It starts innocuously enough, as parties often do, with a single invitation. A friend comes into town and you invite her for a meal. Mutual friends introduce you to a cool couple and you ask them over for drinks. Your spouse raves about a new colleague—be it a Sarah, Sohail, Sohrab or Sriram—and you want to get to know that person better. So you make a phone call and proffer an invitation, which is accepted. And then, the whole thing unspools. You start thinking of people who might enjoy meeting this Sohail or Sriram, and call a few more friends; and a few more; till the guest list grows to 25 or 40, depending on your crowd tolerance and the capacity of your home. By then, your tête-à-tête with the new guy in town is long gone. The quiet meal has turned into a full-fledged production.
The problem with large parties, particularly if they are Indian ones, is our food; and the Indian obsession with hot food. You know—and I say this with a certain level of bitterness—I wish I were Lebanese. Wouldn’t it be fabulous to throw together some meze well before the party? Some labane, hummus, tabouli, baba ganoush, all of which are traditionally served cold. You could fill your table with cold meze and focus on the one hot dish, perhaps some meaty kebabs. That’s it. You are done.
Tongue-tied: Indian menus are a minefield for every party host.
South Indian food is entirely a different matter. I recently had about 20 people over for breakfast. We served idlis, vadas, dosas, coffee—all south Indian core competencies with respect to food. That wasn’t the problem. The problem was the conversation; or rather, my conversation.
I always marvel at hosts who are relaxed to the point of insouciance at their parties. Even if they are catered affairs, most hosts end up having to look after last-minute nit-picky details. Someone has a food allergy and you have to check which dish has peanuts. A kid shows off his prowess at projectile vomiting right on the lady in Dior. A senior citizen needs to eat before the oven is warmed and you scramble. In between, you try to connect your guests to like-minded folks, offering introductions and a generous dose of compliments to lubricate the process. That’s as it should be. Not at my house though. In my house, I cannot get beyond the vadas. I don’t stand around, drink in hand, uttering scintillating witticisms that have my guests guffawing. At my parties, I rush around like a maniac, parroting the same sentence ad nauseum. “Have a hot vada.”
Also Read Shoba Narayan’s previous Lounge columns
The problem, you see, is this. Many of our Indian appetizers need to be eaten hot. To eat a cold cutlet or a bonda is like downing stale vodka. It lacks punch and flavour. You might as well not drink the darn thing unless you are parched, Russian, or hungover. A piping hot bhajiya, cutlet, vada or pakora, on the other hand, is a beautiful creation with one purpose in life: to go as quickly as possible from the hot oil to a receptive plate. Since you as the host are the carrier of this particular hot item, you feel its urgency. You rush out of the kitchen, a plate of hot bhajiyas in hand, your eyes like a zombie in search of high-quality Himalayan hashish. You plead, cajole, threaten and guilt your hapless guests into accepting the hot bhajiyas that are fairly throbbing on your serving platter like live fish taking their last gasping breath. Eat me, they say. Put me out of my misery. So you interrupt conversations. When someone says “No, thank you,” you chide them gently. “What is it? You don’t like my food,” you ask. Naturally, they have to accept. You drop the hot vada on the plate and go your merry way.
The only other place I have witnessed this sort of display was at the cult Herbfarm restaurant near Seattle when chef Jerry Traunfeld was cooking there. Servers used to rush out of the kitchen with synchronized urgency, carrying plates of hot zucchini flower fritters, sprinkled with some fleur de sel (expensive salt in plain English) that tasted divine. Traunfeld has since opened his own restaurant called Poppy in Seattle, which serves Indian-style thali, except the food is American. I haven’t dined there but I hope he retained his zucchini fritters that reminded me so much of home nearly a dozen years ago. Unlike Traunfeld, I don’t have a synchronized staff, and have to cater to the vada’s desire to find a beguiling mouth all on my own, or with stalwart help from a visiting mom-in-law. As a result, my mind, at parties, goes blank. All I care about is the vadas.
Party conversations are an interesting exercise, a delicate dance if you will. It is a public arena; a mixed group of people, some of whom you know well and others you’ve just met. What do you say? Conversations in such an environment can sing; or remain stilted—which is why humans invented social lubricants. To say something interesting, even insightful, to a group of people you’ve just met requires thinking on your feet and guaging the audience. People who are good at this end up as diplomats or news anchors.
Good conversationalists at parties typically draw other people out through non-intrusive questions. Even better are the raconteurs who are able to turn something that’s in the news—the Obama visit, for instance—into a colourful story. Best of all are those blessed with a sense of humour. The men and women with a light heart and blithe spirit; the ones who can make you laugh. There were a few of those at my party. My response? “Have a hot vada.”
Shoba Narayan is not going to be serving vadas at her parties any more. Instead, she is going to practise being a good raconteur. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org