By Smita Prakash
New Delhi, Apr.7 : Jean Antheleme Brillat-Savarin, in his 1825 work, The Physiology of Taste, wrote, "Tell me what you eat and I will tell you who you are." Our current leaders do not talk much about what their dietery preferences are, though everybody knows that the Father of the Nation survived on the bare minimum and the satvik bhojan that he partook of was a major reason for the disciplined life that he led.
Similarly, India's first Prime Minister, Jawahar Lal Nehru, to the manor born, was not much of a foodie, but veered towards European cuisine. His daughter Indira Gandhi again did not really relish her meals, but was particular that they be served in a proper manner. Her son Rajiv on the other hand would not hesitate in eating a kachori from a roadside dhaba made in the most unhygienic surroundings.
Barely a fortnight before his tragic assassination (May 21, 1991), I covered his campaign in Bhopal and saw him unabashedly polishing off three samosas in a matter of minutes and washing it down with water which I am certain didn't come out of a bottle. I couldn't hide my smile at such simple trust he had on people who thrust food at him. That probably was the way he went through life, trusting all and trusting implicitly.
Sonia Gandhi those days hardly had any security around her, and I once saw her tucking into rajma chaval and spicy pickle in Indian railways foil (foul) meals. Contrary to what one might assume that being Italian she probably prefers salads and pastas, Mrs.Gandhi loves exotic Indian cuisine whether rich marwari or UP style cooking or Kashmiri. Sonia likes to experiment with her food, but watches her weighing scale equally hawkishly.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh watches what he eats so carefully, one wishes he had watched the inflation figure with such minute concern. Spartan to the core, the good doctor likes dahi chaval or kadi chaval, (which incidentally is just the north Indian version of the thayir saadam of the Coromandel Coast). He stays clear of desserts, probably because he is diabetic.
His wife Gursharan Kaur keeps an eagle eye on what he is served when he travels.
That was an impossible task for friends and family who traveled with former Prime Minister Vajpayee. Atalji is a total epicurean. Not at all discriminatory in cuisine selection, he would eat everything that was served to him with such childlike gusto that it had journalists and even foreign dignitaries look on enviously.
Chinese prawns and desi mithai were favorites though for public consumption it was said that khichdi was what he actually liked. After his knee surgery, Atalji was asked to be careful with his diet and exercise regularly, but all good advise fell on deaf ears.
He tucked into his lobsters and laddus with equal relish. I have seen him at banquets pay scant attention to the head of state sitting next to him, but look on with great interest at what was served by the Hyderabad House chefs. The good life sits easy on his ample shoulders.
Mr. Vajpayee's friend and colleague L.K.Advani on the other hand eats very little. A vegetarian by choice, small servings of rice and dal with lauki, kaddu, ghia sabzi is what he eats.
But that is not to say that guests at the Advani household are served that. Mrs. Advani is a legendary hostess so anybody who visits them at meal times is automatically asked to join the family for a meal. And she can rustle up a feast in minutes. Mr. Advani is often seen at the dining hall of the India International Centre or in Sagar, a south Indian restaurant.
He is quite uncomfortable at the ostentatious restaurants of deluxe hotels. During his rath yatras I have seen him drinking butter milk offered by villagers or eating prasad at very small temples. When I asked him if he didn't fear being poisoned or even for his health, he smiled and said that he had complete faith in the poor.
Of other BJP politicians who are known for their food habits are Sushma Swaraj and Vijay Goel, both of whom love desi khana and enjoy serving their guests exotic vegetarian specialties from old Delhi. Gujarat Chief Minister Modi is a spartan eater, but his friend Arun Jaitley likes a well cooked and well served meal.
On the other side of the spectrum, Mayawati ignores gentle advise to go easy on her diet. Mulayam Singh is a vegetarian and a very small eater, but loves a good sarson ka saag. In neighbouring Punjab, former Chief Minister Amarinder Singh is a legendary host and his banquet table groans with the heavy food he serves. Sukhbir Badal and his wife are gracious hosts who are vegetarians but are experimental in what they eat.
Omar Abdullah is often seen in Tony Market in down town New Delhi shopping for food ingredients. But seeing his and wife Payal's slim physique, one doubts whether he really binges on food. Another young politician Jitin Prasada shares none of his father's passion for food. The late Jitendra Prasada, congress stalwart from UP enjoyed rich Mughali food.
One look at chief minister Jayalalitha's frame and you know its not avial that is responsible for that girth. Deve Gowda brought the humble raagi mudde to 7, Race Course Road. Narasimha Rao liked his idli and sambhar every morning.
Once when he was in New York as prime minister, the chefs at the hotel very pointedly asked the PM's chef as to how Mr Rao could eat such spicy food so early in the morning. It was 7a.m. Also from the Deccan, Venkiah Naidu and Jaipal Reddy have often indulged in food diplomacy with the press corps.
The Bengal tigers in the coalition favour their own local cuisines but you know where you will never catch them! At a MacDonald, chomping on, heaven forbid, a multi national made juicy burger! That would be tantamount to agreeing to the Indo-US nuclear deal.