Food war

There are fights and fights - for borders, for establishing ethnicity, but the fight over parentage of foods is on another plane, foodies observe with interest, writes Ranjita Biswas

By Ranjita Biswas

The Ukrainian war is almost four months old and experts say it might drag on for some time to come. Meanwhile other fronts of the war have opened up, the latest being  the right to the signature soup called ‘Borscht’ in eastern Europe.

Nalen Gur Rosogollas

Recently, Unesco has recognized the beetroot-based soup of Ukraine as an endangered cultural heritage. This stamp of approval, or recognition, has been hotly debated by Russia which claims that borscht is native to their country. For the people of Ukraine meanwhile it is something to cheer about in the current air of gloom.

According to the,  “Although borscht is important in Russian and Polish cuisines, Ukraine is frequently cited as its place of origin. Its name is thought to be derived from the Slavic word for the cow parsnip, or common hogweed .. or from a fermented beverage derived from that plant. The more-palatable cultivated beet eventually replaced the wild cow parsnip as the basis of the soup.”

War over food- or its original region/country is not new. Recently, the European Union’s top court ruled that Feta cheese, that much-loved addition for many a salad or hors d’oeuvres, has its parent in Greece. It reprimanded Denmark for not blocking some local companies from using the name for sales outside the EU. Feta has been designated as a traditional Greek product by the EU since 2002.

Greece has always insisted that feta cheese is their  very own heritage, the making of which goes back to 6,000 years. However, it is a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) product, that is, only cheese made in some areas of Greece can be called ‘feta’.

Feta is produced in blocks and is firm to the touch. However, it can crumble when cut and has a creamy mouth feel.

The cheese is made with milk from sheep and goats raised on local grass. These particular regions lend the cheese its unique characteristics. Feta’s taste is slightly tangy and sharper when it is made with sheep’s milk, but milder when combined with goat’s milk.

The name ‘feta’ (slice) started to be used by Greeks in the 17th century. It probably refers to the practice of slicing up cheese to be placed into barrels or to the method of cutting the cheese in thin slices to serve on a plate.

Borscht can be served hot or cold. It is usually served with sour cream and sometimes dill. Image: Liz West /Wikipedia Creative Commons

According to Homer’s Odyssey, one-eyed Cyclope Polyphemus, a giant and shepherd, was the first to prepare cheese and more specifically, feta cheese. Polyphemus was carrying the milk that he collected from his sheep in lambskins of animals, until one day he realized that the milk had curdled and had taken a solid form.

Ancient Greeks, using the same general technique of storage in brine, produced a type of feta by sheep’s milk. Feta finds first recorded in the Byzantine Empire, under the name prosphatos (‘recent’, or fresh), and was associated specifically with Crete. An Italian visitor to Herakleion of Crete in 1494 describes the feta storage in brine.

The war over a beloved food item or cuisine would not be unfamiliar to the people living in eastern India and of a ‘bitter’ food war, over a sweet! Rosogolla, the spongy cottage cheese balls swimming in sugar syrup, a favourite with  Bengalis anywhere in the world and others as well, . The history of its ‘accidental’ making is attributed to Nabin Chandra Das, legendary forefather of the well- known sweetmeat maker K. C. Das family.

For long, like the Durga puja, rosogolla  has been  synonymous with Bengal, be it in Bollywood films with comedian Asit Sen gleefully gulping down  a number of them at a time, or in literature. But some years ago Odisha claimed that rosogolla, in fact, was  offered in the Lord Jagananth temple in Puri from the 12th century onwards and  so it could not be called of Calcutta/Bengal origin.

Arguments and counter-arguments in courts followed and ultimately in 2017, Bengal was accorded the GI (Geographical Indicator) status for ‘Banglar Rosogolla’, which is different in texture and taste from Odisha’s version.

Who knows if another sword fencing would ensue around panta bhaat , the age-old fermented rice, favourite with farmers on both sides of the Ganga i.e. Bangladesh and Bengal. The soaked rice, usually kept overnight, gets slightly fermented and is cooling for the body. Hence farmers prefer to have it in the morning before setting out to the field in the hot summer. Usually, the rice is eaten with a spoonful of mustard oil, slices of onion and green chillies. This dish is equally popular in the rustic homes of Assam where it is known as poita bhaat and Odisha (pakhala).

Lately, the humble panta bhaat has been featured even in star hotel menus. In Bangladesh, it has become almost de rigueur to eat panta bhaat and hilsa fish fry on the Bengali New Year’s Day in April.

For the foodies, the slogan would be, as long as you get the authentic food, who cares for the wars?

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