Sunday, August 20, 2017

Food, the traveller

During a trip to Portugal I was journeying with a guide in hand, and its most useful section was the list of common words and phrases in the local language. It was helpful when I had to say hello, please or thank you, but I would face a hurdle with menus written in Portuguese, especially in small towns. During supper at a restaurant in Porto, I saw a plate of potato fingers whizzing past my table. That settled my order and I tried explaining to the steward what I wanted. After a minute or so he said, "Ah! Batata". I nodded an amused yes, and reflected on the episode. Batata? That's the word for potato in Marathi, Gujarati, Konkani and also heard in cities like Kolkata. These are areas that had seen Portuguese influence. So had the potato arrived in India from Portugal? Research showed that indeed it had around the 17th century via Portuguese sailors who in turn had picked it up from neighbouring Spain who had originally brought it to the shores of Europe from South America. The first potato in India was grown along the western coast. It's not just the humble potato that was an import; many a vegetable, fruit and preparation of food we are fiercely proud of as being inherently desi, were not heard about till a few hundred years ago. 
At farmers' markets across India you would notice some vendors selling a variety of spinach, assorted beans, gourds, pumpkins and local produce like banana flower, drumsticks etc while there are others who keep coloured vegetables like bell peppers and carrots. The latter are often referred to as those who sell angrezi or shehri subzi... English or city vegetables. In a very straightforward way this unexceptional segregation of trade conveys the story of Indian cooking. 
India has had a deep relationship with locally-grown provisions, forest produce, herbs and spices; a fact our remote villages and tribes still exhibit the best. Cooking was largely based on the ayurvedic system of eating which broadly speaking means having food according to season and body type with each meal presenting a combination of six flavours: sweet, salt, bitter, pungent, sour and astringent. Food was simple, balanced but nourishing. 
As I dug deep to discover the history of food, it became evident that imports brought in plethora of choices and flavours and almost every popular dish in the country, has evolved over time to present itself in the form we know it today. Multiple invasions, royal patronage, colonial rule, asylum seekers and maritime traders who turned settlers have greatly influenced our food. The arrival of the Portuguese, Dutch, British, French, Mughals, Persians, Afghans, Parsis, Cantonese, Arabs, Jews Armenians and others saw their cooking traditions blending with local methods and ingredients to give India gastronomy immense depth and diversity. 
European entree 
Portuguese explorers lead by Vasco Da Gama were the first Europeans to discover the sea route to the subcontinent in 1498 AD. Their dropping anchor on Indian shores over the next few centuries brought in new greens and grains. The first seeds of the red long chilli pepper are also believed to have sailed the seas with them to forever alter the character of Indian cooking. 
Apart from the potato, they disembarked with tomato, groundnuts, maize, papaya, pineapple, guava, custard-apple, a variety of beans and cashew to name a few. This fact can be fairly established by vernacular terms of some items. In Bengal, for example, the guava is called peyara; the Portuguese term for it is pera. Pineapple and cashew are known as ananas and caju, respectively, in both countries. Bread is called pao in Portugal; so no guesses required in tracing the history of your favourite breakfast essential. 
The origin of paneer has for long been a subject of debate. But food historians as KT Achaya believe it were the Portuguese who introduced the technique of heating and deliberately splitting the milk using an acidic agent. Such cheese was first prepared in Bengal and came to be known as ponir and chhana. It was to become the basic ingredient of the immensely-loved rasogulla. On the west coast it's the Surti paneer, also known as topli nu panir among the Parsis, which has Portuguese origin. 
They are also credited with having brought the art of making vinegar and initiating its extensive use in cooking. That's clearly exhibited in the cuisine of Goa, which was a Portuguese outpost till 1961, when the Instrument of Surrender was signed, closing the chapter of Portugal's rule in India which had lasted 464 long years. Popular Goan fare, a must-have on tourist lists, like chicken cafreal, pork vindaloo, prawn recheado, chicken chacuti or the sweet bebinca is the scrumptious result of that mingling. 
Arabic, Jewish tweaks
Much before the Portuguese, in the 7th century Arab merchants had landed in southern India, in areas that belong to Kerala now. They settled in peacefully and married locally. That alliance led to an incredibly interesting spread of food in the region. 
In the state's northern districts, the Moplah (or Mappilla), the Muslim community of Malabar, have a cooking style reflecting the Arab influence of yore. The fortuitous marriage of traditions can be seen in the aleesa, a wheat and meat porridge that's the Malabar cousin of the original Arabic harees. Browse through the menu at a Moplah restaurant and you can spot the parotta. It was a flatbread created with refined flour to please the palette of homesick Arabs who did not care for rice in all three meals and missed their khoubz and khamira. The Malabar biryani served with Ethapazham or dates pickle and coconut chutney is another example of India's remarkable composite culinary culture. 
Later, when the Portuguese arrived, Malabar got its popular eshtews and egg-based desserts like muttamala, similar to the fios de ovos and the banana fritters.
