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From Kabul to Calcutta

It’s funny how coincidences happen. Just last week Tongue Twister went on the road — National Highway 6 — to visit one of a chain of plazas attached to petrol stations that have made highway travel easier with various amenities, and of course, good food. In fact, the quest for culinary experience is part of the attraction and romance of being on the road, especially when you are lucky enough to come across authentic fare that provides a genuine taste of local flavours.

What a good idea, then, to have a food festival that charts the route of the Grand Trunk Road all the way from Kabul to Calcutta, stopping along the way to represent different food of different places, from robust dishes that are truckers’ favourites to elaborate, nawabi dishes from the dastarkhwans of places like Agra and Lucknow.

The subcontinent’s oldest and most historical highway, which for centuries has been the main corridor for the movement of travellers, goods, armies and ideas, linking the Taj Mahal and the Golden Temple to the ancient battle sites of The Mahabharat and the magnificent cities of Moghul and British India. There could be no better choice for a gourmet’s tour.

The festival is on at Oh! Calcutta on Elgin Road and will continue till Sunday the 28th at least and you can drop in for both lunch and dinner. I went there for a Saturday lunch, and found that the menu had been put together with a lot of thought with enough variety without becoming unwieldy. Chef Joy Banerjee told me that actual recce had been made, travelling the route from Delhi to Wagah. “If you stop at every hamlet and reach out for the local colour, you can write several volumes….” he said wistfully.

For starters, there were Chappali Kebab and Machhi Amritsari. Chappali Kebab gets its name from a well-known chappal market near the Mahabat Khan Mosque in Peshawar, and the kebabs are even shaped like a slipper or a sandal. Minced mutton (in Peshawar they would be beef) is combined with salt, coriander seeds and pomegranate seeds (both coarsely ground), chopped tomatoes, onions and green chillies, scrambled eggs and cornflour. The ingredients are thoroughly mixed, then shaped into patties and pan-grilled in vegetable oil.

Machli Amritsari is more elaborate, and is a GT Road dhaba special. They would use singhara, malli, or sole fish in Amritsar, but here the famous bekti fillets are used. The fillets are rubbed and then left for half an hour in a batter made with gram flour, garlic and ginger juice, red chilli powder, asafoetida, carom seeds (ajwain) and salt mixed in water. The fillets are then deep-fried and before serving they are sprinkled with a fine, powdered masala made by combining cumin, black peppercorn, black rock salt, mango powder, asafoetida, carom seeds, ginger powder and yellow chilli powder. The fish is served with grated radish and mint chutney, onion rings and lemon wedges.

There were as many as five main course dishes, the idea being to taste a little of everything, which was not easy to do, because the tendency was to keep going at the same item. Starting with a vegetable item, quite exotic, there was Aloobokhara Kofta, made by grating bottle gourd and shaping this into spheres around a stuffing of dried plums (aloobokhara), almonds and other ingredients and then simmering these koftas in a tangy tomato gravy laced with dry fenugreek leaves, cashew paste and milk fudge. This is also a Peshawari item.

The item of the day, however, was Bataer Masaledaar, farm-bred quails (from Delhi), stuffed and cooked whole. I have always loved small game birds with their thin, brittle, sometimes needle-thin bones and tough, fibrous flesh, much richer in flavour than poultry farmed chicken. Years ago, before it became illegal, winter always meant snipe, partridge, teel, quail, moorhen…

Although these quails were farm bred, they retained the characteristics of game birds, and were delicious. The birds are marinated in red wine, malt vinegar, garlic juice, ginger, red chilli powder and salt for at least an hour. The stuffing is minced chicken, chopped garlic, green chillies and ginger, roasted pistachios, raisins, black cumin seeds, cardamom powder, mace powder and salt.

The gravy in which the quails will be cooked is made by heating ghee, adding garam masala (cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, bay leaves) and then grated onions, garlic flakes, chopped ginger, red chilli powder and coriander powder. By stages, tomatoes (chopped) and then yoghurt and almond paste are added. The stuffed quails go in after some water has been added and the gravy has boiled, and again reduced to simmer. The dish is finished with a sprinkle of green cardamom, clove, cinnamon and mace (all powdered) and saffron. Not surprisingly, Bataer Masala is an Agra special and can be found all the way to Rawalpindi.

There was also Lawrence Road De Tawa De Tikke from Amritsar’s main food street —boneless mutton stir-fried with tomatoes, green chillies, fresh coriander, lime juice and dark rum. And Bhuna Kalegi, from closer to home, a dhaba special on the Calcutta-Mughalsarai run (mutton liver stir-fried with onion, ginger and chillies). And Butter Chicken, Delhi style. For staples there were Laccha Paratha and Murgh Kabuli Pulao. And Firni for dessert.

Contented as a just-fed python, I took the serpentine way — not to eat till I felt empty again.

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