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Best of both worlds
FOOD

Every year on December 31, I used to prance around with suppressed anticipation. Not just because it was the last day of the year and the beginning of the next — an event that we marked with fun, frolic and friends at home — but also because of a portly gentleman who used to come over late in the afternoon. He’d arrive with his assistants and king-sized instruments, and then set up shop in the backyard. In one huge kadhai he’d cook mutton in a leisurely manner, and in another a lentil-based curry for vegetarians.

He was a Mathur cook. And Mathurs know a few things about food. In my opinion, Mathur food is one of the finest cuisines that you can get in India. This gentleman’s mutton curry, for instance, was among the best I have ever tasted. Mathur food underscores a harmonious blend of different cultures. The community — north Indian Kayasths who flourished as professionals from the time of the Mughals — took the best of Muslim food and blended it with Hindu cuisine. The result was Mathur food.

The food was showcased at a festival at The Park in New Delhi recently, put together by a Delhi food writer called Anoothi Vishal, herself a Mathur. I had some interesting dishes after quite a while, because this is not a cuisine that is available in restaurants. Mathur food is to be had at Mathur homes.

What’s interesting is the fact that the Mathur table has dishes — tweaked to suit their own requirements and tastes — culled from different parts of the north. The Mathurs were educated and were therefore indispensable in areas such as Delhi, Lucknow, Agra, Allahabad and Patna — which were administrative, judicial and educational hubs.

The community took roots and prospered — and their food over the years became an amalgamation of different cultures. Indeed, because of their proximity to the Mughals, and the unrestricted way in which they embraced Muslim cuisine, Mathurs are still known as ‘Adha Musalman’ — or half Muslims — in some circles. I’d say that they had the best of both worlds.

The Mathur menu, not surprisingly, is full of delicious non-vegetarian dishes — such as shammi kababs, mutton chops, bhuna gosht (mutton roasted in a kadhai) and fried fish — called hari tali machli. Koftas — soft mutton balls cooked in a gravy — and badam pasandey — thinly beaten meat pieces with almonds — are a must in Mathur feasts, along with yakhni pulao, an aromatic pilaf cooked in lamb stock.

But there is a strong focus on vegetarian food as well, which is why you’ll find all kinds of veggies, such as okra or bitter gourd stuffed with a mix of masalas, on a Mathur table. Their urad ki dal, again, is a variation of the urad dal that other communities cook in the north. The dal at The Park, for instance, had been garnished with fried onions. The take paise may have originated from Rajasthan, and could be related to the gattey ki sabzi of the western region. The difference is that gattey — besan chunks — are steamed in Rajasthan, and are steamed and fried by the Mathurs (see recipe).

The Mathurs also love to eat and serve all those delicious chaats and snacks that the north is known for. So Mathur food will include something like palak ki chaat — crispy spinach with tart toppings — and kalmi vada, which is an Old Delhi speciality. At the Park festival, however, the vada was prepared with three kinds of dals, unlike the Old Delhi recipe, which uses just one kind of dal, the channa dal.

Hari tali machli

Of course, since the Mathurs were spread all over the north, there are differences in the way they cook some dishes, and each sub-community has a healthy disregard for the others. The Lucknow lot would sniff at the cuisine of the Delhi Mathur and so on.

But not being a Mathur, I have no such prejudices — I like their food and welcome the commonalities as well as the variations. After all, two of my most favourite Bollywood members were both Mathurs. I am talking about Mukesh, the singer, and Motilal, the actor. And if Mathurs can sing and act — you can bet on it that they can cook as well.        

Mutton chop (serves 4)

Ingredients

• 500g mutton chops • 50g curd • One big onion finely chopped • 2 tbs garlic paste • 5-10 finely chopped cloves of garlic • 1 small piece finely chopped ginger • 1tbs garam masala • 1 tbs degi mirch • Salt to taste • Dhaniya powder to taste • 50 ml refined oil

Method

Clean and wash the chops. Pat dry and keep aside. Beat the curd with garlic paste, salt, degi mirch and dhaniya powder. Mix well and apply to the chops and keep them aside for about 45 minutes.

Place a frying pan on low fire. Add oil. When the oil is properly heated, add chopped ginger, garlic and onions. When slightly brown add the chops and cover. Sprinkle garam masala and dhaniya powder. Pan fry for about 30 minutes and serve.

Take paise (serves 4)

Ingredients

For the coins: • 2 cups besan • 4 tbs oil • 4 tbs browned onions • 1 tsp red chillie powder • Salt to taste • 4 tbs chopped green coriander • 1 tsp garam masala • A dash of mint powder • Curd to knead the dough

For the gravy: • 3 chopped onions • 1 tsp chopped garlic • 2 tsp chopped ginger • 3 purιed tomatoes • Salt to taste • Red chillie powder to taste • Dhaniya powder to taste ½ cup low fat curd • Oil for frying

Method

For the take paise coins: Mix all the ingredients and make a firm dough. Make cylinders of this dough and steam them. Cut into small rounds (coin-shaped) and deep fry till light, golden brown.

For the gravy: Fry the onion, garlic, ginger and tomatoes. Add the masalas and the curd and make a thick gravy. Add the fried take paise to this. Add water. Bring to a boil and let the coins cook till they are soft. The gravy should not be too runny. Garnish with mint leaves.

Photographs courtesy: The Park, New Delhi

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