Imagine a table laden with dishes… or a thali laden with mounds of fresh, lightly tempered vegetables and little katoris of runny jhols, thick kormas, pachadis and raitas… all the same uniform colour. Even if that colour is the brightest turmeric yellow, saffron orange, or chilli red… or the most intense spinach emerald or fresh coriander green.
The image doesn’t make the heart sing. Everything on the table the same red: tomatoes, carrots, beetroot. Or everything beige: potatoes, chicken curry, dal, paratha. Or a medley of most people’s ‘favourite’ things: brown korma, chana, and brown crisply fried potato wedges. I’d much rather it was a heap of unadorned white rice, a yellow dal sunny with turmeric, a curry ruby-red with fried tomatoes, a golden-brown gravy of mutton chops, a heap of fresh tender beans as green as grass with maybe a roasted papad on the side, crisped almost black at the edges.
Or imagine a lifetime of three meals a day, each the same: aloo matar, phulka. Or mutton korma, tandoori roti. At breakfast, lunch and dinner, on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday… Or dal and rice. Or a cheese omelette with toasted white bread. Every day, day in, day out and meal in, meal out. They’re all quite delicious, but the more if occasional. I love yellow dhokla speckled with black mustard seeds, but then should I abjure plain fluffy white idlis? There are serious economic issues related to food and nutrition, but for those of us privileged enough to have access to all the food we need, variety is truly what makes the world go round. It’s also a happy coincidence that, according to food experts, eating all food types is better for balanced health.
New foods come into our reach as the world gets smaller. Much has been written about the origin of potatoes and chillies, about how we were introduced to them only when the Portuguese came to India not so long ago — and about the real provenance of recipes that we had considered ours — as if we ate biryani and samosa since time immemorial. We’ve enjoyed the flavour that other cultures have added to our lives, and are still discovering new foods. I may baulk at tandoori momos and dosas filled with chow mein, but do I have any right to lay down what’s legit and what ain’t?
In our land, a continent more than a country, we’ve been blessed with diverse ingredients and spices; regional and cultural diversity fills our larders, spiking it with flavours from basil to asafoetida. Imagine spurning the rainbow and limiting ourselves to same old bread-and-butter. What were considered foreign, ‘English’ vegetables, like cauliflower and carrots, are now ‘normal’. Potatoes are staple. If we can absorb all of these in our daily cooking, it’s not a big stretch to acquaint ourselves with and appreciate more of the diversity that’s on our doorsteps.
A kilo of ‘jugni’
Remember a time, not so long ago, when broccoli was ‘exotic’? Now Bhagwan Singh, my father’s major-domo, asks “Aaj broccoline (sic) ki aloo gobhi bana doon? (Shall I cook the broccoli like aloo-gobhi, potato-cauliflower?)” Because Daddy grows vegetables, and after he’s distributed a hundred kilos and is still left with another hundred, the chef tries to innovate. And it works — cooked aloo-gobhi style, with turmeric and a tempering of slivered ginger, broccoli is quite delicious. It doesn’t have to be used only in a Chinese stir-fry or baked in white sauce. Back in the day, zucchini was bought from fancy gourmet stores for special menus. Now, pushcart vendors sell it door-to-door practically around the year; only, they call it ‘jugni’.
We have an abundance of ingredients and if we look beyond our noses, an abundance of cooking techniques. I was brought up in a largely Punjabi home and my mother made vegetables sometimes in a medium-thick gravy. The base was always puréed onions, and she used to ask how some kitchens produced ultra-smooth, thin gravies. She said she had tried but just couldn’t get it.
I wish I knew then what I know now: that Indian gravies can be made without any onion at all. She had less exposure, there was no Internet, no cable TV, and Indian cookbooks were limited to narrow cuisines. Her only access to ‘other’ cooking was through Western cookery books and recipes in Woman and Home.
We have food that’s shallow fried, steamed, braised, sautéed, roasted, grilled, charred and chilled. We simmer our fish in watery soups or thick pastes, sometimes after deep frying and sometimes without… and what a difference it makes to the jhol, jhaal or kaliya. A Kashmiri kaliya has some similarity, but different spices.
I used to find that the cuisine of any part of India other than my own was wildly exciting and full of endless variety and possibility. Only after more exposure and more eating I find that there’s a limited repertoire in most spice cupboards. Some regions often use mustard seeds, chana dal and curry leaf in the tempering; some, closer home, are deadly boring because it’s cumin and coriander. All my mother’s mutton curries had the same spices — sometimes roasted, sometimes ground, sometimes whole — the only differentiator was the stage at which they were added to the dish. But eating and talking with friends, I increasingly find that their traditional food is a treasure chest of taste and if I borrow a pinch, my cooking is enhanced.
But for that, I have to step out of the Lakshman rekha drawn by my upbringing, and be open to new ideas. It’s happened in the past, gradually and so surely that we now accept it as integral to our lives. If we could take proud ownership of ‘alien’ foods once, continuing to do so would enrich our present and the heritage of generations to come.
‘Kashmiri’ Mutton Koftas
(This is loosely based on a Kashmiri Pandit recipe called muchch/ mutsch, but with variations I like.)
400g lean mutton mince
Marinade for mince
3 tsp mustard oil
1 tsp hung yoghurt (or 2-3 tsp solid yoghurt)
2 tsp Kashmiri red chilli powder
2 drops of powdered hing (asafoetida) mixed in water
1/4 tsp powdered saunth (dried ginger)
½ tsp powdered saunf (fennel)
For the gravy
2 tbsp mustard oil
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 green cardamom, broken
2-3 drops of hing solution
2 tsp hung yoghurt (or 2 tbsp firm yoghurt)
2 tsp chilli powder mixed in 1 cup water
1/4 tsp powdered saunth (dried ginger)
½ tsp powdered saunf (fennel)
Pinch of garam masala powder
1. Thoroughly mix mince and marinade ingredients together. Shape into little torpedos, like mini cocktail sausages, and place neatly on a tray.
2. Start on the gravy: heat the mustard oil in a wide bottomed pan and fry cumin seeds till crisp. Add clove and cardamom (many people use black cardamom) followed by hing solution. Add yoghurt and keep stirring on medium heat till moisture evaporates and oil appears at the edges.
3. Add chilli powder in water and stir in salt, saunth and saunf.
4. When the liquid starts boiling, gently lower in koftas. Keep it bubbling till the water evaporates and the koftas start drying up. A thick spice-and-yoghurt paste will start wrapping around the koftas. Keep simmering on low heat and stirring with a spatula to prevent it catching.
5. Meanwhile, boil another ¾ cup of water and pour it on to the sides of the kofta pan. Bring it to the boil, add garam masala powder and simmer for 5 minutes. Serve with steamed rice and a green vegetable, preferably leafy.
From the once-forbidden joy of eggs to the ingratitude of guests, the writer reflects on every association with food. [email protected]
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