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.  

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