The first Jews too came to the southern coast around the 8th century most possibly for trade in teak, ivory and spices. Over the centuries small batches kept arriving here with the later ones as Bene Israeli, Baghdadi Jews reaching India's shores to escape persecution. Apart from areas around Kochi, they moved to other parts of India and over time Kolkata, Pune, Mumbai and Goa became places of preference. Jewish culture thrived and Kochi's Jew Town and ornate synagogues in other cities stand witness to a glorious past. And so does typical Jewish fare like challah bread, aloo makalah, latkas, dolma matzo balls in soup etc that became familiar in Indian homes. Kosher bakeries like Nahoum and Sons in Kolkata grew famous for traditional items like baklava and the baked cheese sambusak, said to be the forerunner of the samosa. The Jews naturally influenced regional food too and a strong claim food historians make is of the appam being a Cochin Jews invention. Though the population has dwindled, Jewish food items continue to be savoured in areas where they had a strong presence and have become a happy part of the Indian food glossary. 
Persian palate 
In 1526 AD Babur set his foot in Hindustan. The Mughals not only changed the political history of the country but in a significant way transformed the course of our food history too. How we cook and eat today, especially in north India, has it beginnings centuries ago.  
Babur had suffered a series of setbacks in Central Asia, and turned towards Hindustan to accomplish his ambitions of being a conqueror. He had heard the glories of the land but though he found wealth here he was largely disillusioned with the social fabric. In his biography, Tuzk-e Babri also known as Babaurnama, the cultured warlord has famously written, "Hindustan is a place of little charm. There is no beauty in its people, no graceful social intercourse, no poetic talent or understanding, no etiquette, nobility, or manliness.  The arts and crafts have no harmony or symmetry.  There are no good horses, meat, grapes, melons, or other fruit. There is no ice, cold water, good food or bread in the markets."  Having come miles away from his land Samarkand, Babur it appears missed every aspect of home. Like his ancestors Timur and Genghis Khan, he was enamoured by Persian civilization. As he set up his empire in Hindustan, he began introducing Persian elements of art, architecture, landscaping and food. His son Humayun carried that legacy forward in a greater way.  
Humayun had lost Mughal territories to Afghan noble Sher Shah Suri and had retreated to Persia. He returned 15 years later to recapture them; and this time accompanying him was a large contingent of Persian nobles, artists and writers and cooks. Humayun was victorious and hereafter Persian culture dominated Mughal courts. 
In royal kitchen delectable Persian flavours bubbled. Their aromas also filled kingdoms such as Punjab and Kashmir (where Persian cooking and art can still be seen in its near-original form and almost borders on the sublime).
Culinary art was at its zenith in Persia and its cuisine was known for its sophistication and delicacy. Fragrances and flavours melded to present lavish results. At Mughal courts, royal chefs ran trials, fusing locally-available ingredients, spices and cooking styles with indigenous Persian techniques as dum pukht or slow cooking in a sealed vessel allowing the juices of the meats and vegetables to get absorbed well, using curd as a marinade for meat, combining vegetables and meat in a single dish, elaborate use of dry fruits and rosewater in dishes, grilling meat over charcoal in the tandoor or balancing the sweet and sour flavours in stews and soups. The result was a cuisine rich in taste and texture that overtime came to be known as Mughlai. 
That is how the kebab, quorma, musallam, shorba, champ etc accompanied with an assortment of naan/ roti baked in the tandoor and on the griddle, as well as a range of pulao became part of royal spreads and sooner or later home kitchens were doing much the same in small ways. Presentation was fundamental to Persian cuisine and became central to Mughlai style too; an example of this was the practice of gilding a dish with gold or silver leaf (warq). 
Royalty flourished and khansamas (chefs) received patronage to excel and outdo each other. Gradually, food preparation became creative and developed a sophistication that an evolved cuisine demands. Mughlai food later was tweaked at different imperial courts with Awadhi, Hyderbadi and the Rampuri (which has Afghan origins) styles emerging as offshoots. The biryani supposedly was created with the merger of cooking styles, but that remains a subject of debate. 
Anglo-Indian melange 
"Like the Mughals and the Portuguese before them, the British refashioned Indian food according to their tastes and created an independent branch of Indian cookery. This Anglo-Indian cuisine was the first truly pan-Indian cuisine, in that it absorbed techniques and ingredients from every Indian region and was eaten throughout the entire length and breadth of the subcontinent," says Lizzie Collingham in her definitive work Curry. This happened as the British hardly ever stayed at one spot in India, and as they moved to different cities they took along their retinue of cooks who prepared the same spread. 
What the khansamas of The Raj served their sahibs and memsahibs was the outcome of all things Indian whipped up with all elements European. So menus got the mulligatawny soup, a Tamil stew converted to suit an English palate; country captain's curry or chicken stew with turmeric and a dash of chillies; the all-time favourite chicken cutlet; pish pash, a rice broth with chicken; and desserts like caramel custard and bread pudding. Now labelled Dak Bungalow cuisine, it still retains familiar flavours and that nostalgia can be savoured at British-era clubs and the gymkhanas. The colonial passage to India has also given the world cocktails like gin and tonic.
A host of other influences like the Cantonese arrival in Bengal making 'Calcutta Chinese' a genre in itself or the Tibetan fare found in the Himalayas are all part of the smorgasbord of flavours that define India's incredible food landscape. Today television cookery shows and recipe books do what colonisers and traders had once done: bring in miscellaneous flavours into our kitchens. 
Food history is rampant with claims and counter-claims owing to the lack of data. But there is no denying how it has played a major role in human progression. Recipes have been adopted and restructured by different cultures, becoming testaments of history. Indian gastronomy stands witness to that. 

