In October, The Menil will be opening an exhibit called "Experiments with Truth: Gandhi and Images of Nonviolence," and it will be the first ever exploration of Gandhi's principle of satyagraha (nonviolence) in the visual arts.
To celebrate, local chef and owner of Pondicheri and Indika, Anita Jaisinghani, hosted an Indian meal based upon the regional cuisine of the state where Gandhi was from, Gujarat. Invited guests of the museum dined on a traditional Kathaiwar Thali prepared by Jaisinghani.
"Gujarati food is very simple," she explains. "The thing is regional Indian food is just not well known."
Jaisinghani was also born and raised in Gujarat, but she does not consider herself Gujarati like Gandhi.
"I was born and raised in the same region, but my family is actually from the region called Sindh," she says. "When India and Pakistan spilt up in 1947, all the Sindhis that lived in the Pakistan part of India had to come south to other parts of the country."
Though she liked growing up in Gujarat, she likens the experience to being a Jew raised in Palestine.
"The Sindhis can't go back to Pakistan," she says. "I can never go to the town my parents are from because it's unsafe."
Still, growing up in Gujarat, Jaisinghani learned a lot about that regional cuisine. She ate it at friends' houses as a child, and her father continued to live there until his death several years ago. Whenever she visited him, she'd eat Gujarati food, and she says returning there after living in the United States for so long helped her to taste the food differently and to seek out ways to recreate it here at home.
For the Gandhian dinner, Jaisinghani created ten different dishes served on a thali with roti, poori and methi thepla, a round bread made with fenugreek. The highlight on the platter (and everyone I spoke to agreed) was the eggplant with yogurt, which was rich thanks to the milk fat in the yogurt, creamy and slightly spicy. It was a decadent bowl of veggies, and even so, several people requested seconds.
While I was speaking with Jaisinghani after the meal, people kept coming up to her and thanking her for a fabulous dinner.
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"You are one of the most creative people I know!" one woman exclaimed, while a man winked and said, "It was amazing how you did this! Who are your chefs?" He knew, of course, that Jaisinghani had prepared the meal on her own, cooking all day in order to have all the different elements ready by the evening.
Humble as always, Jaisinghani thanked everyone for coming, but proclaimed the true hero of the evening to be Josef Helfenstein, the director of the Menil, who first read a biography of Gandhi 15 years ago and has been wanting to curate an exhibit about the peaceful activist ever since.
The traditional Gujarati dinner is just the beginning of the events surrounding the upcoming exhibition, and in spite of the fact that Gandhi himself was famous in no small part for his extended fasts, the meal was the ideal way to start building interest in the show.
"Food is so indicative of a culture," Jaisinghani says. "What's that word? Gastrodiplomacy. It helps us understand each other."