Awadhi Vegetarian Food

During last week’s visit to Lucknow we tried out the two kababs which are special to Awadhi food: the Kakori kabab, named after the village of Kakori a few kilometers from Lucknow, and the Galawati kabab, whose name suggests that it is melted so that you don’t have to chew on it. We tried these two and the shami kabab in all the places which we ate in. After this extensive comparative tasting, we came to the conclusion that street food can be quite nice, but for the subtle craft of spicing one needs to go to some of the more refined kitchens in the city. These were the expected flavourful delights.

What was quite unexpected were two excellent vegetarian dishes we found. One was a kofta with khubani (apricots). Khubani is an important part of Hyderabadi food, and it is not hard to imagine that it entered modern Indian cooking through Hyderabad and Awadh borrowing it from Mughal food. The aromatic gravy with nuts and spices which came with the kofta was clearly related to the spicing of the galawati kabab. So it was not hard to imagine that this was a reasonably authentic dish, or an invention by a cook who was well-versed in the style and technique of Awadhi food.

The other vegetarian dish gives me more to think about. This was a dish with paneer and a paste of figs cooked in a rich curry with aromatic spices and nuts. The curry was again something one could well accept in any Awadhi food. The spare use of the fig paste could have been derived from a Mughal kitchen, and I’m willing to think of it as genuinely Awadhi ingredient. It is the paneer which I am conflicted about. Awadhi food contains a lot of hung yogurt, cream and ghee. Is paneer an authentic ingredient in this kitchen? By the 19th century paneer and chhana had definitely entered the Indian kitchen.

Wikipedia asserts that paneer was known in India in the first century AD on the basis of the following sentences from this paper “People during the Kusana and Saka Satavahana periods (AD 75–300) used to consume a solid mass, whose description seems to the [sic] earliest reference to the present day paneer. The solid mass was obtained from an admixture of heated milk and curd”. This description fits the process for making yogurt. Harold McGee’s famous book describes yogurt, buttermilk and soured creams as being recorded during this historical period in large parts of the world, but gives a later date to the emergence of various kinds of cheese. I think the last word has not been said about the widespread introduction of paneer into Indian kitchens. It is possible that the Mughal kitchen had access to it, and the Awadhi cooks inherited paneer as an ingredient; but the dish that I ate felt more modern.

One of the important components of Awadhi food are the rotis. The layered shirmal roti was hard to find, but the one which we eventually found was lovely and soft, although more infused with ghee than we would tolerate every day. We never managed to find a baqar khani roti, apparently you have to order these in advance. But we found a couple of parathas which seemed to be made in the same style as the shirmal roti. While the roomali roti of Delhi has become common fare even in the heart of Awadh, the art of Awadhi roti is alive.

The late Mughal and early Company years are very intensely studied by historians. I hope someone, somewhere, is thinking of writing a history of food during this time.

Life around Rumi Darwaza

rider

Rumi Darwaza was built in the time of the first Nawab of Lucknow, Asaf ud Daulah. The monumental structure of lakhauri brick and surkhi mortar was the entrance to the Nawabi capital city, the gate to the fabled hospitality of Awadh. The arch is topped by an octagonal cupola which was originally meant to contain lights. Around the exterior of the arch one can still see the pipes which made up an immense fountain. If this ever worked, then the underlying hydraulics would have been wonderful indeed, so I’m surprised to find no references to it at all. One can see a gallery half way up the interior, and I read that there is a staircase to access it. I did not search for the stairs. I walked through the gate, which now is a conduit for a constant stream of extremely variable traffic.

taxi

On the outside of the gate is a busy road, in process of being widened. At the corner of every road which feeds into it is a taxi stand. The variety of taxis and rickshaws was incredibly large. If you ever need to count how many different kinds of vehicles can be made into taxis, just come to one of these cross roads. I’m sure it will be hard to exceed any count made here.

kachori

One of the most interesting things about the area is the food. Lucknow is reputed to be a place for refined food: kababs which melt before they pass your lips, slow-cooked biryani, figs and apricots in curries, multiply-layered roti. But around this gate I found carts which were full of simpler puri, kachori, and alu tikki, all doing good business at lunch time. Interspersed with them were the carts where you could get grilled corn: bhutta. In the middle of the day they did not seem to attract customers, but the fact that there were several carts meant that later in the day their popularity would rise.

bhutta

There are no tourists outside the Rumi Darwaza, they stay on the Lucknow side of the gate, where the Bada Imambara lies. In spite of the fact that there are interesting buildings on the outside, like the Picture Gallery and the Chhota Imambara, this seems to be the domain of the locals.

What is Awadhi cuisine really?

