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4 superb ‘undiscovered’ community cuisines

So you’re familiar with quite a few of India’s fabulous regional cuisines which have restaurants dedicated to them. But there are many more waiting to find their place under the Indian sun.

india Updated: Jul 31, 2010 17:27 IST

A pressure cooker?” Priti Narain shudders at the very thought. “I don’t even know how to use one! No one in my family will eat meat cooked in a pressure cooker.” Her husband, Brijesh, looks equally scandalised at the idea. Food is serious business in the Narain household – as it should be. Because both Priti and Brijesh belong to that almost legendary community – the Delhi Kayasthas, who have lived in this city for generations, from the time of the Mughals, when they worked in the court as scribes in charge of revenue collection, accounts, court correspondence and so on. The Muslim influence seeped deep into their lives; they became connoisseurs of Persian and Urdu poetry, lovers of classical music, matching this interest in the arts with a passionate devotion to food.

Kayasthas have a strongly non-vegetarian cuisine that treats meat with reverence (“we never ate chicken – that is a Punjabi favourite,” says Priti); so much so that even vegetables such as tindas are often stuffed with keema, or cooked so that they mimic meat.

Priti’s grandmother and mother were excellent cooks, and her husband is, as she says, “very particular” about food, so she had little choice but to become an expert in the cuisine of her community. Over the years, she realised that it was important to document the recipes of her family or they would vanish forever. So last year she wrote the comprehensive Essential Delhi Cookbook, which includes fabled recipes such as Shabdeg (a kofta curry cooked overnight with kidney, brain and turnips) and Daulat Ki Chaat (a light as air milk froth that can only be made in winter and must be consumed the same day).

Relaxing in their lovely Chattarpur home in Delhi, Priti and Brijesh describe the food they grew up on, much of which was intimately linked with the rhythm of their families’ lives – seasons, festivals, celebrations, funerals.

KitchenWinter, for example, was the season for picnics, when the entire family (often up to 50 members) would pile into cars and drive to huge private gardens in Wazirabad, along with a contingent of domestic staff clutching tall tiffin carriers, boxes of crockery and cutlery and portable angeethis. Aromatic pulaos would be cooked at the picnic spot itself. As Priti points out, "Biryani was considered the poor man’s food. In Delhi, the pulao was always superior, it had much more nazakat. The rice was cooked in the stock, so that each grain was coated with its taste." The vegetarian version was not what is commonly referred to as ‘pea pulao’ or ‘navratan pulao;’ Kayasthas call it tahiri, where the rice is cooked with channe ki dal.

Weddings and festivals meant gorging on the most delicious mithai. Laughs Priti, “As a child I remember constantly eating badam ki lauz and piste ki lauz. This is not to be confused with barfi. There was no khoya – just badam and sugar / pista and sugar cooked together.” Brijesh adds that some shops in Delhi – such as Kaleva and Nathu’s – have now started making badam ki lauz and piste ki lauz. Other sweet delights included khurchan (the scrapings of milk cooked in a shallow pan on a slow fire), and a dark halwa from Ballimaran called Habshi Halwa. What Priti remembers with particular delight is the pitari – a bamboo basket layered with different kinds of mithai, which was usually given as a gift. (There was a namkeen pitari too, lined with crispy salty goodies like mathri and namakpare.) Kheer – which has different variations all over India – was another favourite, often made with seviyan or makhana.

In terms of day-to-day food, Priti says that moong is by far the most popular dal, with a tangy tadka of heeng, zeera and sabut mirch. (“We never make the sabut urad, or the black dal which is so popular with Punjabis. For us, it is a ‘funeral’ dal, which you make when someone has died.” Paneer and rajma are also unheard of).

Meat, the most coveted part of the cuisine, is flavoured with spices such as cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, coriander powder, bay leaf and black pepper. “We use onion, garlic and ginger, but seldom use tomatoes,” reveals Priti. “Instead, we use dahi.”

The day I go to meet the Narains, Priti has cooked an intensely flavourful meat pulao and a kofta curry. The pulao is served set in a perfect mound, almost like an upside-down cake. As Priti breaks the rice, tendrils of steam rise in the air and I inhale an intoxicating fragrance of spices, meat and rice. I need no prodding as Priti urges me to taste it. I am close to heaven.

What a pity I can get this delicious food only in Priti’s home. And maybe a few other such homes in the city.
– Poonam Saxena

Dahi aur dhuye ka gosht
Smoked mutton, cooked with curd
Serves 4-5

500 gm mutton pieces
250 gm (4 medium) onions
12-15 cloves garlic, ground
2 inch piece ginger, finely sliced
Pinch powdered red chilli
2 tbsp powdered coriander seeds
One-and-a-half tsp salt
200 gm (4 cups) thick curd
2 tbsp chopped mint leaves
3-4 green chillies, seeded and chopped
Half tsp salt
2-3 small pieces charcoal

Put meat in a pan with 2 sliced onions, garlic, ginger, red chilli, coriander and one and half tsp salt. Add 250 ml water, cover and cook on low heat for one and a half hours or till meat is tender.

