Books, Food

On Curry

curry

Lizzie Collingham – Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors

 

Reading Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors by Lizzie Collingham, and learning fascinating things about different kinds of Indian cuisine.

Among the myths busted and tales told, the most wondrous are the account of the food habits of early Hindus, easily .

One of the best records of Hindu courtly cuisine has been left to us by the twelfth-century King Somesvara III. He belonged to the Western Chalukyan dynasty of kings who ruled over parts of present-day Maharashtra and Karnataka. Unusually for a king, he was more interested in the arts and literature than in waging war. Although parts of the kingdom were slipping out of Chalukyan hands, he busied himself with writing an encyclopedic account on the conduct of kingly affairs. Delightfully entitled Manasollasa, meaning refresher of the mind, it paid some attention to the conduct of affairs of state and the qualities needed by a king.

A king needed to eat a “suitable, healthy and hygienic” diet. This might include lentil dumplings in a spicy yogurt sauce, fatty pork fried with cardamoms, or roast rump steak.Alongside mutton, pork, and venison, “sparrows and rats, and cats and lizards” could all be found on sale in the markets of the capital city. Some of Somesvara’s other favorite dishes sound less appetizing: fried tortoise (said to taste like plantain) and roasted black rat.

Oh, fuck yeah, Chalukyas. A far cry from 2015, when I spent a few hours poking around shops in Sikkim and on the Nepal border looking for dried buffalo meat – sukuti, as it is called locally. Apparently they no longer sell it in Indian towns any more, despite the healthy presence of a Nepali population. My heart still withers at the memory of a 4 kilo pack of sukuti that the cleaning lady in my Hyderabad apartment threw in the trash on her own initiative because it smelt funny. I would have dump-dived to get it back but she also made sure to throw the trash out well before I came back home.

The book goes on to talk about Somesvara’s rat recipe.

The rats which are strong black, born in the fields and river banks are called maiga; these are fried in hot oil holding with the tail till the hair is removed; after washing with hot water, the stomach is cut and the inner parts are cooked with amla [sour mango] and salt; or the rat is kept on iron rods and fired on red hot coal, till outer skin is burnt or shrinks. When the rat is cooked well, salt, cumin and sothi [a flour made from lentils] are sprinkled and relished.

The Mughlai section of the book begins with Babur’s dismay at this strange land, so different from that of his forefathers.

The people paraded about naked apart from grubby loincloths and lacked beauty; society was devoid of grace or nobility, manners or etiquette. No one possessed any poetic talent, a sign of the highest cultivation in his homeland. One of Babur’s chief complaints against Hindustan was that the food was awful. “There [is] no good . . . meat, grapes, melons, or other fruit. There is no ice, cold water, good food or bread in the markets,” he grumbled.

I sort of understood. 1

While a lot of description of Mughlai cooking takes up the early part of the book – which includes Abu’l Fazl’s recipe for biryani the way it was cooked in Akbar’s kitchens. His recipe calls for “10 seers of rice; 5 seers of sugar candy; 31 seers of ghee; raisins, almonds and pistachios, 1 seer of each; 2 seer of salt; 5 seer of fresh ginger; 11 dams saffron, 21 misqals of cinnamon. ” 2 Fazl also adds that this recipe will make four ordinary dishes, which makes me wonder about the appetite of those hallowed emperors and their ilk.

The main missing ingredient at that point in history was introduced into Indian cuisine by the Portuguese, and made its way into Southern India first.

Indians were often slow to accept new foods, but only a few years after chillies had been introduced a south Indian poet declared them the “Saviour of the Poor.” They provided a cheap and easy way to give taste to a simple meal of rice and lentils. Even Ayurvedic physicians, who rarely incorporated foreign foods into the cosmic world of diet and health, replaced pepper with chillies in many of their remedies. While the ancient recipes prescribed pepper water for those afflicted with cholera, nineteenth-century Ayurvedic physicians often used chilli both in plasters and in soups to treat the cholera patient. By this time they were a staple of the Indian diet and, “ground into a paste between two stones, with a little mustard oil, ginger and salt, they form[ed] the only seasoning which the millions of poor can obtain to eat with their rice.”

