Mughal recreations

The Family popped her head round the door to whisper, “I’m off. I’ll be back for lunch. The mutton’s thawing. Do make that and something else.” I nodded and went back to my meeting. It wasn’t till rather late that I remembered her instructions. The mutton had thawed, and I had no idea how I wanted to cook it. As I washed it I realized I did not want to use the usual masala.

Why don’t I try something aromatic? Maybe middle eastern or central Asian? Hardly any herbs at home. Maybe then something closer in spirit to Mughal food than most dishes which have the adjective mughlai added to them? Their food originated in central Asia after all, but accumulated Indian touches within a generation. I’d written about the food of the Mughal court earlier. My phone contains a translation of Abu’l Fazal’s Ain-I-Akbari. Although it has no recipes, it does have a list of what the kitchen needs to stock, as well as a list of dishes which could be made, each with a little gourmand’s comment on it.

I assembled the listed ingredients which my kitchen had: ghee, fresh ginger, onions, lime, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, pepper corns, and asafoetida. Chop the onions fine. Grate and rub ginger into the mutton. Heat a heavy pan with ghee in it, and temper it with small amounts of the spices. Drop half the onion into it and cook till it is transparent. Drop the cubes of meat into it and let them cook well on each side. I could be almost done. I saw a message from The Family saying that she’d left work and would be home soon.

Then I remembered that she’d wanted me to make a whole lunch, not just the mutton. Quick thinking was called for. The Mughals were rice eaters, and brought the fried and baked rices of central Asia into India. I didn’t have time for that. Instead I took out the red rice poha (parboiled flattened rice) that we keep for breakfasts and soaked some in water with Himalayan salt. I also soaked some raisins and almonds separately. Abu’l Fazal writes that these two ingredients were also used by the Mughals. Five minutes, and everything was ready. I strained the water out of them and dropped them into the ghee in which I’d cooked the mutton. I can never follow instructions, even when it comes from the emperor’s diwan. I had to run out to the balcony and get a few curry leaves to drop into the pan.

Cook and layer. I thought there was still something missing. Perhaps a final layer? In the film of ghee remaining in the pan, fry the rest of the onions till they are crisp and brown, and layer this over poha. I declared this was it. What did I have? I cross between Kashk and Dupiayazah? There is now a small community of historian-chefs who try to recreate the methods of the Mughals: from the kitchen and utensils to the authentic ingredients and recipes. They would laugh at this pretension. I wasn’t trying for their level of authenticity. All I wanted was something which, to my untrained palate, would be closer to the tastes they create than to the ones passed off in restaurants.

I’d finished dressing a salad to accompany this when The Family entered. I was ready with an answer when she asked “What did you make?” But I certainly wasn’t ready when she asked “Did you take photos?” I hadn’t. Which is why this long post has only one photo: that of the finished bowl.

A rose is a rose is a sweet

Gertrude, do visit Bhuj to correct your mistake. (You too William; a rose would taste as sweet.) I had heard much about the chain of sweet shops in Bhuj called Khavda. Not being a Kutchi speaker, I assumed that the name was the imperative case of the verb “eat”. So I was quite surprised later when I passed the village of the same name. Apparently the shops are called after the village, because the family which owns the chain comes from there.

My first reaction was “A typical sweet shop.” Their topmost shelf displayed something called roasted barfi (that’s the tray on the right in the photo above). I asked for a sampler. The Family looked at me quizzically. “I’m full. And in this heat I don’t want to taste any sweets,” she said. When it comes to sweets (rather, when I come to sweets) I set no conditions; the antique Greeks called it agape. The barfi was nice, but it couldn’t be what they are famous for.

The Family didn’t want me to do a systematic taste test to figure out what they are famous for. She short circuited the process by asking the friendly young owner of the franchise. He pointed out the rose sweets. Two of them lay in trays side by side, in an obscure shelf. Clearly you don’t need to make a fuss about displaying what everyone knows is your best. The one on the left was the regular rose, and the other was roasted. This time The Family joined me in the tasting. The roasted rose passed muster. We packed a box to share with the bird watching group which would assemble the next day. Watching birds makes you a little peckish, I find.

“Anything else?” I asked Siddharth, the young man. He pointed out the special rose sweet, each individually packed. How long would it last? A couple of days without refrigeration. We couldn’t take it with us on the trip but we would pass through Bhuj again on our way out. Except that we would arrive very late and leave early in the morning. “Not a problem,” Sid told us. “We’ll deliver a box to your hotel.” That was done then. He sealed the deal by offering us a sampler of salties. The Family added a couple of them. She feels peckish too after a morning’s birdwatching.

It was the week of Ganapati puja, the equinox, and the beginning of the festival season. So the countertop was laden with trays of modak. I sent a photo to friends as my way of wishing them. Some are purists. One wrote back “These aren’t modak. They are just pedha stamped out in modak-shaped molds.” That’s right. The true modak is a thin rice-flour shell filled with grated coconut sweetened with molasses, folded into that beautiful shape before steaming. And they are made at home.