Diverse societies have strongly influenced each other and a great way to learn the voyage of food is by peeking into the etymology of a food term. Let's take the example of the kulcha. The term seems a derivative of kolache from the Old Slavonic kolo which stood for round or wheel. In Eastern Europe, kolach or kalac are buns packed with jam or walnut filling and prepared during Easter. Further on, koloocheh are Persian yeast cookies stuffed with walnuts, sugar and cinnamon specially baked during celebrations. The cookies are flaky, moist, mildly sweet and ideal with a cup of hot Irani chai. Moving East, kolcha becomes the generic term for sweet or savoury biscuits in Afghanistan while it means sweet flat buns in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Closer home is the Kashmiri kulchay, a yeast-leavened dry, crumbly biscuit-like snack dunked into tea. Moving to Punjab you get the hugely popular potato-stuffed Amritsari kulcha baked in the tandoor, while in most other parts of the country kulcha means the yeast leavened soft-textured bread in the shape of a flat bun.  

Friday, August 11, 2017

JW Marriott, Chandigarh: On a culinary expedition

On the wheels: Road to London... A Gourmet Journey

When a group of adventurous Indians was planning to travel from Delhi to London they thought why bother with flights let’s just take the road. That’s precisely what they did and zipped through spectacular trans-continental terrain — IndoChina, Central Asia, Europe — logging miles and jotting experiences on the wonders of wander. These figures tell their story: 19,500 km, 55 days, 18 countries and 13 SUVs. 
Dilpreet Bindra (left) and Naveen Handa 
Among the trailblazers who took the road less travelled and accomplished the feat is Dilpreet Singh Bindra, General Manager, JW Marriott, Chandigarh. A passionate explorer, he is overwhelmed by the sheer scale of Road to London 2017, organised by Gurgaon-based Adventures Overland. 
“What an incredible journey this has been. We had planned meticulously for over six months and everything worked to precision. What made it remarkable was the cultural exchange, the thrill of traversing the Silk Route, the magnitude of nature, and the impeccable highways that made driving such a pleasure.” 

After flag-off from Imphal and clearing the customs at Moreh, the Indian border outpost, the self-driven expedition made its way through Myanmar, Thailand, and the rain forests of Laos, before entering China and being dazzled by the state-of-the-art Dragon country. What welcomed them next was the vastness of land and warmth of locals as they drove through Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Further on Russia showed its gentle side while Latvia, Lithuania and Poland delighted them with East European generosity and courtesies. It was a breeze here on as the convoy manouvered through Czech Republic, Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, France to finally cross the English Channel and let out a hurrah in London. 

Bindra wasn’t only at the wheel during the trip as the hotelier in him made sure he peeped into kitchens at restaurants and highway inns, cooked and ate (and even sang) with locals, gathered spices and collected an assortment of recipes. Once back to work in Chandigarh, cuisines were discussed with the F&B section at the hotel. Lead by executive chef Naveen Handa, the team worked for over a month to recreate what Bindra had tasted and the result is Road to London... A Gourmet Journey, a five-day food festival on the culinary trail of 18 countries, that commences today. At the preview on Thursday, I tasted a sample of what’s on offer and all I can say is the palette of flavours pleased the palate enormously.

Auksta zupa
Yall dib
If the deep pink auksta zupa, a chilled beetroot-cucumber soup from Latvia had a perfect blend of flavours, the gaeng kiew wan pak (vegetable green curry) and coconut jasmine rice showed the subtlety Thai cuisine is known for. From Laos, yall dib, which is fresh vegetable juliennes wrapped in paper-thin rice sheets and served cold was stunning in its simplicity. While driving through South East Asia, Bindra had found the cuisine of the region offered impressive vegetarian delicacies, and the selection presented at the food fest stands testimony to that.
Chengdu hotpot
Tasting sessions at China have brought in original Sichuan, Xingjiang and Yunnan flavours. The show-stopper on the table was the Chengdu hotpot, a Sichuan whole roasted fish broth flavoured with herbs. From places on the Silk Route, as Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, there is the baked somsa, a precursor of our deep-fried samosa, besides robust lamb stews and shashlik, prepared traditionally using minimal spices. In this section, standing in a league of its own is the tandyr nan, the Uzbek flat bread, so perfectly baked, that I enjoyed having it all by itself. Another star for me was cepelinai, Lithuanian poached potato and mushroom dumpling in sour cream. It looked wicked but bowled me over with its delicate texture and a burst of flavours. In the Europe segment there will be a lot more to choose from, as the popular bigos from Poland and bitterballon from The Netherlands. A wide choice of breads and flavousome dips complete the line-up of over 50 dishes which also includes fare from Lucknow, Assam, Bihar and Meghalaya. 

The desserts section is a medley of sweet temptations: cakes, tarts and flaky pastries. One that took me back to my trip to Poland was karpatka. Delicious!  Matterntaart from Belgium, xianhua bing, a Yunnan rose-flower cake, marlenka from Czech Republic, baumkuchen from Germany and klingeris from Latvia were some others in the irresistible club.

That it was a huge learning experience for the chefs was visible in their enthusiasm to explain culinary nuances of what they had laid out. For it’s not every day that a hotel gets to prepare Latvian, Uzbek, Krygyz, Kazhak or Polish dishes. This fest is an absolute must-visit, especially if to you passion means food. 
What: Road to London – a gourmet journey 
Where: The CafĂ©@JW, JW Marriott, 
            Sector 35, Chandigarh 
When: August 11 to 15, 2017
           Brunch: 12.30 pm to 3.30 pm, 
           Rs 1,550 plus taxes  
           Dinner: 7.30 pm to 11.30 pm, 
           Rs 1,950 plus taxes

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Amber hues in Krakow: Bedazzled in Old Town

Pristinely-preserved past is Krakow’s big draw, but the glow of its amber outshines the rest

The 700-year-old Sukiennice at Rynek Glowny, the main square in Krakow, Poland, was once a medieval textile trading hub. Shops flanking the long arcade of this elegant Gothic building are now packed with souvenir shops. I halted at the one where a mellow light was filtering through every displayed object and creating a wispy hue. As it turned out, it was the hue of amber. Dulcet and dewy. Almost fairylike.

