Monday 21 February 2022

From Panchatantra to Popeye, we owe our liking to food because of tales and cartoons

Kheer, khichdi, and Scooby snacks, the many foods that played a role in our childhood.

Have you ever wondered what the rose apple from Panchatantra’s ‘the monkey and the crocodile’ tastes like? Or what you could eat from the picnic spread in Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series? Even the plump, shiny, red apple from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves looked appetising, although it was poisoned. A lot about food has been seeped into our minds at a very young age – be it through cartoons, fairy tales, comic books, folklore, rhymes and bedtime stories.

From the witch’s house made of gingerbread, cake, and candy in Hansel and Gretel to Raja Hooja’s laddoos in Tinkle comics’ Tantri the Mantri, these stories were written with an idea that goes beyond just being a casual read….

A lot about food has seeped into our minds at a very young age... Image Credit: Shutterstock

A means to connect, eat and learn about food

Gulf News Food caught up with Rakesh Raghunathan, a food historian and raconteur based out of Chennai in India, who said that food bridged the gap between people, especially because people were opening up to the idea of various regional meals. “Folklores helped people connect to food easily, be it through temple prasadams or just prepared at home. The Hindu mythology, especially, had a very strong role in shaping meal patterns, where they would talk about how deities like certain ingredients like butter and dairy, which encourage people to eat the same. It also brought to light what was available in that region.

“If you look at ancient texts in Sangam literature from Tamil Nadu, it’s not just about how old certain ingredients are, it also emphasises how they are used in cooking. When it comes to children, these tales helped in getting them to eat, of course, but it helped in getting them to understand the ingredients and stir their imagination. Like the moral-based story of the grand mum, crow and fox really helped in picturing what a vada looks like.”

Raghunathan highlights that most of these stories follow a very similar pattern as well. “It would often be moral-based stories, with animals as the protagonists and the story would often surround food. I think it is a great way to help children understand their food better. Today, it’s much more elaborate and I think children like that a lot.”

We also spoke to 40-year-old Ratika Bhargava, who runs a social media page called 'CauldronSisterss' with her sister Riccha Khetan, which feature Indian food recipes inspired by fables and fairy tales. The sisters, who are from Jaipur in Rajasthan, India, said these folktales and stories shaped their passion for all things food. “When my sister and I were young, our grandmother used to tell us a lot of stories. She was paralysed at the time, but she always told us stories from Panchatantra when we went up to her.

“One story which we fondly remember is ‘Ganesh ji ki kheer’. The story is basically that the Hindu deity Ganesh takes the form of a little boy and comes to a village, where the people are getting ready to prepare for Ganeshotsav or the festival of Ganesh. Seeing this from the skies above, the deity Ganesh, decides to have a little fun with the people and disguised himself as a small, poor boy. As he descended from the skies in his new form, all he had with him was teaspoon of milk, a grain of rice and a pinch of sugar. While he went around the village asking for someone to help him make kheer or rice pudding, all the villagers mocked him except for an old woman.

“She helps the little boy out by making kheer out of what he has and suddenly the vessel starts overflowing with kheer. It’s a story that made us try out kheer for the first time and we would eat saying it’s a blessing from Ganesh. The idiom, ‘ganeshji ki kheer ho gayi hai’, is also often used among our families, when something happens in abundance. It’s because of this story that we actually understood that you only need three ingredients to make this dish.”

Bhargava believes that food stories hold the power to strengthen one’s relationship with food. She also added that it adds to the culinary choices we make growing up.

“Another story which really stuck to us was Birbal’s Khichri. We have loved khichri since then, and today we’ve experimented with it so much that we have over 60 ways to make it,” she added.

Stories layered with many meanings

These stories used food as a means to encourage children to eat their meals, learn about different kinds of food, thus reducing the fuss that comes in eating and finishing a meal. In addition to this, it also told of social issues along with a region’s culinary traditions and practises.

