Notes from all over: Kunal Vijayakar traces the roots of some of our favourite foods
The rajma’s not Punjabi, the jalebi has roots in Lebanon. A look at other ways in which the world has enriched our ‘traditional’ cuisine.Updated: Aug 23, 2019, 20:50 IST
Who are you really? How well do we know ourselves? Did you become who you thought you would be when you grew up? Did circumstances make you a better, a worse or just a different person? And why am I asking you all these questions? Well, this week I want to apply all these same questions to food. Food as we know it. Indian food.
So here goes. What is Indian food really? Did all the food we love in our country come from within India? Or did some of the food we now consider traditional actually come from somewhere else — another city, another country, other continent? Has that food then become better, worse or just different?
I don’t have the answers to all these questions but as I burrow into the histories of some our favourite Indian foods, it’s time for me to tell you the truth. Some things are just not what they seem to be.
Take, for instance, the Punjabi mother’s favourite instrument of love: Rajma Chawal. It’s a delicacy for some and comfort food for most. Its red kidney beans cooked with spices till creamy, in an onion-tomato gravy. It’s best had with your fingers, mixed into hot steamed rice. But Rajma is not a Punjabi bean; it’s not even Indian. And no it doesn’t trace its origin to Canada either.
The Rajma bean, it is said, originated in Peru and became a craze throughout South and Central America, travelling to Europe around the 15th century, when Spanish wayfarers returned home from their adventures. Migrating Indian traders carried the bean to India via Guatemala and Central America. Punjab fell for the red bean, and so did Nepal, where Rajma Ko Tarkari and Rajma Curry are staples.
Then there’s the Samosa. Not sub-continental, definitely not Indian. The idea of this snack of pastry or bread stuffed and deep-fried is common in many cultures. The samosa can be considered part of the same family as the Portuguese Pastel, Spanish Empanada, Italian Calzone, and South East Asian Curry Puff. Historians trace the name and the triangular shape to Central Asia’s pyramid-shaped samsa, and the meat-filled Uzbek version, called the Pompoqcha Somsa (samsa made with yeast dough).
The word is derived from the Persian sanbosag and in North Africa and the Middle East is referred to as sanbusaq or sanbusaj. So the next time you bite into a hot Punjabi Samosa, you may just think of it as International Cuisine.
The Persians have a lot to answer for. Not only did most tandoor cooking of bread and the great Mughlai cuisine find its beginnings in Persia and the Middle East, so did the Jalebi and Gulab Jamun. Zalabia is a very popular Lebanese sweet fritter made of fermented dough. There, sugar is added to the batter of the Zalabia, while the Jalebi is fried and then soaked in sugar syrup. Both are crisp, sweet and sinfully good when eaten hot.
Gulab Jamuns as well, they say, were brought to India by Persian invaders. The Persians called it Luqmat al-Qadi, and made it by taking yeast-leavened dough and deep-frying it, then drenching it in honey or sugar syrup and rosewater. The recipe dates back to the 13th century and the dish, ‘tis said, was popularised, in the 14th century in India, by the explorer and scholar Ibn Battuta.
The rustic-sounding Chicken Tikka Masala has its roots in Scotland. I’ve eaten CTM in a Scotland Pub; it’s a Thursday-night tradition and nearly everyone was gorging on this pale reddish-yellow special after several beers. The story goes that Ali Ahmed Aslam of Shish Mahal, a Scottish curry house in Glasgow, to assuage his customers who thought his roast chicken was too bland and dry, tossed some spices together with tinned tomato soup and, lo and behold, the Chicken Tikka Masala was born.
And then, of course, there are our two favourite beverages — Tea and Coffee. Coffee was not part of Indian culture or custom till at least the 16th century. Baba Budan was a 16th-century Sufi who returned from Mecca with the blessings of Allah and seven coffee beans hidden in his beard. He returned home to Chikmagalur in present-day Karnataka and planted them on the slopes of the Chandragiri Hill. Chikmagalur remains the country’s largest coffee-growing area.
Tea, of course, is not Indian but Chinese and was brought to us by the British, who found India a great place to grow tea for themselves. I personally cannot stomach the light English tea, so I am glad that we not only embraced the beverage, but also really, truly made it our own.
To end with, the Ganesh festival is around the corner and in that context I’d like to leave you with a question. The modak, a steamed dumpling made with rice flour, filled and steamed. Does that sound perilously close to the Momo, Dim Sum or Sui Mai? So which came first? I don’t know. Why don’t you find out and tell me.