The Great “Indian” Cuisine

January 1, 2012

I have been wondering for the past few years; so what is Indian cuisine?

When I first moved to South India to take up my campus job, I had gone there “knowing” that I will need to live with the “Madrasi” cuisine. Hyderabad was my base city and I had to travel across Andhra Pradesh. I was bewildered with the cuisine variety. The stuff in Hyderabad (biryani, haleem, khubani ka meetha etc.) and that in coastal Andhra (the Andhra Meals, Chicken 65, Babai Idli in Vijayawada). And, by the way, you were lucky to get some edible stuff in the remote corners of Telengana (think towns like Belampalli, Mancherial etc)! Often I had to report to the company HQ in Chennai. The MADRAS! Here too the choices were amazing! Food made Iyengar style, Iyer style. “Military hotels” were diagonally opposite the preceding two cuisines. Then Chettinad stuff as well. What is “Madrasi” cuisine?

A large part of my recent life I have lived in Bangalore. I thought I knew all about the variety of state-wise cuisines till I discovered the food served in Bangalore is different from that in Mysore and totally different from the stuff in Mangalore. The Bijapur/ Gulbarga khana is something else. Not to speak of the Coorgi stuff (the meat of wild boar is a coveted delicacy here). I am sure Chikmagalur, Belgaum, Karwar etc would have their own distinctive flavours.

Take Rajasthan for example, a state I worked extensively in. There is the “saatwic” Marwari cuisine, the laal maas favoured by the Rajputs and then the fafdaas served in areas bordering MP.

I could go on-and-on showing-off my knowledge of India’s geography. But I will stop here. Just two more points.

Bihar is where I was born and raised in. Once, I tried a few months ago on my blog to champion the cause of the unheard “Bihari cuisine”. I was (am still) toying with the idea of starting a Bihari speciality restaurant chain. I have, since, realized that there is no such thing as Bihari cuisine. What I was discussing in my blog was Bhojpuri cuisine. Bhojpur is the region in Bihar where my parents hail from. The neighbouring geographies of Bihar; Bengal, Orissa, Nepal and Uttar Pradesh have their own distinct cuisines.

I now live away from India. When I talk to folks here in Hong Kong, or see people ordering food in the restaurants, I hear that they “loooooove” Indian food. And what is that lovely Indian food in their opinion? Naan, tandoori chicken and prawn vindaloo! (Some evolved ones may even mention samosa and “poppadums“.) I would love to know how many Indian households cook and serve naan/ tandoori chicken/ prawn vindaloo! And, pray, what is a vindaloo???

Now I am sticking my neck out here, please bear with me. For most Indians food is like religion. If you were to ask a Hindu to describe what “being-a-Hindu” means, will you get a uniform and cogent answer? If you do, let me know. I am still struggling with my thoughts on this subject. Similarly, if you ask Indians what cuisine they like, most are likely to mention Indian food. Now ask them to describe the cuisine. If you get a uniform and cogent answer out of a diversified sample, please let me know.

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A-Z of Indian khana peena

January 31, 2009

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The taxi driver driving me from suburban Chicago to the airport was chatty (and loud and voluble) in the manner of most American taxi-wallahs. He quickly zeroed in on my nationality and after perfunctory discussions on the situation in Afghanistan, popped a question to me. “Sir, where in India I can source Ghost Peppers from?”

Ghost Peppers? Ghost? Peppers? Never heard of them, I wondered.

I said flatly, “No idea”.

He persisted, “Sir, hot peppers, very hot peppers from India. Ghost Peppers.”

I knew peppers, and I knew ghosts. But never heard of them together. And I told him so.

He was at his wits’ ends, and tried his luck again. “Sir, those vegetables. Green or red or sometimes yellow too. Very hot!

And suddenly the penny dropped! Hot= teekha, pepper= mirchi, ghost= bhoot. Yes, I had indeed recently read about this chilli from Assam, “Bhut Jholokia“. Only a few months earlier some scientist had established it to be mirchi-est of all mirchis in the world, beating hollow the then world record holder from somewhere in South America.

The taxi wallah, it transpired from the chat during the rest of the drive, was a serious foodie. One with a special interest in peppers. He peppered me, pardon the pun, with so much interesting trivia on peppers that I was rather sad when the journey ended at the airport and I had to part company with the taxi driver.

He would love this book “The Illustrated Foods of India A-Z” by K. T. Achaya.

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This book will delight all foodies. No doubt about that. A collection of around 600 food terms explained in great detail and with scholarly precision. Starting with Achar, moving to Falooda, then Jain food ambience, Laddu, Paan, Tamarind ending with a rather un-foody Zakat which I suspect has been included to round this “A-Z” book with a “Z” word. The author delves deep into the origin of the food, the historical references, archeological significance, different usages in different parts of the country and so on.

So, it transpires that the ubiquitous our very own aloo (potato) is not of Indian origin. It arrived from the South American shores much after the Mughals. It was it initially accepted only by the Europeans and then the Muslims and the Hindus only at the end.

And there were no green chillis before the 16th century in India. (kali mirch or black pepper was the pungency-inducing spice in those days. Guess where the green chillis came from. Good old South America! Introduced to India by Vasco da Gama or European voyagers of similar vintage. (Poor South American chillis, they had to get beaten by the Indian chillis, like the English cricket team getting thrashed by the Indians.)

And horror of horrors, the author has even figured out that our beloved idli is probably of Indonesian origin!