The bespectacled owner behind the counter chuckled at my dazed expression, “I see that look on most visitors. By the time they reach my shop they’ve seen plenty of ‘I love Krakow’ tees, armies of dolls, lots of lace, wood-carving and ceramics. They are dazzled by amber,” she said. The shop indeed had a lot to offer. Sitting cheek by jowl were lampshades, delicate cutlery, boxes and paperweights, keychains, and loads of trinkets and charms. Each had a hint of amber or were carved out of the precious resin entirely. The owner held a luminous amber pendant against the light and exclaimed, “This little piece has undertaken a long journey. The beautiful Baltic amber must have passed many a hand as it travelled down the Amber Road,” she said.

I was familiar with the Silk Road, the Hindustan-Tibet Road and the Incense Road — all ancient trading routes. The Amber Road, however, was unfamiliar territory. As I stood chatting with the silver-haired Pole, a narrative emerged as maps were fished out and routes retraced. Amber has been big business in Eastern Europe for centuries and trading corridors emerged from its two major sources — the Baltic Sea and the North Sea coast.

The owner relished trivia and had much to say about the superior Baltic amber, a prized, almost revered commodity which the Greeks used as medicine, Romans for jewellery, Egyptians for armour, Chinese in objects d’art, and the Prussians for building palace chambers. “Poland was so busy sending it all over the world that we were content with the hand-me-down rings and pendants of our babcia (grandmother)!” she jested. Amber, we decided, would possibly have reached India through the Silk Route, bartered for spices, brocade or gold. “Amber and salt, which we had in abundance, was as good as gold for us. In fact, it’s poetically called Gold of the Baltic,” she explained.

Unlike precious stones which are found in the rock state, amber is fossilised tree resin and is an organic gemstone much like coral and pearl. To my untrained eye, several of those pieces appeared commonplace, but were actually high-grade jewels boasting supreme clarity. Some, embedded as they were with fossilised insects, took my breath away. Such exotic pieces had made amber worthy of kings and a key agent that filled up the treasury of medieval kingdoms.

Various sea and overland passages were sketched to transport amber. The Romans used the Amber Road, which began at the Baltic coast, ran up the mountains, down the valleys and over corduroy roads and culminated at the Adriatic Sea. It cut across Poland and bits of it are still found here. The ancient path gets a modern makeover with Autostrada A1, officially called AmberOne, an under-construction expressway that nearly traces that route. This north-south corridor runs through central Poland, beginning at Rusocin, near Gdansk on the Baltic Sea and winding up at Gorzyczki, the Polish-Czech border, where it meets the Czech highway D1. The highway is about an hour from Krakow, but the ancient route is believed to have been closer to the town, thus making it prosperous.

I had arrived in Krakow or Cracow after reading closely about its well-preserved 12th-century Old Town, a Unesco World Heritage Site. The site was expectedly atmospheric. Its nucleus, the imposing Rynek Glowny — the biggest medieval market square in all Europe — made a pretty picture with immaculate buildings, outdoor cafes, artists working in the promenades, buzzing restaurants and touristy horse-carriages. The 14th-century Gothic-style St Mary’s Basilica, and the Sukiennice, also called Cloth Hall, are its remarkable landmarks. Footing around Old Town, I was impressed by the exactness of its restoration and the extent of preservation. Almost all public places — avant-garde brand-stores, restaurants or museums — had uber-contemporary interiors, but the exposed brick-work on its walls conveyed the passage of time brilliantly. The past and present juxtaposed seamlessly adding to the character of Krakow.

A little away from Old Town is Kazimierz, the district where the city’s rich Jewish culture is carefully preserved. During World War II, after the invasion of Poland, Jews of the city were forced into a walled zone from where they were eventually sent to concentration camps such as Auschwitz. Steven Spielberg shot a section of Schindler’s List at Kazimierz in 1993.

I was staying on Ulica Florianska, Old Town’s lively high street known for its boutiques, pubs, and carts of obwarzanek, the Krakow bagel. The street also had glass-fronted jewellery shops claiming to sell ‘Original amber with certificate’. Tempted, I had walked into one only to retreat hastily, empty- handed. “Once upon a time people would say, ‘Ah, you bought amber’. Now they say, ‘Oh my! You bought amber!’ That’s how expensive Poland’s most popular souvenir has become,” my guide said in an attempt at consolation. However, I did bring back something priceless from Krakow — the knowledge of a prehistoric trading route.

Getting there
Krakow is well-connected and all major airlines fly into town.

Hotel Pod Roza (, an elegant heritage property in Old Town

Visit Stary Kleparz farmers market for artisanal cheese, lavender and freshly-steamed pierogi (dumplings stuffed with potato or cheese)

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Tuesday, June 6, 2017

The shepherd’s cheese

The Gujjars of Jammu Kashmir are
 the creators of the soft kaladi
On the green hills in the shadows of the Pir Panjal range, the Gujjars or shepherds have quietly been making something utterly gourmet. The world fashionably calls it artisanal cheese. They simply call it kaladi. So little is known about it beyond these mountains that kaladi could well be the state’s best-kept secret.

