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Rude Food by Vir Sanghvi: Palate politics

Are politicians foodies? I am often asked this question. And I always give the only answer possible: they are like the rest of us. Some are foodies and some are not.  

Many quickly become indifferent to food either because they rarely have the time to enjoy a good meal or because they spend so long on the road that they end up eating whatever is offered to them.

Sometimes they go to banquets. Usually, they can’t eat very much at these affairs because they are on show. And in any case, the food at official banquets – everywhere in the world – is rarely very good. I have had ghastly ITDC-type food at Hyderabad House lunches thrown by various Indian PMs, and at Rashtrapati Bhavan the food was usually dismal.

It is not very different abroad. I was part of the Indian PM’s media party when Atal Bihari Vajpayee visited Japan in 2002 and got invited to a high-powered dinner thrown for him by the Japanese PM. The head of Sony was on my table and he complained about how bad the Japanese food was. (I knew too little to have an opinion.) I pointed out that the dinner had been catered by the Imperial Hotel, then one of Tokyo’s best hotels and he snorted “on a minimal budget, clearly.”

It was the same in America. Even though Bill Clinton liked to eat, the one White House banquet I attended had rubbish food.  

But, at least, foreign leaders make some attempt to act as though the food is of consequence. At a Hyderabad House dinner for Tony Blair hosted by Manmohan Singh, everyone was stunned when during his speech Blair talked about how much he liked Indian food and how, on his visit to Bengaluru before coming to Delhi, he had eaten the best curry of his life at Windsor Manor and had personally thanked the chef whom he described as a “Sikh gentleman”. Manmohan Singh had already read out yet another boring speech written by one of his boring speech writers so when Blair spoke extempore and talked about the food, the Indian side looked shocked and horrified.

Most foreign leaders on visits to India are put through the Bukhara test. They are taken to Bukhara and encouraged to eat with their fingers. I don’t think Donald Trump went to Bukhara, though I gathered some food was sent up to his room. (Though he probably prefers Burger King to Bukhara.) From all accounts, the Bukhara champion is Bill Clinton (in the days before he became a vegan and gave up on some of his more minor vices) who, when offered a choice of platters, asked to eat everything on offer.

Some Indian Prime Ministers have been foodies. In her biography of Indira Gandhi, Pupul Jayakar, Mrs Gandhi’s pal, recounted many of Indira Gandhi’s whines about how cruel the world had been to her, while noting in detail the many wonderful meals she and Indira had eaten. Some of it sounded quite glamorous. At one dinner at the PM’s House, Jayakar wrote, they feasted on caviar that the Indian ambassador to Moscow had brought along. There was so much about food in the book that when I reviewed it, the headline read “One Whined, The Other Dined.”

I’m not sure Mrs. Gandhi’s children were foodies. Sanjay would not drink tea, coffee or even Coca Cola. Rajiv loved sweets but never struck me as being the caviar type.

On the other hand, Rahul Gandhi does seem to have a finely developed palate judging by his choice of restaurants in Delhi while Priyanka has a reputation among her friends, apparently, for her baking skills.

The one true foodie Prime Minister of India was Atal Bihari Vajpayee who not only liked food but enjoyed going to restaurants. On his state visits abroad, Vajpayee would often take a few of us journalists out to restaurants with him.

Vajpayee is often given the credit for starting the tradition of taking chefs with him when he travelled abroad. This is not entirely true. Narasimha Rao would often take his favourite cook along though all that the Prime Minister wanted him to make was upma, cooked to his specifications.

Vajpayee took various Taj group chefs with him – Satish Arora, Hemant Oberoi, Ananda Solomon and Julia Carmen DeSa – and his advance team told all hotels that a special area in the kitchen had to be set aside for the Indian chefs. I once bumped into Satish Arora at New York’s Waldorf Astoria and he told me that every morning he would first roast some spices in a tawa till their aroma filled his section of the Waldorf kitchen. Till he smelled spices, he said, he did not feel that the ambience was right for cooking Indian food.  

All this stopped shortly after Manmohan Singh took over. For a start, Manmohan had little interest in food and secondly, as a diabetic, his diet was restricted anyway. (Unlike Vajpayee who could mischievously ignore his doctor’s instructions, Manmohan took them seriously.) When the boss has no interest in food, standards drop all around and even the Air-India food became pretty horrible.  

There are no journalists on Narendra Modi’s foreign trips but officials tell me that the Prime Minister, who was widely travelled even before he became PM, does like food and that standards have shot up since he took over from Manmohan Singh.

Other Prime Ministers have had very short terms in office so it is hard to be sure about their foodie status. I once had breakfast with HD Deve Gowda at Race Course Road but he had no interest in the food. I knew Deve Gowda before he became PM during his days in Karnataka politics and while he was no foodie, he knew what he wanted. We once met in my room at the Taj West End in Bengaluru and he kept demanding Caramel Custard from room service.

Inder Gujaral had, as you might expect, a sophisticated palate. I once went to interview him at his home in the 1980s and was surprised to be served little squares of bread smeared with Boursin cheese – a big deal in pre-liberalisation India.

So, not all politicians are foodies. But Prime Ministers often like their food!

The views expressed by the columnist are personal

From HT Brunch, September 6, 2020

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