March 23, 2008

On Jalebis, Jhangris and JPG files

Dear Readers, we flag off the Hum Blogistani Essay series 2007 with an encouraging essay from an expressive Indian expat couple based in US who plead the case of Indian food blogs, equipped for specialized writing on the culinary delights. In their essay they dwell on the variety that Indi food blogs put on show, emphasize on making a distinction between food blogs and recipe sites and eloquently discuss their POV on the much talked about plagiarism issue in food blogdom.

Bee and Jai (nicknames) live in the northwestern U.S. She has a background in media, he in strategy development in the technology field. They're amateur photographers and have serious fitness goals. "We seek to foster a more conscious approach to the food we consume, the thoughts we harbour, and the environment that sustains us. Jugalbandi is our means of reasserting our commitment to a natural, healthier lifestyle, and to a less toxic world.", the couple clarifies.

Food Blogs

n her article in the Hum Blogistani series 2005, Charu Ramdurai made an interesting observation about the limited impact by Indian blogs in the global arena because of the lack of specialisaton "in terms of content or focus". Fortunately, in the food blogosphere, Indians have made a noticeable impact. (We use the term 'Indian' in terms of ethnicity rather than citizenship status, as a good number of popular Indian food blogs come from expats in the U.S. and Europe.)

Hum Blogistani!This validates the importance of 'specialisation'. Almost all these blogs have a narrow, but deep focus on Indian cuisine/s - traditional and modern. Indian food bloggers start out with three distinct advantages:

  1. The language of food is universal, and lends itself to a global audience. Besides, there is a lot of interest in and curiosity about Indian cuisine(s) - recognized and enjoyed as one of world's "mother cuisines". If nothing else, everyone has heard of "curry".

  2. Indian regional and micro- cuisines have depth and variety. There is plenty of space for each blogger to express his/her uniqueness by showcasing family heirloom recipes, regional specialties or personal creations.

  3. We Indians have the advantage of being able to communicate easily in English, helping us reach a global audience.

Most Indian food bloggers are multilingual, and some have regional language blogs in addition to their English ones. Indian food bloggers have, in a short time span of three or four years, changed perceptions about what Indians eat - drastically and for the better.
Indian food bloggers have, in a short time span of three or four years, changed perceptions about what Indians eat - drastically and for the better.

Those who equated Indian cuisine with Mutter Butter Paneer Splutter at Bombay Garden can now see and try out quotidian fare from a Kashmiri, Telugu, Marathi, or Bengali home kitchen.

Blogs acquaint us with the culinary and cultural artifacts of India that are uniquely regional and outside the "mainstream" - with a side of mongrel fusion fare from Indian-Born Confused Americans. Indian food blogs have a global readership. In terms of the quality of content, they stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the best. They host blogging events on a regular basis highlighting south Asian ingredients, regions and a variety of themes. Our blogs have helped us bridge oceans, nationalities and linguistic barriers to form friendships with fellow foodies who have a deep curiosity about our customs and culture. They have yielded insights on cross-cultural culinary influences and similarities - like the Bihari influence on Caribbean cuisine.

Over the past three years, a host of independently published culinary histories have fared exceptionally well. They owe this, in large part, to the visibility and positive reviews generated in Indian food blogs. Some celebrity authors like Suvir Saran and Ammini Ramachandran are bloggers too. See this article describing the symbiosis between Indian food blogging and publishing. In the past, one area where we seemed to lag behind our global counterparts was in the quality of our photographs. They don't call it 'food porn' for nothing. The draw of a food blog often (but not always) depends on how narcissistically it stages and struts its 'stuff'. Of late, the standard of food photography in the Indian foodie universe is to be reckoned with. We, at Jugalbandi, host a monthly theme-based food photography event with participants from across the globe. In the January edition, the first four spots went to Indians.

How many desi food blogs exist? We can state, without exaggeration, that there's a new food blog by an Indian every day. We tried to list them all on our blog roll, then gave up after a while, 'cos it's exhausting. There must be a large number of Indian food blogs in regional languages too.