I learn about it unexpectedly, in keeping with the tradition of getting some of the best leads on culinary trails from the most improbable sources. On my maiden trip to Jammu aboard the Malwa Express, my co-passenger, a soldier posted on the Indo-Pak border, turns out to be a ready-reckoner on the region’s cuisine. “You have to taste the kaladi, else your trip to Jammu is incomplete,” he insists.

A mere mention of it to my friend PB, a fellow journalist I’m visiting, and she ensures I sample kaladi the local way. “It’s unique to this region. They say it’s like mozzarella, but if you ask me it beats its Italian cousin by miles,” she grins, describing it with a zeal matching the soldier’s, as we drive to the popular eatery Pahalwan’s, established in 1934 and initially a milk shop typical to the hills.

PB asks for kaladi-kulcha, which seems to be the fastest selling item on the evening menu. In appearance, the raw kaladi is a nondescript off-white roundel, with the pungency of ripened cheese. It acquires a whole new meaning, though, when it is slapped on to a tawa, lightly fried till it releases its fat to turn a lovely golden-brown on both sides, placed inside a warm kulcha, seasoned with salt and chillies and served with accompaniments of mint and tamarind chutney. One bite of this deliciousness and I know why this fare is a winner. It’s robust and subtle at the same time: a pillowy-soft kulcha complementing a kaladi that is crisp on the surface but all stringy and molten inside, the mild sweetness of the ghee it’s fried in and finally the dash of spices. The kaladi is also served by itself but the bit of carb (kulcha/ bun) adds to its comfort-food factor.
Pahalwan’s sells around 150 kg of kaladi a day. It’s possible that Jammu and neighbouring districts produce several thousand kilos of this regional favourite, found at almost every street corner. I turn to Pahalwan’s Satpal Abrol for a response. The kaladi, he says, has long been part of these hills and Dogra cuisine. The fact that it was prepared on a small scale in high-altitude pockets limited its presence to the region. “Now it’s commercially made in cities but till a few years back, it was only the Gujjars who’d sell it. Kaladi used to be a summer special, made only when the shepherds ascended to the mountaintops with their herds. They curdled the unsold milk — which didn’t last long in that weather — to make kaladi,” he says.
The Gujjars use rustic pots to make the cheese, shape it by hand and ripen it in the sun on a bed of pine leaves. I recall the soldier telling me Ramnagar in Udhampur district is renowned for its kaladi. Abrol agrees, saying for an authentic taste, one needs to visit a Gujjar kitchen.
Later on a trip to Kashmir, I get a flavour of the original in the picturesque town of Aru, near Pahalgam. I’m sipping kehwa at a tea shop, when I spot a cluster of pheran-clad men scrutinising a pile of pale-cream discs that a Gujjar lady — clad in long shirt and embroidered topi — has pulled out of her cloth bag. “It’s doodh roti,” one of the men tells me as he pays a pittance for 20 pieces. “We call it maish krej in Kashmiri. In Jammu region, it’s known as kaladi,” another chips in. The shape of the Gujjar variety is different but the preparation is similar and so is the manner in which it’s relished by locals. The Gujjars, however, have it the gourmet way: grilled on wood-fire.
Has nobody thought of branding this soft cheese? My question is answered at a foods store in Srinagar, where I discover vacuum-packed kaladi manufactured by a Dutchman settled in Pahalgam.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Multani Dhanda

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Sunday, July 17, 2016

Bhopali batua

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Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Aru: Kashmiri khander (wedding) and the wazwan

 Aru is a charming pocket-size hamlet close to Pahalgham. We are on a day-trip here and have footed around it, admired its beauteous sights and squinting green meadows, plucked apples off trees, done the pony rides, got an enthusiastic update on the list of movies shot here and are about to head back to base when we ask our cabbie Khursheed if there is something very typical to the village we can see. He mulls over for a bit before hesitatingly asking if we would be keen in seeing a typical Kashmiri village khander (wedding). Could we have asked for anything better! 

The next moment we are being welcomed at the bride's sprawling home. It is the wedding of Shaheena. Her groom has arrived from a few villages away and is shyly sitting with the boys. Maqbool Hasan, the bride's father, is playing the gracious host and immediately comes forward to greet us. As pleasantries are being exchanged we witness a flurry of activity. The wazwan has been announced. We ask Hasan if we can stay on for a while and take a look at the proceedings. "Surely! I invite you to partake of the wazwan with us," he says hospitably.  

In a Kashmiri wedding, the wazwan, a multi-course feast, is the epitome of celebrations and the most important person after the couple is the vasta waza, or head chef. It's not unusual for parents to postpone the marriage if the waza of their choice is not available on the chosen day! Hasan triumphantly says he was lucky to have booked the waza in time as autumn is the season for weddings. He marches us to the spot where the backroom boys, the junior wazas, are getting ready to present the fare with a flourish. 

Preparation for the wazwan had begun the night before when the vasta waza had arrived with his band of wazas. Usually their number is anywhere between 15 to 50, depending on the size of the gathering. The term wazwan means 'cook's shop’, which was until the contemporary world gave the expression a whole new twist of a sensory experience, which it definitely is.  

Behind the scene

The pots are bubbling with all that’s to be served in a while and there is a heady mix of aromas. "The preparation is exacting and every step is done at the venue, from grinding of spices to pounding of meat. Each ingredient has to be fresh; the concept of something coming out of the cold storage is non-existent," a waza tells us. An emulsion of onion-garlic-pran (shallots), whole spices and moval or dried cockscomb for colouring are some of the basic ingredients in the Muslim style of cooking. The Pandits prefer using crushed spices, asafoetida and red chillies. Mustard oil, saunf (aniseed), saunth (ginger powder) and saffron remain common to both. With the Valley reaping a bountiful harvest of fruit, dried as well as fresh fruits are also tossed into dishes.    

