A quintessential celebration in any culture and era has been the joyful gathering of people, sharing smiles, meals and music. Deeply etched in mankind’s social psyche is the urge to satiate the five senses, and, eventually, transcend them to a higher plane of spiritual gratification, either in the realms of solitude, or in the company of others. Both music and food, just like fragrance, have been one of man’s most favoured mediums of expressing the senses and transcending them, connecting with his being, with his surroundings and, through collective consciousness, dissolving all duality in the bliss of sound and taste.
Indeed, dining and wining along with soulful music form a complete celebration. The legendary Persian poet Omar Khayyam in a famous line says “Jaamiyo Botiyo Barbati Bar Lab Kesht, In Har Se Maraa Naghd, To Ra Nesye Behesht” (The goblet, the damsel and the lute by a verdant field are to me, ready change, like heaven on earth, paradise to you is on credit!)
Just as a classic symphony of sounds is fulfilling to the heart, a tango of tastes exhilarates the senses. While the Sufis of all ages have called music ‘Ghiza-e-rooh’ (food for the soul), each flavour in a well-cooked delicacy resounds with the element of mystic joy that sets a million Mozart minuets ablaze! Like cuisine, musical expressions and sounds too have their unique texture, flavour, temperature and colour. Like food, music too can be classified through the ancient Indian system that speaks of the three qualities ‘Satogun’ (purity/spiritual in nature), ‘Rajogun’ (egoic, material in nature) and ‘Tamogun’ (carnal, primeval in nature) and like music plays a vital role in depicting moods and emotions, blending with the energy levels of different occasions and stages in a man’s life, food too, plays its indispensable part.
As much as a high energy Mediterranean folk tune ushers in spring season, an intoxicating Mishra Pilu through a lovelorn maiden’s voice announces the arrival of her lover; a heart-rendering Celtic lament induces pathos. During periods of prolonged stress of emotional trauma, simple yet energy-rich food works magic while during life’s high-tides, an elaborate decoration of flavours overtakes the senses! It is said that Ram was greeted with a wholesome serving of moong on his return from 14 years of vanvaas to revive him from the fatigue, emotional suffering and heal the prolonged separation. In all cultures, festivals, birthdays, naming and religious initiation ceremonies are incomplete without a hefty serving of sweet.
Just as Indian music highlights nine different rasas (emotions) that are brought out through ragas of different times, seasons and moods, sages of old have spoken about varieties of food that also inherently posses and evokes these fundamental rasas. While India’s spiritual legacy acknowledges both as manifestations of the divine, both are offered in divine service, like prayerful prasad and heartfelt keertans in temples and gurudwaras, spirited qawwalis and degs that feed countless visitors irrespective of their faith and culture in dargahs (mausoleums) of venerated sufi saints. Most faiths across the world have their repertoire of prayers before meals while music is rendered as service to the Almighty and a nourishing holy meal for the worshipper’s soul.
Both cuisine and music have eternally been married, though most connoisseurs of food as well as the musically inclined might often overlook this sublime correlation. To serve both on one platter, we have decided to offer our readers a wholesome degustation of delicacies from diverse regions paired with corresponding indigenous musical expressions that form the quintessential symphony of sumptuous sonorosity!
Home is truly where the hearth is. At ‘Jyran’, the Sofitel’s signature, custom-designed Indian and North-West Frontier restaurant in the Mumbai suburb of Bandra, one is instantly transported to the quaint, dusty mohollas of Luckhnow that resound with the strains of exquisite classicism, flavours off the tandoor blending with the bespoke baithak with the sarangi, tabla and the tanpoora soulfully reverberating.
The subz miloni, a brilliant mixed vegetables tempered with spinach, garlic and cumin unfolds a ghazal silsila by none other than the all-time diva Begum Akhtar. Her unforgettable “Kis Se Poochein, Hum Ne Kahaan Woh, Chehra-E-Roshan Dekha Hai” and “Aye Mohabbat Tere Anjaam Pe Rona Aaya” do justice to a certain royal romance about its flavours reviving the subtle nawaabi mizaaj. The intricate sarangi punctuations, like the interplay of garlic tantalizing the palate, the underlying gravy giving a homogenous base like the tanpoora, dissolving both the rhythm (of the finely tempered vegetables) and the melody (of the creamy carrot and spinach) in the principle swara of the preparation.
While the gilt-edged chooza makkhani (grilled chicken tikka with butter cream and rich tomato gravy) truly makes the historic interaction of two towering monarchs Aftab-e-Mausiqi Ustad Faiyaz Khan and Tabla Nawaz Ustad Ahmed Jan Thirakwa Khan in one of their archival recordings come alive, soft firni with saffron and pistachio bares the sweetness of Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan’s evergreen thumris ‘Aaye Na Balam’ and ‘Yaad Piya Ki Aaye’, the underlying teasing romance enveloping the senses!
Moving westwards to flavours of the Iranian hinterland, Mumbai’s ‘Britannia & Company’, India’s finest and only original Persian restaurant takes you back to the rugged province of Yazd with traditionally trained Persian chef Afshin Kohinoor’s signature national rice delicacy, the zereshk polo, a complete meal in itself like a wholesome symphony of Persian chamber music.
A mix of varied ingredients, each distinct, yet blending into one, the interaction of fried onions, saffron rice, cashew nuts, marble-size kebabs, Persian barberis (imported from Iran) and gravy served either with chicken, mutton, eggs or vegetarian is as enriching a treat as is listening to the introspective classical kamaanche (spike fiddle) solo by maestro Parham Nassehpour in dastgaah homaayun or his famous chahargah, both exceptional in their expressional intellectualism that perfectly matches the temperature and the rich intricateness of the zereshk polo. It is as if each instrument in a Persian classical symphony represents each ingredient, the high-pitched sweetness of the kamaanche brought out by the saffron rice, the rugged tones of the ancient tonbak drum by the cashew nuts that punctuate the sweet and sour barberis closely resembling the tangy aftertaste of the tones of the setar, gravy and kebabs, like the fuller, bolder strains of the plucked Taar.