Add ghee, stir and cook till well browned. Remove from fire and keep aside. Slice remaining onions very fine. Mix with mint, green cillies and half tsp salt. Whip curd. (Tie curd in muslin and hang for half an hour if it is not thick enough).
Cover meat in the pan, with one third curd and top with one third onions, then another third curd and so on.

Place a piece of foil or onion skin on top. Heat coal till red hot, place on foil and sprinkle with a few drops of water. Immediately cover pan as tightly as possible and leave for 15-20 minutes on very low heat. When serving, try and keep the layers of meat, curd and onion intact.

North east star:
Manipuri food

In a land that was once a princely state, food has a dimension that is truly rich.

There’s a popular story dating back to 1891. At a banquet in Imphal, more than 100 vegetarian dishes were prepared to impress British guests. They were impressed. So much that one of them asked if the vegetable in one of the dishes grew on a tree. The man was referring to a dish called pakoda thongba (curry chawal). His Manipuri host politely told him that it was a simple dish made of gram flour.

The same skill and passion drives modern-day Meiteis to cook, making their cuisine one of the most notable in the North East. The rich repertoire of the cuisine is only a reflection of the cultural heritage of a land that was once a princely state.

“No state in the entire North East would match the richness of the cuisine of the Meiteis,” says Lalfakpuii Fanai who teaches Home Science in Imphal’s G P Women’s College. And it is an accepted fact that Meiteis are born cooks, capable of turning even a simple lentil into a delicacy. Manipur boasts of professional cooks called bamons (Manipuri Brahmins). “Bamons have magic hands. Whatever they cook is flavourful,” says Fanai.

With rice as the staple, the cuisine of North East India differs from state to state. And within any state, cuisine differs from one tribe to the other. But Manipuri cuisine is different in every aspect from the rest of the North East, says Fanai.

Using locally available spices like ginger, garlic, hing, jeera, coriander leaves and Raja chillies, the Meiteis cook mostly fish and seasonal vegetables prepared in different styles. While the hill tribes of Manipur are hard-core non-vegetarians, relishing fish, chicken, duck, beef, pork and mutton, the Meiteis restrict themselves mainly to fish, chicken and mutton to an extent. Fish is the favourite. Most Meitei homes have pukhri or fish ponds. Even those who can ill afford fish will somehow find a way to include it in their meals. They also stock sun-dried or fermented fish.
Fanai offers an interesting analysis as to why Meiteis are such good cooks. She says: “The Meiteis who are from the valley had all the time to pursue the finer things of life, like food. They had it easy compared to tribes from the hills who lived in tough terrain and had to shuttle between their homes and jhum (cultivated) fields.”

In Manipur, bamons are invited to preside over kitchens on special occasions for a fee that can range from Rs 500 to 1,200 per day. The menu can range from five dishes to 150. And rituals are followed while cooking, says Imo Sharma, a 47-year-old bamon.

Bamons engaged in cooking get up early in the morning and bathe in cold water. Then they slip into white starched dhotis or red checked lungis. Just before cooking, they tie on a turban-like head gear, and perform Mei puja to seek the blessing of the god of fire. Once the dishes are cooked, bamons will change into a clean set of clothes and serve guests.

There are rules for serving too. Traditionally, food is served on the ground on plantain leaves and the eldest in the family must be served first. Only when he has tasted the food can the rest begin eating.

A meal could begin with an ooti (peas cooked with rice), champhut (boiled vegetables), ironba (mashed potatoes with peas or ladyfinger, chilly and fermented fish) followed by different lentils and then fish in different preparations. Some dishes are bitter in taste to ease digestion. Like suktani, which is vegetables with a sprinkling of neem leaves. “The food is full of nutrition and easy to digest,” says Fanai. Take another item called singzu (salad). Made of finely chopped raw papaya or lotus stem and mixed with roasted and ground sesame seeds and roasted gram floor, it’s a meal in itself.
Sweet dishes can run into numbers. Anything from the popular Sana thonba (sweetened cottage cheese cooked in milk and sugar), to kheer. Manipuris like to end their meal on a sweet note. Much like most other Indians.
— Hoihnu Hauzel

