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tanding in line waiting for the buffet at our 14th wedding of the season, I squinted to see the labels of the steaming dishes before me. Butter chicken? Yawn. Beef korma? Not again. Daal makhni? Of course. Peas pulao, naan, raita? Check, check, check. I leaned over to my fiancé and whispered through gritted teeth: “We. Will. NOT. Have. An. Indian. Buffet.”

At that moment, we decided that our wedding was going to be different. No butter chicken; nary a pakora in sight. We were going to go upscale, classy—Italian maybe, or perhaps French. Who really needed Indian food at an Indian wedding, anyway?

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Little did I know that I would live to eat my words—and the butter chicken.

It’s not that we didn’t try. We had an elaborate five-course Italian menu planned out, from antipasti to gelato. The shining china would already be laid at the table; the food would be plated perfectly by invisible servers who would whisk away each finished course and replace it with a delectable new one. Guests would marvel at the porcini mushroom risotto, sigh with pleasure at the first bite of sinful tiramisu. Sparkling conversation would be complemented by the clinking of glasses, and people would listen attentively to the speeches instead of complaining about when their table number would be called.

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The author and her husband at one of their wedding events.

And then … and then we described this delightful vision to our parents. They were having none of it. My mother pursed her lips when she heard the news. She had just one question: “But what will your Nanima eat?”

After facing a similar reaction from my fiancé ‘s parents, we decided to compromise: Indian food, but no buffet. We would have it served to the table, so that guests didn’t have to stand up and mill around in the middle of the reception. It would be so much more … civilized.

The families grudgingly accepted this, until we went together to sign the contract at the reception hall. There, secure in their position as the overruling majority, they cleverly cornered us. Questions rained on us like bullet-fire: Why did we need a sit-down dinner? What if the food got cold in the two hours it would take for our inevitably late guests to arrive? What if guests wanted more than one serving? Would they have to wait for a server? Or, God forbid, would they think we were too cheap to give them more?

We decided that our wedding was going to be different. Who really needed Indian food at an Indian wedding, anyway? Little did I know that I would live to eat my words—and the butter chicken.

Better to do an Indian buffet, they assured us. “People will love the food, and everyone is more comfortable with a buffet. This is the way it’s done.”

And that was when I realized the all-consuming power of food at an Indian wedding. Food is the driving force of the festivities; it is the one thing people will talk about (and complain about) long after your flowers have wilted and your trousseau has been packed up.

But why? I’d resigned myself to the inevitable, but I still couldn’t understand it. Just why was food such a hot topic? After all, none of my Canadian friends went through this when they decided on their menus. Plop a chicken breast and some garlic mashed potatoes on a square white plate, cover it with some fancy compote and they were done. Why was Indian food so much more complicated?

The answer came from an unlikely place: American anthropologist Edward Hall. Simran Bhargava, in her article for Express India, refers to Hall’s theory about high-context and low-context cultures to explain the Indian obsession with weddings and food.

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According to Hall, high-context cultures are marked by lots of touching, high noise levels and constant interruptions (remind you of the last family gathering you went to?). These cultures (including Latin, Greek and Indian) revolve around groups rather than individuals and they believe in putting food and family at the center of life. (Hence my Nanima’s constant urging to eat just one more gulab jamun.)

By contrast, low-context cultures—such as German, Scandinavian and American—tend to be punctual and reserved. They dislike too much touching and noise; they prefer to keep their personal space and boundaries instead. These cultures tend to center around the individual instead of the group; thus food is not needed as the social lubricant to keep groups together.

My fiance and I seriously considered only inviting people from the latter group to our wedding. Unfortunately, our families quickly ruled that out as an option—and so the battles over the nuptial cuisine wore on.

None of my Canadian friends went through this when they decided on their menus. Plop a chicken breast and some garlic mashed potatoes on a square white plate, cover it with some fancy compote and they were done. Why was Indian food so much more complicated?

As I had grimly anticipated, succumbing to the Indian buffet was not nearly the end of our problems. Because my husband and I are from different backgrounds, the question of which dishes to serve inevitably came up as we pondered countless pages of menus.

