Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Benaras... the city of simplicity

                           I wrote this while traveling and shooting for another season of The Great Indian Rasoi. A lovely winter morning in Benaras, talking to proud and passionate groups of people. Every time I visit this city there is an omnipresent carefree air that defines the city for me. I believe, being the city of moksha has done that for Benaras over the millennia. Sometime being close to death helps define your perspective towards life!! Here it has defined a whole city....
            First stop Laxmi Tea House, Chowk. Laxmi Prasad Chaurasia now in his 80s sits across a gullah, a frail figure with a wad of notes in his left hand and a keen eye on the brisk business happening in the now huge tea shop. After having made Benarasi Paan for the first 25 years of his life he chose to make chai out of sheer whim. This was 1966. 'My tea was simple and honest', he says. 'I never added any spices or flavouring. Those days amazing variety of tea were available and I just brewed and blended the right quantity for the right time. I've still not been able to understand how this simple tea could create such traffic jams that the city administration had to move me inside the gulli for the sake of better traffic'!!! 
            The shop still sells only tea and fire roasted toast like it would in 1966. No nashta in Benaras is complete without kachori. And my next stop was a new kachori friend Bharat Lal Sharma who owns a small and simple 50 square feet corner shop in chowk. Again, selling only two things - Kachori, which had the thinnest crust that I have seen; and a mind blowing Mawa Jalebi. The beauty of kachori was that you needed no chutney for sweetness. The sweetness came from the fresh and seasonal winter green peas. 
             The mawa jalebi was an unforgettable dream. It was pedas of pure mawa dipped in jalebi batter; crisp fried and soaked in rose scented syrup. The mawa was unsweetened, perfectly centered and brought an amazing balance to the sweet outer layer. I do care about my diet yet I finished six of these fritters!!! Next time, when in chowk I would highly recommend these beauties. 
             All in all the beauty of Benaras is in its simplicity which reflects beautifully in such corner shops, which have been selling only a couple of simple recipes over generations. For me the phrase - "simpler the better" has found a new meaning in Benaras. 

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Delhi conversation continued …

                   In my last column on Delhi I put forward a point of view. I believe that we give a lot of credit to the Mughalia aspect of Delhi cuisine which is great, but it takes away majorly from the other beautiful influences on Delhi food that need mention as well. Let’s talk about those today. 
                   The first influences were minimal, coming by the way of early Afghan invaders who usually never stayed. Arab raiders had established their presence in Sindh by the eighth century. However, it was only in 1200 AD that the first Sultan, of the slave dynasty set up rule in Delhi. Amir Khusrau and Ibn Battuta have chronicled the Sultanate epoch to allow some insight into the era. It’s amazing how the era that saw the arrival of nuts into Indian cooking, the first cooked Palav and Kebabs in Royal fare, the arrival of the Samosa, Falooda, Jalebi and Harissa (the precursor of today’s Haleem ) has been lost in translation due to the lack of proper documentation. 
                   Another aspect that hasn't found enough mention is the Sufi impact on cuisine; Amir Khusrau mentions that the meals at the sufi congregations were bold and vast enough to compete with royal Dastarkhwaans. Also the aspect of communal eating can be credited to the Sufi influence. This was followed by the Mughalia Influences that came by way of officers posted in Delhi more than the emperors themselves and the barrack food that still lives in the lanes of Shahjahanabad. 
                  The Mughalia influences have indeed contributed to our country’s cuisine as I discussed in my last article on Delhi cuisine. However what needs to be understood is that the real food of Dilli is an amalgamation of Sultanate, Sufi, Mughal, Kayasth, Lahore, Punjab and Anglo Indian influences and more needs to be spoken about, or the real soul of Delhi will fade into oblivion. 
                   As a dear friend and food historian Pushpesh Pant puts it, and I quote “While there is much greater awareness and better appreciation of foreign, regional and sub-regional cooking, somewhere in the process the precious gastronomic heritage of Delhi is being lost. More effort is spent on writing florid menus than on preparing a Qorma, Salan or Kaliya. It is rare to come across a halfway decent Shami or Seekh unless you are invited home. Some classics like Nargisi kofta or pasande are available only in shehar Purani Dilli. Takke-paise ki subzee is all but extinct. Bengali (chhena) sweets have pushed to the margin, the chewy sohan halwa. Phalsa sherbet is akin to an endangered species of flora and fauna. Paneer is ubiquitous and has alas banished all seasonal vegetables to eternal exile.” Thus conclude my thoughts on Dilli ka khana.......

