The ginger house

I’m used to lots of different spices in my food, and I suppose I smell them whenever I walk into our kitchen, without really paying attention to it. Walking through the roads of the spice bazaar of Kochi was a different order of experience; the wonderful smell of spices permeated the whole quarter. It is seldom that you think of the smell of a city, but Kochi engages this sense more than any place I’ve been to. I was clicking photos of the warehouses and their wonderful doors as I walked along, and I stopped here because of the elaborate doorway. But my attention wandered to the workers who were unloading sacks from the truck without breaking a sweat.

They didn’t mind when I followed them into the warehouse complex. As I passed through that grand doorway a wonderfully sweet smell hit me. This was a ginger warehouse, and the large courtyard was being used to dry ginger. That was when I began to realize that the famous spice trade also included things which I don’t even register as a spice; for example, the ginger that I so often throw into a salad or all into a soup. I was to find later that slightly more than a third of the world’s ginger is produced in India, and that is a big reduction from the monopoly it held in the medieval era. Out of curiosity I tried to check how precious it would have been then, and found the answer in a lecture given in the university of Toronto. Ginger was a major part of the spice trade in the middle of the 15th century CE, but the cheapest of them. Still, it would have cost almost 25 times as much as an equal weight of salt. In Antwerp and in London the average day’s wage of a master carpenter would have bought him 300 grams of ginger! No wonder that spices drove Europe across the world.

Ginger is produced in homesteads across the country, and the truck was unloading fresh produce. I guess it would be dried here and then sold. A foreman was happy to chat with me about the daily operations, the process, and the business as he knew it. The warehouse had wonderful light. I hope you can get a feel of it from the photos above. I found over the next days that many warehouses have been turned into art galleries for this reason. As I explored the art-city of Kochi, I got to love the masala chai infused with this lovely pungent but sweet aroma of dried ginger.

What we know of real Mughal food

There is such a world of difference between the oily and spicy mess which is routinely passed off as Mughlai food in restaurants across the country and the descriptions left by travelers, that I spent some time looking for source books on Mughal food. The Mughal empire stands at the beginning of the modern era; life in the empire is well documented by many travelers. Food is described, names are given, but the ingredients are seldom discussed in detail.

After some futile search, I picked up the book of Akbar’s laws: Ain-I-Akbari. I was stunned to find that section 24 of book 1 has very detailed descriptions of food. As a legal document, it is more focused on measures than on methods of cooking. Akbar’s wazir, Abul Fazl, who wrote this, was probably somewhat of an epicure, because brief sentences about cooking and tastes seep into this otherwise dry document.

I made chaklis and sent some to a friend of mine from the North. Next day she thanked me for the delicious masala jalebis

Aruna Sheth in The New Indian Cookbook (1968)

To appreciate these descriptions we have to start with weights and measures. The most important is the seer. The British Indian version of the seer was 0.93 Kilograms and, since it was derived from the Mughal imperial measure, was probably very close to the sense in which it is used in Ain-I-Akbari. The dam is very close to 20 grams. Gold and expensive spices were measured in misqa, each of which is 6.22 grams.

The first group of foods have no meat and is called cufiyanah in this book. The ten dishes listed are Zard birinj, Khushkah, Khichri, Shir birinj, Thuli, Chikhi, Badinjan, Pahit, Sag and Halwa. Of these Zard birinj, Shir birinj, Thuli and Halwah are sweet. Pahit (made with dal, ghi and salt) is meant to be eaten with Khuskah (which is made with rice from Dewzirah or Jinjin paddy and salt and nothing else). Sag is said to be “one of the most pleasant dishes”. The book says that Zard birinj can be made sweet and without meat, or salty and with meat. 10 seers of rice for Zard birinj is said to give four ordinary dishes. This probably means that each dish is to be shared among several people. Rice, ground wheat and flour, split dal and gram are the major ingredients of these dishes. Raisins, almonds, pistachio are mentioned. So are ghee, fresh ginger, lime juice, saffron, cinnamon, round pepper, coriander seeds, cloves, cardamom, cumin seeds, and asafoetida. Sugarcandy is the only sweetener mentioned by name, but addition of milk and other sweetmeats is also allowed. These sweetmeats are only mentioned in passing. Abul Fazl also writes that there are many kinds of sugared fruits and drinks which will not be described.

The second group of foods mixes rice and meat. The complete list of ten dishes is Qabuli, Duzdbiryan, Qimah Palao, Shullah, Bughra, Qimah Shurba, Harisa, Kashk, Halim and Qutab. The source of meat is not specified in these recipes. Apart from the ingredients I listed above, onion, garlic and vinegar appear in these recipes. Carrots, beets, turnips and spinach are added to the meat and flour in making Bughra. Fennel and a flavouring agent called summaq are also mentioned. It is said that the people of Hindustan have the name sanbusah for Qutab, and it can be cooked in twenty different ways. The measures show that spices were used sparingly even in the imperial kitchen. As an example, Qutab involves 10 seers of meat, 4 seers of flour, 2 seers of ghee, 1 seer of onions, a quarter seer of fresh ginger, half a seer of salt, 2 dams of pepper, coriander and cumin seeds, cardamom, cloves and summaq, to give four dishes. That amount of meat is more than a feast today, perhaps even an invitation to a cardiac care unit.

The third group of dishes is only meat. The ten dishes mentioned are Biryan, Yakhni, Yulmah, Kabab, Musamman, Dupiyazah, Mutanjanah, Dampukht, Qalyah and Malghubah. Modern Indian cooking seems to have a false similarity to these, since our versions of Biryan involve rice. Ain-I-Akbari lists the ingredients of Biryan as a whole Dashmandi sheep with 2 seers of salt, one seer of ghi, and two misqals of saffron, cloves, pepper and cumin seeds. The specified meats are sheep, lamb, kid and “fowls”. K. T. Achaya mentions that quail, pheasant and other wild fowl appeared on Mughal tables. Most of these are cooked in ghee, but fat trimmed from the meat is prescribed for Dupiyazah and Mutanjanah. The book digresses from measures to tell us that for Qalyah the meat is minced and the gravy is thick, in contrast to Mutanjanah. Kababs are said to be of various kinds, and involve relatively large measures of the spices already mentioned. The Malghubah calls for equal measures of meat and curds. This is the only time curds appear in this list.

In my search for authentic historical origins of modern Indian food, I have finally found one little bit of solid ground.