Nga Thongba (Fish Curry)
1 kg hilsa/rohu
Half cup mustard oil
1 tbsp mustard seeds
Half tsp cumin seeds
1 bay leaves/tej patta
2 medium-sized onions (ground to paste)
2" piece ginger (chop)
10 cloves garlic (chop)
3-4 medium-sized tomatoes (chop)
Half tbsp red chilli powder
5 green chillies (split)
Salt to taste
I tsp turmeric powder
1 tbsp chopped fresh coriander leaves
Serves: 5
Preparation time: 30 minutes
Cooking time: 20 minutes

Clean fish, cut into medium-sized pieces, wash and drain thoroughly. Combine ingredients for marinade, rub into fish and marinate for 20 minutes. Heat oil in a heavy-based kadhai or wok, and fry fish in batches, turning occasionally till crisp and light brown. Drain and set aside. Add mustard seeds, cumin seeds and bay leaves to kadhai, and fry till mustard seeds start sputtering. Stir in onions, ginger and garlic, and fry till onions turn golden brown. Blend in tomatoes and chilli powder and continue frying till oil separates. Pour in three cups warm water and bring to boil over high heat. Mix green chillies and gently add fish.Lower heat and simmer for five minutes. Garnish with coriander leaves and serve with steamed rice. (Recipe courtesy The Essential Northeast Cookbook by Hoihnu Hauzel)

Praveen Anand: Pondicherry food
Indian food that’s French.
Now, that’s a take on cuisine that’s more than zara hatke!

What do you imagine Pondicherry cuisine is? Given that Pondicherry in Tamil Nadu was French ruled once upon a time, chances are you’ll think it’s something like Anglo-Indian food. But you wouldn’t be more wrong. “Pondicherry cuisine is totally Indian food made to the taste of the French,” says Praveen Anand, executive chef at the Sheraton Park Hotel & Towers, Chennai.

This means that while the spices are Indian, the masala is not overpowering; the gravy is more like a sauce; and while the cooking is Indian cooking, it’s done slowly, using a low flame. And it has to be tasted to be believed. “I’ve been working for 25 years and I have not come across this kind of cuisine before,” says chef Praveen.

Chef Praveen doesn’t remember when he first came across Pondicherry cuisine, but it was when he visited the town and someone he had once worked with, a native of the place, told him: ‘Go out and do what you want, but be here for dinner. There’s something special.’

“With the first bite, I knew it was different,” says chef Praveen. “So I started researching it. That was quite some time back.”

Research meant tracking down families that still cook this cuisine, reading unpublished cookbooks, talking with scholars focused on what are called ‘French Tamils.’ So possessive is Praveen about his ‘find’ that he refuses to share a recipe with us!

“Unearthing it was difficult,” says chef Praveen. “Not many people understood what I was doing. It’s difficult to interpret a cuisine when you’re a home cook. The feeling is, ‘I cook a curry, you cook a curry, what’s so great about it?’”

Still, he persevered and over the years, learned (among other things) that coconut in some form is always used in this cuisine, tomatoes are rarely used, cardamom is avoided as far as possible and food can be cooked in ways that seem never to have been done anywhere else.

“There’s a local fruit called nung, very delicate, which is brilliantly combined with prawns, that are also very delicate,” says chef Praveen. “So no particular flavour dominates. It’s like a green gravy, but without galangal or lemongrass. Then, there are combinations of fish and prawn. Now, fishermen do make curries that combine different types of fish, but I’d never come across a fish and prawn combination before.”

Baguettes are made with rice flour, so they’re slightly crunchy. “The best way to eat curry is to soak the baguette in the sauce,” says chef Praveen. “And there’s a fish roasted with cloves – that’s brilliant.”

The beauty of Pondicherry cuisine is that the ingredients are completely local. But it was never seen as everyday cooking. “My take on it is that families either served it to their sons-in-law or to their French masters,” says chef Praveen. “It was always something special.”
— Kushalrani Gulab

Lamiya Amiruddin: Bohra food

The Amiruddins don’t have a dining table. They don’t want one. That’s because they are Bohra Muslims from Mumbai who enjoy their traditions. And tradition decrees that meals are centred around a large thaal, everyone in the family helping themselves from the same dish, course by course.

Bohras are a trading community primarily from Gujarat, though they originally moved to India from Yemen centuries ago. So what is Bohra food? Think of it as Gujarati Muslim. Not Mughlai as people assume Indian Muslim food must always be.
“The kebabs and tikkas we eat these days are not originally Bohra but have become part of our cuisine because of the Mughlai influence,” says Lamiya Amiruddin, a former hotel industry professional.

The other widely held assumption about Muslim food is that it’s rich and meaty. That’s true for Bohra food to an extent – “If anything can be fried, it will be fried!” laughs Lamiya. And meats are an important part of every meal. But they are part of the cuisine, not all of it.

