North Indians always look surprised when I tell them this, but it is true. Until I went to boarding school in Rajasthan, I had no idea what rajma was. And even today, when Indian food is much more pan-national, I’m sure there are millions of Gujaratis (like myself), Maharashtrians, Bengalis and
South Indians who have never eaten rajma in their lives.
Every time you explain to people north of the Vindhyas that rajma is not really an ancient Indian staple, they act as though you are mad. But surely, we have all heard of the glorious rajma tradition of Kashmir, they say. And what about the simple rajma dishes that are regularly cooked in every Punjabi home? Surely, rajma is just another kind of dal? And we all know that Indians were eating dal in Vedic times, don’t we?
Well, yes and no. Yes, because dal is one of the original Indian foods, predating even the Vedic period. Masoor, mung and urad have all been found in Indus Valley sites. No, because rajma is not what ancient Indians would call dal. In fact, as the great food historian KT Achaya wrote, we find no mention of rajma in any Indian text, ancient or medieval, till about a century ago. It simply did not exist in our part of the world.
The evidence suggests that it was French colonialists who brought the rajma bean to India and later, the British who turned it into a commercial crop in the North. Wherever there was a tradition of black dal (in much of India, dal is a yellowish colour and rarely black), households took to rajma and it soon became a kitchen staple. But despite the speed with which it became part of the North Indian diet, rajma did not travel well, which is why you are unlikely to be served rajma at homes outside of the North.
Which is sad, because a well-made rajma can be delicious. It is one of those Indian dishes that restaurant chefs can never improve on. To enjoy good rajma-chawal, you must either eat at a North Indian home or at a highway dhaba, where truck drivers depend on rajma for protein and sustenance. Even great chefs have come up with no good rajma recipes. In his book, My Great India Cookbook, Vikas Khanna does not even attempt to give his own spin on rajma but reproduces a recipe from a home cook called Bhishambar. It is a fine recipe and I’ve reproduced it here, with due acknowledgement to Bhishambar and Vikas.
But Punjabis are not the only people to claim a misplaced ownership of rajma. The French are far worse. One of the classic dishes of French cuisine is the cassoulet. Frenchmen get into fist fights with each other about the perfect cassoulet recipe. What we can agree on is that the dish takes its name from the earthenware pot it is cooked in. There is also a broad consensus that 30 per cent of the constituents of the dish should be pork (ham, salt pork, bacon, pork shoulder, sausage etc.). The rest can consist of duck, goose or lamb and, of course, beans.
Ah yes, beans. According to legend, the dish was created in 1355 during the Siege of Castelnaudary. Besieged by the English, the plucky townspeople put a large pot on a fire in the town square and threw in all the pigs, lambs and birds they could find along with white haricot beans. Ever since then, the dish has been the symbol of rural France and especially of the Languedoc region.
It is a good story, which illustrates that famous French maxim: when in trouble, cook.
The trouble is: the story is a load of cobblers. The good people of Castelnaudary could not have made a haricot bean stew in 1355 because there were no haricot beans in France in that era. The bean was brought back from the New World by Christopher Columbus in 1493 and took another century to reach the French countryside. The earliest reference to the haricot in France dates to 1565 (over two centuries after the siege of Castelnaudary) and the dish was probably invented in the 17th century. (Two centuries or so later, the French took the bean to India).
Which brings us to the other interesting thing about the haricot bean (phaseolus vulgaris). We know that cassoulet is made with white beans while rajma is a dark red bean. And indeed, we use different terms for each large bean: kidney, pinto, cannellini, borlotti, black etc. But the truth is that they are all the same bean. The changes in size and colour have only to do with climate, market requirements, cultivation etc. Whether it is the plump white bean of the cassoulet or the dark, homely rajma bean, they are all offshoots of phaseolus vulgaris. And all of them come from South America. Which means that none of them can have an ancient history in Europe or India because they are relatively recent visitors.
Chefs will tell you that a good cassoulet cannot be made in a restaurant, that the dish takes several hours to cook and up to four days to prepare, because the ingredients are so complicated. They are right. To look at a recipe for authentic cassoulet is to want to slit your own throat: you know that you will never have the patience or the ingredients required to make the real thing. Life is too short to make a genuine cassoulet unless – like the residents of Castelnaudary in the legend – your town is under siege and you have nothing else to do.