The dedicated chapter on Goan cuisine was tough to read while waiting for lunch to arrive. (Honestly, if you are planning to read this book, please make sure you have had a full meal. It made me want to throw all my notions of daily caloric intake aside and ladle bowls of ghee and cinnamon and lamb and cumin on a frying pan) The way the flavors of that tiny little state come together, and how some of its key dishes, especially in baking, traveled even further East with the Portuguese makes for great reading.

The result of this culinary interchange was a pleasing fusion of Portuguese ingredients (pork)—some of which were derived from Arab influences on Iberian cookery (dried fruit)—and Portuguese techniques (marinating and cooking in vinegar), with the south Indian spice mixtures, sour tamarind paste, shredded coconut, and coconut milk. Added into this already cosmopolitan blend were the recently discovered foodstuffs from the New World such as the chilli. Thus Goan dishes unite in their fiery sauces the culinary histories of three continents: Europe, Asia, and the Americas.

* * *

Over time Goan cooks replaced the European ingredients in Portuguese cakes with others more easily available in India. Coconut milk was used as a substitute for fresh cow’s or almond milk. Jaggery, the hard lumps of raw sugar made from the sap of the palm tree, replaced the more refined sugars used in Europe. Ghee supplanted fresh butter. The far more common and cheaper rice flour took the place of wheat flour. Goan confections were clearly derived from Portuguese cakes and pastries but they took on a distinctively Indian flavor. Bebinca is a typical example of the Goan adaptation of Portuguese cake-making traditions. It is made from a batter of coconut milk, eggs, and jaggery. A thin layer of the batter is poured into a pot and baked, then another layer is added, and so on until the cake forms a series of pancake-like layers. Ideally, it should be baked in an earthen oven fueled by coconut husks that impart a smoky flavor. Bebinca traveled with the Portuguese to Malaya, and from there to the Philippines, where the cooks dispensed with the time-consuming layers. From the Philippines bebinca continued on its extraordinary journey to Hawaii, where it transmuted into butter mochi, a fudgelike rice-flour dessert.

My favorite sections so far have been about Awadh and Lucknow, hardly surprising considering how influential that part of the country has been in the culinary department. Specifically, the Lucknavi reaction to the biryani vs pulao question. Lucknavi gourmets were willing to concede that “a good biryani is better than an indifferent pilau”. But biryanis were considered to taste too strongly of spices that overwhelmed the delicate floral flavor of the rice, and hence called a “clumsy and ill-conceived meal in comparison with a really good pulao.”

Also, the nawabs of Lucknow indulged in food duels! My head reels with ideas of food manga set in 19th century Lucknow, where noblemen indulge in gastronomical blood-feud and one-upmanship, culminating in orgies and general bonhomie.

In Lucknow a story is told of how the last nawab of Oudh, Wajid Ali Shah (1847–1856), invited Mirza Asman Qadar, a prince from Delhi, to dine with him. The prince, a noted gourmet, chose a spicy conserve of vegetables called murrabba from the array of dishes set down before him. As he began to chew he discovered to his surprise that he was in fact eating a qaurama of meat. Waji Ali Shah’s chef had taken great pains to disguise the qaurama, and the nawab was delighted that he had succeeded in tricking one of the great food connoisseurs of Delhi. Mirza Qadar went home feeling very embarrassed to have been caught out. He soon took his revenge. Waji Ali Shah duly received a return invitation. As he tasted each dish in turn he was stunned to discover that all the food—the pilau, the biryani, the meat curries, the kebabs, the chutneys and pickles, and even the breads—were all made of caramelized sugar. The nawab was defeated.

Other than Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, the other colorful character in Awadhi history of that time is Nawab Asaf-ud-Daulah, under whose patronage Lucknow cuisine yielded two major breakthroughs.

