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Indian cuisines and Independence Day musings

Unity in diversity may sound cliched, but it is exactly that defined Indid’s culinary heritage

By Anoothi Vishal

If you happened to be in Hyderabad and decided to go on a biryani crawl—a hopping expedition across restaurants and clubs, big fat wedding dinners (where indeed some of the best is to be had) and small
hole-in-the-wall shops — would you really be able to discern the best biryani of them all? An old test that mothers (and mothers-in-law) often judged young cooks by was to throw some of the rice on the floor. If none of the grains stuck to each other, the biryani would pass muster. Not otherwise. The trick to a perfect kachchi biryani (where raw mutton and rice are cooked together in a sealed pot on a slow flame), of course, is that each grain of rice should be coated with the flavours of the stock. Few commercial cooks are able to achieve that—tending to make the rice first and curried mutton separately and then merely assembling the two together a la minute. Yet, there are enough biryani fanatics across the country to hold them to account. And that’s really the reason why we are talking about this fabulous mishmash in the first place. The biryani, in all its different avatars (and we will come to them presently) is one of
the dishes that binds India.

It may not even have originated in the country — having traveled from Persia to the Mughal kitchens as pulao and then, with the addition of local spices transformed into this mouthwatering concoction. But it is a dish that almost all Indians would be most familiar with, regardless of their class, caste or religion. Indeed, the biryani changes form as one travels from the north to the south, from the west to the east, adopting local flavours and cooking practices and yet remaining in its essence the same—rice, meat and spice. A symbol of nation integration?
If you like.

In Lucknow, the spicy, chilli-laced biryani of Hyderabad would not be strictly legit: The Avadhi biryani, after all, was much more sophisticated and subtle, using just whole spices, than its Deccani country cousin that borrowed from local Andhra kitchens. But if both these traveled to Kolkata, the city of the joy, they would hardly bring as much joy to the Bengali palate as the potato-infused dish that goes under the same name and is yet so different. Even in a tiny state like Kerala, there are more than a single kind of biryani that you could enjoy. The seafood biryani of the Moplahs (the Muslim boatsmen community) is popular and hot with black pepper but subtle differences in the spicing change it to the chemeen (shrimp) biryani of the Syrian Christians.

But if the biryani is one dish that exemplifies India’s diverse cultural heritage, so do several others — the samosa comes easily to mind, being a popular street food almost everywhere from Bengal to UP
to Chennai. Then, there is the aloo tikki, a favourite chaat, that transforms into the likes of the batata vada and bonda depending on which city you are in. There is also the example of the
karanji/gujiya, the typical festive sweet that can possibly trace its origins to the stuffed sweet filo pastries of Turkey (Indian, after all, was under Turkish rule for a chunk of its medieval history),
which changes its name according to filling that you put inside—khoya in north India, fresh coconut during Ganpati and Diwali in Maharashtra. But it is hardly restricted to one community. Food is a
product of both history and geography. And if geography divides cuisines in terms of ingredients, shared history and centuries of coexistence unites them in surprising ways. Christmas feasting in Kerala and Goa is thus uniquely Indian—incomplete without kulkuls, nuereos (gujiyas, once more) and laddoos, not to mention fiery curries — and vastly different from how the stereotypical, white Christmas in
the West would be.

One of the things that Westerners find particularly bewildering about Indian cuisines is the lack of codified material. Classical French cooking which has so dominated the global fine dine scenario is pretty
clear in this regard. Particular sauces are to be made with precise, specific recipes and these give dishes their names. In India, on the other hand, cultural and geographical diversity coupled with the fact
that we’ve never had a tradition of codifying recipes can be quite awe-inspiring. Each region, each community within that same region, indeed each family often has its own unique way of creating a
particular dish. With so many spices and raw ingredients available to us, each dish is structured like a raga— while a few notes may dominate, there are enough of supporting ones to make this is a pretty
complicated artistic process. Many of the world’s other cuisines, on the other hand, are simpler—and cleaner, in terms of their taste profile. Only the main ingredient dominates and you should be able to
taste this quite clearly. In Indian kitchens, sometimes the opposite is true. Apart from the medley of ingredients that go into all our curries (or sauces), cooks sometimes take pleasure in creating dishes
that can taste quite different from what they are made of and thus inducing a wow factor!

