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The sorry story of the uttappam October 6, 2007

Posted by C Y Gopinath in Food, Humor.
Tags: , , ,

The uttappam was feeling threatened by globalization — who am I? why does the pizza look like me? what should I do? C Y Gopinath counsels


It was a humid day, the sort that dampens all urges towards food.

I was sitting in my clinic, toying desultorily with some listless peanuts, when I sensed that someone was watching me. For a few years now — in fact, ever since parsley and iceberg lettuce began appearing in the local market — I have been running a small but successful practice counseling various culinary items who felt their identity threatened by the influx of Chinese, Italian, Lebanese, and Mughlai cuisines into India. My regular clients today include aloo chops wondering about the meaning of life after the MacAloo Tikkis; vermicelli upmas intimidated by chow mein; puri-bhaji that have been told that the railway platform now belongs to burgers; and others such paranoid entrées. I once had to make peace between some cloud-ear mushroom and a cabbage who feared displacement.

This particular evening, as the nation raced towards the millennium, I was certain I was being watched. I turned around, ostensibly to knock the ash out of my meerschaum, and casually glanced up. There it was. An unprepossessing uttappam about 10 inches across, it surface flecked with a few cowardly onion flakes.

“Ahem,” it cleared its throat. “I was wondering if you could help me.” I said nothing.

“It’s about the pizza,” it continued.

“What about the pizza?” I asked.

“Well, it’s pretending to be an uttappam,” replied the hapless dish. “But smarter. People think it’s an imported uttappam, and they go for it in a big way.”

I thought it was time to take this miserable little flip-flop in hand. “Listen,” I said. “You are an ancient rice batter preparation with history on your side. The pizza is a bread with some ketchup, odds and ends baked with cheese on top. How could anyone confuse you with that?”

Trouble started, said the uttappam, when the Udipi restaurant owner began to sprinkle Amul cheese over the uttappam just before frying it. The cheese would not melt or brown over, but merely turn a little crisp. “We were humiliated,” said the uttappam. “No one has done that to us before. And it’s all because the pizzas are baked with Mozzarella.”

In the meantime, atrocities were being committed upon the uttappam’s cousin, the dosai. The Dosa Manchurian was invented in a small tattukada in Cochin, in which the dosai was made to hold its own weight in chow mein, instead of the usual warm spiced potato mash. Indeed, every conceivable filling and covering was being indiscriminately inflicted upon the dosa — from heron’s egg omelettes to prawn malabari to chicken dopiaza to vegetable stew. The dosai was so crushed by these assaults that it surrendered its identity meekly.

Even Chinese cuisine, once Chinese, latterly Indian, and now victim of the Indian cook’s attempt to please all and sundry, was being mauled. In a small eatery in Mumbai, I had myself tasted the Chow Mein Manchurian Mussallam, in which finally the mainland meets the hinterland in a clashing war of opposite tastes. All lose, only the cash register wins. I had beheld horrified the dawn of the Hakka Afghani, the Tandoori Croissant, the Amritsari Upma, with chunks of Reshmi Kebab in it.

I even understood why it was going on. This country could not stand globalisation. The Indian abroad hides behind papads and garam masala. The Indian at home carefully checks the ‘imported’ dishes coming in through Immigration, and then cleverly renders them insignificant by ‘adapting’ them. The adaptation process is simplicity itself — he must sprinkle garam masala over it, substitute ghee for olive oil, rev up the red spices a little and sprinkle the dish with coriander just before serving. The pizza thus vandalised could be fashionably re-named La Pizza Indiana, and be hailed as a triumph of thinking global but acting local.

My wretched uttappam was sniffling. “What shall I do?” he moaned. “I have lost my self-respect.”

An idea struck me. “You have lost nothing,” I said firmly. “You have only gained. Listen carefully: the pizza is undergoing deep changes. I expect that its base will soon be substituted by a thick dough of rice and lentils. Tomatoes may become optional. This is your chance: you must strengthen your foundation with a strong baking dough made from good baking flour. I want you to welcome all sorts of toppings, even non vegetarian ones. Don’t flinch under bacon or tuna or ham or mince. And when they bake you, smile as though you love nothing more.”

“But — but —“ spluttered the uttappam. “I won’t be an uttappam any more!!”

“You won’t, perhaps,” I said reasonably. “But the pizza will be the uttappam. The more it resembles the uttappam the bigger the market for it.”

“And I? What will I be?” whined the uttappam.

“Why, you silly little pancake,” I said, my patience snapping. “You’ll be a pizza, of course. You’ll be the king.”