The wazwan is cooked traditionally in a veurabal or an open-air kitchen, in large round-bottomed, small-necked copper pots and on wood-fire. A customised fireplace, about 12' -15' long and around 1.5' high, is created for the purpose. "This arrangement is known as veura," Hasan enlightens us, adding, "In Kashmiri cooking ingredients are added at regular intervals and need to be stirred constantly. The convenient height and length of the veura facilitates that. Customarily, ours is slow cooking—the culinary art having travelled here from Persia centuries ago—and the regulated heat of firewood is ideal for that." I compliment Hasan on his almost-academic style of explanation at which he laughs heartily and says, "We are all passionate about food. We don't like our flavours messed up (read fusion). A dish should taste as it always has. We may eat little but we will have only the best!" 

The gathering is settling down for the wazwan and we do not want to intrude right away. Moreover, we are keen to meet the bride. Hasan readily agrees and yells out to his wife. She leads us upstairs to an unadorned room where sits Shaheena attired in radiant red, looking pretty in her simplicity. She is surrounded by a crowd of aunts, cousins, nieces and nephews. Her marriage rituals are yet to take place and she has an anxious expression. Someone teases her on that and she breaks into a smile. We chat with her for a while and intrigue her with our status: women of all ages from one family. As we are about to leave, almost instantly and true to tradition, we dip into our wallets and present her shagun (token). She is initially reluctant to take it but when the eldest among us says it is dua (blessing) she smilingly agrees. Seated next to Shaheena is her brother making a note of all she’s been receiving. He asks his mother how he should put down our token. "From mas (maternal aunts) and beni (sisters)," she smiles, immediately forging a bond the way only Indians can!  

The Feast
Wedding guests are sprawled all over the garden and a few men have taken their place on the dastarkhawan (floor-covering) as they await the servers to come around with the first course of the wazwan. We are lead to the shamiyana (ceremonial tent) meant for women, who are sitting huddled on the ground and happily chatting. Looking at them is like seeing a sea of luminous faces sans any adornment, dressed in bright pherans and colourful head-scarves. What beauty! If there is one aspect that has refreshingly stood out in this village wedding it is the lack of extravagance. It is a cosy affair; a sharp contrast to ostentatious city weddings.

The arrival of an attendant carrying a tash-t-nari, the traditional jug and basin meant for washing hands at your individual place, signals the start of the service. It is truly a page out of old-world hospitality, decadent to say the least. Next follows the all-important trami or large nickle-plated copper platter laden with fragrant steamed rice (it’s a locally grown variety) topped with a long seek kebab (skewered mutton) running the length of the dish, and two servings of methi maz (mutton cooked with fenugreek) on either side. Each trami, about 18" in diameter, is shared by four persons and the methi maaz in a way demarcates boundaries as guests tunnel their way through the rice with their hands—cutlery is a no-no—to savour the first course, which is a sort of mezze. The next item is two large pieces of tabak maaz (ribs marinated in curd and pan-fried) and kokar (chicken in gravy). There is complete silence in the shamiyana as the ladies are all engrossed in the food. The servers are the only ones rushing in and out with big pots.     

​​The second course follows soon and the first to be served is rista (mutton balls in reddish gravy), and in sequence comes daniwala qorma (mixed meat curry), ruvangan chaman (cottage cheese in tomato gravy) and ab gosht (meat prepared in milk). Each dish has a distinct lip-smacking flavour and colour. An assortment of tangy chutneys made with walnut and radish are the accompaniments as are small bowls of sweetened curd, the sweetness subtly blunting the salt-spice and adding to the enhancement of flavours. The final dish of the feast is gustaba (mutton balls in silken textured curd gravy). It's a large ball and only one piece is served per trami; and in a way it’s the full-stop to a wazwan. A round of firni (rice pudding) and many rounds of kehva (cardamom flavoured green tea served with slivers of almond), however, follow.   

"The wazwan in a big city like Srinagar will have many more servings per course. A lot of it goes waste. Around 1.5 kg to 2 kg assorted meat per trami is more than sufficient. In the villages we believe in delighting our guests but not going overboard."Hasan tells us. While my family has enjoyed eating from a trami, being a vegetarian I relished just a bit of the food; but what an experience it has been. A wazwan is truly a culinary celebration! Aru will always remain special on that account.

Getting there:Srinagar-Pahalgam is 4.5 hrs by road. Pahalgam to Aru is 12 km.   