How important is the role of writing or presentation style in food blogging? How does the description of one 'dal tadka' differ from the other?
Writing and presentation are everything in food blogging, precisely because recipes give not much scope for 'literary expression'.

To us, writing and presentation are everything in food blogging, precisely because recipes give not much scope for 'literary expression'. What sets one space apart from the other is the blogger's personal narrative, unique take on the dish, and how it came about. Dal tadka can be simply be a recipe (as here), or can be accompanied by a glimpse - not so flattering :D - of how desi bachelors live.

Is blog a suitable format for a recipe-site? It may sound bitter but only non-food bloggers tend to look at food blogs as "recipe sites". While the latter (like Bawarchi-com) have their value, food blogs are much more. Many of our posts do not have recipes at all. They are photo essays, discuss how food is grown, or its history. Blogging gives a forum for culinary, literary and photographic creativity that a 'recipe site' doesn't.

When roti is glamorous, can plagiarism be far behind? It is an occupational hazard with all types of blogging, but particularly rampant in the Indian food blogosphere. With individuals, a lot of it boils down to lack of awareness. While copyrights laws do exist in India, they are not strictly enforced. Many folks do not understand the distinction between "plagiarism" and a "copyright" violation, and that a picture can be "open to the public" and have "all rights reserved" at once, or that "hotlinking" is a cardinal sin. With corporate thieves, it's a different story. As a lot of English and regional Indian newspapers go online, they add on a food section. What better place to quickly populate these spaces from, than blogs? Any attempt to contact them is met either by stony silence, or by explanations of how their staff is not conversant with copyright laws. We'd learnt to shrug and move on. Until last year. Yahoo's new language portals in India were brimming with content from Indian blogs. Some voiced their displeasure. Yahoo's response: "Not our problem. Talk to our Indian subcontractor." On March 5, 2007, more than 100 Indian blogs ran an anti-Yahoo campaign. They apologized and accepted responsibility for the stolen content. Shakespeare's work is too old to be copyrighted, but quoting Shakespeare without giving credit to him is plagiarism. Yahoo was guilty of both. They stole pictures, reproduced verbatim whole chunks of posts, monetized work that was not theirs, while asking bloggers to "negotiate" with their subcontractor. If you buy something from Walmart that ends up being defective, they don't give you the number of the guy in China who made it and say, "Talk to him."

Now, some Indian food bloggers send out invoices if their pics show up elsewhere. They contact advertisers to report content theft. They flag service providers. What they don't do is put up with being asked to stop whining and get back to the kitchen, already.


bee said...

Thank you for this opportunity.

- Bee and Jai

Jonathan Bailey said...

One thing to consider is that Indian bloggers, no matter where they might live, can take advantage of U.S. laws to get copyrighted works removed from the Web so long as the site is hosted within the country. It also works for removal from the search engines as well.

Just another potential avenue to consider.

Manisha said...

Great writing as usual, Bee & Jai!

Kudos to both of you for making a positive impact on food blogging: from growing your own food to cooking healthy.

Kalyn said...

What a fantastic post. As a non-Indian, I'm very thankful for all my fellow food bloggers writing about the varied cuisines of India. Even though I'm still fairly intimidated at attempting many of the things I see, I'm learning more about Indian cooking every day.

sra said...

Well-put, Bee and Jai.

arundati said...

well written one!!

pelicano said...

Very nice.

saswati said...

very well written post Bee and Jai!

sunita said...

Bee and Jai, that's so well put...both of you are doing such a good job...keep up the positive impact :-)

Mona said...

That was very well written Jai and Bee! Cheers!!

Padmaja said...

Jai and Bee
After few hectic weeks, i found some time today and see what I am reading now!! You made my day and what a fantastic read!! Well done both of you!!

A-kay said...

Nice write up as usual.

Bharti said...

As always, a pleasure to read your article.