Raja Rasoi aur Anya Kahaniyan: How a food show that mixes politics and poetry gave me lifelong travel goals
'I write and produce a food show myself, so it’s hard for me to watch something in the same genre without feeling an aftertaste of jealousy and the sort of mild anger that someone out there is doing something you want to do better than you are.'
"Good food is like music you can taste, colour you can smell." Ratatouille gets us. In this series 'Food for Film,' we pick food films/shows that make our mouths water and our souls richer.
I think the real test of a food show is how meticulously a viewer plans a meal around it. The joy of coordinating super slow motion shots of some gelatinous cut of meat stewing away to glory in an unpronounceable country with my vanilla-bland Swiggy order has been one of my personal highlights of the pandemic.
Three foreign food shows have passed this test for me: Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, a political show compellingly disguised as a food show, David Gelb’s rebranding of chefs as auteurs through five seasons of Chef’s Table, and lastly, BuzzFeed’s Worth It, a crash course of understanding the internet’s relationship with price point, banter, and food.
That is before Netflix acquired the first season of EPIC Channel’s Raja Rasoi aur Anya Kahaniyan. Written by Raghav Khanna and directed by Akshay Pillai, the show traces the roots of some of India’s most iconic dishes from the kingdoms they developed from. I binged through 11 episodes in a day straight, marveling at the depth of their research as well as how poetically the show had been written.
I should reveal at this point that I write and produce a food show myself, so it’s hard for me to watch something in the same genre without feeling an aftertaste of jealousy and the sort of mild anger that someone out there is doing something you want to do better than you are.
Indian travel food shows have always seen either a chef or a host play lead actor instead of the food. They’ve been formulaic to the point where you know exactly how every episode will pan out. A chef will visit a famous restaurant or a home where they will learn a dish and try to recreate it in a studio kitchen with a horrendous improvisation that’ll send shudders of cringe through every self respecting member of the region it came from. Raja Rasoi breathes life into all the 11 regions it covers in its first season. Every episode is built on the shoulders of historians, as prominent as Pushpesh Pant, contextualising why and how a certain dish came to be and continued to stay. Members of both once-royal families from whose kitchens the dishes came to life as well as restaurant owners who are widely regarded as masters of making the same dish today are featured to make someone watching get a naturally flowing progression of how cuisine changed from the past to the present.
I think what makes the show truly stand out is its voiceover. I personally find voiceovers littered with B-roll painfully boring filmmaking, but Raja Rasoi’s voiceovers are written in the sort of prose you’d expect to find in a Pu La Deshpande novel. Blending both Hindi and Urdu in bits, the voiceover of the show almost becomes a character through the series, breathing warmth and snarky fun at our past. Take, for example, this great description of a samosa in Delhi “Hinduon ne samose mei meat ki jagah aaloo thusna shuru kiya. Aur ek besharam mehman ki tarah tab se samose mei baitha rehta hai” (Hindus started stuffing samosas with potatoes instead of meat. And since then, the potato has sat shamelessly in the samosa like an uninvited guest).
I planned my first road trip based on the Tamil Nadu (Tanjore) episode of the show, and it paid incredible dividends. I chanced to eat at Meenakshi Meiyappan’s Bangala (one of the bastions of Chettiyar cuisine), and I can safely say that it’s one of the best restaurants in India, hidden away in Karaikudi. From trying out a fiery crab rasam that’s certain to heal any throat ailment you’ve ever had to an actual Chettinad pepper chicken, that was like tasting a real mango after having packaged mango juice all my life, the show has gifted me 10 more road trips waiting to happen through the rest of my life.
It also broke my preconceived notions of India as a primarily vegetarian country as I realised Tamil Nadu cooks rabbit, turkey, quail, lamb, and offal with incredible proficiency.
On another occasion, I found myself in the home kitchen of Manzilat in Kolkata, the last descendant of Wajid Ali Shah, who now serves the Tunday Kebab that was once created for her ancestors in an unassuming restaurant (her home), a meal that felt like Shelley’s Ozymandias on a plate.
Indian television, especially non-fiction, is not the best medium to test the boundaries of one’s creativity. Censorship, tight budgets, and network rules work as a three-headed monster in unison, attempting to strike off several ideas right in the bud. Raja Rasoi manages to be a truly original voice in Indian food television programming. Give it a shot, and don’t forget to keep your Swiggy on standby while you watch it.
Read more from the Food for Film series here.
Sumedh Natu is a producer, director, and comic, who currently makes the Netflix India YouTube Show Menu Please
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