 Published Jetwings May 2016

Friday, April 15, 2016

Vintage lithographed tins

The heirloom

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Wide canvas: Idyllic landscapes, town scenes, paintings, floral designs or happy baby faces were used generously to woo the target buyer pic: Brinda Suri
Wide canvas: Idyllic landscapes, town scenes, paintings, floral designs or happy baby faces were used generously to woo the target buyer pic: Brinda Suri
Vintage lithographed tin boxes are little time machines, bringing you the charming kitsch of the late 19th century
It was in grandpa’s wardrobe for as long as I had known. A slim tin box with a removable lid featuring a bonny blue-eyed girl holding a snowy dog. It was a gift for his sons, and once its contents were over, grandma had decided it was perfect to store grandpa’s pocket squares. And quite a collection he had of jewel-tones in silk and satin. Grandpa was a stickler for discipline, so it was a treat for us grandkids to be allowed to open this box, select a piece that matched with the tie and turban.
Grandpa passed away a few years ago at the ripe age of 90. His box, however, continues to be at the same spot in his wardrobe, and opening it now is like unlocking a treasure trove of memories, with each kerchief bringing alive a story, some that go back to his newly-married days in Rawalpindi. All these years it was the inside, rather than the box itself, which had held a charm. That was until recently when, by accident, I came across the vintage section of an e-commerce site selling a box similar to the one in grandpa’s cupboard. I nearly fell off the chair when I noticed it had a price tag of $51 or Rs 3,400 approximately. The seller’s description read ‘Morton Pure Confectioner litho tin box with girl and dog picture’.
I immediately reached out for grandpa’s box. On flipping it over, as in the online image, I found Morton written in small golden letters. It was a toffee box, from a brand set up in 1849 by JT Morton in Aberdeen, Scotland. The firm later became C&E Morton, which had commercial interests in India and, in 1928, a local magnate bought its rights. The Morton brand was registered here in 1947 and is now owned by Oudh Sugar Mills Ltd. A simple tin box had opened up chapters of a remarkable legacy, hidden away from the limelight.
Morton was among the few early-20th century companies that had opted to package its confectionery items in lithographed tin boxes. Today, like a lot else, these have far outlived their original purpose to become collectors’ items and there’s a whole legion of enthusiasts out there in the cyber world sharing their collection and tales of what those boxes held: from chessmen to toy train sets to sewing essentials, laces, locks and a lot more.
Lithographed tin boxes, the kind we’re familiar with now, emerged on the shelves in 1882 when chromolithography was invented. A series of colour plates were used for the process, as a result of which multi-colour tin-sheets could be produced. By 1890, embossing was also introduced in the design and brand names began appearing in relief, often in an attractive gold finish.
The birth of the tin can, the predecessor to the box, however, goes back to 1810 when British merchant Peter Durand was issued a patent for his idea of “preserving food in an iron can coated with tin”. The early 19th century saw the rapid growth of industrialisation and cooking food out of a tin, as opposed to preparing fresh food, became a status symbol. By 1820, tinned food was being widely sold across England, France and the US.
The early cans/boxes had paper labels on them. The first lithographed tin box, not multi-colour till then, with removable or hinged lid, is said to have been commissioned in 1868 by British biscuit manufacturers Huntley & Palmers. As the popularity of their decorated containers grew worldwide, litho tins were renamed biscuit tins and, soon, other confectioners followed suit, offering cakes, toffees and later chocolates. Idyllic landscapes, picturesque town scenes, famous paintings, exquisite regal settings, floral designs or happy baby faces were used generously in an effort to woo the target buyer — women and children. Christmas, coronation and royal births saw limited-edition theme boxes.
Litho tins arrived in India at the beginning of the 20th century and became fashionable soon enough. Till a few decades after the Partition, most tins were decorated with European themes. Mid-Sixties onward, the Indian sensibility crept in and, alongside Victorian patterns, calendar art gods-goddesses, mythological tales, protagonists of folk legends, grand palaces, national symbols such as the tiger, lotus and the Tricolour graced tin boxes of companies like Nutrine and Parle as well as a host of mithai and confectioner shops throughout the country. Unlike today, when brand names are splashed boldly across a product, the images did the talking while the trade name stayed almost hidden, usually on the rear or the sides in small font.
Over the centuries, the charming patterns and shapes were what appealed to buyers, who would put the boxes to good use long after the goodies inside had been polished off. While tin boxes were being lovingly preserved and recycled in homes across the world, who could have thought these would become collector items some day.
Published in BL ink, Business Line 

Sunday, February 7, 2016


Brinda Suri
Rumi Darwaza, an iconic structure, commissioned in 1784.

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Travelling back in time

The writer takes a walk right into the history of the magical kingdom of Awadh, its nawabs, architecture, and graceful culture. Winter is the season — and the reason — to put on your walking shoes and step out into Lucknow’s streets.

Ye Lakhnau ki sarzameen... ye rang, roop ka chaman… Mohd Rafi’s captivating voice gave musical soul to the Guru Dutt classic Chaudavi ka Chand. But on this balmy morning, his rich voice is filling the air at Lucknow’s ‘Jarnail wali Kothi’ and recreating the splendour of Awadh of the past, when it was a jewel in the crown of Hindustan.

Awadh has been romanticised down the centuries. It’s often used as a backdrop in popular cinema, feted by wordsmiths, and endlessly hailed by connoisseurs of fine things and good food. How was Awadh born? The term Nawab (from the Persian ‘naib,’ meaning ‘deputy’) was originally used for a provincial governor under the Mughals and his primary duty was to uphold the sovereignty of the Emperor. The decline of the later Mughals saw the rise of the nawabs. One of these was Nawab Saadat Khan, who established the state of Awadh in 1722, which remained a force to reckon with till the First War of Independence in 1857.
The Awadh dynasty traced its lineage back to Neyshabur north-eastern Persia (Iran). The nawabs of Awadh were a feisty and arty lot who, during their reign, seamlessly wove Persian sensibilities into the local milieu: the Persian language flowered; buildings were commissioned; poetry, music and dance resounded; able jurists, architects, scholars and not to forget shahi khansamas (royal chefs) visited regularly.

