NEW DELHI – The principal economic adviser to the Finance Ministry, Sanjeev Sanyal, has joined a phalanx of celebrities, from Indian Americans Mindy Kaling and Padma Lakshmi to Preet Bharara, aiming slingshots at Gene Weingarten, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post humor columnist who was little known in this part of the world till he dissed Indian 'curries', saying they "taste like something that could knock a vulture off a meat wagon.”
Referring to Weingarten's original assertion (since removed by the newspaper) that Indian cuisine, which he equated with curries, was "the only ethnic cuisine in the world insanely based entirely on one spice,” Sanyal tweeted on Aug. 26: "But the Europeans loved the one spice so much that they ended up discovering America. P.S. Mughals brought 'one spice' to India."
Sanyal was pointing to pepper, in search of which Christopher Columbus, a Genovese navigator employed by the Spanish co-sovereigns Isabella I of Castille and Ferdinand II of Aragon, set off on what he thought was an expedition to India, but landed instead in what is now called the Bahamas in 1492.
Columbus was following the wrong maps (and Sanyal says in his Twitter profile that he's a collector of old maps), unlike Vasco Da Gama, who actually reached Calicut (Kozhikode) in 1498. Of course, Sanyal's assertion that the Mughals brought "one spice" to India set off a Twitter kerfuffle, but that's another story.
Ironically, Weingarten has bracketed Indian 'curries' with many other food items, from balsamic vinegar, which should have upset the Italians (they chose not to take notice of it!) to 'California rolls' ("garbage sushi") and "pizza or hot dog with more than two toppings". It was his rant against Indian food that got the goat of cookery show host and food writer Padma Lakshmi, who promptly penned a riposte that the Washington Post carried.
Calling the writer "racist and lazy" and his article "simply not funny,” Lakshmi said the "self-described 'epistemologist' – one who studies the construction of knowledge – betrayed himself as a man who does not think to do a rudimentary Google search on something about which he knows nothing.” She then went on to give a potted history of Indian food, its many spices and infinite variety. Lakshmi, in fact, has written an encyclopedia of spices and herbs, among other books.
Comedian and Hollywood producer Mindy Kaling, likewise, did not pull back her punches. "You don't like a cuisine? Fine. But it's so weird to feel defiantly proud of not liking a cuisine." Ashok Bajaj, who owns the acclaimed Washington, D.C. restaurant Rasika, where Weingarten apparently had a meal he did not like, was gentler in his response.
"I look forward to converting him as well as I've converted, I would say, thousands of non-Indian fans before," Bajaj said to the Washingtonian magazine, inviting the columnist to have a meal with him at Rasika. Bajaj, incidentally, introduced the American political elite to Indian food after he opened the Bombay Club restaurant in the U.S. capital in 1989.
Stung by all this criticism, Weingarten issued an abject apology on Twitter, calling himself "a whining infantile ignorant d***head" and then going on to add: "I should have named a single Indian dish, not the whole cuisine, and I do see how that broad-brush was insulting. Apologies. (Also, yes, curries are spice blends, not spices.)"
The apology, clearly, hasn't put the controversy to rest.