Awadhi cuisine refers to the style of cooking which developed in the Awadh region after the capital of the kingdom shifted to Lucknow and until Wazir Ali Shah was overthrown by the British East India Company in 1857. But is there really an Awadhi cuisine, or is it the product of a marketing campaign? Between the hype and the plagiarism which one finds on the web, it is very hard to make out the truth.

Two bits of hype

Wikipedia’s article on Awadhi food repeats the story of the famous Tunday’s kabab shop being a hundred year old. If this were correct, the eponymous one-armed cook would have set up shop only in 1915; sixty years, and two generations, after the reign of the Awadhi nawabs ended. The article also says that the kababs are famous because of the 160 ingredients which go into the secret recipe. This is directly contradicted by an article in Indiamarks which states "Awadhi cuisines are not a concoction of hundred odd spices instead the difference lies in the preparation of the food by preserving all the nutrients in the cooking [sic]". Clearly both sources cannot be right.

The second article seems to plagiarize other sources on Awadhi food. It is difficult to decide which is original: the article quoted above, these slides or this self-published article. Perhaps none of them are.

Then there are the famous chefs, whose pronouncements are always made with an eye to a bottom line. An article in the Times of India discusses the Awadhi cuisine produced by a big-name chef, then at the Hilton, including "khatti macchi (fish braised in yoghurt gravy) [sic]". The mixing of yoghurt and fish is such a strong taboo for Muslims (and Jews) that this cannot be an Awadhi speciality. The real Lakhnawi khatti machhli is quite different.

A search for the truth

Awadhi food is important to us because it is the beginning of modern Indian cooking. Most of the ingredients we use today would have been available two hundred years ago, and the techniques developed then would still be in use. So the taste of Awadhi food is perhaps not very different from what we think of as our "fancy cooking".

Awadhi food developed on the Mughlai style. One of the source books for Indian food, namely K. T. Achaya‘s Indian Food: A Historical Companion tells us that although many of the Mughal emperors were abstemious near-vegetarians, their courtiers would have eaten naan, keema, kababs, rice and phirni. Travelers mention do-piyaza, meat and rice cooked together, khichdi, lemonade, dahi and dinners with fifty dishes, including fruits, wild animals and birds.

One way to trace the history of food is to follow the names of dishes back as far as one can. A search of Google ngrams reveals that in the Google corpus the name shirmal roti debuts in 1959, seekh kabab in 1947, shami kabab in 1921, and dum aloo in 1966. In this corpus, the word kabab can be traced back to an English cookbook printed in 1831. According to this source, the minced meat for the kabab has to be marinated in a mixture of salt, ginger, coriander, cloves, cardamom, black pepper, onions and saffron mixed into a paste of hung yogurt, cream and a whole egg. The marinated meat is to be cooked in ghee. This mixture of spices recurs through the book. Moreover, this kind of garam masala is precisely what we would turn to in our own kitchen now and then.

Until a modern Achaya publishes research into 19th century Urdu, Hindi and Indo-Persian texts on food, I can only dredge my own memories of what an occasional brush with a khansama or bawarchi in my childhood would bring: baqar khani roti, shami kabab (not the version described in Wikipedia), pasande, murabba, and zarda.

The truth is never simple, but the search for it can be amazing. I plan to be amazed by my search for true Awadhi food next weekend in Lucknow.

Seagull’s eggs

I’m an avid collector of Japanese sweets, but this is the first time I brought home the Japanese sweets called Kamome no Tamago (Seagull’s eggs). So I was very surprised to find how popular it is (see here, here, and here). Apparently the factory which makes this sweet was damaged in the Tohoku earthquake of 2011, but has clearly sprung back into production. I learnt that the chocolate and cake covering over the white bean paste was a revolutionary idea when it was first made, but the sweet is now a very common omiyage (travel souvenir).

I didn’t know that, but I’m happy. So is The Family, and so will my niece be, when she recovers enough from her flu to bite into this. If I have anything to complain about, it is that the white bean paste seems to be a little sweeter than the more common red bean paste. If you are worried about calories, the company has the full nutrition facts on the web.

Jelly and fish

jelly

Here’s another lingering piece of Japan. The Family loves these wobbly balls of agar jelly. There are many varieties of these. The particular ones I bought this time have a sweet bean, and some fruit cut into the shape of fish. Does that make it a jelly fish?

I realize that I do not know what these things are called in Japanese.

After a trip to Japan

A trip does not quite end when your plane brings you back home; at least not when I get back from Japan. For years now, every time I’ve left Japan, it is with a bagful of things to eat, picked up from airport shops. That’s how I first discovered the pleasures of Tokyo Banana and Franz the chocolatier. I brought back honey glazed dried fish, until The Family completely embargoed that; a ban that extends to dried octopus as well.