But what exactly is the real thing? In France, there are about a thousand cassoulet recipes all based on a bean they only had access to relatively recently. So, just as there is no one authentic rajma recipe, you can make your own kind of cassoulet, depending on the ingredients you have available. I make my own and though they will probably cancel my Schengen visa when they see how inauthentic it is, I’m reproducing the recipe here, anyway.
It is a measure of the versatility of the rajma bean that French peasants and Punjabi housewives all regard it as something of their own. And no matter what the cuisine is – French or Kashmiri – you can count on the rajma bean to make a delicious dish.
Cassoulet a la South Extension (Deuxieme Partie)
1 confit duck leg (available at gourmet stores or on order at any Oberoi hotel deli)
300 grams fresh pork, cut into pieces
1 packet streaky bacon (pancetta is better but harder to find)
1 packet chorizo sausages (the Oberoi kind will do but many foreign brands are available)
1 sachet bouquet garni (a herb potli available at upmarket grocers)
1 packet good quality European sausages
2 cubes chicken stock (real stock or the stock they sell in tetra packs is better)
2 cans haricot beans (widely available though you can soak and boil dried beans)
Onions, garlic to taste.
* Chop the onion and garlic. With a pair of kitchen scissors, cut the bacon into small pieces. Shred the duck confit into little bits. Slice the chorizo thinly.
* Fry the onions, garlic, bacon and chorizo in olive oil in a large pan over medium heat till the bacon is rendering its fat and the onions are sweating. In another pan, lightly fry the whole European sausages and reserve.
* When the bacon fat seems to have coated the onion-garlic-chorizo mixture, add the pork pieces and brown quickly. When done, add the shredded duck confit and the whole cooked sausages. Add enough stock to reach the top of the pan. Throw in the
* Bring to the boil and then cover and simmer at medium to low heat for at least an hour. If the pan seems too dry you can keep adding more hot stock. You will know when you are nearing the end because the pork seems tender and ready to fall apart. Now add the canned (or pre-boiled) beans. Simmer on low heat for 20 minutes or more.
* Watch the pan. The dish is ready when the bacon and duck confit have almost disappeared and the pork is tender enough to eat with a spoon. Once you’ve got there, check the seasoning. You should not need more salt because commercial stock is quite salty. But you can add pretty much anything you like at this stage – garlic puree, a dash of Tabasco, some herbs etc. – to whoosh up the flavour.
* In restaurants, they would now sprinkle bread crumbs on top of the stew and brown it under the grill or finish it in the oven but you don’t need to do that at home. (But if you are entertaining, then a cassoulet with a bread crumb crust looks more impressive).
n If you like the dish, you can improvise on the recipe the next time. Sometimes I’ve added fresh duck legs, mushrooms, button onions, spicier sausages and some lamb.
* Whatever you do, remember that this is as authentically French as Banta Singh. So, don’t bother about the real recipe; the French only got the beans from South America relatively recently, anyway.
Bhishambar’s rajma Recipe
1 cup red kidney beans (rajma)
1 tsp salt or to taste
3 tsp ginger-garlic paste
1 tbsp oil
½ cup onions, finely chopped
½ cup tomato puree
7-8 pods black cardamom
2” stick cinnamon
1 ½ tsp fennel powder
2 tsp dried ginger powder
A pinch of asafetida powder
½ tsp red chilli powder
Wash beans and soak in water overnight. Drain and rinse thoroughly. In a pressure cooker, combine beans with 3 cups of water, salt and half the ginger-garlic paste. Pressure-cook for 7-9 minutes over low heat after the cooker reaches full pressure. Remove from heat and allow the pressure to settle. Meanwhile, put oil in a frying pan over medium heat. When hot, add remaining ginger-garlic paste and sauté for a few seconds. Add onions and sauté till translucent. Mix in tomato puree and cook for 2-3 minutes. Spoon contents of pan into the pressure cooker containing the beans. Mix in the remaining ingredients and pressure-cook over low heat for 10-12 minutes. When the pressure settles, open cooker and serve the beans hot.
From HT Brunch, July 14
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