Our diverse culinary heritage is best exemplified by a simple fish
curry: With three-fourth of the country surrounded by water and plenty
of rivers, fish is indeed a dominant main ingredient. However, instead
of there being just a few “classical” recipes, what we have are
innumerable ones. The curry changes in character when one goes from
one region to another, one caste to another—often depending on a
change of souring agent. From amchoor (dry mango powder) of the north,
tomatoes in Assam, kokum on the Konkan coast (on the Malabar coast,
the type of kokum you get is different), chugur of Andhra (young
tamarind leaves), tamarind pulp, lemon, pineapple, vinegar (in Goa,
the portugese influence) and many others change not just the character
of the fish curry you may be enjoying but also the type of sambhar,
dal, or rasam that finds its way into your plate.

Preserving India’s culinary heritage undoubtedly involves a huge
process of research where dying regional recipes are first codified
and then revived and popularized. For many of the most elusive,
time-consuming gems (most traditional Indian cooking is done on a slow
fire not on the high flames of Western-inspired kitchens) are
certainly dying. Globalisation means that fewer people cook at home
and Indian-Chinese, Indian-Italian or Punjabi-Mughlai are now becoming
the most acceptable/recognizable pan-Indian cuisines. Recipes such as
lukmis which could be poked open to let out a live dove (made as part
of a wedding feast to surprise the bridegroom), Kashmiri Pandit food,
Udipi meals, or even seasonal delicacies such as what were called
patode in UP (colocasia leaves, steamed and fried), patrode in
Mangalore (another version of the same dish), and aduchi vadi in
Maharastra are fast disappearing. You may have had Spanish tapas, but
have you had a meal from Orissa or indeed the red ant chutney of
Chattisgarh? That is a question one must ponder.


From dal to sambhar

India is possibly the only country in the world where pulses are
cooked in the way they are. Dals unite the country like no other food.
They may, of course, be thick, even dry, or watery as you move from
the north to the south, from inland, wheat-centric areas where phulkas
or rotis are the staple and thick dals can be mopped up with these, to
the coastal regions where rice dominates and thin dals and curries can
thus be mixed up with the grain and eaten.

Tempering, to flavour the dals, is also a uniquely Indian phenomenon.
But a good question a student of Indian food heritage may well ask is
how did sambhar, or sambhars really because there are so many
different kinds in the four southern states, originate?

If you move from the dals of northern India to central India, you
find, souring agents being used to flavour the dals. In Maharashtra,
the amti is a close relative of the sambhar. And it is this that
possibly spread down south with the Maratha rule. Foodie lore credits
the invention of the sambhar to the Martha chieftain Sambhaji!

Box 2

The thali

Unlike the Western service, food in India was typically served in a
thali. While usually these were fashioned out of fragrant, locally
available leaves—thus being particularly “eco-chic” and hygienic—the
upper classes and royalty ate out of silver and golden thalis.

A typical thali meal, wherever you go in India, is one of the most
balanced diets available—unlike Western meals where the emphasis is
usually on a single, non-vegetarian, ingredient. Pooris, pulses, rice,
a combination of vegetables, pickles, chutneys and a sweet and curd
completed this meal, made up of carbs, proteins and essential

Depending on where you were in India, the thali service followed a
pattern, with vegetables and curries following a particular order —
as in a Bengali meal, where one moves from the bitter,
palate-cleansing astringent flavours to light vegetable curries, dal,
fish, poultry and finally meat, all of which are to be had with tiny
portions of rice individually. Often, even the place of chutneys, a
wedge of lemon and salt to be served on the thali would be
designated—as in a Maharashtrian Brahmin meal. And finally, the way
you folded your banana leaf on which the meal was served was also of
consequence. In Tamil Nadu, for instance, the upper castes fold the
leaf back/upwards after a meal not downwards—which they do only in
times of mourning. The lower castes follow the reverse practice!

(The piece first appeared in Orbit magazine)

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