On a food trip through the south and east of Mumbai, the old-fashioned names of Sindhi restaurants, called after the people who began them, still stand out. Nanumal Bhojraj. Bhagat Tarachand. Jhama’s (named for Jhamalal Lulla). Unlike communities whose restaurants first sprang up when people from their part of India migrated to the city for work, Mumbai’s Sindhi restaurants were begun by Hindu refugees who migrated from Sindh after Partition, many close to the camps where they first lived.
Most Sindhi restaurants run wholesome, traditional kitchens, but like their Gujarati and Udupi counterparts, serve no meat. While teewarn, mutton in an onion-based curry, is an iconic dish and a speciality when Sindhi homes have visitors, there are many who prefer vegetarian food for religious reasons: A favourite community cookbook is Dada J.P. Vaswani’s 90 Sindhi Vegetarian Recipes. Paneer (cottage cheese), some say, became a Sindhi staple in the refugee camps where sour (curdled) milk could ill-afford to be wasted.
Perhaps this is why Sindhi food outside the community remains best identified by sai bhaji, a mash of spinach, other greens and vegetables, and Sindhi kadhi, a tomato- and tamarind-flavoured gravy made with roasted gram flour and fenugreek seeds. There are also the robust tastes of the dal pakwaan (deep-fried flatbread and chana dal) breakfast, tuks (double-fried crispy potatoes) and bhee (lotus stem) curry. At Sindhi restaurants, you’re likely to relish gulab jamun (darker and heavier than the norm) and gajar ka halwa; if you’re invited to a Cheti Chand (or Sindhi New Year) meal, you’re likely to encounter khas khas jo seero (poppy seeds halwa) or singhar ji mithai (sweet made with unsalted sev).
It might be a kissing cousin to more well-known north Indian cuisines but the differences are significant. Its dominant flavour, says Alka Deepak Keswani, who runs the blog Sindhirasoi.com, is “basic, rustic, mainly because of plenty of fresh vegetables and a limited use of spices”. Keswani runs the blog Sindhirasoi.com and says that masala, for Sindhis, means a hint of turmeric, coriander powder and garam masala—never overpowering. What sets it apart is a love for dried mango powder (amchoor), and dried pomegranate seeds. The earthiness of ginger and garlic and the tang of tomatoes or tamarind—traditional bases for Sindhi gravies—is “all it takes”.
Also Read : Sindhi Cuisine | The movable feast
Film-maker Shona Urvashi, who comes from a family of food lovers and has been cooking since she was a teenager, says the delicate, sweet flavour of basar or onions, sautéed white rather than brown, is one distinguishing feature of some Sindhi foods. The Sindhi makhani dal that she makes for an everyday meal is a slowly churned yellow dal, rather than the dark, textured one you eat with a Punjabi meal.
Keswani explains that Sindhi culture’s hybridity has allowed it to survive and accommodate outside influences—Persian, Mughal, Sikh—for centuries. Perhaps its true distinctiveness is really in its adaptability.
Sindhi Basar Paneer
1/2 kg fresh malai paneer
6 large onions
3 pods of garlic, slightly crushed
1 large piece of ginger
3 pods of green cardamom
1 small bunch of coriander leaves, freshly chopped
3 green chillies
1 bay leaf
1 tomato, finely chopped
Turmeric powder, red chilli powder and cumin powder to taste
11/2 tbsp coriander powder
Rock salt to taste
Chop onions, not too finely. Skin and crush pods of garlic. Pour oil as required into a colander and heat on high fire. Add bay leaf (tejpatta), roughly chopped ginger, cardamom and green chillies, split lengthwise. When the oil releases the aroma of the chillies, add the chopped onions. Toss and stir continually, then add a pinch of turmeric, just enough to give the mix colour. Add the onions and stir until they begin to turn transparent, then add garlic. There should only be a hint of garlic. Add tomato.
After a minute or so, add the paneer, chopped into crumbly cubes. Add a pinch of red chilli powder at this stage (the quantity may be determined by how spicy you prefer it). Stir until the spice is cooked. Add 1 tbsp of chopped coriander and stir. Add a pinch of rock salt, coriander powder and a small pinch of cumin powder. Add the rest of the chopped coriander and mix well.
Serve hot with Sindhi roti and makhani dal.
Recipe courtesy Shona Urvashi, film-maker.