Politics of Food: When Richard Was Upset With Vegetarian Fare...
Image Credit: Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Prime Minister of Japan, Fumio Kishida eating Gol Gappe

There’s an old Chinese curse that, like good Chinese food, isn’t even Chinese. The curse goes: May we live in interesting times! And it couldn’t get any more interesting than 2023. Economies around the world are struggling with inflation. Russia’s refusing to leave Ukraine. Saudi Arabia might be willing to play nice with Iran with a little help from China. But the most exciting international incident happened in India, which has everyone asking the same question: Was the Japanese PM Kishida served suji (English) golgappas instead of its gastronomically superior aata version?

Japan is, after all, one of India’s most prolific allies, and the late Japanese PM Abe San – AKA the Quadfather – was one of India’s best friends who also gave us one of the greatest moments of unintentional humour on Twitter.

Now, if we let the golgappa purists out of their cages, there’d be a raging sub-nationalist panipuri debate that could lead to secession. Various groups would argue that their panipuri, puchka, gupchup, or the golgappa is the one true saviour, and all other versions are false messiahs. 

Let’s just agree that all golgappas were born equal – except for suji ones, of course, and whatever abomination they serve with ragda inside. Now speaking of golgappa diplomacy, this isn’t the first time a food item helped entice a head of state. Like lovers, true diplomats know that the way to earn a nation’s cooperation is through its leader’s stomach. You can bend foreign policy to your will if you can entice a leader’s tummy, which perhaps explains why the British had to resort to colonialism because they had no eatable food to offer. Still, their leaders did love their Indian food, as evidenced by their Indian visits.

The Brits

King George V, about whom Tagore didn’t write a poem and whose statue’s replacement by a Nazi ally (to quote a few Western academics) at India Gate, caused much chagrin became a huge fan of chicken curry and Bombay duck (the fish, not the cricketer) after his trip to India. In fact, legend says he’d eat Indian food every day, but his wife, Queen Mary, didn’t allow such laxities.

In 1911, the British Raj shifted its capital from Calcutta to Delhi, where a feast was held in honour of King George V and Queen Mary, the new Emperor and Empress of India, at the Imperial. Chef Prem Kumar replicated this historical feast 103 years later in Delhi Durbar Ki Dawat. The banquet included scotch eggs and broth, chunks of lamb, vegetables, and pearl barley. Representing Britain was Shepherd’s pie, followed by Vol-au-vents, the French stuffed puff pastry. Also, there was vegetable polonaise (a classic vegetable dish from the 1900s), a dish made of asparagus spears, cauliflower floret, breadcrumbs, and herbs. There was also Bubble and Squeak, an old recipe that used leftover veggies to make potato cakes, and was served as a starchy main course with meat.

Meanwhile, George the V’s granddaughter Elizabeth II also visited India thrice, with her most recent visit in 1997 when she went to Kerala where like her namesake, she fell in love with drumsticks. Specifically, the dish that she came to adore was the drumstick thoran, a stir fry made with drumstick flesh and flowers. She also enjoyed the fish molly. 

The Queen also had a soft spot for Darjeeling and Assam tea and preferred the desi way of having it with milk.

When the Americans came calling

Good food can cement friendships, and the opposite is equally true. It’s no surprise that India and the USA were never really on the same page after Richard Nixon’s first visit to India in the 1960s (long before Watergate). He was hosted by Morarji Desai (whose urine therapy claims would become another problem), where he was served vegetarian food, and no alcohol, a particular hardship for a man who loved his Chateau Lafite Rothschild and yet asked his staff to serve mediocre red wine to his guests. 

Later, he would go to Pakistan, where the spread was far more lavish, and that seemed to seal the deal regarding his views about South Asian countries and America’s role during the Bangladesh Liberation War. Of course, that still doesn’t excuse his misogynist rants against the late Indira Gandhi, which sound less like the words of a president and more like the comments of an incel writing in a 4Chan forum from his mother’s basement. 

India-US relationships would improve, as would the spread over the years. When the Bushes came calling in 2006, avian influenza put chicken off the menu, which meant that the Bushes got to try some delectable mutton biryani and korma. Meanwhile, the Clintons each have a platter dedicated to their name at ITC Maurya. The Presidential Platter was named after Bill Clinton, while there’s a Chelsea Platter which consists only of vegetarian fare. Later, when she was Secretary of State, Hillary would get her own platter consisting of murgh malai kebab, seekh kebab, paneer tikka, tandoori aloo, Sikandari raan, dal bukhara, tandoori jhinga, mixed raita, naan, and kulfi.

Meanwhile, Barack Obama also wanted his own platter and got his wish a few years later - the Signature Obama Bukhara Menu consists of tandoor jhinga, machhli tikka, murg boti bukhara, reshmi kebab and Sikandari raan, tandoor aloo, dal Bukhara, mixed raita and naan amal. For dessert, the options were phirni, gulab jamun, kulfi, and rasmalai.

Things finally came to a head with Trump’s visit, where the POTUS entertained us all with his variations of popular Indian names like Sachin Tendulkar and Swami Vivekananda and was served broccoli samosas. Experts are still unsure whether there was a causal link between that gustatory abomination and the Capitol Hill Insurrection, but we guess it didn’t really help the cause.

Best of the Rest

Other world leaders have also been served some delectable fare over the years. When Xi Jinping came to Mahabalipuram, he was served Arachu vitta Sambhar, prepared from grounded lentils, spices, and coconut.

Meanwhile, when former Australian Premier John Howard was in town, he was treated to several special dishes created for the Australian palette so there wouldn’t be too much thunder Down Under. There was corn and coriander pulao, jhinga fish kabab masala, and Bada chaap. There was also machli ka salad in Hyderabadi style, a peanut-flavored gravy, and khatte baigan again in a toned-down flavour. In fact, a special selection of premium Australian wines, such as Shiraz Astralis, Clarendon Hills, and Cabernet Sauvignon Leeuwin was also on offer.

When former German chancellor Angela Merkel came down, a host of quintessentially South Indian veg dishes and satvik food greeted her – all with naturally-sourced vegetarian ingredients. For starters, there was a choice between sambharam (spiced buttermilk flavoured with lemon grass and asafoetida) and kukku rasayana (traditional mango, coconut milk cooler with green cardamom) followed by a south Indian sampler as an appetizer - the sampler included rasam, podi idly, vazhaipoo vadai (banana blossom fitters), baby corn bezule (crispy baby corn), kuzhi paniyaram (tempered rice and lentil cake), and muringayila adai (drumstick leaf pancake).

And finally, Israeli President Netanyahu, who was so happy dining with his ‘friend’ Modi, likened the incident to his first date with his wife in Tel-Aviv. Perhaps no other world leader has shared the same level of bonhomie as PM Modi, who hosted a private dinner for him in 2018. In 2017, when PM Modi visited Israel, the spread included khandvi, moong dal puri, malai palak, kurkuri bhindi, maa ki daal, and kumbh ka pulao.

Seeing this full vegetarian spread, the Israeli premier channeled his inner Anthony Bourdain and declared: “I think I should turn vegetarian like my friend PM Modi. There’s a lot of variety there.” Clearly, if you’re going to be vegetarian, you better pray you’re born in India.