We are celebrating the 75th anniversary of Indian Independence and that can best be done by celebrating our food. Let’s turn our minds to the varied cuisines of our country. Unlike any other major civilisation, the variety in our culinary traditions celebrate diversity and has, for centuries, absorbed influences from all over the world and transformed them. Indian food has never ceased to evolve. The food of the subcontinent has always been intertwined, as the cross-cultural ties of the region far outdate the borders that have been drawn between them. Among the many commonalties are the spices, spicy food and slow-cooking techniques that all the countries of the sub-continent share, whether it’s the Afghani Naan, Bangladeshi Korma, Nihari from Pakistan, or India’s ubiquitous biryani. The cultural diversity of India reflects in its culinary practices. India has many famous and unique recipes to boast of, but along the way, many have been forgotten or lost.
Punjab and Bengal suffered the worst effects of migration thanks to Partition, and so did their food cultures and habits. Their cuisine was a minor but significant casualty.
When the British arrived in India and made Calcutta their capital, undivided Bengal comprised not only present-day Bangladesh and West Bengal, but Odisha, Bihar and Assam as well. Subsequently, several crops were replaced by cash-rich ones such as indigo, cotton and poppy, and over time, construction activity led to the filling up of ponds. This led to a huge loss of many ingredients, and with them the dishes that they were a part of. For instance, a much-coveted delicacy of East Bengal (now Bangladesh) was Shapla Bhela Bhaja (water lily rafts), a snack in which water lily stems were cut and put together into structures resembling rafts, dipped in batter and deep fried.
The divide through kitchens
Convenience too played a role in many recipes (and ingredients) disappearing. That’s the story of choi, a pepper that was once widely used by Bengalis to add heat to food long before chillies spread across India. The humble choi lost to the chilli in the long run as, unfortunately for choi, chilli provides pungency instantly whereas choi requires time and dedication to flower.
During British rule in urban Bengal, a mix of Bengali ingredients and British cooking styles became popular. As the cosmopolitan, middle-class Bengalis became used to the stew and they made it their own by adding ghee and turmeric to it. In 1947, a line was drawn through the land and an invisible line through kitchens.
As the people of East Bengal were displaced, they had to leave acres of farmland, rich vegetable and fruit gardens and ponds full of fish. Mouth-watering Bengali dishes like Aloo Posto, Luchi, ilish, Mache Jhol and rosogollas flash through the mind when one talks about Bengali food. The cuisine of undivided Bengal, however, is lesser known but it was just as important.
With Kolkata being an important port city, businessmen from across India (and abroad, like the Chinese) settled down here and brought their styles of cooking. The intricate methods of cooking Sylheti Koru (assorted vegetables finely chopped, retaining the skin), Chaapor Ghonto (mixed vegetable with dal patties), Motor Shaak Diye Koi Machh (fish made with spinach) or Goalondo Steamer Chicken Curry (a light chicken curry) need to be remembered.
The immense cultural diverseness is often reflected in Bengal’s everyday culture, debates or adda sessions. Even in football, it is interesting to note that both the historical clubs — Mohun Bagan and East Bengal — are associated with the food of the region, with the hilsa “representing” East Bengal while the golda chingri (jumbo prawns) representing Mohun Bagan, and the winner of the match influences the next day sale of the said item.
Also, a lot of the famous Bengali dishes have regional differences. The meal begins in both West Bengal and Bangladesh on a bitter note. For instance, in West Bengal the first dish is generally shukto, which has complex flavours, while in Bangladesh people prefer to have bitter herbs made in a bhorta style, which has been adapted in today’s Kolkata in many variants.
In the days that followed Partition, refugees from Pakistan spread out in different directions in Punjab and struggled to settle down and rebuild their lives. They introduced the beauty of clay oven (or sanjha chulha) cooking which, in undivided Punjab, was a very integral part of life and living. Subsequently, Tandoori Murgh became the pride of the nation. It emerged from heritage hole-in-the-wall eateries to the plates of state guests and irresistibly tickled their taste-buds. Vegetarians reveled in the tastes and flavours of Rajma and Chhole Bhature — the megastars of Punjabi cuisine. It was not long before Tandoori Chicken transformed into the much-loved Butter Chicken.
