Menu descriptions are an art, somewhat like matrimonial ad descriptions
The unfairness of menu descriptions struck me on a recent flight. Here is the menu that was handed out to us on British Airways. “Seared fillet of British lamb with béarnaise sauce, roasted potatoes, runner beans and butternut squash."
I am vegetarian but the sound of this got my saliva tingling. I could imagine a proud British lamb giving itself up for the sake of airline pride and the warm enveloping company of béarnaise sauce. As for the sides, the roasted potatoes alone would have gotten me to raise my hands and say, “Yes, please. Me first."
Here is what is on offer on the other side of the food-preference aisle: “Cabbage and pea curry with coconut rice and tamarind okra." Not bad, you may think. A little insipid but then again, what can you expect with vegetarian food? Here is where the unfairness kicks in. Consider the same description in its native language, Tamil, helpfully transcribed on the menu as well: “kosu-pattani poricha kootu; thengai sadam; and vendakkai puli kuzhambu".
You may pity my culinary choice, but I’ll tell you this: The Tamil version of the menu is a lot more apt and exciting. Curry is not the same thing as poricha kootu, a glorious concoction of slow-roasted and ground dals with a sprig of Byadgi red chilli, a handful of cumin seeds, and grated coconut, all tempered with fragrant curry leaves and dancing black mustard seeds. Does that make your mouth water? As for the “tamarind okra" on the menu, the Tamil puli kuzhambu is a robust, tart dish with okra in a sauce that could give a béarnaise a run for its euro.
Menu descriptions are an art, somewhat like matrimonial ad descriptions. You have to make the candidate enticing enough to be chosen and yet realistic enough so that the person who chooses will not get angry at the disparity between what they thought they would end up with and what they actually end up with. You have to capture the essence of the person or dish without giving away too many secrets or revealing essential flaws. But where menu and matrimony part ways in the description arena is the musicality of the words. “Wheatish complexion" sounds horrible but has been used for decades to describe a shade between brown and black. Words for dishes, however, have to sound musical. There is a reason why chicken tikka masala is England’s most popular dish. Even if you didn’t know what tikka was, the name is musical enough and having masala in the name helps. Somewhat like saying “seven-figure salary" in a matrimonial ad. No matter what follows after, the candidate is a winner. Masala just sounds musical. It all boils down to the number of verbs per consonant.
Here is the formula. “A" is the best letter to have in a dish followed by “I" because these two letters open up the mouth and mind: Masala has an equal number of verbs and consonants. So does chimichanga, which follows the same formula: consonant-verb-consonant-verb. So does yakitori, which uses different verb-consonant combinations but the same rhythm. As do sushi, dosa, taco, hara bhara kebab, biryani: verb-consonant alternates all.
Some dishes live and die by the associations they create in the mind. Take tom yum soup. What does the word “yum" bring to mind? Good stuff, right? If you were confronted with tom yum and som kruap, you are likely to pick something that sounds yum instead of sounding like, well, crap. Even the poricha kootu that I waxed eloquent about doesn’t sound good—in my view this is why some regional cuisines haven’t taken off the way they should. The dishes are just so hard to pronounce.
Take mor kuzhambu, a sublime and better version of the north Indian kadhi. Delhi folks have trouble with any Tamil word that has the letter “z" in it. Their tongues just roll up and lie down like a drunk dog. Naming someone “Azhagiri" and sending him off to the Union government was a bad idea and one that was bound to fail. Similarly, mor kuzhambu requires surgical modification before it can become acceptable. One way would be to take out the problematic letters: r and z, and replace them with letters than are easier on the tongue. “More kulambu" reads and sounds easier.
Some languages sound unfortunate and this has its effect on their dishes. Take bratwurst, for instance. I have never tasted it. I wouldn’t want to taste something called “brat" and worst. Kung pao chicken sounds like a cat’s meow, and I don’t mean that as a compliment. When I do search out foods in a foreign land, I almost always turn to the nice-sounding ones; which is perhaps why I don’t drink borscht nearly as much as I could and why it hasn’t taken off globally. When it comes right down to it, the name of the dish matters nearly as much as the taste.
Shoba Narayan loves mor kuzhambu. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.