FROM ANCIENT TIMES, diplomacy and food have gone hand in hand. After the highs of ‘Namaste Trump’ on February 24, the state banquet hosted by President Ram Nath Kovind in honour of President Donald Trump the next evening showcased India’s royal splendour.
The Rashtrapati Bhavan was lit up and there was attention to detail. At 7.30pm, guests converged at the regal Ashoka Hall, resplendent with the Persian painting of a royal hunt on its ceiling. The American delegation seemed fascinated by the paintings in the chandelier-lit hall, taking a few quick photographs and soaking in the experience. I had a chance to meet Ajit Pai, the dynamic chairman of the US Federal Communications Commission. There was a common connection and we spoke about 5G and internet speeds.
Soon, President Kovind and his wife, Savita, arrived at the Ashoka Hall, along with President Trump, who was in a formal suit and striped tie, and First Lady Melania in a pink gown. A short formal ceremony started with the national anthems of the two countries. After that, President Trump, President Kovind, First Lady Melania and Vice President M. Venkaiah Naidu met the galaxy of Indian guests. When President Trump shook my hand, I talked to him about Malayala Manorama and my experience in the US working with media mogul Rupert Murdoch. The president did not seem to be in a hurry. He was extremely personable and spent time with each guest. President Kovind, Vice President Venkaiah Naidu and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, too, personally spent time with each guest.
There were more than 90 guests, including senior cabinet ministers, chief ministers of Haryana, Assam, Karnataka and Telangana, bureaucrats, business leaders like Uday Kotak, Azim Premji and Pankaj Patel, acclaimed musician A.R. Rahman and Michelin star chef Vikas Khanna. The American delegation included Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, American Ambassador Kenneth Juster, the president’s daughter Ivanka Trump who came in a Rohit Bal-designed suit and her husband, Jared Kushner.
After the guests were seated in the 104-foot-long state banquet hall adorned with the portraits of former presidents, President Kovind welcomed President Trump, talking about the deep connection between India and the United States, especially about the vibrant four-million strong Indian American community in the US. Trump said he was not going to read out his prepared speech. Instead, he talked about two productive days he spent in India and promised that he would be back.
The military band, heard but unseen, played from the balcony a curated list of popular songs like ‘What a Wonderful World’, ‘We Are the World’, ‘Wonderful Tonight’ and the Bollywood favourite ‘Ek Pyar Ka Nagma’.
President Trump’s fondness for fast food is well known. Last year, he ordered hundreds of burgers to the White House to celebrate a collegiate football win. Here it was different and the president was in for a gastronomic treat.
The banquet’s elaborate menu stressed on purity of taste. An amuse-bouche of smoked orange peel panna cotta was served, followed by lemongrass and coriander soup. The surprise dish of the evening was the tender fillet of cajun-spiced salmon, probably prepared to be less spicy for the American guests. The main course included regal Indian dishes: succulent raan alishan in rogani gravy, anjeer malai kofta in baby spinach gravy, dum gosht biryani and the famous Dal Raisina.
The royal meal also had an American touch. There was hazelnut apple pie with salty caramel sauce. Since everyone, including presidents, has a sweet tooth, a taste of malpua and rabri was the perfect choice to end the banquet. I am sure Vikas Khanna, the celebrity chef who has cooked for presidents, will give the meal three Michelin stars.