It’s an unwritten rule: when the Domino’s guy shows up at your place in a blue hat, pizza in hand, you take all the oregano and chilli flakes he has. The sachets — also known as “seasoning” or “masala” (by me) — go in the fridge, next to the eggs and the half-cut lemon for citric emergencies, to form a stockpile of their own. McDonald’s has started charging for extra ketchup and chilli sauce, but Domino’s — the People’s Fast Food! If you ignore the actual money that exchanges hands — still doles out condiments like confetti.
Now that fast food is a behemoth industry, multiple types of these sachets have landed in our egg compartments. Chicago Pizza and some other local Delhi outlets, for example, offer a kind of “mixed seasoning” distinct from the big franchise varieties. This is an oregano and chili flake two-in-one, with a slight tang to it. In most cases, however, we are left with the chicanery of pretenders. So why do they keep piling up in our fridges?
The first reason why these two little packets have become such pillars of the Indian slacker repertoire world is quite simple. There’s no such thing as a free lunch (thank you 1970s economics), but you can scatter some free oregano on top of it. The second: how bizarrely comforting oregano and chilli flakes were to a country new to European food.
Everything you say against it is warranted, and yet: you know how the flavour soaks into the cheese if you put it over a fresh pizza? And if you’re a bum and eating cold pizza the next morning, the seasoning takes on a life of its own, countering the staleness with its overwhelming, if quite disingenuous sense of Italianness?
Little did Pizza Hut and Domino’s know they were beginning a revolution in the lives of bachelor (and no doubt many householder) chefs. We put it in Maggi - the irredeemable kind made with butter or cheese or ham or Lay’s Magic Masala but always, always finished with pizza seasoning. In pasta, better known as macaroni (in some parts of Delhi, same as macarons and macaroons) — a dish appropriated by Indian parents to shovel vegetables into their kids by hiding it behind shapely spools of carbohydrates.
Sandwiches. Last night’s burger leftovers; and, ever since the Kitsch Revolution of Indian F&B, even homemade aloo chips with chat masala, now transformed into French fries. It’s a cooking cheat code; a way to escape the monotony, the flatness of home food. I think my grandmother now puts it in her Chyawanprash.
We’ve embraced these grassy sprinklings to the point where they’re used as much as regular achaar, to make boring meals more bearable. Chilli flakes have a pretty well-defined purpose — input equals output, let’s say — but oregano is a flavour we’ve come to accept as Indian, somehow finding a way to splatter it into just about anything: Chinese, Mughlai, and, of course, “continental.” (Though by far the worst story I’ve heard about Domino’s seasoning involved — without getting too graphic — oregano, baingan bharta, and a slice of bread. And my gag reflex.)
It all comes back, as they say in JNU, to liberalisation. It’s because Domino’s has been around for what counts as “forever” for my generation. Maybe it’s because home food has never been as good as we think it is. Either way, it raises the question: did we accidentally re-invent fusion food with the bits and bobs in our fridge? (The answer is no. Put the bharta down and walk away quickly.)
Akhil Sood is an arts and culture writer based in New Delhi.
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