Resurrecting a Lost Culinary Culture
In a delicious twist to the tale, a new generation of food connoisseurs in India, is jumpstarting a culinary culture that traces a journey back to its heritage.
Imagine a dinner spread in which the dishes are straight off the menu of a maharaja or the recipes have been revived from a well-guarded heirloom. A gastronomic adventure during which the smell of the past permeates your senses, because the historically researched ingredients are carefully selected to commemorate the country’s rich an appetizing past.
In a delicious twist to the tale, a new generation of food connoisseurs in India, is jumpstarting a culinary culture that traces a journey back to its heritage. In a departure from the currently fashionable trend of embracing every global food fad, these food aficionados are happy to let go of such pretensions as molecular gastronomy, to restore into vogue traditional techniques and the goodness of rustic eating.
Salma Husain, one of the most noted food historians in India, says, “In what can be termed as an interesting ‘food movement’ the trend can be compared to the sociological phenomenon, where, when you stray a little too far from your roots, you are bound to come back.”
The culinary cycle in India has evolved through several phases in the past few years. Until recently, it was considered unfashionable to be caught in the kitchen. In the heydays of consumerism fast food became comfort food. This was followed by a phase where the humble chef, thus far relegated behind the burner, gained celebrity status. From Nigella Lawson to the Master Chef series, the new celebrity chefs romanticized the idea of whipping up your own meal. And now that the well-travelled global Indian has satiated himself on the diverse and exotic menus around the world, he is confident enough to take pride in ancient recipes and idyllic eating, once practiced by his ancestors.
Ravitej Nath, executive chef, Oberoi Hotel, describes it as a return to nostalgia: “It’s about reliving happy memories through food. It’s like remembering the candy floss you had as a child, or the kokum sherbet your grandma used to make during summers.”
“Nostalgia,” he adds, “is a cuisine and today we are raring to go back and discover the stories that formed the kitchens of yesteryears.”
A Need to Redeem
Food experts also believe that given our chaotic lives we were increasingly being gratified by meals that promised a good experimental fix, but failed in nutrition and flavors. Osama Jalali, a noted food critic from India who spent years traveling and reviewing Michelin star restaurants, says, “In the past few years, I noticed that the Indian cuisine served in fancy diners, was fast being replaced with modernist cuisine, where the original ingredients and composition of the recipe was often distorted.”
He says, “I feared that there will be a time when youngsters will forget that chaat papri is served with saunth (a tangy side relish) and not soy lecithin and bhelpuri comes topped with a chutney and not foam.”
Jalali along with his mother, Nazish Jalali, an excellent home cook, who held the legacy of several secret recipes from the generations of khansamas who worked in Mughal courts, now organizes festivals celebrating the lost recipes of India.
Osama Jalali and his mother Nazish Jalali, who holds the legacy of several secret recipes from the generations of khansamas who worked in Mughal courts, organize festivals celebrating the lost recipes of India.
The need to preserve the country’s rich food traditions became apparent when food connoisseurs noticed that some of the most complex and flavorful cooking traditions were undermined by compromised cooking.
Sumeet Nair, co-author of The Bangala Table, a cookbook that painstakingly preserves some of the rare Chettinad recipes dating back to the 18th century, says, “The inspiration for the book came from a meal, I had at The Bangala, a boutique hotel in Karaikudi, Tamil Nadu…. As the dishes kept arriving in courses on a banana leaf, I was blown away by the fact that each and every dish had a different flavor profile. It was a meal, unlike any other I have ever had.”
He researched to discover that no decent books on Chettinad cuisine were available and what was being served up as Chettinad in restaurants was a hurried and misrepresented version of the original labor intensive procedure followed by the Chettiyar community in the region.
Vipul Gupta, senior sous chef at ITC Hotels, India, points to the newly opened restaurant, Delhi Pavilion. He says, “The menu celebrates the cuisine of Delhi during the medieval era. We went down the lanes of history to discover, the eating practices, preparation and procurement of ingredients during those times.”
Gupta’s research took him to scores of dargahs and gullies in Delhi. He says, “From Nizamuddin Auliya to Bhaktiyar Kaki’s dargah in Mehrauli we sampled the food served in smallest stalls to largest langars to understand how often it’s the most non descript places that are retaining a tradition. We also visited the narrowest bylanes of Chawri Bazar and Nai Sarak (colonies in Old Delhi) and the busy streets of Karol Bagh (a market area in Central Delhi) to dig out the home cooks who were custodians of the authentic Marwari, Baniya or Punjabi recipes.”
Celebrated chef Bakshish Dean, who was visionary enough to add some of the regional, local dishes years ago to the menu at the Park Hotel in Delhi, says that to develop the expertise to make the potli masala used in some of the most robust non vegetarian dishes he went to Hyderabad to meet a hakeem who used to run a small shop near Charminar.
“We came across some of the most rare ingredients such as rose petals, paan ki jar pipli (a sort of long pepper) and pathar ke phool (moss),” Nair recollects. “During my three years of studying Chettinad cuisine I came across ingredients such as Kavanarisi (a purple variety of rice) and clever cooking tricks practiced by the Chettiyars in the 19th century, where they would dry the meat to be carried along during their travels to increase its longevity.”
These are traditions being saved and celebrated.
