New Delhi’s Crowne Plaza just had an irresistible food festival. It showcased the cuisine of Jaunpur in Uttar Pradesh (UP). I heard many guests asking the staff in the restaurant how Jaunpur was spelt. It was clear that this faded little town was not at the forefront of public memory: For one reason or another, even Rampur is warmly remembered as a centre for its distinctive cuisine.
The festival was masterminded by an old friend, chef Devraj Halder, who can be trusted to think out of the box. But the person who actually went to Jaunpur to research its cuisine was Harsh K. Prasad, a food impresario who has dedicated his life to researching little-known cuisines that branched off from the Mughals as well as India’s tribal cuisine. Thus, not only Lucknow’s fabled cuisine, but also those of Rampur and Jaunpur are grist to his mill.
Bread basket: Jaunpur’s breads, which include sheermal and taftan. Devraj Halder, Crowne Plaza, Delhi
Lucknow may have its kaliyas and kormas and Rampur its signature taar ghosht, but Jaunpur’s trademark tastes are a pungency that comes from using a blend of aromatic spices, virtually no onions and only a whisper of curd. Prasad, a self-taught cook and a foodie who practically redefines the term, is of the opinion that these three cuisines of UP can be compared because all of them started with a royal connection, Jaunpur being the oldest. It was established in 1360 by Firoz Shah Tughlaq in memory of his cousin Jauna and continued as an independent principality till Sikander Lodi annexed it to the Delhi sultanate.
Prasad managed to unearth a bunch of cooks who are still called for weddings and other celebrations in the town. For the rest of the year, they are unemployed. This means that short of a miracle that overturns their fortunes, their sons will be tempted to seek refuge in some other trade, and yet another lesser known cuisine of India will be lost.
As it is, only the breads seemed to be a remarkably different from Lucknow and Rampur. Lal roti and roghni naan were fluffy, while sheermal and taftan were made with yeast, the better to mop up rich gravy. One member of Prasad’s entourage was a dedicated roti-maker; I was told that the tools of his trade were a couple of mud pots with coal in one of them: That was his home-made oven.
To be sure, the sweet flavour of Lucknow’s onion-rich cuisine was replaced by a sharper, more aromatic taste, but what took me by surprise were the similarities. When Jaunpur was established, Lucknow was just another town in UP, but neither place uses as much turmeric as the rest of the country. Neither does Rampur, and nor does Varanasi’s Muslim population, nor indeed do the Muslims of Delhi. According to Prasad, you cannot compare Varanasi, which was never ruled by Muslims, and his research is specific to Muslim-ruled kingdoms, to keep the Mughal thread intact.
If restaurant menus all have Jaunpuri Lal Murgh in them one day, we’ll have the redoubtable Prasad to thank.
2.5 litres milk
500g pure ghee
1 tbsp each of slivered almonds and cashew nuts
Wash and peel the ginger and make a smooth paste in a food processor. Boil the milk in a non-stick saucepan. Add ginger and keep stirring the mixture occasionally to ensure that it does not stick to the bottom of the pan. When the mixture is almost dry, pour ghee over the cooked ginger and simmer till all the ingredients are well blended. Finally add the sugar and mix with a spatula. Remove it from the flame. Sprinkle with cashew nuts and almonds and serve.
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