For instance, a favourite dish is dal-chawal palida – a kind of dal biryani made with tuvar dal, besan and rice, eaten with papad, keema and cold baingan bharta made with dahi. “This is a very, very Bohra dish, usually made on any happy occasion, such as a birthday,” says Lamiya.

And a winter specialty is a dish of green garlic chopped fine, boiled with lamb keema and mixed with nimbu and jeera. “We layer it on a plate, break eggs over it, and then pour sizzling hot ghee over that to cook the eggs,” explains Lamiya. “Then we drain the ghee and eat it with bajra roti. It’s a meal by itself.”

Biryani is important and its cooking style is what’s called kachcha – that is, the meat is cooked with the rice, not separately. “Typically, at an occasion like a wedding, I would expect to eat biryani, taleli murgh (fried whole chicken), which is another traditional Bohra dish, and sancha (hand-cranked) ice-cream,” says Lamiya. Cream tikkas are another dish for special occasions, though they are painstaking to make. “They consist of meat beaten to extreme tenderness, marinated in ginger, garlic and green chillies, rolled in bread crumbs, dipped in eggs and deep-fried v-e-r-y slowly,” she explains.
Mithai, too, is deep-fried when it can be. Malai khajla is the best-known – puff pastry filled with malai, deep-fried and soaked in syrup.

Food is hugely important in Bohra culture. Respect is consciously paid to the thaal. “On new year’s eve, we fill the thaal with all kinds of food to ensure the coming year is bountiful,” says Lamiya. “It includes everything that can be eaten, cooked dishes, meats, fish and fresh vegetables and fruit, including all the tastes – bitter, sour, sweet, salty and so on.” Even on a daily basis, if a dish has been placed on the thaal, there must be at least one person seated before it – food must not be ignored.

“Every meal begins with a touch of salt on the tongue,” says Lamiya. If it’s a special occasion, after the salt, you eat a bit of sodanna – white rice mixed with sugar and ghee. Then… it’s time for dessert! “That’s the first course,” laughs Lamiya. So, ice-cream or sheera or malai khajla or fresh fruit. Then it’s usually a chicken preparation. Then another round of dessert, followed by mutton – kebabs or a rann of lamb perhaps. Then, there’s the rice course, which may be biryani or pilau. And the meal ends with paan or dried fruit.

“But people are now trying different foods,” says Lamiya. “It’s common to go to a wedding these days and eat lasagna with garlic bread, and sorbets and sizzling brownies.”

If that sounds like traditional Bohra food might be in danger of disappearing, well… it seems unlikely. Because even if you go to a Bohra wedding and are served lasagna, it won’t be served at a table.

You’ll eat it as part of the community, seated around a thaal.
— Kushalrani Gulab

For the dal-chawal
250 gm Basmati rice (boil with 1-in cinnamon, 3 cloves, 2 cardamons)
150 gm boiled tuvar dal
1 large tomato
5-6 curry leaves
1/2 tsp whole jeera
2 slit green chillies
1 large onion
2 tsp kothmir (dhania patta)
Ghee as required
Boil rice with garam masala and keep aside. In a pan, heat some ghee and add sliced onion. Sauté till pink. Add green chillies, curry leaves, jeera and roughly cut tomato. When soft, add boiled dal and sauté. Add kothmir.
In a degchi, spread some ghee and half the boiled rice. Cover the rice with a layer of the dal mixture and cover with the remaining rice.
Keep on low flame for 10 minutes and serve with Palida. Accompany with papad, keema and cold baingan bharta.
Optional: Smoke the rice with a red hot coal and pour ghee on the coal. Seal the degchi for five minutes.

For the Palida
150 gm tuvar dal (boiled until soft but whole - save the water after draining the dal)
Ghee 3-4 tsp
1 chopped onion
1 tsp methi seeds
2 tbsp besan
1 tsp whole jeera
2-3 pieces kokam
1 tsp red chilli powder
1 1/2 tsp dhania and jeera powder mix
6-7 lasans, ground to a paste
Salt to taste
1 large tomato
2 drumsticks (cut in 1 1/2 inch pieces) or bottlegourd (doodhi) in big pieces

Boil dal with a pinch of haldi and the drumstick pieces. When dal is soft, drain the water and keep both aside. Heat ghee and sauté onion with methi seeds, whole jeera, dhania and jeera powder, lasan paste and red chilly powder. Add besan and roast for a few minutes. Add hot water and mix till there are no lumps.

Add chopped tomato and allow to simmer for at least half an hour till the consistency thickens. Add the boiled drumsticks and kokum and continue boiling for 15 minutes. Serve with rice preparation dal-chawal.

First Published: Jul 31, 2010 10:12 IST