*Photo courtesy – Prathibha Nandakumar Facebook Page
Poorva met renowned Kannada writer and poet Prathibha Nandakumar at the Bangalore LitFest last month. Prathibha Nandakumar writes poetry and prose, is a columnist, writes in English and Kannada, and has published 22 books in Kannada. With such a vast body of work behind her, Poorva was very curious to know what would capture this literary figure’s interest – and food it was. An interview cannot get as straight-forward as this. Prathibha Nandakumar is clear that nothing less than a wholesome South Indian meal will do for her. A must read if you love food and especially traditional South Indian food.
Prathibha Nandakumar, Kannada Writer, Poet, Journalist and Filmmaker
Interviewed by Poorva Dinesh
Why did you decide to give us an interview on food?
I want to talk about the confusion the current trends are creating among people. And after globalization, it has come on us almost like an onslaught and these trends are defying our norms of food and traditional knowledge. Take ghee (clarified butter) for instance. America suddenly announced all fats are bad, and everybody jumped on to the bandwagon. But we Indians have always eaten fats. Fat is an integral part of Indian cooking, and we can’t think of anything without ghee or oil. And they are not bad by themselves. And after 10-15 years, American scientists say that ghee is good. Then they said don’t eat rice, and everybody started shunning rice. Now they say it’s okay to eat rice. We are a country that eats mangoes. We eat them in dozens, and suddenly they said, don’t eat mango, it contains sugar. So this is the confusion the modern times have racked up.
We have the most balanced food one can think of. In India it is said that every 100 kilometers the food changes. The masala (spices) change, the color changes. We knew how to eat and how to stay healthy. What happened to that wisdom?
Let me come back to ghee. You mentioned to me that you have always insisted that your children have ghee. Were there conflicts at home over eating “fat”?
The conflicts were never extreme because my children are sensible. They know a mother’s wisdom. I used to tell my daughter not to diet until she was 30. That was the age to procreate, and she needed the strength to bear pregnancy and to deliver. This cannot be achieved by going to the gym. And even the diet that gym instructors suggest goes against our bodies, climatic conditions and the norms of the society. I was always against my children dieting, and my daughter never went to the extreme.
What is your traditional food?
The Kannadiga food (food from the Indian state Karnataka).
What kind of diet do you follow?
I eat everything that is vegetarian. I have never eaten egg or meat.
But let me clarify. I am not against borrowing, but in Bangalore, if I go to restaurants in the evening, most of them don’t serve South Indian food, and serve only North Indian. So they are forcing down the maida (white flour) and roti (Indian bread) on us. We are not roti-eaters, and we need our rice and rasam (tamarind or tomato juice base cooked with spices). I always have a fight with the restaurant people. If I walk in and ask them if they have South Indian food, and if they say no, I walk out. My body needs South Indian food i.e. a little bit of rice, 2-3 vegetables, a salad or kosambri (traditional South Indian salad) or raita (a yogurt-based condiment), chutney, sweet, pickle and curds. This is my food.
I am not against world food. I may eat Chinese food. It’s okay once in a while, but don’t make that my staple food.
So you only go to South Indian restaurants?
It’s not that I mind eating other food. If I go out and nothing else is available, I eat what’s there. But I will not adopt it in my everyday cooking.
You travel a lot because of your work. Is there an anecdote on food that you would like to share?
As a writer I was invited to China by the Writers Academy. During one of our discussions, I told them in India we have Indian-Chinese. I told them about Gobi Manchurian and Chicken Manchurian. They laughed so much because they had never heard of it. There was a gentleman from Manchuria who said even in Manchuria they had never heard of these dishes! I told them it was an Indian invention, but they were happy that we gave the credit to the Chinese.
In the villages of China, they eat food that is similar to ours, especially rice. When I went to one of these villages, they were celebrating a festival where they were offering rice and kadabu (coconut rice dumplings) to the river and the fish. I was so thrilled. I think all of us in the Pan-Asian side are different from the west so why are we aping the Americans?
The last question has nothing to do with your interview topic. But we ask everyone we interview – what does love mean to you?
I think love cannot be analyzed. Love is something Omni-present. It is something that moves the universe. It is present in so many forms that we may not even recognize it. It is for each one to develop an antenna to receive it. If you don’t have an antenna to receive love, you will never see it.