Food, Politics and Diplomacy

When Bill Clinton visited India in 2000 it was not his parleys with Atal Bihari Vajpayee but what he ate at Bukhara at Maurya Sheraton, which made headlines. Clinton ate one or two helpings of everything and he had Kulfi and Phirni for desert. When the Chef asked him if he would try something else, he said if he did, he would have to be carried out on a stretcher.

Elizabeth Collingham and Salma Hussain have come out with an interesting book “Around India’s First Table: Dining and Entertainment in the Rashtrapati Bhavan, in which they describe what goes behind the preparation of hosting of State banquet.

The Ministry of external affairs briefs the President’s secretariat about the proposed visit, the likes and dislikes and any food allergies of the visiting dignitary and the suggested guest list.

The menu of Emir of Qatar was heavy on mutton reflecting the Arabian liking for meat. Similarly at the earlier banquet of Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena, the menu was mostly vegetarian and he was delighted by the Bhagara Baingan served at the banquet in his honor because Aubergine was his favorite vegetable. At a banquet for the king of Bhutan, the king was touched that the table decorations echoed the yellow and orange of Bhutan’s national flag.

When the Chinese Prime Minister Li Peng came to India in 1988, President Venkataraman hosted a luncheon for him under a Shamiana in the Mughal Gardens. Apart from Indian delicacies, he was served carefully prepared Chinese dishes as a complement to him. Li Peng returned the compliment by taking a second helping and quipping that they were the best he had eaten outside China.

“Watching the bonhomie at the lunch,” observed President Venkataraman “one would never have suspected that there had been an interlude of bitter discord between our two countries.” This was Rashtrapati Bhavan’s food diplomacy at its best.

It was during R. Venkataraman’s time the South Indian Idlis became a regular item on the Rashtrapati Bhavan menu when many people considered it too humble to be served on formal occasions. At the banquets he hosted for Nelson Mandela and Yasser Arafat in 1990, Idlis,Vadas and Sambhar appeared along with Mughlai biryani, North Indian Matar Paneer and Punjabi Nans.

Musharraf’s banquet was a spectacular mix of Nepalese chicken dumplings, south Indian Dosas, Goan prawns, Tamil chicken Chettinad, Kashmiri kebabs, Amritsari fish, Gujarati Pigeon pea Dal Dokhli and ending with royal Mughlai Shahi Tukra.

At a luncheon for the Soviet Prime Minister, Nikolai Ryzhkov, President Venkataraman was surprised to find Mrs Ryzhkov expressing more interest in different types of dishes served than in national and international issues.

President Pratibha Patil introduced Maharashtrian cuisine such as Saboodana rolls and Koftas of sweet potatoes mixed with cottage cheese in banquet menu. In President Pranab Mukherjee’s menu fish dishes appear more frequently. Mustard oil has made its presence felt in the kitchens, and Panch Phoron is often used to give dishes a Bengali flavor.

It has now become an established practice at Rashtrapati Bhavan banquets to acknowledge the home region of the President with the dessert course.

The banquet at Rashtrapati Bhavan presents its guest of honor with a window into Indian culture. The work that goes into making a banquet a success is largely backstage. The catering department of the comptroller, the naval catering supervisors, the cooks, the bakers and halwais, the butlers, the sound and light technicians, the staff who clean and maintain the rooms, all are inconspicuous and largely unacknowledged masters of food diplomacy and deserve a round of applause!

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