Perhaps it’s Noma, the Copenhagen restaurant which was crowned the best in the world by Michelin twice in a row for reinterpreting quintessentially Nordic/Scandinavian cuisine. Perhaps it’s the pictures of US First Lady Michelle Obama hoeing and raking lettuce beds in the White House kitchen garden. “Back to the roots” seems to have taken root in all matters culinary.
In India, the trend is reflected in a spate of cookbooks that focus on largely undocumented cuisines, particularly of smaller linguistic or religious groups. Roli Books’ Kashmiri Cuisine through the Ages by Sarla Razdan and Westland’s The East Indian Kitchen by Michael Swamy, both published recently, follow in the tradition of last year’s well-received The Suriani Kitchen by Lathika George. Forthcoming titles from Westland’s Kitchen series include The Uttaranchal Kitchen and The Gujarati Kitchen. The line-up at Roli Books includes Courtly Cuisine: Kayasth Food Through the Ages about the food typical of the sub-caste spread out from Delhi to Kerala, and Punjab to Assam. Written by food columnist Preeta Mathur, a Kayastha herself, it will be out next month. Another Roli title due later this year is on a unique culinary tradition that, though not defined by a regional group, is perhaps even more defined by its cultural heritage—the food of the army kitchens in cantonments and barracks, written by a former army officer’s wife, Kikky Sihota.
Kashmiri Cuisine and East Indian Kitchen celebrate the culinary inheritance of their authors: Razdan’s book extensively features recipes of lesser-known Kashmiri Pandit dishes as well as the more renowned Muslim wazwan staples, and Swamy’s is about a cuisine that marries Portuguese and local Konkan traditions. Though Razdan hasn’t tagged her recipes as “Pandit” or “Muslim”, it’s easy to tell them apart—unlike the Muslims, Pandits do not use onions, tomatoes and garlic, and the predominant flavour is of asafoetida, mustard oil and ginger powder. Meat dominate both cuisines, but Pandit cuisine offers more in terms of vegetarian dishes. Their cuisine does not include chicken or eggs. Rice and greens like haak (collard greens) and mongi (knol khol) are everyday staples, while dal is a rare treat. Muslims use red cockscomb flower to colour their meat dishes a deep red, while yogurt is the base of most meat dishes and some vegetarian dishes among the Pandits.
At home: For Sarla Razdan, the years of cooking for family and friends was all the research she needed. Priyanka Parashar/Mint
Razdan’s fondest memories of her mother centre, unsurprisingly, around their hearth in Srinagar. Summer or winter, she would be up before the sun, cleaning, chopping and cooking to make sure her children got a full lunch before they left for school at 9. Those memories have translated into Kashmiri Cuisine, so alongside the famed rogan josh, gushtaba and rishta, are lesser-known wangen yakhni (fried aubergine in yogurt), al rogan josh made with pumpkin or mach t phool (lamb cooked with cauliflower). The sheer number of dishes that include fruits as an important ingredient is a revelation: There’s lamb stuffed with apricot, lamb cooked with apricot or plum, aubergine with apples, and plums and potatoes. “The one thing that, Pandit or Muslim, all Kashmiris share is the lack of a sweet tooth. We are not a great people for desserts. Among the few sweet dishes we have is shufta,” Razdan says.
While Razdan relies solely on the lessons learnt in the kitchens of her mother and mother-in-law and perfected in her own, Swamy, whose mother is an “East Indian”, backs up the recipes collated from family and friends with notes on the history of the dwindling community of Maharashtrian-Portuguese extraction. His short introductory history of this community of North Konkan Catholics, who were first baptized by the Portuguese, provides some insight into the strangely named community: The East Indians formally christened themselves after the British East India Company in 1887 in the hope of landing lucrative “company” jobs.
The mixed parentage of the cuisine is reflected in dishes such as the heavily spiced duck indad or beef with fenugreek, or the ghee (clarified butter) that features as the cooking medium in most recipes. Even the Bifes a Portugeuza, a kind of beef steak, can’t do without the iconic “bottle masala”—a mix of 21 spices. So called because of the large bottles they were stored in, it is the star of the East Indian kitchen—complete with its own secret formula that is passed on from mother to daughter and never revealed to strangers. The book lists three separate recipes.
