Cutting the mustard

I love food. I love eating it, cooking it, preparing it, buying the ingredients. I love watching people cook. I love researching food culture and habit and folklore and history.

Yes, I love food. I love everything about food.

One of my all-time favourite dishes is made from ilish maach (a particular type of fish popular in Bengal), where the fish is cooked in mustard oil, with liberal use of mustard seed and chillies. When cooked properly, it looks something like this:

[My thanks to Indranil Sen and Jayashree Roy for the photo and for their wonderful recipe, which can be found here in Palki.]

I didn’t just come across this recipe randomly, I spent some time looking around the web for the right one: I was particularly interested in demonstrating a sense of the rich gravy that dominates my memory of the dish. And along the way I came across this article: The Mustard Oil Conspiracy. I’d read a good deal of Vandana Shiva’s work before, in particular those tracts and booklets related to the join between food and patents, but I hadn’t come across this one before. Unbelievable.

And you know something? More and more, I’m realising the truth of what people like Rishab Aiyer Ghosh and John Perry Barlow and Larry Lessig have been saying all along. Today’s battles about IPR aren’t about commerce, they’re about culture. There’s nothing more cultural than food.

Recent events suggest things are going from bad to worse now; the optimist in me thinks it’s “the darkest hour before the dawn”.

What next? I guess we should wait patiently for people to be arrested for selling kitchen equipment. On the basis that the equipment was used to cook food using “illegally” obtained recipes. Or something as ridiculous as that.

Yes, things will get ridiculous if we let them. Or sublime, as in the case of ilish maach. Our choice.

6 thoughts on “Cutting the mustard”

  1. JP:

    I wrote something yesterday which refers to ‘intent’ and ‘societal contract’. Although narrowed down to a strategy context, it is more broadly applicable I think. Sometime if I can find time to elaborate, I will probably write another post/ essay. I referred a post of yours as one of my favourite reads related to the topic (one desultory philippic..)

    Upon reading this post however, I am wondering about how culture and societal contract overlap and where they don’t. Worth more exploration.

    Your blog always makes me think (and makes me bold to write what I would normally think too complex to write; I don’t always publish those pieces but that day will come too). :-)

  2. Thanks Shefaly. I’ve always considered the blog as somewhere I can expose my thoughts “provisionally”, somewhere where I can refine and hone and improve those thoughts via comments. So in a way the more amorphous the thoughts, the more likely it is that I’ll blog about it.

  3. JP – The Mustard Oil Conspiracy is very scary reading. Monsanto are hardly a well liked Co. here in the UK but that really stinks.

    The Fish recipe looks great – could you suggest a more readily available alternative to Hilsa for my local fishmonger or supermarket?

  4. Bad as the Mustard Oil Conspiracy is, there is nothing new in a government giving exclusive production rights to a commercial entity. As you know the artisanal production of salt was banned in India – exclusive rights were granted to the East India Company. I believe that there used to be extensive restrictions on the milling of flour in parts of Europe. More recently the EU, under health grounds, has banned butchers from slaughtering animals. Various countries have restrictions on the sale of unpasteurized milk and cheese. These are just the things that immediately come to mind, I’m sure there are many others.

Let me know what you think

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