Airline food and descriptions

This was published in Mint using verb-consonant.  An attentive read, said “Surely you mean vowel, not verb.”  Indeed.


‘Mor kuzhambu’ or ‘kadhi’: the name game

Menu descriptions are an art, somewhat like matrimonial ad descriptions

Shoba Narayan Travelling without moving The name of the dish matters. Photo: Thinkstock


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 had 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 Bydegi red chili, 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 soft mushy okra in a sauce that could give a béarnaise a run for its franc.

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 chose will not get pissed off at the disparity between what they thought they’d end up with and what they actually ended 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 “paneer butter masala” is England’s most popular dish. Even if you didn’t know what paneer was, the fact that it has butter helps it along. 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 vowels 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 vowels and consonants. So does “chimichanga,” which follows the same formula: consonant-vowel-consonant-vowel. So does “yakitori,” which uses different vowel-consonant combinations but the same rhythm. As do sushi, dosa, taco, hara bara kebab, biriyani: vowel-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, which, in my view, is why some regional cuisines haven’t taken off as much as they should. They are just so hard to pronounce. Take “morkuzhambu,” which is 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 central government was a bad idea and one that was bound to fail. Similarly, “morkuzhambu,” 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 impacts 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

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  1. Kaushik, nice post, I agree! Shoba, namaste, after a long hiatus.

    Shoba, gosh, I hope you weren’t serious when you said your morkuzhambu was “sublime and better” than my (North Indian, that is) kadhi. OK I get this is your blog and freedom of speech is one thing, but a lot of your readers have you in high regard because of your culinary writing and I sincerely hoped that now (you having moved back to India) would do better than stir up yet another North/South debate!!

    But I am really surprised you compared Delhi folks’ tongues to a drunk dog?? What does that even mean? Delhi folks may try to say the “zha” but it was in Tamil Nadu that during the riots the two government/s, acting through the rioters, painted black over Hindi words. Again – gosh, Shoba, do you really intend to start a nonsensical war here?

    I agree wholeheartedly with Kaushik that what sounds “unfortunate” to you actually sounds delicious to native speakers (and many more others) who like the dishes??

    The most serious problem though is that as a food and travel writer your readers expect you will bring us tales of the tasty/exotic foods **regardless** of what they are called. It is a veritable death blow (more like a self-death blow) if you tell us you shy away from dishes merely because their names sound silly to you??? Travel and travel writing are supposed to broaden your mind and perspective, and so I fully despair if, after 20 years of travel writing, it is reduced to this!

    Gosh Shoba I always thought you to be the broad-minded, feminist (yes even after the debates), modern woman. I dearly hope Shoba Narayan isn’t reduced to merely a manjal-kumkumam mami!


  2. Shoba morkuzhambu and poricha kootu may represent all the glorious/delicious things to you, probably because you are South Indian (and only that) and those things represent your childhood memories or things you somehow grew to identify with.

    Kadhi may seem like a “lesser” term to you but to a North Indian whose mother made the best kadhi it means exactly what your glorious poricha-kootu means. Bratwurst, dim sum (really, something dim that could be likeable), kimchi, profiterole, nasi goreng, ratatouille – each of these terms have a very specific, personal and delicious connotation in **that language**. You are not a Hindi or German or French speaker (and no saying “namaste mera naam XYZ hai” does not count) so I do not think it is fair for you to equate som kruap with crap? How would you feel if a Hindi speaker equated poricha kootu as some sort of dog (kutti) or morkuzhambu as kuen mein mar (die in the well)??

    You can romanize or transliterate Indic language words which naturally have alternating vowel consonants, but surely they don’t apply across the board to, say, goulash or borscht – the latter a matter of personal and pride and preference by millions of Russians because it reminds them of their mother??

    I guess the real message (and my intent) is to say this. Food is a soul connection. Its particular name may be a linguistic restriction. But in today’s world everyone ought to strive to *learn* those names without blinders or crutches or other myopic distortions and try to appreciate that about it. Every dish in the world has special meaning to the mother who once made it affectionately for their child, and to the child that remembers that even when the mother is gone.

    Tagore once wrote about the dreary desert sands of dead habit. I think he also meant the dreary “dessert” sands of dead habit.

    Bon appetit.


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