The Culinary Art of Dinner Diplomacy
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The Culinary Art of Dinner Diplomacy

June 6, 2024

By Girija Madhavan

Breaking Bread together” is a phrase that from ancient times has been a symbol of amity and fellowship. In 1959, when I became an Indian Foreign Service wife at the age of twenty-one, I realised that hospitality, both proffered and enjoyed, would be a large part of my diplomatic life. Being sentimental, I saved some Invitation Cards we received as mementoes; also, as a record of our own diplomatic journey through the years and a reflection of changing attitudes to food and entertaining.

I picked some invitations for their aesthetic or evocative memories; including the very first one that my husband, A. Madhavan, and I received at the start of our career in Burma, now Myanmar.

Our London posting is marked by an invitation from the British Chancellor to foreign diplomats accredited to Britain, to a garden party at Buckingham Palace. It brings back memories of white marquees on emerald lawns, strawberry delights and meeting actor Vyjayanthimala there.

President Giscard d’Estaing and Mme d’Estaing visited India in 1980 during the regime of the late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and President Sanjiva Reddy hosted a Banquet at Rashtrapati Bhavan for the occasion. The menu lists “Stuffed Rohu” followed by “Mutton Hyderabadi Biriyani, Chicken Anarkali and Seekh Kabab” with suitable accompaniments and Indian sweets for dessert.

When the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Mrs. Sonia Gandhi visited Tokyo in 1985, Japan’s Prime Minister and Mrs. Nakasone hosted a dinner for them, the invitation cards reflecting the elegance of the event. The menu, written in French, started with “Consommé [soup], Steamed Fish, Rack of Lamb with Thyme” and a chocolate based sweet. French wines enhanced the meal.

During their visit to Germany in June 1988, the Gandhis were guests at a banquet given by Minister President Franz Josef Strauss in Munich, Bavaria. Specially chosen German wines complemented the flavours of Herb Soup, Asparagus, Breast of Duckling and accompaniments, Fruit with Lemon Parfait. That Menu Card is the star of my collection.

Menu Cover for the Banquet in Bavaria for late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Mrs. Sonia Gandhi featuring the Antiquarium.

The dinner was held in the “Antiquarium of the Residenz” in Munich. Built by Duke Albrecht during the years 1568-71, the great hall displays the Duke’s collection of antique sculptures in embrasures along the wall. The long dining table was decorated with candles and flowers, blooms of White and Blue, the colours of Bavaria, alternating with those of the Indian Tricolour. At the far end music, was played on antique Bavarian musical instruments by the Munich Rococo Soloists, a rare treat for a Mysorean like me.

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Years ago, as a new entrant to culinary diplomacy, I was advised by a retired, elderly diplomat how to present Indian culture in Food. He said, “Give them Pukka Khana”; he meant rich meat curries, rice dishes, chicken and fish; desserts redolent with ghee and saffron. “No Ghaas Phoos” [greens] he added with an admonitory wag of his finger. But now we proudly present our vegetarian dishes to our guests. My friend, Ghizala Jung from Hyderabad generously shared with me her special recipe for “Bagara Baingan”, an aubergine dish, which became a “hot” favourite with our German guests.

The spectrum of change was completed in June 2023, when a vegetarian dinner at the White House for Prime Minister Modi was specially created by Chef Nina Curtis and Mrs. Biden. It featured “Crisped Millet Cakes, Stuffed Portobello Mushrooms, Saffron Risotto” with elaborate side dishes to enhance the entrée, ending with “Cardamom flavoured Strawberry Shortcake”.

Later on, at the UAE President’s State Banquet for Prime Minister Modi, a vegetarian meal was served; an innovative departure from the famed meat based Arab delicacies. Starting with Grilled Vegetables, the main course was Harees [a wheat-based dish], accompanied by Black Lentils and Tandoori Vegetables. Fresh fruit concluded the meal.

Formal diplomatic gatherings generally finish fairly early. These dinners that I attended were like snatches from the Cinderella story; glimpses of royalty and celebrities, the gorgeous interiors of Japan, Rashtrapati Bhavan or the Munich Antiquarium. And, at the striking of the appointed hour, back to everyday life. But those wonderful memories continue to occupy a niche in the mind to revisit later.


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