 It’s this history I’m exploring during a conducted walk through Lucknow’s Qaiserbagh. The heritage district is almost an open-air museum, unravelling splendid structures and delicious stories at every step. The spirited team of Itihaas, led by raconteur Smita Vats is taking us around and magically bringing alive the past with music, visuals and even fragrances. A little attar is dabbed on our wrists. The scent is unmistakably gulab. “It’s not just any fragrance,” says Vats, “this was Nawab Wajid Ali Shah’s favourite. It's said when the plucky Nawab met the wily British he hugged them and it's believed they would say, 'we reek of his smell for days!'."

The nawabs freely borrowed architectural genres, giving birth to the Awadh style. Chhattar Manzil a palace built between 1798-1814 AD in Mughal-French-Awadhi vocabulary remained the seat of power of the Nawabs till 1847 AD. On the banks of the Gomti, it has an astutely designed ‘taikhana’ (basement) that was used in the searing summer. As I head towards the spectacular Lal Baradari or Coronation Hall, constructed during the reign of Nawab Saadat Ali Khan II (1798 -1814), Vats points out to the road we crossed to get here. “This was laid by the British; it was earlier a sprawling royal neighbourhood filled with gardens and fountains. The road sliced and divided the complex, a method typical of the British to establish their supremacy.”
Fiercely protective of their people and kingdom, the Nawabs did pander to British interests but resisted too (the third nawab Shuja-ud-Daula lost the Battle of Buxar in 1773, leading to a British Resident being placed in the kingdom, and the last nawab, Wajid Ali Shah, being banished to Calcutta in 1856.) Indeed, the British tried every trick to dull the shine of Awadh. They succeeded in making the Nawabs puppets but they couldn’t suppress the spirit of the land. It’s no wonder then that the annexation of Awadh was the last and most difficult hurdle the British had to cross to become masters of India. It is said that when Wajid Ali Shah faced the ignominy of exile, he told the British: “Taj (crown), takht (throne) le sakte ho, dastakht (signature) nahin”. Ironically, the takeover misfired as Awadh avenged its ruler’s insult and whole-heartedly participated in the Revolt of 1857; and a distance away, The Residency, which bore the brunt, stands mute witness to the uprising.
The walk concludes at Wajid Ali Shah’s Qaiserbagh, which has fantastical structures like the Parikhana, Marmari Bridge and Safed Baradari. What’s striking is the ornate Lakhi Darwaza, the west gate, built in 1850 and so named because it cost Rs. 1 lakh. It’s engraved with the Awadh insignia of twin fishes, an emblem adopted now by the U.P. government. This is an emblem I notice on all the buildings of those times, and it has a legend too: the first Nawab Saadat Khan, while still a Mughal governor, was crossing a river on his way to Lucknow when two fishes leapt into his lap. The locals aboard saw it as an auspicious sign and soon, Awadh was established. The nawab eagerly incorporated the fish into his kingdom’s emblems. The fish is part of Persian customs too, so I’m sure the insignia has another fish-tale. The twin fishes are now part of the UP government seal.
Later, the fish motif grabs attention when I visit the fourth nawab Asaf-ud-Daula’s iconic structures commissioned in 1784: Bara (or Asafi) Imambara and Rumi Darwaza. Interestingly, the design for the imambara was selected through a process of competition. The winner was Delhi architect Kifayatullah, who legend says so impressed with the design that he was rewarded with a burial place alongside the nawab inside the imambara. The imambara is among the largest arched structures in the world to have no beams supporting the ceiling. It also has a Bhulbhuliya or labyrinth on the periphery of the first floor that’s interconnected through identical 489 doorways, which were meant to confuse an invader. In today’s times, it’s visitors who get lost and can’t find the exit. True to tradition, my group got separated from the rest and we had to rely on cellular network to trace our way out of this quirky passage of history.
The cultural legacy of Awadh is connected to a great extent with Nawab Wajid Ali Shah. And the reasons are clear. How many kings have been not just patrons of the performing arts but proficient in them too? The Nawab was gifted musically; his thumri in Raag Bhairavi, Babul Mora Naihar Chhooto Hi Jaaye, is sheer genius. He composed poetry, under the pseudonym Akhtarpiya while his pen-name was, well, Qaiser; the dance form of Kathak was revived by him and elevated to the level of a classic; and theatre was encouraged. He gave form to a unified dress code, the Awadhi angrakha (a front overlapping kurta) and dupali topi (cap), as well as the greeting of ‘adaab’ (which simply means ‘I bow to you with respect’). The now famous ‘chikankari’ (or the Persian embroidery form of chakeen, which essentially means passing thread through white cloth to embellish it) also took root here.
The Awadhi ‘dastarkhawan’ (or tablecloth but, metaphorically, meaning fine dining) evolved and ‘dum pukht’ (or the Persian style of slow cooking) reached culinary heights. During the trip, I met the engrossing royal scion Nawab Jafar Mir Abdullah, a personification of Awadhi culture and a gourmet, who highlighted the nuances of its cooking. “Awadhi cuisine is about zaika (taste), khushbu (aroma),peshkari (presentation) and most importantly the jod (balance),” he explained in mellifluous Urdu, adding, “The disguise of a dish was at its zenith in Awadh. A sweet could be presented in the shape of a sour dish and vice-versa. The guest had to deduce what he or she was about to taste. Innovation was in vogue as today’s guest was tomorrow’s host. So chefs were always trying to outdo each other.” As I discovered, present-day Lucknow’s famous Tunde ke Kebab or Idris ki Biryani is just a drop in the vast ocean of this gastronomy.
History books do teach us about Awadh, but nothing I saw today could have prepared me for this history lesson — both tangible and intangible.

Edited version published in The Hindu       awadh/article8202874.ece#comments