The municipal food market in Bhuj

When we left the palace complex of Bhuj, it was definitely time for all reasonable people to sit down to lunch. Our mid-morning breakfast of the local street food had left us too full to think of such mundane things. We walked into the bazaar and old town which inevitably accretes around a palace. A regular grid of narrow streets greeted us. Was this a couple of centuries old, or the result of the reconstruction after the 2001 earthquake? Some of the standing structures looked like they were built earlier than the 21st century. So perhaps the grid of streets is older. That would be in line with the relatively progressive ideas of the old Raos of Bhuj.

We walked along until, as is normal with us, we hit the food market. The municipal market was in an early-20th century style, and seemed remarkably free of earthquake damage. Perhaps it has been repaired. The peaked corrugated metal roof certainly seemed renewed. We’d arrived too late to see the market in full swing, but there were still a few vendors at the stalls. The variety of fresh produce on display was a little surprising at first. This could be a market anywhere in India. I suppose cold chains have revolutionized the transport of farm produce in my lifetime. The only sign of old Kutch was the heap of red chilis laid out by one of the vendors.

The mid-day heat was intense. We were genuinely at the edge of a desert. I was glad to see a tea stall outside the market building as soon as we stepped out. It had a fan, and the man running the place invited us to sit under it. But there was a breeze and shade outside too. We preferred to sit out and watch the street going about its daily life. The hot, milky and sweet tea eventually arrived. It’s strange how refreshing that can be on a day like that.

A Kutchi breakfast

Hot fafra with a handful of papaya chutney, a couple of quick-fried green chilis, and some jalebis to balance the taste. All wrapped up in a cone of old newspaper. And chai. That’s the breakfast we’d looked forward to when we arrived by the early morning flight to Bhuj. We refused the breakfast buffet in the hotel and asked Sikandar (oh yes, the name is the equivalent of Alexander) to take us to his favourite roadside breakfast place. He looked a little taken aback as he said “It’s a little late for breakfast, but let’s see.”

It was late, but not very late. We could get the breakfast cart to fry up some fafra. I love this breakfast. Everything is fried. A nice change from our usual yoghurt and fruit, or toast and cheese breakfasts. But Sikandar had a different muqaddar in mind for us. As our driver for the day he’d appointed himself the representative of overwhelming Bhujio hospitality. Before we’d finished, he dumped a couple of paper plates on the table. And then the cart chap slapped another packet wrapped in newpaper on the table, along with a plate of syrupy chutney.

At other times we love dhoklas. These were hot, fluffy, steamed pieces. We wouldn’t have minded them at all. But in the streets of Bhuj you don’t just have dhokla. You have a plateful of loaded dhokla: drenched in savoury and sweet chutneys, topped with spiced yoghurt and sev, and with fried green chili on the side. The other newspaper packet unfolded to reveal crisp dal pakodas. We were busy sending photos to friends and family, and getting more suggestions for things to eat in response. The only sensible statement came from an old college friend, “Seems like a lot.” I would remember it the rest of the day.

Edible?

Yellow flowers are not very common in the Sahyadris during the monsoon. So when you scan a meadow, these flowers jump out at you. It has to do partly with the response of the human eye, which is most sensitive to yellows and greens in the spectrum. Many insects, on the other hand, are more sensitive to blues and the, to us invisible, ultraviolet. In any case, I’d spotted this tiny flower quite early, but took my time plodding up to it. The rain had stopped, and a little skipper had come out of hiding from under a leaf and headed for the same flower.

These creepers are quite common across the Sahyadris, but I’ve not yet got round to identifying it down to the species. It is clearly a member of the cucumber family (Cucurbitacaea). This includes an incredibly large number of edible plants, pumpkins and squashes, melons, and cucumbers. Every part of the cucumber vine growing in our balcony is edible, leaves as well as flower. I wonder about this wild species.

Indulgences

Three heavy snacks in as many days is a bit of an indulgence for us. We had an excuse. It was The Family’s birthday, and we spent a night in a nice hotel. Unfortunately we went to sleep a little early, and within minutes of falling into deep sleep we were woken up by a bell. Groggily I opened the door, and it was room service with a smile. “Happy birthday, Ma’am,” the man said, ignoring me completely. He placed a platter on a table, whisked away the dome, and said “Compliments of the house, ma’am.” Nice gesture, but we decided to wait till the morning to taste it. The light foam of whipped cream incorporated fresh strawberries. The alternate layers of a light cake and the same cream melted in our mouths. The bakery at the hotel was justly well known.

After checking in late that afternoon, we had sat on the terrace with a view and had a plate of mixed pakodas to accompany our drinks. Crisp and hot, the pakodas were made of onions, potato, and a couple of chilis. The accompanying coriander chutney was fragrant and had a nice bite of chili. It was good, but pretty heavy. Later The Family said “Good that we don’t have this very often.”

