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Tracking the bhutta story

india Updated: Jul 08, 2008 13:02 IST
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Ever since I was a small boy, I have been fascinated by corn. I imagine that my interest was first aroused by the bhutta that I ate every evening. In Bombay, in the '60s, there was a bhutta-seller at every street corner.

His corn was fresh and it was cheap. I still remember staring avidly at the smouldering coals as the bhuttawallah roasted his wares.

When the kernels had changed colour and before they could turn black and burnt, he would take the bhutta off the coals and ask how spicy I wanted it My answer was always the same: as spicy as possible. And so, the bhuttawallah would take a wedge of lemon, dunk it into a mass of chilli powder and other spices that he kept by the side of the coals and then smear my bhutta with a delicious chillilime mixture.

Because a single application was never enough for me, he would repeat the process twice or thrice till I was satisfied. I was told that the bhuttas came from rural Maharashtra though the men who roasted the corn seemed to come from all over India.

They purchased their bhuttas from wholesale vegetable markets and set up their little stalls at every street corner and on the seaside at Marine Drive, Bandra Bandstand and Cuffe Parade - in the days when there was still sea in that area.

Of course, we didn't use the term bhutta then. That was a North Indian usage that I discovered later when I went to school in Rajasthan.

The bhuttawallahs knew who their customers were and so they preferred the Gujarati term, makai. (Strange how closely the Gujarati and Punjabi words for bhutta parallel each other!) I suppose I should have made the connection but it took me a long time to work out that my other childhood favourite masala popcorn had exactly the same roots.

But because popcorn looked so dhferent from a bhutta and perhaps because I was not a very bright child, I never realised that popcorn consisted of bhutta kernels which had been popped by the application of heat so that the starch content caused them to swell up. What did puzzle me, however, was the cornflake.

If the English word for bhutta was corn then surely the cornflake should be made of crushed makai? Except that the painting on the box showed fields full of what looked remarkably like wheat. There was not a bhutta in sight. Perhaps this was American corn, I decided. Indian corn was bhutta. I was somewhat encouraged when I read in American story books about Indian corn, favoured in the Wild West.

I never figured out how the bhutta had reached Buffalo Bill and the Lone Ranger but here it was in black and white: the term Indian corn.

My confusion was compounded when my parents took me to a restaurant in London on my ninth birthday They suggested that I or- der Chicken Maryland, a dish that was novel to me but which I now olace as Kentucky Fried Chicken with a slice of canned pineapple. Chicken Maryland came without any potatoes. Instead, it was served with what the menu called corn on the cob.

This turned out to be a white man's version of the bhutta. It looked paler and fatter than our homegrown variety and rather than use chilli and lemon, the restaurant poured melted butter all over it. My sole concern at that age was: we are in a fancy restaurant.

How in God's name, do I eat this firangi bhutta with a knife and fork? I was told that it was okay to use my fingers which meant that the moment of panic passed.

But the dish did nothing to clarify my confusion. If the bhutta came from Maharashtra, then how did its gora brother land up in some place called Maryland? It took me many years to resolve all the mysteries of the bhutta.

And the solutions turned my childhood illusions upside down. First of all, the bhutta is not native to Maharashtra. It is an American vegetable and was discovered by Christopher Columbus.

Secondly, the American corn that so sustained Buffalo Bill did not come from Bombay It was the same bhutta that we ate but it was called Indian corn after Red Indians, not after the bhuttawallahs on Marine Drive.

Thirdly, the term corn doesn't actually mean anything. In Europe, it is used as a generic for any kind of cereal grain, one reason why there appear to be so many different kinds of corn.

Fourthly, the bhutta is part of the maize family.


Some of us may remember maize from our school geography lessons when we discussed the kharif^crop and such grains as rabi and jowar. But even maize is a vast category Bhutta represents just one small part of it.

Maize is actually a kind of grass and it dates back 70,000 years, making it one of the oldest cereals known to man. All maize does not consist of bhutta. Some of it has much smaller seed heads (cobs) and other kinds (squaw corn) have cobs that are even bigger All maize is believed to have originated in America and it did not reach Europe till l492.

Within years, the colonialists had taken it to Africa and to Asia where it quickly became a part of the diet. The British brought maize to India because it had the advantage of growing quickly.

But it wasn't till about 300 years ago that its cultivation caught on in this country. As far as I can tell, the masala bhutta is entirely an Indian invention.

It is possible that the Aztecs ate something like it but the version that is sold by our seasides is our own creation (though it may put it in perspective to realise that the chilli powder that is an essential ingredient of masala bhutta also came from America and was introduced to the sub-continent by colonialists).

Similarly, proponents of the ancient history of Punjabi cuisine should note that makki di roti is, by definition, a relatively recent invention. More extraordinary still is the journey of maize into southeast Asia.

All of us are familiar with babycorn, an important vegetable in Thai and Chinese cooking. This is no more than a kind of maize, a bonsai bhutta if you like, that has been bred from the original strain of maize that Columbus discovered.

If you actually taste babycorn on its own (without soya sauce) you'11find that it doesn't really remind you of bhutta. And wherever they've tried to introduce corn on the cob in south-east Asia, the experiment has failed.

The only kind of maize that east Asians will eat is babycorn and that's probably because it doesn't taste like maize. However, their cuisine is largely dependent on the use of corn starch (what we sometimes called cornflour) as a thickener You cannot extract corn starch from babycorn. It comes from the bottom of kernels of fully-grown bhutta.

So, most of East Asia imports its corn starch from Western countries and from India. That should tell you something about Chinese food as well - if they put cornflour in everything now, then what did they do in the days before Columbus discovered America?

I was in Bombay a fortnight ago and as I walked past the bhelpuriwallahs and the bhutta sellers by the seaside at Bandra Bandstand, I thought back to my childhood makai.

In some strange way, it was reassuring to think that in this era of fast food hamburgers, pre-packaged biscuits and polythene-wrapped potato crisps, there was still one dish that did not depend on large corporations or on the food industry.

Bhutta is no good unless it's fresh. It reaches us soon after it is harvested.

<b1>It is made in front of you on hot coals by a man who has done this for years and whose palms bear the burns that come from moving the coals around.

Each bhutta is individually seasoned to your liking. And every penny you pay for it goes to the man who made it and not to some faceless corporation that employs him. And yet, maize is not Indian at all. It is an American vegetable brought to our shores by the British. If that isn't globalisation, then what is?


Read more of Vir Sanghvi's columns:

Much ado about foie gras
Cultural Revolution
The Great Hotel Scam
Kathmandu diary
Rude Food photo gallery

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