Shibli Anis, a young entrepreneur who left his high profile job with a multinational company to start a niche catering service called Delhi 6, which employs seasoned khansamas of Old Delhi to prepare homely recipes, such as chakundar gosht or aloo gosht and rare finds such as mutanjan, says: “The cooks have been involved in the profession since generations and have such fine mastery over their craft, besides being the only link to our royal food history. They had to be brought back to the spotlight.”
A Romantic Repertoire
Food experts say that while there is enormous knowledge to be mined from ancient Indian kitchens, often there is little or cryptic documented history of some of the greatest traditions. However that does not stop them from harking on a journey to dig out some of the most guarded secrets.
Salma Husain, who translated a rare 17th century Persian cookbook called Alwan-e-Nemat, which discusses the dishes relished by Mughal emperor Jehangir, and is working on another one that details emperor Shahjahan’s table spread, encountered startling revelations. She says: “Those days saffron and pepper were the prime ingredients and unlike the common notion that Mughlai cuisine is cooked in too much grease, there were an abundance of fruit based dishes, such as falsey ka pulao or aam ka salan.”
Chef Vipul Gupta who recently organized a food festival titled Khwan-e-Mazi (royal treasures of the past) in Delhi, at which some of the now extinct but extraordinary recipes from the medieval period in Delhi were resurrected, in consultation with Husain, says: “We prepared unheard dishes, such as tambool kaliyan, which is minced lamb cooked with betel leaves, made into cakes and wrapped with betel leaves simmered in kaliyan curry (lamb broth with curd, cashew paste and pan leaf infusion).”
He adds: “We discovered interesting cooking techniques too. For a dish called murg darchini (darchini is an old word for Indian spice dalchini or cinnamon stick in English) we cooked the stuffed chicken on a bed of cinnamon sticks. The indirect heat ensured an abundance of flavor and aroma.”
One of the youngest chefs in India, Anahita Dhondy, came back after an intensive French cooking course at the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu, to revive forgotten Parsi recipes. The chef manager at Soda Bottle Opener Wala, a quirky youngster centric Parsi eatery in cities like Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore, says: “While being a Parsi it did come naturally to me to understand the nuances of Parsi cooking, I am always on the look out to bring out dishes that deserve to be on the global food map.”
Dhondy offers an interesting example: “Today when I talk to young chefs they think its cool to learn Mediterranean, Japanese or European cuisine, but if you pay attention it’s the Indian cooking that is full of creativity.
“During my course I once made kaddu ki sabji and poori for my French instructors. They were so impressed by the blend of spices and kept on asking me measured ingredients for the dish. When I told them that a lot of Indian home cooking and adding of ingredients is based on perception, smell, the changing color and consistency of the dish as opposed to strict adherence to measurements, they were blown away by the complexity of our cooking.”
Bakshish Dean, agrees: “I travelled the length and breadth of Rajasthan during the season when ghewar (a flaky sweet dish resembling a bundt cake in shape) is made. While the dish uses simple ingredients like flour, milk fat and sugar, the expertise with which it’s made into a mesh like consistency came so naturally to village womenfolk that could not be so readily replicated by the most learned chefs.”
The marvels of Indian cooking have sadly not been propagated effectively. Chef Ravitej Nath who has organized Rivayat festivals at Oberoi hotels in India that restores dying recipes and techniques into modern kitchens, says: “During our research we read up Ain-I Akbari, Babarnama, Akbarnama and scoured the libraries and thrift shops selling old books to gather as much information as we could. Often we would find mention of ingredients, but no recipes and sometimes just spoken tales from elderly about a royal dish they had eons ago with no remembrance of its ingredients.”
One such dish was gosht ka halwa. Both Nath and Jalali teamed up together to recreate this dish from the oral history and finally were able to decode it.
Nath points to another dish, called murg zamindoz, from Akbar’s era, which was an amalgamation of Akbar and his Rajput wife Jodha Bai’s cooking traditions. While the chicken, a Mughal delicacy is spiced, it is wrapped in a dough and cooked under the earth with some charcoal in the traditional Rajasthani technique of cooking vegetables.
Dhondy raves about the joys of discovering lost cuisines. She says, “I referred to a rare book called Vividh Vani, published in 20th century by a Parsi lady called Meherbai Jamshed ji.” She wrote that dishes, such as Vasanu, which is like Chyawanprash and Malido, are not even made any longer. Dhondy says, “I recently made a Parsi traditional dish called popat ji which is like a Japanese takoraki, made with fermented sweet dough. Nobody in my generation or my parents’ generation had ever had it. My grandmother remembered the only time she had it was when her grandmother made it.”
The repertoire of dishes and ingredients is so vast, not unlike Indian culture, that it’s fascinating to discover dishes that suit the global palate. Salma Husain offers the example of a dish from medieval period called mahi naranz — fish kebabs flavored with orange zest and cooked in lemon broth — or a gehun ki biryani, a highly nutritious rice dish made with wheat grains.
Says Oberoi’s Chef Ravitej Nath of their ambitious project: “We are trying to start a movement, where we rope in young chefs in the making and send them to the smallest villages in India to discover the traditions and practices that have faded from the cosmopolitan scene.”
Lest, they fear, that some of the smartest kitchen traditions, will remain unsung — and forever lost.