My in-laws, who come from Pakistan, proposed an appetizer stand serving bhel puri and fruit chaat. My East African parents nodded politely but later revealed to me that they had no idea what that was. My mother suggested goat curry for dinner; my father-in-law was not sure the Pakistani guests would eat goat. Even the one celebratory dish we could all agree on—biryani—was fraught with problems (Layer the rice and curry, Pakistani style? Or serve them separate, African style?). It seemed like everyone had their own idea of what a celebratory feast should include.

I was rapidly learning that the differences in our opinions lay in our different cultures, religions and homelands. In India alone, wedding dishes differ drastically from the North to the South, from Hindus to Muslims. In northern India, Mughlai cooking is the only way to go for a wedding; the Muslim-influenced rich sauces and curries have their roots in ancient Indian aristocracy. Mughlai cuisine emphasizes spice, richness and texture by the use of dry fruits, butter and strong spices. They are also famous for their sumptuous rose-scented desserts such as kulfi.

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By contrast, Bengali cuisine is known for it sumptuous fish dishes. Cookbook author Bharti Kirchner’s lyrical description of an elaborate Bengali wedding meal illustrated this:

The meal starts with papads, just something to munch on, until the rice arrives. The fresh, fragrant rice is served with several vegetable preparations. One might be a chorchori, a simple sauté, another might be a dalna, a more elaborate mixture of vegetables drenched in thick sauce. Luchi (a white-floured puri) may be served at this point with a legume dish, made with moong dahl or split chickpea. Some Bengalis say that a meal is not complete without luchis.

Fish is a symbol of fertility, so the next course naturally will be a fish dish such as doi mach or fish in yogurt sauce. Following that, one is served a korma-style lamb preparation.

At this point, to cleanse the palate, a chutney or two may be served. Most popular are tomato chutney and coriander chutney. Then comes misti doi, a custard-style sweetened yogurt specially prepared in individual clay bowls. And, finally, the sweets – rosgulla and kala jam (a superior version of gulab jam), perhaps a sandesh.

Kirchner also notes the importance of sweets in Bengali cuisine: “For my sister’s wedding, my father hired a sweet maker, rather than buy the sweets. The man set up a shop in our backyard and worked continuously so that the rosgullas and kala jams were served fresh to the guests.”

As complex and involved as Indian wedding dishes can be, many have their roots in practicality

Wow. And I thought the fruit-chaat stand idea was elaborate.

But as complex and involved as Indian wedding dishes can be, many have their roots in practicality. Take the ubiquitous vindaloo, available at every corner take-away shop in London; it had its beginnings as a regal Goan wedding food. According to Indian cooking maven Madhur Jaffrey, the super-spicy vindaloo we know today is hardly characteristic of how this now-humble stew started out. The addition of vinegar in the vindaloo acted as a preserving agent, making it the ideal dish to serve at multi-day weddings.

In fact, this is a common characteristic of many Indian foods, as Jaffrey points out in the British magazine The Observer: “All along the tropical southwestern coast of India I have found wedding and other banquet dishes that use souring agents—tamarinds, the kokum fruit and, of course, vinegar. These wedding foods (which can also be made with fish) are heated up daily to control the bacteria, but never see the inside of a refrigerator.”

Luckily, refrigerators abounded at our wedding, so we didn’t have to use vinegar to keep any of our food fresh. Still, in the end, my fiance and I ended up having a regal Indian wedding, complete with a 10-foot buffet, milling guests, and, of course, the butter chicken. Our guests were enchanted down to the last laddoo. And as we sat there, sipping on mango lassi, we knew we wouldn’t have had it any other way.n

Roxanna Kassam Kara is back on a healthy diet of chicken korma and peas pulao as Indian wedding season heats up again.
Published on June 18, 2007.
Photography: Steven Sager

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  1. September 12, 2007, 7:38 pm nisha Bhatt

    I too thought I would start out with a much more “refined” and “classy” sit down dinner. but as I and my fiancee (who is not indian) found out, they were too many obstacles. In the end its just best to lay it out there, and my non-Indian friends and in laws dabbled in a little of this and that until they found what they liked (they thought a buffet was such a unique great idea!) and the desi’s were just happy there was so much food in between the dancing….worked out better than I would have thought!

  2. November 7, 2007, 11:14 pm tamara cusson

    would love to have a butter chicken recipe thanks.

  3. May 14, 2008, 12:37 pm Ayesha

    Wow this article is exactly what I’m going through. I wanted a nice family style dinner serving and that completely went out the window (including the caterer looking at me weird!)