Later on, Punjab became the bread basket of the country and was responsible for growing tremendous quantities of wheat that is, to this day, milled and made into oven-baked breads such as Naan, and unleavened griddle-baked breads such Chapatti, Phulka, and Rumali Roti, as also stuffed-and-fried breads such as Kulcha and Paratha. These breads are accompanied by various types of meat and vegetable dishes. One cooking process unique to the subcontinent is the art of tempering a dish (also known as tarka) with spices to add flavour and richness to the food, a case in point being Tarka Dal.
Although people are trying out these commercially-popular traditional dishes in their homes today, some heritage recipes remain lost. The cooks of today lack the knowledge, patience, skills and application to use ingredients to recreate those culturally-rich dishes. Another important factor in the extinction of the old recipes is that the creators refused to share or pass them on. The women of the household used to be both creators and repositories of culinary syntheses for generations, and therefore they are the guardians and innovators of cuisine. This was the fate meted out to Kabishambardhana Barfi, a dish that is said to be have been created by Rabindranath Tagore’s niece. It is said that the sweetmeat was a special gift for Tagore on his 50th birthday. The primary ingredient of the barfi is cauliflower or phool gobi, which is tempered by saffron, cardamom and so on, and then infused with milk thus giving birth to one of the many treats that emerged from the thakurbari kitchen.
Indian cuisine, as it is today, is an evolution of restaurant culture post Partition, with its varied gravies and curries. It is intrinsically linked with the food traditions of this generation.
The romance of India and Indians with its diverse cuisines has gone through many historical and social upheavals, which provide us with an understanding of the landmarks of our history.
- 1 cauliflower, medium-sized
- 1½ tbsp raisins
- 1½ tbsp cashew nuts
- 4-5 green cardamom
- 250g sugar
- 100g khoya
- 5-7 saffron strands
- 2 tbsp milk (to soak saffron strands)
- 2¼ tbsp clarified butter
Cut the cauliflower into florets. Wash the florets thoroughly and then in a pan take two cups water. Bring the water to a boil. Add cauliflower florets into the boiling water. Cover and cook for two minutes. Switch the heat off and leave the cauliflower covered in the pan for another minute. Uncover the pan, drain out the water and let the cauliflower florets cool for 30 seconds.
Traditionally a sil batta is used to grind the cauliflower florets into a coarse paste. You can use mortar and pestle or food processor. In a pan add two tbsp clarified butter. Put in the raisins. When the raisins are plump remove them from the pan. In the same pan, add the cauliflower paste. Fry the cauliflower paste in clarified butter on medium heat.
Crack open and pound cardamom. Add the cardamom powder to the cauliflower paste frying in the pan and mix well. Keep frying the cauliflower paste till it slightly changes colour. At this point add sugar and mix well.
Continue frying for a couple of minutes till the sugar completely dissolves. Add khoya. Mix well and keep stirring for a minute. Soak the saffron strands in milk. Add the saffron with the milk to the pan. Incorporate the saffron into the mixture in the pan.
Keep stirring till the mixture doesn’t stick to the sides of the pan anymore. Remove the pan from the heat. Grease a plate or tray with the remaining clarified butter. Transfer the mixture from the pan into the greased plate when hot. Using a spatula even out the mixture in the plate. Keep the thickness you desire of the barfi. Add the fried raisins and cashew (halves). Cool and let the barfi set for two minutes. Cut into pieces and serve.
Shapla Bhela Bhaja
- 2-3 water lily stems
- 4 tbsp besan
- 4 tbsp maida
- 2-3 tsp cornflour
- ½ tsp nigella seeds
- ½ tsp turmeric powder
- Salt to taste
- One pinch baking soda
- Oil for deep frying
Cut the flowers from the stems and discard them. Peel off the skin from the water lily stems.
Cut stems lengthwise into 2/2.5-inch pieces. Wash them under running water and then shake off excess water.
Bring four-five cut pieces of the stems together using a toothpick, skewer them together into rafts.
You will need toothpicks for making the raft.
Make a batter of the rest of the ingredients except the oil. Add water gradually, so the consistency of the batter is neither too thin nor too thick.
Heat oil for deep frying. When the oil is hot, add a tsp of the oil into the batter and give it a whisk. Dip the rafts, one by one into the batter, shake off excess batter and then drop into a moderately-hot oil. When one side is golden, flip to cook the other side.
When both sides are equally golden, take them out and place on a paper towel. Sprinkle black salt for extra seasoning and serve hot.
Satnam Singh Ahluwalia is the CEO of Options Unlimited. He can be reached at email@example.com