Nearly a decade ago, I did a TV show on the importance of milk in the Indian diet. Obviously, sweets (or mithai) featured in the episode and we journeyed to Calcutta to trace the origins of Bengali sweets. Various experts we spoke to told us that there was a religious prejudice among Hindus against splitting milk. It was only after colonialists encouraged Bengalis to abandon that prejudice that the Bengali sweets we now know so well were created.
We were directed to KC Das, one of Bengal’s best known sweet-makers. The folk at the company told us that its founder had invented the rasgulla after the splitting of milk had become an accepted practice. They also laid claim to a variety of other sweets, which they said had been created by members of their family.
We asked around once we had heard the KC Das story. Every single person we spoke to took it for granted that the rasgulla was a post-colonial invention and most accepted that KC Das had popularised it, even though some Bengalis were leery of the claim that the company’s founder had actually invented it. (In Bengal, everybody’s great grandfather was either a great artist/author or a genius inventor). And so we telecast the episode, giving the credit to KC Das.
I recall all this because an angry dispute currently rages between Bengal and Odisha on the parentage of the rasgulla. The Bengalis stick, by and large, to the KC Das story.
But the Odiyas say that they invented the rasgulla many centuries ago, long before the first colonialists arrived in India. They cite classical references about temple food to back up their claim and insist that the Bongs stole it from them.
Is this a valid assertion? Frankly, I’m dubious. If the Odiyas were great rasgulla-wallahs for centuries then why did the rest of India never hear about their great invention? And even today, while we may ask somebody who is visiting Calcutta to bring back some sweets for us (mishti doi, even), I know few people who will say, "I am going to Cuttack/Bhubaneshwar, home of the rasgulla; let me bring some back for you!"
A confused state of affairs: Odiyas say that they, not the Bengalis, invented the rasgulla (left) centuries ago; did Mysore pak come from Karnataka or Tamil Nadu?
But the truth is: we don’t really know who invented the rasgulla. Yes, we have KC Das’ version. But no doubt Odiyas will claim that this is a self-serving assertion made by a commercial enterprise. We have so few records about our food that nearly every claim made by anybody can easily be contested by somebody else.
Take the other dispute that is currently raging. Who invented Mysore pak? Did it come from Mysore (the old name of Karnataka state) as the name suggests? Or did it come from Tamil Nadu?
You would have thought that answer was obvious. After all, Hyderabadi biryani does not come from Kashmir. Bombay Duck does not come from Assam. And so on. But if Bengali sweets can come from Odisha, then who the hell knows?
A helping of history and geography: So is biryani a Delhi dish? Hardly. The best biryanis come from Lucknow, Hyderabad, Calcutta and Kerala
As part of that same TV series in which we investigated the origins of the rasgulla (and may have come to the wrong conclusions, at least according to the Odiyas!), we tried to trace the first tandoori chicken. We came to the conclusion that the tandoor itself was a variation of a Middle-Eastern oven used for cooking bread.
But, tandoori chicken, we argued, was invented in undivided India in the 20th century and then popularised by Delhi’s Moti Mahal after Partition.
That still sounds sort of right. Except that archaeologists have found remnants of clay ovens during excavations at Indus Valley sites.
So did we have tandoors in India in 2000BC? Were we the real inventors of the tandoor and did we export the first tandoors to the Middle East? (There is evidence to suggest that there was trade between the Indus Valley cities and that part of the world).
So it is with the dosa. All of us know that the dosa is a popular snack in many south Indian states. But we also know that the large, thin, crisp dosa, sometimes filled with a potato masala, is a restaurant dish and not one you would have found in many south Indian homes.
At which stage did the home version of the dosa become the restaurant dish that is popular all over the world? And who was responsible for this transition?
An imported treat: Calcutta has India’s best puchkas (what we call golgappas or pani puri), but these have nothing to do with Bengali cuisine
We used to give the credit to restaurateurs from Madras. But while making the TV show we found many restaurant-owners from Udipi in Karnataka (whose region’s name became a generic for a certain kind of restaurant) who claimed that their ancestors invented the restaurant masala dosa and popularised it in Bombay in the Fifties and early Sixties.