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The "Mughalia" food trail

               My last trip to Delhi left me with a lot of questions and emotions. Delhi and the influence of Mughal Emperors on Cuisine has been my subject of interest of late and that has me looking at both "Dilli" and "Delhi" food in a newer, sort of eager manner. The first question that props up in my mind is about the word Mughlai (or Mughalia as it should be). 
              All Moghul emperors had very varied tastes and were inclined towards different places as their bases. Akbar was based out of either battle or Fatehpur Sikri in his later days, turning pure vegetarian. Jehangir preferred Kashmir. Aurangzeb spent most of his time in Deccan and chose simple eating habits as is. So the only emperor who can be credited to patronizing both Delhi and Haute cuisine is Shahjehan. 

             Now let's look at Lahore from the point of view of patronization by the Moghuls and we see where the country was ruled from. Lahore has seen more "Mughal time" than Delhi. So if we look at cuisine that underlays all Nawabi and Nizami cuisine of Lucknow, Murshidabad and Hyderabad it's the Mughalia cuisine that has a lot of Influence of Lahore. Yet in my mind it doesn't take away anything from the Cuisine of Delhi. So what's Delhi food? 
              For the starters it's the best barrack cuisine in the world if I may say. Food and culture around Red fort in particular and Shahjehanabad in general is a perfect example of how intermingling of cultures by virtue of either assault, rule, sufism or immigration can create something as beautiful as "Dastarkhwaan-e-Dilli" . Delhi cuisine lived in the barracks of Red Fort, Feasts of the sufis, Havelis of Moghul officers, Kayasth joint families and the mansions of the Baniyas of Chandni Chowk. Until 1911 happened and Delhi became the modern India's Capital... 
              This brought in the Raj cuisine and the Dining room culture in Connaught Place, creating a lovely contrast to Shahjehanabad cuisine (if I may use that term). Then Lahore came back to Delhi and along came the tandoor and Turko-Afghan influences along with the partition....changing the face of Delhi cuisine again… a trend that continues till today making it India's Food capital. A big salute to a big city with a big heart……

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The joy of cooking together..

                  The other day I was writing something on coffee to be published on "Coffee day", the 29th of September. It just struck me how now, everyday is some "day", which is a great concept no doubt because it brings to light, aspects touching our lives that we would normally not stop and take notice of, in these busy times. In my mind, the day still missing from this repertoire is the "Joy of cooking together day". 
                  Having grown up seeing village women gather around the Sanjha-chulha in the evenings and create deft magic over folk songs, I firmly believe that those feelings of celebration and joy (some of it from gossip) got transferred to the rotis made. Now let's look at temple cooking, Prasad or langar gets made when multitudes of people get together in good faith and celebration, most of them haven't much clue about cooking in volumes yet they create that magic. 
                  Even royalty understood the simple pleasures of collaborative cooking; days of shikaar in Rajasthan used to end with conversations over a bonfire with the game skewered on their swords. The refined Nawabs of Lucknow after fishing out a large Angler from their royal reservoir (referred to as "Mahaseer Shikaar" to keep the royal activity in perspective) jacketed the mahaseer with Multani Mitti and buried it in a hole with only the head coming out.
The fish was surrounded by lit coal and the nawabs sat around the fish with "Durust" or purified ghee and waited, as the fish cooked the moisture escaped through the mouth causing the mouth to open, the Nawabs would then pour a spoon of the ghee and the fish would close its mouth, quite interesting right ? 
                This technique of "Gil e Hiqmat" I thought, was a legend till I observed and participated in it with Nawab Masood Mir Abdullah and Nawab Zafar Mir Abdullah, last of the Nawabi lineage of Awadh. The conversations were memorable; the bliss of eating that fish is a food memory forever.  Such conversations, joy and extreme emotion can only come when the objective is none other than cooking together selflessly. 
                    Here's where the food Sufi in me comes out and appeals ...In this world of competitions and cook-offs, lets put our agendas and busy lives on the side for a day and let the objective just be cooking and conversations....let's discover the Joy of cooking together.