One of Lucknow’s most famous cooking techniques was perfected as a result of the need to provide food for the poor. In 1784, Oudh was struck by famine and Nawab Asaf-ud-Daulah responded by paying the hungry to work on the building of the Imambara. Thus, he was able to prevent his subjects from dying on the streets while he continued to beautify the city to his own glory. Nanbais (bazaar cooks) were charged with the difficult task of supplying the workers with warm food at any time of day or night. They used the Mughal technique of dum pukht (meaning to breathe and to cook), a recipe for which can be found in the Ain-i-Akbari. The Indian cook also served a “dum poked” 3 chicken when John Ovington dined with the English merchants in the factory at Surat. In Lucknow, the nanbais set up enormous cooking pots filled with meat and vegetables that were sealed with lids of dough and placed on hot coals. In this way the food cooked slowly and hungry laborers could be fed at a moment’s notice with tender pieces of meat that fell from the bone. When he went to inspect the work, the nawab is said to have found the smells rising from the steaming pots so inviting that he ordered the palace cooks to learn the recipe from the nanbais. Dum pukht was also applied to good effect to a dish of mutton and turnips that was brought to Lucknow by Kashmiris, looking for alternative sources of employment now that the Mughal court was in decline.

* * *

Indeed, Asaf-ud-Daulah became so fat that he could no longer ride a horse. He managed to gain vast amounts of weight despite the fact that his ability to chew was compromised by the loss of his teeth. Shammi kebabs are supposed to have been created in order to accommodate this problem. They were made out of finely minced and pounded meat, known as qima. The Mughals liked minced beef but in Lucknow the cooks preferred lamb, which produced a softer mince. They would grind the Korma meat into a fine paste and then add ginger and garlic, poppy seeds and various combinations of spices, roll it into balls or lozenges, spear them on a skewer, and roast them over a fire. The resulting kebabs were crispy on the outside but so soft and silky within that even the toothless Asaf-ud-Daulah could eat them with pleasure.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century the wife of a British army officer passing through Lucknow noticed that “three distinct dinners” were served at the nawab’s table. “One at the upper end, by an English cook; at the lower end by a French cook; and in the centre (where he always sat,) by a Hindoostanee cook.”

I am about half-way through the book, around the time of the British residency, when there is still a fair bit of cultural disruption in progress, where the people coming in as traders and occasional meddlers in local political affairs have taken to calling themselves Anglo-Indians, and represent a new class hierarchy at par with noblemen and ruling houses. This is where the first rumbles of the term “curry”comes into being at least in its present usage, and also clarifies a bit of what makes that term so – pardon my use of the expression – bland.

What the British in India ate, for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, was curry and rice. Anglo-Indian dining tables were not complete without bowls of curry that, eaten like a hot pickle or a spicy ragout, added bite to the rather bland flavors of boiled and roasted meats. No Indian, however, would have referred to his or her food as a curry. The idea of a curry is, in fact, a concept that the Europeans imposed on India’s food culture. Indians referred to their different dishes by specific names and their servants would have served the British with dishes that they called, for clarity, rogan josh, dopiaza, or quarama. But the British lumped all these together under the heading of curry. The British learned this term from the Portuguese who described as “caril” or “carree” the broths that the Indians “made with Butter, the Pulp of Indian Nuts . . . and all sorts of Spices, particularly Cardamoms and Ginger . . . besides herbs, fruits and a thousand other condiments [that they] . . . poured in good quantity upon . . . boyl’d Rice.” The Portuguese had adopted these terms from various words in south Indian languages. In Kannadan and Malayalam, the word karil was used to describe spices for seasoning as well as dishes of sautéed vegetables or meat. In Tamil, the word kari had a similar meaning (although nowadays it is used to mean sauce or gravy). As the words karil and kari were reconfigured into Portuguese and English they were transformed into “caril” and “caree” and eventually into the word curry, which the British then used as a generic term for any spicy dish with a thick sauce or gravy in every part of India.

Although they used the word curry to describe dishes from every Indian region, the British were aware of regional differences in the cooking of the subcontinent. In his cookery book on Curries and How to Prepare Them (1903), Joseph Edmunds stated decisively that “in India there are at least three separate classes of curry, the Bengal, the Madras and the Bombay.” “The Bengal artist,” wrote Edmunds, “is greatest in fish and vegetable curries. Bombay boasts of its peculiar gifts in its bomelon fish and its popedoms. Ceylon curries were usually piquant with chillies and made with coconut milk.”

And thus are generalizations born.

