thereby making them UNESCO protected and promoted sites of the food world that are now reason enough to visit the land.
Interestingly, these are only a handful of over 150-odd cultural activities that the arm of UNESCO has chosen since its first list of such ‘intangible’ culture assets made its appearance in 2008.
Since then, this cultural arm of UNESCO has attracted many nations to bring out their innate cultural asset to be assessed by the team for its valid ancestry including Peru, whose annual mammoth food festival, Mistura, is a part of the country’s effort at getting the Heritage tag.
Also aiming for the tag is China which is now preparing its application for the family cuisine of ancient philosopher Confucius (551-479 B.C.) to be enlisted as a UNESCO intangible cultural heritage, much like Italy that wants its Neapolitan Pizza to get the tag. And in the coming year the list has gems like the Armenian Lavaash, Georgian traditional Qvevri wine-making method,Krakelingen and Tonnekensbrand, end-of-winter bread and fire feast at Geraardsbergen and the Mediterranean Diet. As the list suggests,the festival is likely to go big.
Which makes us wonder: What is the heritage tag? Who is eligible to get it? And more pertinently, why India – which already has 10 cultural activities including the Traditional Vedic Chanting, Ramlila, Chauu Dance and the Mudiyettu (Kerala Dance Drama) in its list – doesn’t have even one of the culinary branches?
What adds to the curiosity is that Indian cuisine though has had many influences is also considered among the oldest culinary science in the world.
A heritage tag is a recognition that the particular dish, dance, ritual holds the key to the civilization, and has played an important role in shaping the society as it is today. Contrary to believe however the tag has nothing to do with a country’s cuisine — nothing to do with the variety of dishes and cooking techniques — instead it associated with the cultural tradition of eating and drinking.
Take the case of Kimjang for instance. It is a ritual of making and sharing kimchi in the Republic of Korea, and is a part of getting the society together to eat and drink. Likewise for Lavaash, the preparation, meaning and appearance of traditional bread as an expression of culture in Armenia; and the Washoku, which is Japan’s traditional cooking embraces seasonal ingredients, a unique taste and a style of eating steeped in centuries of tradition.
The connecting factor is exactly what makes any art form or food or its process eligible for the tag (of course the entry is reserved for member that have signed the World Heritage Convention, pledging to protect their natural and cultural heritage). Like the brass and copper utensils made by Thantheras, an indigenous group in Punjab (India). Known for their unmatched skill at making brass and copper utensils which are used for cooking, this community’s craft was (and still is) important both in terms of utility and ritual. They primarily use copper, brass and kansa (an alloy of copper, ton and zinc) in eating and cooking is recommended by Ayurveda, albeit the maintenance of the utensils is very time consuming.
This “cultural connect” is the reason why China proposes to dedicate the next three years in re-documenting the culinary timeline of the Confucius period. It is believed that the food in the philosopher’s home was a mélange of the influences that China’s emperors, high-ranking officials and other distinguished guest that often visited him. A preferred venue of some of the most prestigious banquets and ceremonies, a complex banquet in Confucius home would consists of 196 dishes, which included six cold dishes such as braised sea cucumber served on special porcelain plates.
In fact most Chinese scholars credit Confucius for developing the dining etiquette and manners that have been passed down by his descendants for more than 2,000 years. Thus, making it an important culture-driven tradition that holds the key to future sustainability, and needs safeguarding. Whether it would be chosen is going to be a long process once the Chinese committee submits its exhaustive report that establishes the above said fact with enough evidence that is in process of making and would take about three years to be complete.
Now for India, that has a cultural weave and waft more complicated than the double ikat made in Patan (Gujarat), the choice far from easy. The country, let’s face it, since its inception has had influences from across the world – the Greeks, the Mongols, the Arabs, the French, Portuguese , Spainish, Parsis, Iranians, Armenians, Chinese, Indonesian to name a few.
Interestingly each not only contributed to the Indian tradition of eating and drinking – kebabs by the Mongols, breads by the Armenians, panir by the Arabs and Biryani of course the Mughals – but also the design of the culinary ledger of India. And if one wants to check ancestry than there is a good chance that a good list may not make the cut in spite of its current connect like the samosa and the gulab jamun that came enroute Iran, and came with the Arab traders, who began the Spice Route on a rumour.
Yet, if one manages to scrape the veneer, there are culture based tradition and practices that deserve the heritage tag, with credence.
To start with is the Udupi. Yes, the restaurant that finds its genesis in the town of Udupi, which back in the time, was a centre where most of the temple food developed. It is said that the priest town had temples where the god had to be offered a new dish everyday to keep him interested.
Result, the priest had to move around for influences that would help him develop dishes that would keep the god – and in turn the village – together. This practice led to a cuisine which while having semblance with food around the region does have its own uniqueness that makes it popular – and has determined the way people enjoy southern food.
Next is Paan. A royal obsession, a labour’s favourite, a Zamindar’s gift of gratitude. Beetle leaf may not be Indian in origin –not totally at least. But when it comes to harvesting its many property – especially the culture connect – no other ingredient has had the kind of reach like this green leaf. Charak Samhita calls it the miracle chew that can build an appetite, keep the teeth healthy, treat cough and fever and even become a detox (paan kada, anyone).
The Mughals followed by the Begums of Bhopal spent a fortune on this little indulgence. Such was the price of paan that it was an acceptable ransom in the Mughal court that the other kings had to pay. Their value aside, it was had across community and is still a popular after meal digestive. No wonder India has almost 35 varieties of Paan with over 150 ways of preparing it. Aside from Sunis (wine and beer makers during Maurya period), Paan hakims were the other specialist that designed a bida (set of 11 paan) for the Emperors based on the weather, his health and the dietary (and occasion) requirement.
Another is Handia or the traditional rice wine. The perfect summer cooler in East of India, Madhya Pradesh and a few other places, the handia is as old as fermentation itself, which historians peg during the Kalinga Sailors time. Made indigenously with fermented boiled rice water, handia isn’t just an after work drink but also a celebratory beverage that was often served as part of a get together. Thought highly potent to the uninitiated, handia is low on alcohol as compared to other country liquor especially Sikkimese Tongba, and was the proverbial tea of post-work get togethers in the village before tea came.
And then the milk-base desserts like Rasogulla. Whether Odisha invented it, Bengal refined it and then popularized it across the world, truth is rasogulla remains one of the most stunning creations of the Indian dessert world. Made using chenna, India’s answer to Feta cheese, these globes of delicious sweetness has not only been at the centre of voracious indulgence, but also the platform that led to the other innovations like the Rajbhog, rasamalai, chamcham and more.
Madhulika Dash is a writer with over 13 years of experience writing features from tech to cars to health. She is also a seasoned food appreciator who writes on Indian restaurants and cuisines across different platforms. She has also been on the food panel of MasterChef India Season 4.
An appeal from Swarajya
At Swarajya, we rely on our readers' support through subscriptions to sustain our media platform. Unlike larger conglomerates, we are unable to relentlessly chase advertising money — our model is largely built on your patronage.
Your support has never been more crucial. We work tirelessly to deliver 10-15 high-quality articles daily, ensuring you receive insightful content from 7 AM to 10 PM.
If you believe India's story has to be articulated in a way it has never been done before without shrugging it off, become a patron (or) subscribe now for ₹̶2̶4̶0̶0̶ ₹1999 and get 12 print issues, unlimited digital access for 1 year, a special India that is Bharat T-shirt (Offer ends soon).
We are counting on you!