For a Cordon Bleu chef brought up on his grandmother’s cooking, compiling a book of her traditional recipes should have been a piece of cake. Yet Swamy found ferreting out the recipes the trickiest part of his research. He wheedled cousins, cajoled aunts and sweet-talked strangers to get them to part with recipes from a cuisine that has hardly been documented.
The community’s reluctance to share its secrets with the world is threatening its culinary tradition. “You’ll not find East Indian cuisine on any restaurant menu. It is a cuisine which is dying out,” says Swamy, who works as a consultant and food stylist. According to him, the book is the first effort at formally documenting the cuisine. His editor, Deepthi Talwar, however, says while one may not know it as East Indian, most foodies would have tasted East Indian staples such as vindaloo or sarapatel. “What we look for are books that describe how to cook typical dishes from the area, but also give the reader insight into the culture and people, and how it informs the cuisine,” Talwar says of the Kitchen series.
Next up is food writer Rushina Munshaw Ghildiyal’s book on the cuisine of Uttaranchal. Married into a Pahadi family, Gildiyal says there are rarely any books on the subject and it was one of the reasons she decided to document the simple, rustic, bursting-with-goodness food of the people of Kumaon and Garhwal. It’s a cereal-rich cuisine, deriving its protein mainly from dals. And there’s the famed Dehra Dun rice. “Dals are very essential to the cuisine, especially urad. There’s some 30-40 ways of cooking urad.” Millets are another staple. “The cuisine is very basic, but because it relies on fresh produce, it’s very very tasty,” she says. Much of the greens came from kitchen gardens and fruits from the orchards, and, in the days when hunting was allowed, meat was the game caught by the mensfolk. No part of the animal was allowed to go to waste—leftover meat was pickled for the harsh winters, trotters were made into a soup, and the intestines into a kind of blood sausage. “The most notable dish would be a kachmauli—a whole goat or lamb is smoked for hours over a fire of green leaves and tender twigs. The meat is taken off the bone while still slightly underdone, and tossed in mustard oil, salt, chilli and turmeric.”
It’s such “back to the roots’ stories that have finally spiced up the prospects of earthy cuisines long overshadowed by their glamorous rivals.
1kg lamb, cut from breast and shoulder with bones
110ml mustard or refined oil
1 cinnamon stick
3 black cardamoms
4 green cardamoms
2 bay leaves
3 tsp fennel powder
2 tsp ginger powder
3 cups yogurt
1 tsp cornflour
1 tsp black cumin seeds
Salt to taste
Heat the oil in a pressure cooker; add cinnamon, 1 black cardamom, 2 green cardamoms, bay leaves, cloves and lamb. Fry for 10 minutes. Pour six cups of water and add fennel and ginger powders and salt to taste. Pressure-cook for 10 minutes. Remove the lid when the pressure drops and check if the meat is tender. Drain the stock from the pressure cooker into a separate vessel.
Whisk the yogurt in a bowl. Add to the stock, stirring with a ladle and bring to a boil. Add the meat and cook till the gravy thickens. Whisk 1 tsp cornflour in 4 tsp water, add to the meat. Coarsely grind the remaining cardamoms, black and green, and add to the gravy. Sprinkle shah jeera.
Serve hot with steamed rice.
Recipe courtesy Kashmiri Cuisine through the Ages.
Sopa de Lentilha com Toucinho
250g husked, split Bengal gram (chana dal)
2 onions, finely chopped
4 garlic flakes, diced
2 celery stalks, diced
3 carrots, diced
500g tomato purée
1 litre any stock
1 tsp salt
1 and 1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
200g bacon, diced
Wash the dal and drain. In a pan, boil the dal in six cups of water. Lower the heat and simmer till tender.
In a fresh pan, melt the butter and sauté onions over low to moderate heat till translucent. Add garlic and celery, and sauté briefly. Mix in the remaining ingredients, except the garnish. Cook for 15 minutes. Liquidize the soup to a coarse purée in a blender. Return to pan and heat through. In a small frying pan, fry the bacon over very low heat in its own fat, till crisp.
Fusion food: (left) The quintessential bottle masala takes its name from the large bottle it is stored in; and a stuffed chicken that uses Indian ingredients and Western techniques.
Serve hot soup, garnished with bacon.
Recipe courtesy The East Indian Kitchen.