Passions: Food writing in the day and age of social media

Internet research is a blessing for food writers, but to truly authenticate a recipe, one must do more
Sonal learnt about this unique Indian-ish burger chaat on a trip to Amritsar (Anshika Varma for Tiffin (Roli Books))
Sonal learnt about this unique Indian-ish burger chaat on a trip to Amritsar (Anshika Varma for Tiffin (Roli Books))
Updated on Nov 06, 2021 11:41 PM IST
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BySonal Ved

At the cost of sounding like a tourist, I’m just going to say it: Going to Ladakh since the easing of travel restrictions in India has left me feeling exhilarated. Besides getting to catch crisp (albeit thin) mountain air, it made me realise that visiting a destination just once is not enough to understand the zillion nuances that lie in regional Indian cuisine.

This was my second time in the region, and the first time I was going to discover a new “Indian” cuisine. Chronicling 500 recipes for a cookbook that I wrote in 2018, one would think I had seen it all as I scoured 29 Indian states and nine union territories, in search for authentic Indian recipes. But no, here I was, confronted with Balti cuisine that had no resemblance to what one popularly understands of Balti food.

Bucket twist

Served in London’s curry houses, Balti food is often imagined as spicy, liquidy gravies eaten with naan. But this one was not served in a metal bucket (Hindi word: balti), it wasn’t predominantly curry-based or even spicy. In the Turtuk region of Ladakh, I discovered beautiful dishes such as kisir, a buckwheat pancake; tsamik, a yoghurt-and herb-based dip; fay mar, roasted barley flour mixed with white butter; ba-leh, hand-rolled noodles; grangthur, fluffy buckwheat bread and phading, a dessert of boiled apricots.

The popular Malwa Kadhi is inspired by the two states that the Malwa region encompasses, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh (Anshika Varma for Tiffin (Roli Books))
The popular Malwa Kadhi is inspired by the two states that the Malwa region encompasses, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh (Anshika Varma for Tiffin (Roli Books))

When Turtuk, one of the gateways to the Siachen Glacier, became a part of India—it was under Pakistani control until the Indian Army captured it in 1971—a new cuisine known as Balti became as much a part of Indian cuisine as Gujarati or Malayali foods.

The cuisine is influenced by flavours of Pakistan, Afghanistan and India, and can seldom be found outside certain pockets of Ladakh, or even on Google. Which made me realise that if I hadn’t trekked here, 124miles outside of Leh city, I wouldn’t have encountered it. 

Cross patch

“The region is far from commercial tourist traps, the people are shy, and there isn’t much buzz about its cuisine on social media which has kept it under wraps for years,” says Rigzin Namgyal, co-founder of Ladakh Sarai, who introduced me to Balti cuisine this summer.

Sonal’s new book
Sonal’s new book

Around the same time, celebrity chef Ranveer Brar was learning about a dish called ‘sagla bagla’ in Surat. A Turkish baklava lookalike, its sheets of fine pastry stuffed with almond or pistachio paste, sweetened with syrup.

“You’d not associate this sweet dish with the Gujarati food-loving town of Surat, yet here is where I learnt that this dish has deep Arabic roots, belonging to the Bohris who migrated to India from Yemen. It’s called “Surat baklava” and was popularised by the Mahammadi Bakery in 1901,” says Brar.

Brar goes on to explain that without travelling to a region, only primary information about its cuisine can be understood and nothing else. Brar is right, because to reference cuisine without its cross-cultural links is a disservice to its history and roots. 

Ranveer Brar says that without travelling to a region, only primary information about its cuisine can be understood. Nothing else
Ranveer Brar says that without travelling to a region, only primary information about its cuisine can be understood. Nothing else

Journalist and food historian Pritha Sen cites a personal example based on her various trips to Nagaland where she learnt about the true nature of Naga pork curry.

“Most online recipes will tell you that it’s a combination of ginger, garlic, onion, tomato and bhut jolokia, all pressure-cooked together. However, it was on visiting the region that I learnt that the locals use a bunch of things to bring umami into the dish. Like garlic and ginger leaves, timur spice, local coriander which has large leaves and looks nothing like the one you get in the bhaji market, and of course a variety of North-Eastern dry herbs,” she says.  

Sen agrees that travel is non-negotiable for good food writing. “If it’s an academic exercise, it’s fine, but if you want to truly connect with your food, you have to experience regional cuisine at the very grassroot level,” she says. 

Sonal Ved
Sonal Ved

Sonal Ved is the author of Tiffin (2018, Roli Books) and her new book Whose Samosa Is It Anyway? released last month with Penguin India.  

From HT Brunch, November 7, 2021

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Tuesday, January 25, 2022