Mochi was our favourite for many years. We distributed boxes of wagashi to our extended family, and these lovely rice sweets with bean-paste filling were widely appreciated. The Family found Yatsuhashi (sheets made from glutinous rice, wrapped around sweet red bean paste) very special. My mother fell in love with monaka (azuki bean jam sandwiched between crisp mochi wafers). My nieces became familiar with the words mochi, daifuku, manju and anko. Opening a box with unreadable writing and tasting what was inside became a family game whenever I returned from Japan.

The selection of things available at airports has changed over the years. This time I found very few traditional sweets: dorayaki, green tea mochi and a daifuku. There were a lot of cakes and other baked sweets, sometimes with interesting fillings. I did find a large box of senbei (rice crackers). Usually I pick these up from a specialty shop, but this time I’d forgotten to do that. From Kobe I’d picked up the local specialty: caramel custard (called purin in Japanese). Surprisingly, the caramel comes in a separate pouch!

2015-08-09 15.30.34Tucked away in a box of various teabags at home, I found some genmaicha. This is bancha (low grade Japanese green tea) mixed with roasted rice kernels. I like the slight nutty taste of this kind of tea. A morning’s snack of senbei and genmaicha is not haute cuisine, but is something I quite like. That’s the photo at the top. Such short armchair trips in Japan will continue for a month or so, as we work our way through the boxes I got this time around.

Whisky evening

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Almost done in Japan. I need to leave Kobe by 3 in the evening in order to get to Narita in time. On our last evening we spent some time in a bar after dinner. A fact which I (shockingly) did not know before my friend the Strong-and-Vigorous told me a couple of months ago is that Japanese whiskys are excellent. It turns out to be a reasonably well-known fact. I was told this by several people over dinner. One of them even mentioned that Jim Murray considers some Japanese Whiskys among the world’s best. Fortunately I retained a little credibility by remembering that Sean Connery had appeared in an ad for Japanese whisky.

So we came to a bar which a friend knew and settled in for an evening. Four of us sampled the whole menu between us. From what I tasted and smelt, I can definitely advise you to go out and try Japanese whisky, at least the ones in the menu which I reproduce above. I was thinking of taking a bottle of Sake back to India with me. Now I’m seriously thinking of taking a Japanese whisky back.

If I have to spend my weight allocation on a bottle of Japanese whisky, then there are only two which I would consider. One was our evening’s starter: the Suntory Hibiki 17 year old. The first taste was smoky, and it ended sweet, but it had a sustained rich and full taste. The other is the Nikka Taketsuru 17 year old. It made less of an impression among the variety we had, except that I caught a good peaty taste. The following night, at a different bar, I had just one whisky, and that was this. Taken by itself it stood out.

Kobe Sannomiya at night

sannomiya

I usually love my job because it takes me to many places. But when it brings me to Japan, a country I really love, and gives me no time to enjoy it, I feel a little disgruntled. Well, maybe not disgruntled, but not exactly gruntled either. Tonight I walked into Sannomiya with an old friend. Sannomiya is a confusing suburban station, with many train lines coming into it (see a photo of one corner above). We spotted what my Japanese colleagues call a drinking place. This means a restaurant where the food is meant to be shared while you drink with friends. We ordered our beers and four plates of food. It turned out that our order was perfect: one plate was sea food, one was beef, one pork and one chicken. They went down well with our beers. Neither of us wanted a sweet, but we needed a different taste to end with. I found a soft tofu, and we had that as a nachtisch. We’d waded through our food in the time that a group of Japanese buddies would take to down one beer. The waitress was very amused. Neither of us knew enough Japanese to explain to her that we have an early start and a long day tomorrow.

bunnies

We walked out. My friend, The Immersed, had to leave immediately. I decided I could spend a little time walking around the back streets of Sannomiya. The thing I love about Japan is the complete sense of safety. You can be out in places which look disreputable in other countries, and where you would have to be on guard. Not in Japan. People are perfectly law abiding. Even if the police sets a few pink bunnies to watch the road, no more than one in several thousands will park in the wrong place. There is always that one, of course. Fortunately I was there to record that exception.

slot

In the middle of a road full of fast food joints, cafes and convenience stores you may come across a large building full of slot machines, a pachinko parlour, a bowling alley, or a strip joint. Outside these there may be groups of school children hanging out. These juxtapositions look weird to us gaijin, but it is clear that the Japanese think nothing at all about these.

The fact is that Japan is very safe and at the same time very permissive. That’s what I love about Japan, and that’s why I wish I had less work every time I came to this country. On the other hand, the society is very closed, and does not really tolerate foreigners, which is why I would rather not spend a very long time in Japan.