My feeling is that they may be right – and we said so in the TV show. But, in the absence of records and research, who knows what the truth is?
Or take the case of chaat, which you find all over north and eastern India now. Who created it? There are few records but I incline to the view that it originated in UP, which is still the centre of India’s chaat world. My theory is that it travelled from UP to Bihar. And when migrants from Bihar and UP travelled to other parts of India, they took it with them.
There was always a cross-fertilisation of culinary ideas between UP and Delhi (Awadhi cuisine is a more refined version of the cooking of the Delhi court) so it is not hard to see how chaat reached Delhi. In Bombay, chaat is so closely associated with UP Brahmins that the original chaatwallahs of Chowpatty were called ‘bhaiyyas" and nearly all of them said their surname was Sharma.
In Calcutta, which has India’s best puchkas (what we call golgappas or pani puri elsewhere in India), these have nothing to do with Bengalis or with Bengali cuisine. All the chaatwallahs are either from Bihar or UP. So is chaat originally a UP phenomenon which reflects the migration of UP-ites and their attempts to fit in with local communities by adjusting the flavours of their original dishes? I would argue that it is.
But that’s just an assertion. I have no proof. And no doubt next year, Odisha or Assam will claim that golgappas appear in their sacred scriptures.
Even foods that have travelled out of India have lost their Indian origin. Though Japan’s tempura is clearly a variation on the bhajiya/pakora, nobody outside of India takes us seriously on this one.
East to far east: Though Japan’s tempura is clearly a variation on the bhajiya/pakora, nobody outside of India takes us seriously on this one
The West ascribes its origins to the influence of Portuguese traders and missionaries on Japan. This is half-true, but what the West misses is that the Portuguese were not bhajiya-eaters or pakora-makers. It was the Indian cooks on their ships (the fleets set off from India) who taught the Japanese how to make the dish that eventually became tempura.
The Sri Lankans are as leery of our claim that hoppers, virtually their national dish, are Indian in origin. Anyone who has been to Lanka and seen a hopper will recognise it immediately for what it is: an appam.
And string hoppers are idi-appams. In fact, there is research to suggest that the name ‘hopper’ is an Anglicisation of the Indian word ‘appam’. (How can you make ‘appam’ sound like ‘hopper’? Only the Brits could have managed that!)
But the Lankans dismiss our claims and I’ve seen no well-documented study conducted by Indians that explains how this dish, most popular in Kerala, reached Sri Lanka.
One problem with attempts to ascribe regional identities to food is that there is always so much give and take between regions that it is hard to pinpoint specific origins.
For instance, the UP chaatwallahs influenced Bombay’s Gujaratis who invented bhelpuri. So is bhel a Gujarati dish? Probably. Is it still made mainly by north Indian chaatwallahs in Bombay? Yes it is.
And when borders are porous, or unclear, ethnic origin is harder to classify. All Gujaratis are horrified when Maharashtrians claim shrikhand for themselves. And they, in turn, are horrified when we Gujaratis say that puran poli is ours. (Frankly, they can keep it. I loathe the dish!)
But till 1960, most of Gujarat and Maharashtra were part of the same Bombay state. So each side can only properly claim dishes that were invented after 1960 such as the vada pav, which the Maharashtrians are more than welcome to claim for themselves. (We’ll keep our pav bhaji, bhelpuri, farsaan etc thank you very much.)
As dishes travel, their origins become irrelevant. We believe that biryani was created by court chefs probably during the Delhi Sultanate period, by merging India’s spice and khichdi traditions with the Turkish pilaf recipes. (This is still controversial).
So is biryani a Delhi dish? Hardly. The best biryanis come from Lucknow, Hyderabad, Calcutta and Kerala. Delhi hardly even gets a look in when we discuss biryani.
So who cares where the rasgulla was invented? It would be nice to know the history. But ownership?
Forget it. Food is not about copyright. It is about joy.
Read: Odias reclaim iconic dish
From HT Brunch, August 23
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