The previous day I’d roasted these small potatoes for dinner. I’ve been trying many different flavours this year, but the one I tried that day was oil from a chili pickle mixed with chat masala and amchur. Our guests liked it. One of them remarked on the combination of crisp crust and soft interior. I was very happy to hear that, because I’ve been tweaking the temperatures and times to get that combination of textures right. I thought the sharp and sour taste goes well with the mild starchy interior of the potato.

The incredible lightness of cheesecake

Start from a simple recipe for cheesecake and simplify it. That works best for an unskilled cook like me. I took yoghurt, sugar, and eggs. Next, drained the yoghurt until it was thick and creamy. Whisked in sugar. Whisked eggs separately, then combined. Poured into a baking dish, baked for 45 minutes in an oven pre-heated to 175 Celsius. No crust, and if you have a decent baking dish, no liner paper or oil. The cake, if you can call it that, comes off easily.

Proportions? I started with 450 grams of unsweetened Greek yoghurt. After draining for an hour I whisked three tablespoonfuls of castor sugar into it. I used three medium sized eggs (but two should do). I added in some blueberries, but that’s optional. The Family says she wants to serve it with a scoop of ice cream on the side.

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Categorized as Food, India

Onam again

Mumbai’s underground culinary culture withered away before it could be discovered and commodified. I’m not talking about the street food, easily visible to every tourist. This hidden world catered to the many young men (always men) who came to the city in the period before the 1990s from small towns across the country. They came to the big city alone, discovered others who spoke the same language and grew up with the same food. No one sent them their lunches through dabbawalas. Instead there were tiny eateries bursting at the seams with office-goers who came for a quick lunch. Businesslike places these: no time for a conversation, you ate and left. If the food did not perfectly reproduce the taste of home you found another.

Just a few survive now. The ruthless culling of decades means that the food is likely to be very good. Last weekend we went for Onam’s special lunch to one of these survivors in a little lane in Fort: Mumbai’s financial heart before land prices and WFH stilled it. We joined a dozen families waiting for a table. I eat this food at best once a year, so I can’t recognize most of it. Waiters don’t explain the food as they serve it, but I asked anyway.

You wipe the banana leaf which is placed as a plate in front of you. Fried jackfruit and plantain, three kinds of pickles and preserves, and papad are placed on the left. A range of vegetables is put across the top. I had to taste each to figure out the principal ingredients. The one on the extreme right was made with pineapples. There seemed to be banana flowers is one, possibly unripe jackfruit in another. There was a starchy root which I could not identify. I mistook the one with a long cut bean for avial and was corrected as the avial was poured over the rice. The onam sadhya also came with rasam and sambar, buttermilk and a payasam. We walked out in a daze.

The fruits of scarcity

Deep into the monsoon you get few seasonal fruits. Looking into my photo archives I can spot seasonal fruits recurring from year to year. But there are no records from August. I looked at the fruit bowl on our table today to refresh my memory of what we eat now. Apples and pears, the hardy fall backs for every season, lined the bottom of the bowl. A sweet lime kept them company. The Family loves them even when they are a bit desiccated, as they are now. A few juicy plums, the remnants of the summer’s harvest, loll in their satiny scarlet. A large green guava rounds off the collection. The guava harvest is now, but these peak season fruits turn out to be large and flavourless. A bright green rose ringed parakeet flew by the window, rolling its beady eyes and screaming derision at my collection of fruits. I wish I had that flamboyance.

Pre-school blues

We decided to walk away from the dam and lake. The flat land rose gently towards Kalsubai peak. A road wound through the rolling countryside. We would follow the road, more or less, to avoid getting lost. This side of the plateau was less well off. Perhaps the land was not as productive as that closer to the dam. A thin soil covered the porous laterite rocks. The red mud of this area was a clear indication of the geology. Immediately after the mosoon the waters would drain away, leaving a dry parched land. It showed in the village.

Across the country, Anganwadis are essential nodes in primary health care and pre-school education for children. One essential service it provides is to track childhood nourishment, and give food to malnourished children. The pandemic has interrupted this service for the first time since it was set up by the central government in 1975. We saw a closed center. A few pre-school children hung around it, and ran away when they saw me. As I took photos, they came back slowly to stare.

Next to it was a primary school. The walls contained early-school material. Schools have been shut for almost two years now. Elementary schools provide a mid-day meal. In a poor village like this, the meal is an essential component of childhood nutrition. That is another source of food shut now. This is happening at the same time that incomes have fallen, because the few people in the village who worked in towns have lost their jobs.

It isn’t just this one Anganwadi which was closed. In the more prosperous part of the plateau, between the dam and the highway, we’d seen others also shut. Some educationists are lobbying to get governments to continue to provide children’s meals even during this pandemic. A shortfall in nutrition affects children very crucially. The effects on India’s rural population won’t be visible till the middle of the century.