Why There’s Something Wrong With The Indian Buffet

If you want to make the Indians laugh, show them what the Europeans call a “buffet”. Even in a luxury hotel, the display is so small that it would fit into the gaze of an Indian, who by nature is large. In a sly Parisian hotel, the buffet plate was the width of my palm, probably to discourage customers from piling too many things. On the other hand, in most Asian countries, especially India, the five-star buffet is designed to indicate that the hotel has made a loss on it. The buffet is such a display of food that one needs to d first go around the set just to have the lay of the land. Yet there would be surprises, nooks from which food emerges and certain things that are not displayed but can be requested or extorted.

There is something wrong with the Indian buffet. To understand why this is so, take a walk with me, as if we were before a vast buffet of Indian diseases.

The Indian buffet is above all a spectacle. The food too, but mostly the people, especially when they fill their plates, some in pajamas. They feel at home; they eat at the same address where they sleep, and they pay to sleep here, and that must be a definition of home. They therefore appear in clothes that they would never otherwise wear if they were to be in the field of vision of a hundred strangers. Maybe they’re wearing pajamas because they want their tummies to be uncluttered during this limitless meal.

There are so many choices in an Indian buffet that people can fill their plates according to their moods. Grown-ups’ plates are usually full of fruit, which is usually their first course in public. They are also content to display a plate of fruit, unlike the late-night spreads which are generally more discreet. But most people fill their plates with bread and sugar, because most people are honest in their preferences most of the time.

The whole buffet scene feels like a rave party, with distressed waiters selling sugar and maida; and the addicts of these two food sources want more and more, crying out to the dealers, asking why something takes so long, how long should they wait; how long do their poor starving children have to wait for the next dose. These anxious food junkies are aware that the waiters here, unlike those in the West, are too helpless to tell them, “It’s a buffet, go ahead and have it yourself.” to whom there is not much in the spread, but he consoles himself by saying that the man does not need much.

The buffet is an overt exhortation to eat as much as you can, which means consuming more than necessary. Everything about food and eating is about excess and space.

Even a modest buffet, like what’s offered on a Hindi film set, requires a back-end supply system that takes up considerable space, and it’s not just physical space. I’ve always associated Indian film sets with food. The place stinks of food and leftover food. One of the first vehicles to arrive on site is the catering van. And the darkest part of a set are those uneven cheap aluminum tables with shrouds of white cloth over them, aside from the hapless men making elaborate but empty foods and pouring them into massive vats.

In an important way, the Indian buffet, especially in a five-star hotel, is similar to Indian democracy. All major regions are represented and we have the feeling that there is something for everyone. To be precise, everyone with a substantial voice, ie. The buffet reflects its own tyranny of the majority. The minority who are very fit are not represented, and even the few things the superfit eat are there because some famous foods are somehow miraculously healthy.

In the end, a large portion of the Indian buffet ends up wasted. Some people tell me that about half the food in a typical buffet is wasted. This horrifies most Indians, including those who say they would never forgive a five-star hotel for not having a buffet breakfast. But then, I never fully grasped the horror of waste. As in, I don’t know why wasting is such a bad thing. What’s the difference if a kilo of biryani is eaten by a guy who doesn’t need that much food, or wasted as uneaten food on his plate, or left in a tub on a buffet to be thrown away? Food has been paid for at every stage, and if the remains are ultimately given to animals and microbes, whose existence completes a complex ecosystem, what’s so tragic about that? The planetary crisis of carbon emissions and freshwater depletion is no longer bearable because one guy sits down and eats his entire serving of biryani.

Yet there is a certain vulgarity in excess and waste, especially in a poor country.

Consider a massive five-star Indian buffet from the perspective of a new waiter who has arrived from a remote impoverished village. After recovering from the discovery that a single meal at a hotel might cost about half his monthly salary, imagine what goes through his mind when he sees people taking heaps of delicious things and leave it all behind, or when the hotel throws away hundreds of pounds of perfectly edible food. It’s vulgar.

Often the vulgarity itself has no consequences for us. But it’s hard to deny that vulgarity is a way of disrespecting the unlucky. Some hotels say they have a system of distributing surplus food to the poor, but I don’t entirely agree with that. Even if this is true, it is still vulgar to send rotting food to the poor.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, novelist and creator of the Netflix series “Decoupled”

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