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Kayastha cuisine: Koftas, karelas, shami kebabs and more

Hindustan Times | ByShara Prayag
Sep 16, 2019 01:34 PM IST

The cuisine of the Kayastha community is a beautiful showcase of our Ganga-jamuni tehzeeb.

Food is a unifying force like no other. Since time immemorial, food has helped different communities eliminate apprehensions, mingle freely and form a strong bond. In these times of senseless strife, the heritage cuisine of the Kayastha community sets a beautiful example of India’s all-embracing culinary smorgasbord. The cuisine skillfully blends varied gastronomy traditions into a delectable mélange. “Indian food shows us very clearly that nothing is exclusivist or isolated.

There are varied influences present in Kayasth cuisine where we can see Hindu and Muslim influences blend as well as few Colonial ones. As a people, we are a mix of diverse traditions and our food is a mix of diverse influences too,” says author, critic and historian Anoothi Vishal, who recently did a Kayastha food pop up at the Indian Accent, The Lodhi, New Delhi,livened up with celebrity chef Manish Mehtora’s contemporary innovations.

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Food historian Rana Safvi regards the Kayastha cuisine as a binding factor, a tradition that beautifully reflects the cultural and gastronomical inclusiveness of India. “I grew up with many Kayastha friends. Their food was delicious and very similar to ours, except for a few variations. When so many divides are being created, I’m glad that we talk of food which unites. For food heals and of course creates delicious vibes to bond over. Give us koftas or even karelas over kadwahat ( bitterness) any day,” she says.

Celebrating India’s composite culture

With surnames such as Saxena, Srivastava and Mathur, the Kayasths were traditionally writers in the courts of the Mughals rulers. “The Kayasthas do not figure in the caste system in Manu Smriti. Nor are they members of the four classifications of Brahmin,Kshatriyas ,Vaish and Shudhra. They believe that they descended from Chitragupta, the scribe of Yama, the lord of death. Being the descendents of a scribe, it was important for a Kayastha to be well educated,” says heritage enthusiast Anil Chandra. “They first make an appearance in medieval India as scribes literate in Persian, the language of the court. They find a first mention in Ain-i-Akbari as senior court officials”,says Vishal.

The Muslim dastarkhan stirred up their curiosity, and led to culinary innovations that created remarkable gems. Vishal explains what led to the development of a cuisine called the Kayastha in her book Mrs LC’s Table: Stories about Kayasth Food and Culture.The new rulers, who mostly came from Central Asia, were used to subtle flavouring of dishes, without any grounded spices or gravies. They used whole black pepper, black cardamom, nutmeg, and mace to impart flavours to their dishes, which became a characteristic of Kayastha cooking. Their specific dishes such as the kefteh or kibbeh were made with gravy by the Kayasthas.

Central Asian dishes were Indianised creatively. “ Dishes such as Bharwan Karele can be traced to the dolmas (vegetables such as capsicum, vine leafs and tomatoes stuffed with mince) of central Asia. Mughals used local vegetables such as karele and gourds and stuffed them with mince-- in the same way as dolomas. Kayasths substituted the mince with browned onions and spices like fennel,” explains Vishal.

Many efficient scribes were promoted to senior positions and earned grants of land and titles. This brought more money to indulge in food fancies. “Dairy products such as yogurt, ghee, khoya or mawa became part of the cuisine. Sweet and sour dried fruits and dry fruits such as almonds and pistachios were liberally used to season the curries and kababs,” says Chandra.

Women, mostly vegetarians, came up with innovative dishes. “Faux meat dishes were concocted by women who did not eat meat but cooked it for the men. As they wanted to taste the same meat-like flavours and textures, dishes were made from dal and vegetables to resemble meats,” says Vishal.

Not a regional cuisine

For the Kayasthas, food was a revered craft and the only acceptable standard was perfection. Vegetables cooked to resemble in taste and texture (moong dal ki kaleji, or arvi cooked like fish), the big meat dishes such as Badam Pasande (flat pieces of meat, topped with badam and pista, rolled and curried ) a courtly dish of the Delhi Mathurs, Yakhni Pulao (rice and lighter spices cooked in stock), the melt-in-your –mouth Shami Kebab (minced meat patty stuffed with mint, onions and green chillies) and Kachche Keeme ke kofte (minced meat poached in gravy) are some of the stars of the cuisine.