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Mr Achaya, and I quote from the blurb, is “…a renowned nutritionist and an authority on Indian food, pursued scientific research in the areas of oilseeds, vegetable oil, processed foods and nutrition….” Some googling revealed that the venerable scientist wrote extensively researched papers. Sample this: “The fatty acid and glyceride structures of Indian buffalo milk and depot fats, and some characteristics of eastern animal fats” published in 1946 in a British journal. So you can expect a lot of research, a lot of erudition and a lot of reliable information in this book.

The author has dug deep into ancient and medieval literature like the Vedas, Arthashastra, Ain-e-Akbari aming many others in his quest for information. He gives the correct technical names. Like Musa paradisiaca being the name of a popular variety of bananas. And he goes into deep technical detail sometimes. Sample this one about the popular (not so popular with many) bhindi.

“…..It was poetically called lady’s finger in colonial India and Okra in America. “Abelmoschus esculentus” is of African origin (et tu Bhindi? says Santosh Ojha), and though perhaps a late entrant into India, is a popular mucilaginous vegetable, cooked in dry or wet form. It is a polyphoid with 65 chromosomes, 29 from one genome and 36 from………”

But let me hasten to add that this detailed explanation is not the norm all through the book but the style certainly is scholarly and serious. Thousands of little details are scattered through the book which will appeal to anyone with just a little more than a passing interest in food.

I love food, I love trivia and I love books. And I am very happy possessing this book.

Black & white Biryani, anyone?

Black & white Biryani, anyone?

 

The one small quibble I have is that perhaps the publishers could have released a colour edition. This is a book on foods, and black and white pictures (and there are many of them in this book) do not present foods in an interesting manner. Maybe the publisher, Oxford University Press, will consider this suggestion sometime soon.

PS: Another great food book I read recently and would highly recommend is “Curry, A tale of Cooks and Conquerors” by Lizzie Collingham. This traces, chapter-by-chapter, the history and romance around dishes like chicken tikka masala, biryani, vindaloo, chai and curry. The author, a British historian, has done painstaking research.


Bhajiyas in Mauritius

August 23, 2008

Here is a story the edited version of which appeared in Deccan Herald, Bangalore, today.

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Bhajiyas in Mauritius

 

Mauritius is indeed a pretty island state, that was easy to see right from day one when we had gone there for a family holiday. What came as a complete surprise was the cuisine of place, so very Indian!

 

Nearly two-thirds of the population of Mauritius is of Indian origin, all descendants of indentured labourers shipped out by the British colonists to work in the sugarcane fields around 200 years ago. Most of these labourers came from Bihar and Eastern parts of UP. Through sheer grit these labourers dropped anchor in the island, got rid of their colonial masters and now they rule the country!

 

Over the centuries, the Indo-Mauritians have preserved their religion, culture and language (official language: French). And even the cuisine, right till the combination of spices.

 

The Sunday flea market in Quatre Bornes is as good a place if any to sample the snack foods of the Indo-Mauritians. Missing home food? No worries! Make your way to the countless stalls fronted with large grubby glass cases displaying their wares. Bhajiyas anyone? Rs 2 for each, take a bite and let the spices and the aromas waft through! Bhajiyas made from brinjal slices dunked into besan batter. Or may be mirchi bhajias? Buy one for Rs 2 and taste the heavenly dish. Bhajiyas are hugely popular here and are known as “baja“. Samosa is what you will not get here, but you will certainly get their diminutive version, the “samoussa“. As greasy and as inviting as ever as you can get at your favourite chaat shop back home in India! But the real fast mover has to be the spicy pakoda, so delicately christened gateaux piment (French for chilli cakes)! Seven spicy ones for Rs 10 and no sooner you are done with one pack of the gateaux piment, you reach out for another!

 

Should you prefer to have something more filling move on to the other stall, have some biryani (called “Briyani“) or have some roti instead. But the real winner is the soft dal-powder filled poori, a foot in diameter and as thin as a sheet of paper, soft-as-silk texture and a complete melt-in-the-mouth delicacy. Those from North India would recognize it as dalpoori. (For the others, consider it is a salt-plus-spice version of puran poli). Dalpoori is elegantly spelled as dholl puri,or even d’holl puri making it sound like something from the south of France but actually has its origins in the heartland of Bihar. Here we are at this stall called Chez Navin (literal meaning, house of Navin). Navin serves us dalpoori on handkerchief sized sheets of thin white paper with a ladleful of aloo-ki-sabzi and spicy chutney. And of course, it was difficult to stop at just one serving! Rs 8 for a Dalpoori. What a bargain!

 

Eating done, now proceed to Gopal and Sons next door for some liquid nourishment. Gopal sells just three items, “Jus Limon”, “La Mousse Noire” (black jelly drink) and “Alouda”. We decide to skip the nimbu paani and the jelly drink and settle for “Alouda” which I am sure must be the national drink of Mauritius. A cold refreshing concoction of milk, water, ice and strands of semiyan-like ingredient is just what you need after the heavenly snacks. Just Rs 15 vierre (glass). A liter of this sinfully delicious stuff must surely be strongly intoxicating, but we had much business left unfinished and we decided to stay contented with just a glassful.

 

And how can you not have sugarcane juice while at Mauritius. At the Caudan Waterfront we helped ourselves to glassfuls of fresh juice, Siro Pike (sugar cane juice) as the locals call them! Choice of ginger flavour and lemon flavour!

 

Even at the European tourist oriented hotel we were staying there was was this ubiquitous paratha (called faratta by the locals) served with sabji for both breakfast and dinner buffets amidst all the European food stuff.

 

Home food, anyone? Head to Mauritius!

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