PERSIAN TONBAK, TAAR AND SANTOOR
A journey from Morocco to the Gulf through Turkey unravels the eternal love affair between music and cuisine. With their souls perpetually soaked in the art of dining, drumming and strumming, Arabs and Turks have made music come alive on their palates!
At the country’s finest Arabo-Levantine restaurant ‘Souk’ at the famous Taj Mahal hotel, a culinary musical journey unfolds with a selection of skilfully prepared mezes (starters consisting of small dishes) paired with exhilarating hummus (chickpeas dip). Seldom do we find a rhythmic element in cuisine. Though both melodies and flavours often represent moods and emotions, it is rare that cuisine embodies rhythm in its essence. Both warm as well as cold mezes, apart from the fact that many are fried and also dry, have the inherent rhythm and can be truly expressed through the music of one of Turkey’s celebrated percussionists, Serdar Bagtir, known for his aesthetically rich improvisations on the darbuka drum.
While the goat skin tonal texture closely matches the underlying coarse earthiness of hummus turki (Turkish hummus), the distinctness of elements and the very evident play of varied flavours in each meze is like the beats of a spontaneously explored, stately chiftetelli, a traditional Turkish rhythm, playing on the palate!
A hearty shish taouk (char grilled chicken cubs served on skewers) enlivens the grandeur of Ottoman classical music with Turkish maverick Mehmet Unal’s freestyle improvisation (Taksim) in makam huzam on the ancient rebab. Completing the culinary seduction is a finale of the all-time, mouth-melting baklava sweetening the senses as does the ethereal voice of Lebanese songstress Fairuz and the subtle romance of her lovelorn renditions, while it would be appropriate to describe the b’stilla au lait, a Moroccan manna as the surreal voice of celebrated Jeudo-Andalusian singer Emil Zrihan’s voice served as sweet puffed pastry with crushed almonds and saffron cream!
GRANDMASTER MEHMET UNAL ON THE OTTOMAN REBAB
Often called the culinary capital of Southern Europe, Italy also boasts of an endearing musical legacy. It is often said that the mentality and belief-systems of the people of a land closely reflect in their cuisine and music. The fun-loving, hardy and hospitable Italian folk passionately rustle-up delights off mama’s oven that reflect their zest for life as they sing, dance and make merry, true to the age-old saying “Si Vive Una Volta Sola!” (We live only once!). Italy is also a treasure house of classical art and music.
One of Italy’s most sought-after signature delights is the truffle. Savouring the eclectic ricotta and mushroom coulis with truffle garnish at ‘Mezzaluna’, the Italian fine dining outlet at the Moevenpick Hotel & Spa in Bangalore resurrects Pavarotti in full glory. The regal splendour of the late maestro’s voice of which the truffle is the most apt depiction with its subtle innate classicism, the sheer emotional depth in his heart-rendering masterpiece nessun dorma and its cajoling passages accompanied by gentle strings play on your palate as the smooth layer of ricotta cheese caresses the mushroom coulis (sauce) that has already settled on the tongue.
For dolce delights, a feather-soft tiramisu with coffee and cinnamon powder, mascarpone cheese and a hint of mint reflects the lighter, jollier side of Italian music with the southern lira calabrese, a three stringed bowed folk instrument and its bubbly, spirited innocence that speaks through the springy and gleeful 6/8 tunes rendered by famed master Domenica Calcopietro in true blue Italian spirit.
Last but not the least, a storehouse of ancient culinary traditions and music, China dazzles with its repertoire of scintillating flavours, textures and mellifluous music, both renowned for their holistic qualities deeply rooted in spiritual traditions.
‘Great Wall’ at The Leela, Mumbai, offers an array of meticulously prepared traditional Chinese delicacies created through a legato of refreshing flavours; a music for the palate! The enchantment of Chinese classical music lies in the exquisite selection of tones, an intricate interplay of expressions and an underlying dreamy calm that gradually envelopes the listener. The same can be said about the cuisine as well, considering its inherently meditative, intricate, gentle nature, closely relating to the flavours of the music along with its therapeutic value.
The bamboo fungus vegetable dumplings closely relates to the erhu, a traditional Chinese spike fiddle with its smooth, delicate, mouth-melting yet wholesome and continuing feel, lingering in its aftertaste like the continuing tone of this ancient bowed instrument. The rich filling of mushroom and vegetables dissolve in the palate just as the meandering passages of the erhu, powerful yet utterly sweet and full of finesse.
The asparagus and enoki mushrooms rolled in cucumber with black pepper is a marriage of three principle diverse ingredients and the flavours of the tones of three Chinese stringed instruments. The fringed radish, the taste of which closely relates to the soft fringe-like tones of the yangqin, the Chinese hammered dulcimer resembling the Indian santoor, the finely fringed carrot, cabbage and lettuce as if imitating the tones of beautiful pipa (fretted stringed lute) and the fuller fringes offered by the asparagus like the strains of the Chinese harp.
Rounding it up with a soul-soothing wok fried sweet walnuts and dragon fruit with gingko nuts is like an instant spell cast by a mythical Chinese legend with lilting operatic vocal solos rendered by silken female voices, calming and cooling to the senses with a sublime healing touch, underlying sweetness and calm.