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Biryani makes way for dhokla

- Kebabs to stay but on separate table

New Delhi, May 25: Nawaz Sharif knows all about how domestic compulsions can thin down diplomatic bills of fare.

So, even if he happens to be a chicken biryani fan, the Pakistani Prime Minister is unlikely to mind the delicacy’s absence from his dinner table at Rashtrapati Bhavan tomorrow, after he arrives to attend Narendra Modi’s swearing-in.

But if he is indeed disappointed, there will be the kela methi nu shaak — representing his Indian opposite number’s home state of Gujarat —to remind him that in politics, one must take the rough with the smooth, the bitter with the sweet.

The vegetarian dish offsets the bitterness of methi (fenugreek) with the sweetness of the slightly overripe kela (bananas).

If the Gujarati course doesn’t impress, maybe the Bengali will. For, the home state of President Pranab Mukherjee, the host, has not been left out of the spread planned for three heads of state, five heads of government and a foreign Speaker. Potoler dolma, take a bow.

But it is the man of the moment whose stamp will be felt the most on the menus for the high tea that follows the swearing-in and the dinner afterwards for the VVIPs. Both will be “predominantly vegetarian” — mirroring Modi’s eating habits — confessed Omita Paul, secretary to the President.

Yet the chicken biryani’s goose is likely to have been cooked more by politics than the preferences of green palates.

Modi, campaigning on May 2, had accused the Manmohan Singh government of “serving chicken biryani” to Sharif’s predecessor Raja Pervez Ashraf last year “while Pakistan beheads our soldiers”. Ashraf had come on a private trip to visit Ajmer Sharif.

After Modi invited Sharif last week, Congress leader Shashi Tharoor tweeted that he hoped the Indian leader would serve chicken biryani to his Pakistani guest. It’s possible that the biryani of contention was left out to avoid snide comments.

Biryani’s loss, however, may have been dhokla’s gain. “Now, Gujarati will be spoken in PMO. You will also find khaman-dhokla,” Modi had told the Gujarat Assembly last week.

Sure enough, the Gujarati snack figures among the fare chosen for the high tea. Asked if Modi had a hand, a diplomatic Omita Paul protested: “No, no, it is a voluntary action.”

If biryani has been banished, mutton shami kabab — the lone flag-bearer for non-veg food at the high tea — has been fenced, as it were. It would be kept “separately” so that no vegetarian picks it up by mistake, Paul said.

The Rashtrapati Bhavan organisers have striven hard to provide the dinner with an all-India flavour. The menu starts with chilled watermelon soup and includes tandoori alu, arbi-ke-kabab, vegetable stew, kadhi, birbali kofta, jaipuri bhindi and dal makhani.

Sharif has a limited range of non-veg options. There are two kinds of kebabs — chicken hazarvi kabab and gilawati kabab — as well as prawn stew (Kerala) and chicken chettinad (a hot and spicy dish from Tamil Nadu).

“It’s a mix of vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes drawn from different parts of the country. It’s a nice and austere menu,” Paul declared.

She said it was a “huge logistic challenge” to organise the swearing-in, the biggest ever event to be hosted by the President’s House.

“Two swearing-ins have (earlier) taken place on the forecourt but the guest list had been limited to 1,200-1,300. This is the first time we are arranging for 4,000 guests,” Paul said. Sources had earlier said there would be 2,500 guests.

Mukherjee is learnt to be very excited to host an event of such a scale. “President Pranab Mukherjee feels that Rashtrapati Bhavan belongs to the people. He wants that people should come and see what happens in Rashtrapati Bhavan,” Paul said.

Her only worry was the weather — a cloudy sky and thundershowers have been forecast for tomorrow evening. The swearing-in starts under an open sky at 6pm.

“We are all praying to God that it doesn’t rain,” Paul said, adding that the event would otherwise have to be shifted to the Darbar Hall, which can seat just 500.

What about the heat, if it doesn’t rain? “Little can be done about it,” Paul said.

“We have arranged fans…. People can have a sauna effect,” she joked.