Fantastic Feasts and Where to Find Them

Hype Weds Hysteria

Fantastic Feasts and Where to Find Them

Illustration: Shivali Devalkar

In the olden days when dinosaurs walked the earth, a wedding was about celebrating the coming together of two families. Luckily we have moved on from those dark days and now it’s all about proving that you’re better than anyone else. Speaking on behalf of the unwashed masses, can I say that I am delighted. Given that the one-upmanship includes food, this is definitely the definition of progress. Who really cares about families shamilies as long as you are being competitively fed, right?

So here’s the thing. Food has always been important at a wedding – as a wedding attendee of a fairly impressive level of experience and expertise myself, I can attest to that. But what’s happened is that since food is now the front and centre of the whole wedding thang, there’s a whole new enthusiasm and energy that goes into it. This abundance doesn’t come cheap for the hosts, but hey, it’s a small sacrifice they have to make for upholding the social fabric of our nation – i.e. keeping up with the Sharmas. After all, there are soldiers on the borders getting shot at who aren’t complaining as they uphold the national interest, so wedding hosts better step up and do their bit. (I luuurrrve this soldiers on the border argument, because even though I don’t understand it at all, I know that it makes everyone shut up and feel bad, so I use it all the time in every context.)

Some narrow and mean-minded individuals carp on about how this conspicuous wedding-related food consumption is horrible for our society and it promotes feelings of inadequacy and reinforces social inequality, and to these people I say, gmpmffllg. Well I would say some pretty impressive shit, but my mouth is so full of this light as air daulat ki chaat and this divine kakori kebab I snagged at the wedding I am currently attending, so I can’t say much. (But, I hear you about wasteful expense as far as wedding clothes and jewellery are concerned; after all who can eat someone else’s solitaire?)

The thing is that wedding food has been on a trajectory that can best be described in the immortal words of the Coldplay song “Up and Up”. In the dark ages, there used to be a maximum of two or three functions in any wedding, where a large number of people had to be fed. Nowadays at weddings, at least 20 separate functions are held and at each of these, fifty disparate stalls have to be set up, serving any number of things. Given that the unwritten law of competitive show-off feeding is that the food served on any one occasion has to be different from the food at any of the other 19 occasions or the wedding will not be considered legally binding. Well, it’s no wonder that I’m happy. Me and the wedding catering industry both. Ecstatic at the prospect of so much food, from so many different places, so many different cuisines. (Or as they say in the technical language of catering-ese, “Kerching! Kerching! Kerching!”)

And while this transnational glocal feast sounds really hard to pull off, let me assure you it is even harder. One, for religious reasons, a lot of Indian weddings are strictly vegetarian affairs. To be able to execute an around-the-world-in-30-vegetables menu plan is easy for a meal or two. However, it requires a Nobel prize-winning brain to be able to do the math to make the 30 vegetables (plus chaat, which is luckily totally vegetarian) stretch for the meals that each wedding now requires. That’s why newer and newer uses are being found for vegetarian goodies from near and far to make up the numbers. Paneer, the most splendiferous of all Indian vegetarian ingredients, is of course presented in every cuisine and in a number of forms (more paneer shawarmas have been eaten at Indian weddings than the entire population of Lebanon). Tofu is stuffed into tacos in Thiruvanthapuram, pakchoy into parathas in Pune, and guchchi into everything, everywhere. This creativity and innovation doesn’t just take talent, it takes genius.

Second, while it is true that we Indians are intent on devouring as many new and different dishes and cuisines as possible, we want to achieve this while not straying far from the flavour profiles we love so much. In plain English, it means that we want everything to taste a little bit like Bukhara dal and butter chicken in the end. Therefore, a lot of catering talent goes into making sure that while the spirit of the dish and the cuisine being served is honoured, the taste is forever mutilated to suit the palate of the Indian wedding-goer. From a Vietnamese pho to a Spanish paella to a Canadian poutine, the form of the dish may be different, but at every Indian wedding, the taste is authentic. Authentic Indian.

I am hoping to see Cirque du Soleil trapeze artists swing in a wide arc over the buffet tables, precision dropping puris onto guests’ plates.

The one thing that successful wedding planners understand is that weddings are all about entertainment. What Shah Rukh can do, food can definitely do better. So while your prawns in gochujang and peppers are not getting up to dance to “Chaiyya Chaiyya” any time soon, food is a prime part of the wedding entertainment agenda. What started off in primitive times with chefs making impressive clanging noises on flat skillets of precooked sabzi (“bhindi tavewallih”) at every wedding, moved very swiftly to “live food” counters. At these, you could see the chef tossing up limp pasta and sauce on a weak flame while a long ATMesque line of prospective pasta watchers and eaters stretched from the wedding venue all the way to the Cape of Good Hope. But in a giant step for wedding catertainment (catering plus entertainment, stay with me here) these feeble attempts have now been swept aside by people who purvey more jaw-dropping extravaganzas than skillet clanging or pasta tossing.

So now you have hot milk jugglers who come all the way from Mathura to juggle glasses of boiling hot milk while wearing colourful turbans and sporting impressive moustaches. (One lives in hope that the facial hair contributes much more to the entertainment part rather than the catering part of their remit.) And in a genius stroke combining the two things that Indian weddings most represent, you also have unicyclists weaving in and out of the wedding marquee peddling cutting chai to the bemused guests. Next year, I am hoping to see Cirque du Soleil trapeze artists swing in a wide arc over the buffet tables, precision dropping puris onto guests’ plates. And of course, once that happens, can clowns shot out of cannons, bearing trays filled with flutes of champagne, be far behind?

And the desserts? They merit an entire football stadium-sized tent all of their own. There’s mithai and halwa and kulfi and kheer and rabdi and jalebi and malpua and shahi tukra and daulat ki chaat – all made by people who have at least one PhD/Padamshri as recognition of their expertise in their core area of mithai specialisation. Anyone else peddling this stuff just won’t be authentic enough, and of course since the whole wedding feast is about authenticity (Mongolian barbecue with katthal being a good example), that just won’t do. And there’s also always a whole range of other desserts, which change from year to year in keeping with international dessert trends. No one serves vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce anymore, especially not after #ShaadiKaTiramisuDalBarabar began trending on social media a few years back.

So much food, so much abundance, so many dishes, so many chocolate fountains, so many khao suey counters – so much scope for growth for the antacid industry. This is the giddyingly exhilarating food landscape of the modern Indian shaadi. And for those selfish brides and grooms who want to wrest back control of the whole wedding arena and make it all about celebrating love and commitment and not about the food and impressing others, shame on you. Think about people like me who need the sustenance of a thousand different dishes across 15 different cuisines in order to be able to comprehend that you are now married, think about the milk-juggling community of Mathura and how you will be dashing their dreams, think of the paneer makers and manufacturers who will most be impacted by your decision and most of all, think of the soldiers at the border.

Here’s a Godiva chocolate paan and some Swarovski encrusted mishri. Chew on that and think about it.