Notes:

  1. My personal gripe this time, while visiting Guwahati in February, was that I could not find parsley anywhere. There was however very specific variants of coriander, especially a delicate grassy-looking version that smelled divine.
  2. 1 seer is 24 lbs or 10-ish kilos, and a dam is 3 oz or 85 grams
  3. My next band, for those interested in this bit of TMI, will be called “dum poked”.
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Food, Myself

TT

Traveling when I was a kid was always special, more so because of something my mom cooked. She made a specific dish to eat during the multi-day train journeys. Nothing special, just spicy fried potatoes, but they lasted 2 days at least, and we would buy freshly-cooked chapatis from train stations and eat the potatoes with that. I even had a name for that particular dish, a name that was considered acceptable by the household. I called it TT, short for Train Tarkaari.  TT attained quite a bit of favor among my high-school friends, when we made our trips to Calcutta and Delhi, for scholarship exams, Brilliant Tutorial tests, for entrance examinations for colleges. Coming back to college after summer and winter vacations were made a little more tolerable because of the tiffin-ful of TT that ma sent back with me. I hated the oiliness of it in my luggage, but what the hey, I loved eating it on the train. Especially on the top berth, where nobody could ask for too much of it, or see how much I had left.

A few years after I began working, I began to cook for myself. Hesitant, tentative attempts at first, and most of the time I would be on the phone with my mother, asking about spice proportions and marination time and the number of pressure cooker whistles. We’ve all been there, right? I got better at it and the distress calls wound down. It would get weird on Sundays when we would have our weekly conversation, and ma would say something like, “I cooked this the other day, you would have liked it”, and I would say, “That’s fine, I will cook it tomorrow” and then she would be like, “Oh. OH. I forget you cook nowadays”. A little accusatory, a little proud and happy.

Now TT, that was something I never cooked for myself. I would get the recipe every single time I was at home. Day 3 would be around when ma would serve it on the table, usually at dinner. (Day 6 was when I would get completely sick of home-cooked food and long for some biryani) And it tasted great, of course. Every time, I asked her the precise steps – and it was simple – no onions, just ginger and garlic. Mustard oil if possible. That’s it. But somehow, somehow, TT was her’s specifically, the memory and taste of it associated with Guwahati and train journeys. I never even tried to cook it myself.

I met my mother at Amsterdam last month, for a day. She was visiting my sister in Brussels. I was on the last leg of my trip, and met her on a rainy Sunday morning, after having spent the whole night dancing like mad at the Sensation White festival. For some demented reason, my sister wanted to visit the Heineken Experience. I had absolutely no desire to go myself – the hotel receptionist’s horror when I asked for directions to the place was reason enough (“It’s shit! Don’t go!”, he shrieked. “I have to meet someone there”, I said. “Well, tell them to not go! It’s shit!” “Too late, they are already there”) I went there, waited an hour at a delightful pub next door – it was a rainy day, and the cup of coffee and the apple and nutmeg pie cheered me up despite the tiredness I felt. I had not seen ma in a year and a half, and as it turned out, she had woken up at 6 AM that morning and cooked some TT for me, along with fried chicken and some puris. We sat in the car, rain pouring around us, and wolfed down the food hungrily. I did not care much for the chicken, the fried potatoes hit every pleasure center in my brain. And then some.

So I’ve been lying around at home thanks to a bout of chicken pox. (I know, right? Who on earth gets chicken pox at age thirty goddamned two, forgoshsakes) And the craving hit me. I needed to eat some TT. Which also meant I needed to cook me some TT, and I did. But I got adventurous too, and added cauliflower to it. And sausages. Some thinly chopped carrots. When it was done, I finished the whole dang thing with a packet of microwaved tortillas. I made some the next day too, and finished it in two meals. And later that week, I called up my mom and told her that I had made my version of TT. Or as I called it, TT2. Fuck yeah.

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Food, Myself

The Biryani Post

I am a bit of a biryani snob. Oh, all right, I am an awful biryani snob. I am of the opinion that the Only True Biryani is made in Hyderabad, and you find the best biryani in selected joints in the Older parts of the city. Yes, I am so full of it that I consider Paradise – a restaurant that is usually posited as the go-to place for biryani in the city – to be sub-standard. Paradise was good once upon a time, but now it’s gone all mainstream, catering to tourists and skimping on the spices and the chicken.

You could say that I am to biryani what the Jack Black character in High Fidelity is to music.