Shibuya and my discovery of Miso

A satisfying end to a day in Tokyo: grilled cod with miso dressing, pureed radish and grilled chilis.

shibuya

Shibuya Crossing has been shown so often in Hollywood films that it is now a modern global icon. I took exit 2 from the Shibuya metro station and came out near the statue of Hachiko, well-known in Japan as the epitome of the faithful the dog. Then I added to the count of people crossing and went into the L’Occitane cafe. It was full of young women recovering from their shopping; I must have been the oldest male there.

All tables overlooking the pedestrian scramble were taken. The maitre d’ was kind enough to find me a table close to the window on the highest floor of the cafe. It was a good table to look out on the plaza from, but not good for photography: I guess that was the intention. I had a lovely view of the giant screen which shows a walking dinosaur in “Lost in Translation”. It was showing zany enough advertisements while I ordered.

I dawdled in the cafe until the light had faded enough to make the man-made lights look better, and then walked down to street level. The place is seething with tourists who, like me, wanted to take a photo which, with luck, would eventually be here. I don’t think I got one, but some of the others may have got lucky. (If you are the young Belgian tourist with a braided beard who was carrying the extra long lens, then I would like to see what you shot with it.)

The luckiest part of my evening came when I wandered into the Shibuya Hikari by accident and found the dining space on the 6th and 7th floors. After strenuous reading of many menus, I finally decided on a place in one far corner of the 6th floor which said it specialized in miso. I’d had miso soups before, but I didn’t know that you could specialize in beans. This was reason enough to sit down. This time I got a place by the window, and managed to over-order. I had two starters: a fresh tofu with pickled black beans, and a chicken with ume and miso. Both were excellent. The cod steak which followed was outstanding, and then I had the rice and miso soup. Now miso soups are usually fairly bland to non-Japanese palates, but this could stand up to my jaded Indian tastes. It was so thick that I discovered the scallops inside only when I held up the bowl. I was really happy to have an excellent meal without sushi, sashimi, tempura or katsu.

I like traditional Japan, but I really love modern Japan. Eating in Japan is a discovery each time!

Historical Tokyo: Senso Ji

In various places I’ve seen the Buddhist temple Senso Ji called Tokyo’s Statue of Liberty or its Eiffel Tower. These comparisons hide more than they reveal. Tokyo gives a visitor so many options that Senso Ji is not on everybody’s map, quite unlike the Eiffel Tower. Nor is the Buddhist goddess Kannon‘s statue in Senso Ji a globally recognized icon like the Statue of Liberty. Senso Ji, however, is a popular destination for families in Tokyo, the mix of locals and tourists around it, and the crowd and bustle, is solidly rooted in East Asia.

kannonfishing

I got off the Metro at the Asakusa station and ambled over to Nakamise Dori, which is the shopping street leading up to the temple. In the one and a half millennia since the founding of the temple, the shopping area has spread a little beyond this ancient road. As you approach the temple along Nakamise Dori, you see a series of paintings on the left which tell the story of the founding of the temple. It starts with fishermen finding the statue of Kannon in their nets. In the photo above I tried to get both the origins of the temple, and the crowds which throng to it today.

kamarimon

Nakamise Dori starts from the Kamarimon, a gate with a single gigantic lantern, and continues to the Hozomon, a gate with three large lanterns (above). These are flanked by two ferocious guardians, now safely behind wire mesh. Inside the second gate is the forecourt of the temple. This is a busy area, containing not only the cauldron with incence and “holy smoke”, but also forecasts of your fortunes at the nominal cost of 100 Yen!

ceiling

Behind this is the equally crowded main hall. The Kannon you can see is a copy of the original statue (the real one is not visible to the public). I chanced to look up and saw lovely murals painted on the ceiling. The photo above is one of the five panels.

groupie

The hall is crowded. Several people were dressed traditionally, women in Kimonos and men in yukatas. I caught a group of schoolgirls thrilled with their get up and taking a group photo. In India if a group of girls as young as them wore saris they would be doing the same. One of the interesting differences between China and Japan is that in China selfies and selfie-sticks are the in thing, but Japan is still full of people taking each others’ photos, or using selfie sticks for group photos.

koi

It was a warm and sunny day, which would have been perfect if it wasn’t so humid. I walked into the garden behind the temple to take an obligatory photo of the carp (koi), but couldn’t bear the weather for too long. In any case, it was getting close to my check-in time.

mochi

So my last stop before I left for the hotel was to eat mitarashi dango: a grilled rice ball with a sweet filling. I chose the sweet pumpkin filling. Whenever I’ve tried this before I’ve had the version with bean paste, but my trip to China helped me to realize that other sweet fillings may also be good. I like it, so I doubled back to take a photo of the shop.