Raghunathan fondly remembers the story of kozhukattai, a rice dumpling made with a sweet filling using coconut, jaggery and cardamom, which was told to him by his mum, as a child. “The story of kozhukkattai is actually a tale of many meanings. The story talks about a man who eats a kozhukattai and learns about its name for the first time. On his way back home, he repeats it to himself in order to remember it. However, he jumps across a small stream of water and utters the word ‘athiribacha’ during the jump, forgetting what he had memorised. So, when he reaches home, he tells his wife he loved eating athiribacha and she should make it for him.

“Unable to understand what he meant, the husband beats her up, outraged by her impudence. Soon, the couple’s neighbour comes over after hearing the commotion, to which he says after seeing her injured forehead: ‘your head is swollen like a kozhukattai’. This story not only taught children about the dish and its ingredients, but also underlines the problematic issue of patriarchy that was prevalent in the south at the time.”

The story also tells readers about the abundance of rice and the use of coconut in south India. However, Kozhukattai, has a different story in the North, where the protagonist is the Hindu deity Ganesh, and the dumpling goes by the name ukadiche modak.

It’s not just fables, but also cartoons

Have you ever wanted to try Scooby snacks just because Shaggy and Scooby-Doo from the cartoon ‘Scooby-Doo’ ate it? Even the multi-layered ham sandwiches did just fine, right? What about the steak and turkey in ‘Tom and Jerry’? If you have wanted to eat them while you watched these cartoons, you are not alone, because so did these UAE kids.

“Yes, Tom and Jerry and Scooby-Doo had really tasty drawings and animations of food. But what I personally loved was the tubby custard Po made from Teletubbies. I’ve always loved that, and I wish I could make it. The same goes for Ratatouille, after I saw the movie titled with the same name. It was just so amazing to watch Remy [the protagonist] make it, you know? However, when I tried it in real life, I didn’t like it when I ate it, as much as I loved watching it being made. It visually helped me understand a little bit about French cuisine, and now I like watching anything that has food in it,” said 24-year-old Dubai-based Indian expatriate and Gulf News reader Karun Mathew.

“Growing up, Cartoon Network of the 1990s was one of the best things that happened to our generation. For instance, Dexter's Laboratory taught us that science was indeed cool. Or Captain Planet was our first environmental studies professor. But my all-time favourite was hands down Scooby doo, and my favourite characters were Shaggy and Scooby as they always depicted that food, especially sandwiches, gave them a certain level of strength to face any problem and get out of any situation. Naturally, I followed that and did not fuss about food ever,” explained 28-year-old Murtaza M P, an Indian expatriate based in Dubai.

“It did not make me hungry as much as it taught me about the importance of eating good food. In my head, food gave us power, hungry or not, you should eat the right foods to be able to function and conquer any situation. When I was a kid and even now, I experiment with sandwiches, it’s the fastest thing to make and watching them mixing different foods together would just help me experiment with my palette, for instance creating my own chicken and waffle sandwich. However, my love for food expanded when I started watching Anime. I watch them on my days off and surprisingly some of them are actual shows that have soulful stories about people and food for instance – shows such as Yakitate, are quite interesting,” he added.

The portrayal of food in her son’s cartoons encouraged 30-year-old Sakina Rokadia, another Indian expat in Dubai, to make hot dogs for her son. “I actually grew up watching Tom and Jerry – their refrigerator would always be so full with cakes, jelly, sausages and pies – and it would actually make me hungry because it was always showing the two chasing each other and that would make me wonder why they want it to so bad. I remember asking my mum to prepare dishes for me after watching them on TV, especially the big pieces of meat that they would show. In fact, my son asked to me to make hot dog for him after seeing it in a cartoon, and was excited to try an avocado based on a cartoon he had seen.”

Rokadia believes that these cartoons are a great tool for children, especially because it increases the awareness of different foods and cultures. “I don’t mind watching cartoons even now. I think it encourages children to know what different kinds of food is available, especially those that are far from the foods that we eat in our culture,” she concluded.

Do you have a dish you love to eat after watching a cartoon or reading a children’s book?

(Source: Gulf News)

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