My friends know about this fine quality of mine, and they usually take it into account when they speak about this dish in my vicinity. The majority of them roll their eyes when I launch into one of my scathing diatribes on it. Some are taken aback. The vegetarians get the worst of it. “I just had some biryani for lunch“, one of them may say. “No, you didn’t”, I respond. “You had pulao. Or maybe spicy rice of some sort.” “You are rude and obnoxious, and you should go jump off a cliff.” “I will, someday. But you did not have biryani for lunch.” And then everyone but me rolls their eyes. Another lady and I were talking about cooking at home, and when she mentioned that she had cooked biryani for her husband a few days ago, I gently corrected her. She not-so-gently asked to something anatomically impossible. We agreed to disagree.

My reaction stems from the fact that it is a devilishly tough food to cook. The spices have to be in the right proportions, and the different layers of the meat-spice-rice have to be carefully added. Even the cooking time matters, and so does the time that you eat it after cooking. A little too less, and the heat messes with the taste. A little too much and you are having oily rice. And if you do not control your water proportions, you have destroyed the dish.

The worst biryani I had was the Bay Area, in 2007. That particular dish got every single thing wrong – the final product did not taste, look or smell anything like biryani. It hurt even more because expectations were high. Not only because the place came highly recommended by local colleagues, but the fucking dish cost $15.99! I shall remember the tonsil-humping, soul-crushing experience to my dying day. I finished every bit of it, though, even though I whimpered inwardly. Just to remind myself to take future recommendations about this specialized dish with a sackful of salt.

To this day, whenever I go to a restaurant and am about to order a biryani, my default mental state of mind is “I just ordered myself a pulao, it will be basmati rice that’s been fried with some spices and meat, and in all likelihood, it will taste and feel like something-that-is-not-biryani”. Having adjusted expectations that way, every dish becomes slightly elevated in quality from that unfortunate Bay Area sample, truly the apogee of the biryani-pulao orbit.

But sometimes I falter. Last year led to another near-catastrophic experience at a Pakistani restaurant. It was called Bilal’s, and that apostrophe in the name should have given it away for me. Authentic sub-continental restaurants have null or low apostrophe usage. A few months of non-indulgence made me order a biryani and be fairly optimistic about the results. When the waiter laid the bowl down in front of me, I did not have to eat any of it to realize the end of my hopes and dreams. A few stabs of the fork confirmed the non-biryaniness of the rice dish. My companions commented on my sigh and the look of dejection. When I explained, they rolled their eyes. I sighed some more.

My friend Sasi is a little more understanding of this fussy nature of mine. Probably because he’s a biryani connoisseur on his own, albeit a more tolerant one. He is more willing to take  biryani of the non-Hyderabadi kind in his stride. Thanks to him and his wife Shilpa, I found a few good places in LA. A great restaurant in Artesia whose name I forget, but where we dropped in for lunch 15 minutes before a screening of The Girl In Yellow Boots. We gobbled up the piping hot rice in 10 minutes flat, not wanting to miss the beginning of the film and also trying to savor every bite, every tiny explosion of flavor. Later on, we figured we should have just finished the biryani in peace – the movie sucked beyond belief. Then there is Zam Zam, a small smoke-filled hole-in-the-wall place on Washington Boulevard. It is open for business only between Friday and Sunday, and biryani is available between 2 and 6. Chances are they will run out if you are not there by 5, or if you do not call in advance to let them know you’re coming. The biryani’s sublime, as are the kababs.

All of last month, Sasi has been tantalizing me about the pulao recipe that he and Shilpa perfected over a few weeks. As I mentioned a few posts ago, I was vegetarian in January, and could not pop over to their place when invited. The kind souls therefore invited me again today, and this time, I had, as they say in Axomiya, one leg braced to jump across. A 30-minute wait at the bus stop did not faze me, and when I got there, sources (my nose and eyes, and Sasi’s hesitant explanations) confirmed what I had suspected – that the pulao was more of a biryani-in-waiting. As in, the only reason they were referring to it as pulao was because of my heightened suspicions/expectations at the definition of the word.

It was biryani. It was awesome biryani. I may have had the first non-Hyderabadi restaurant biryani that tasted like the real thing.

This post came about because this historic experience had to be recorded.

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