It all started with an innocuous remark by a Bengali colleague. It seems fried okra, a must on any Punjabi party table, is frowned upon by Bengalis. The poor dharosh (okra) is so looked down upon among Bengalis that the term is synonymous with incompetency. The Kayastha community, in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, considers paneer (cottage cheese) in any form a down-market dish at a banquet table. Kashmiris do think beyond phirni and, in fact, are likely to serve only shufta at weddings and during festivities. Biharis are not just sattu-crazy and forever baking little littis for their teatime snack. In fact, they love keema (minced meat) and stuff it in mashed potato balls to make a cutlet that is dipped not in eggs and breadcrumbs, but in refined flour batter and suji (semolina). The Coorgis have found a way to eat their rice in a roti form. Try the akki otti(rice chapatis made from a dough of cooked rice and rice flour) if you are bored of the wheat chapati.
As we exchanged notes on what to serve the next time someone from a particular community or state visited, we realized that Indian food changes not just colour, ingredients and flavours from one state to another, but that even within states, every community has its own list of dos and don’ts. While some state cuisines have become a part and parcel of our lives, there is so much that remains unexplored as far as the Indian platter is concerned.
A festive dessert: The shufta from Kashmir.
So we decided to go in search of snacks and sweets that would take us beyond payasam, rasmalai, samosa and dal bati churma, and also plan menus that would appeal to a Sindhi, Bohri, Anglo-Indian or Khasi. The curry and chutney culture had to be decoded, and we found out why the curry usually gets thinner, darker and tangier as we head south. The cuisine of the Seven Sisters, or the North-Eastern states, is unexplored territory and we tried to understand some aspects of these no-spices, all-flavour foods. And we also learnt how urban India eats.
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Next time, we intend to find out more about the egg halwa some Biharis patronize, or the bhutte ki kiss (a corn dish) that is a staple snack in Indore, Madhya Pradesh. Meanwhile, enjoy the discoveries we made on this culinary journey. PS: Don’t miss out the 12 videos (www.livemint.com/communityfood.htm and www.livemint.com/foodmap.htm) that will help you cook these delicacies.
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Seema Chowdhry, Issue editor