Shami Kebab

The Kayasth food is unique because it is not a regional cuisine. “The community is spread across India-- from Delhi and UP to Bengal and Hyderabad. It is a pan Indian cuisine, in which Mughal influences and British influences and a few local regional influences have come together,” says Vishal.

Author, critic and historian Anoothi Vishal recently did a Kayastha food pop up at the Indian Accent, The Lodhi, New Delhi, livened up with celebrity chef Manish Mehtora’s contemporary innovations.

No feast without meat

In a Kayastha household, there can be no feast without bakre ka gosht (mutton). Just like the Mughlas, the Kayasthas turned mutton into a variety of delicacies. Chicken was not paid much importance and fish rarely featured in the cuisine.

“There was a saying ‘ jab lala mare toh baniya roye.’ When a Lala (as the Kayastha were often called) died, the small shopkeeper (baniya) would lament. The Lala, returning from work, would go to him and ask for a loan of one or two anna to buy some kaleji (liver, perhaps the cheapest meat then that could take copious amount of spices and oil) The lala insisted that the baniya enters it in ledger to be paid when the amount was substantial. A poor shopkeeper could not refuse a court employee a small loan. His daily prayer was always a long life for Lala so that his loan could be repaid one day. This shows the kind of craze they had for food,” says Chandra.

Most of the Kayastha homes had two kitchen, one for vegetarian food and one slightly outside, for non-vegetarian food. Vishal recalls how her barima (grandmom) despite being a strict vegetarian herself, would come up with the most brilliant non-vegetarian food. “On Dussehra, kaliya (homes-style meat) and poori was a must feast. Barima, who read the Sundara Kanda every day, would treat it as a symbol of auspiciousness and plenty,” she says. And adding tomatoes to meat was a sin, just like it was in Muslim households. “Kachri powder or yogurt was used as the souring agent,” she says.

Khade masala ghosht (mutton cooked with whole spices)

Chef Sugandha Saxena says the Kayasths were often referred to as ‘Hinduon ke Muslims’, due to the similarity between their culture and that of the Muslims. Her grandmother, Gayatri Saxena was a Kayasth from Agra. “A strong Muslim influence in her cuisine was the use of essence. Rose and kevada essence were often used in certain curries, koftas and kebabs,” she recalls.

During Holi, she would serve Gurde kapure (goat’s kidneys and testicles) paired with Scotch. Her khade masala ghosht (mutton cooked with whole spices) and mutton chaaps were equally loved. Another Mughal influence was the Sultani Daal, urad ki daal, flavoured with milk and saffron. “Rich, creamy and fragrant, it was a true delight,” she recalls.

The magic of garam masala

Chef Sugandha attributes the perfection in her grandmom’s cooking to the garam masala.There was no such thing as one standard garam masala in her kitchen. “Even today, we never buy garam masala from the market. It is the star that brings alive the flavours in so many Kayastha dishes. Every recipe requires different proportion of spices to create the garam malasa. It is roasted in the sun, or on the tawa, depending on the flavour you want,” she says.

Snacks were no pastime

Snacks were a celebrated genre in themselves, always meticulously prepared and served with joy. “Frying kachoris every day between 4 pm to 5 pm was like an important ritual in most households,” says the chef. Her grandmom, along with her entourage of newly married women from the neighbourhood, keen to learn cooking from her, would get busy frying Aloo Pyaz ki Kachori and Daal ki Kachori, served with hari chutney (ginger garlic and green chilly chutney) every evening. During Diwali card parties, she would serve Bedmi Puri (lentil stuffed puris) with Aloo ki Sabzi and Methi Daane ki Chutney.

Chef Manish Mehrotra describes Kayastha cuisine as ‘family gathering food,” paired with unbridled chatter and some scotch. “Others may need an occasion to cook a spread of delicacies, such as a festival, or a wedding to cook delicacies, but the Kayastha don’t. It’s one of the most creatively crafted cuisines that give one plenty of leeway to experiment, innovate and modernise,” says the chef.

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