In my last column, I had shared my excitement about being invited to a dinner where the writer and restaurateur Pritha Sen would recreate the recipes originally given in what is believed to be India’s first printed cookbook, Pakrajeshwar. Written and published by a printer and journalist Gaurishankar Bhattacharyya in Calcutta in 1831, with funding from Maharaja Mahtab Chand of the Burdwan royal family, Pakrajeshwar left its readers unhappy because of its complex language and fuzzy instructions.
The Maharaja therefore decided to have it re-written and republished under the title Byanjan Ratnakar (The Jeweller of Food) in 1858, entirely for private circulation. Interestingly, fish, the Bengali favourite, makes an occasional appearance in the cookbook, but recipes with meats more than make up for this shortfall, albeit without potatoes, onions and tomatoes.
Sen did not deviate from the original and we had quite a feast with three dishes that took me by surprise— first, a tahiri with smallgrained rice, boneless mutton and (surprise, surprise!) the very Punjabi moong dal vadis—obviously, a leftover of the Punjabi origins of the Burdwan royal family; second, spring chickens (in the absence of jungle fowl or duck) cooked with chickpeas; and third, baigan bharta loaded with boiled eggs, paneer and caramelised onions. In this delectable procession, even the mustard-doused alabur (lauki) raita stood out, and of course, the freshwarter rohu shirazi was the one that left us oohing-aahing forever.
Keeping up with the trends of festive eating
How do you—and can you—speak about new eating trends during a festivity which is all about traditions transmitted for centuries from generation to generation, from mother to daughter and which are so much associated with our identities? And yet, the current Covid-19 pandemic has changed and continues to change so much of our habits and what we were used to doing in the past.
Today, the main question which is in everyone’s mind is no more just how to make the best impression, which obviously remains the desired objective, but how to do it safely and hygienically to protect one’s loved ones.
With the festive season kicking off in earnest today, with the beginning of the Navratras, the culinary industry’s immediate focus is on delivering innovative, healthy and most importantly, hygienic food that meets the special requirements of this fasting period avoiding wheat, rice, lentils, meat, etc. Innovative sweet dishes, which use ingredients like sweet potato and other alternative flours in place of a grain, are the flavour of the season.
Many people, by default, jump on the gluten-free bandwagon during these fasting days. And thus, the focus of many F&B brands will be to produce more gluten-free products than they would at any other time of the year.
Fruits, particularly dry ones, are a perfect candidate to help everyone out under the current circumstances and their consumption drastically increases as it is highly encouraged for those who are fasting. Understandably pastries and other desserts which contain fruits are sold in higher volumes than usual and chocolates are obviously a welcome addition during this special period. Some innovative companies are offering a novel combination of nuts and dried fruits enrobed in chocolate, known by the name of “dragées” in France, as elegant and tasty alternative to simple dried fruits and pure chocolate.
An additional trend in the current festive season, more so than in previous years, is the focus on food that fortifies one’s health and contains immunity-boosting—at the least not diminishing it—ingredients such as citrus, turmeric, nonprocessed flours and sugars, containing plenty of healthy fats (such as clarified butter) and various seeds and nuts. No wonder that many restaurants and F&B companies are showcasing the special products and menus they have created in this category.
With fewer people eating out, brands that deliver premium dining experiences at home (including several courses or using high-end crockery) will be favoured by those who are entertaining guests at home.
For those who are cooking and baking at home, there is an unmistakable trend, for the same reasons described above, to move away or at least diminish oil-rich fried desserts and substitute them with alternatives. Increasingly, families are replacing jalebi, gulab jamun, ladoos and kaju katli with kheer (made of milk and rice) and dry fruits. In doing so, the traditions associated with Goddess Lakshmi and Lord Vishnu are honoured whilst preserving the health and wellbeing of all.
Diwali is the undisputed peak gifting season in India. The uncertainties related to the Covid-19 pandemic and the limited appetite for many of us to celebrate in public places will create a much greater need—compared to previous years—to send gifts instead of spending face-toface quality time with one’s family and friends. Thus, with most people being unable to physically meet their loved ones, the importance of the luxurious look and feel of the gift is much greater than ever. Those who are able will look to spend their money on premium gift hampers consisting of fresh, tasty, gourmet and hygienically prepared sweets and confections in attractive, (preferably) reusable boxes and containers.
Chocolates, dry fruits, a combination of the two and why not the very French speciality macarons which are a more a sophisticated combination of almonds and chocolates (also available in Vegan variety) and which all have a longer shelf life are a perfect answer to the requirements of this festive season.
The writer is executive chairman of L’Opéra.
What Shah Jahan’s got to do with Agra’s petha
Coming back from Agra without your box of pethas is almost blasphemous as visiting the city for the first time and not visiting the Taj or Fatehpur Sikri. The Agra experience is not complete without gorging on this sweetmeat made with cubes or cylinders of ash gourd (white pumpkin), first soaked in slaked lime (chuna) and then soaked overnight in sugar syrup slowcooked with milk on coal fire.
When I was a child, this was the only variety available, but today, you get pethas in as many variations as you can imagine, including the saffron-laced angoori and the ones that are served like betel leaves or come doused in chocolate, or are dusted with coconut flakes. Apparently, more than 70 varieties of petha are made in the 700-plus units around Noori Gate that feed India’s burgeoning appetite for Agra’s signature sweetmeat.
It is said that it was Emperor Shah Jahan who had decreed the invention of a sweetmeat as white as the marbles used to build the Taj. He had issued the diktat in response to the complaint of the 20,000- plus worker employed at the building site that their diet was getting monotonous. When the Emperor brought this matter up with the master architect, Ustad Isa Effendi, the latter went to a local pir for a solution. The pir, as the story goes, got the recipe from the Almighty in a dream. He then went ahead and taught his team of 500 cooks how to make petha and it was an instant hit.
It may make for a good dinner-table story, but Agra’s petha acquired its iconic status because of the hard work and talent of Seth Pancham Lal Goyal, who was fondly known as Panchhi, who, at the age of 24, launched his business more than 70 years ago with one store at Noori Gate. Today, Agra has a Panchhi Petha at every street corner, but the one at Sadar Bazar, if the local residents are to be believed, still sells the real McCoy.
Agra bounces back as Delhiites descend on it
The best way to unwind in Agra is to find a cosy nook and catch up on essential reading, but if
you wish to get moving, you must not miss its street food, quaint churches and old temples.
For purely personal reasons, I have spent the last two weekends in Agra, where I normally OD on the street food, having lost count of the number of times I have seen the Taj. I wish I could spend as much time at Fatehpur Sikri, which I find so much more engrossing than Shah Jahan’s monumental legacy, but I now love to spend my disposable time at Sadar Bazar and its famous bylane, informally known as the Chatori Gali, and my more recent discovery, Nayi Ki Mandi, the Mughlai food street.
On my last two back-toback visits to Agra, necessitated by an extended family yajna, I had very little time for such edible diversions, but I discovered a thing or two about Agra as it emerges out of the shadow of Covid-19. I met my old friend, Rajat Sethi, General Manager of the ITC Mughal, one of Agra’s two oldest surviving five-star addresses, and I was expecting to find him downcast about the state of his business because of the sharp drop in international tourist arrivals, which seems to be here to stay as a result of the return of the pandemic in the United States and Europe. But he appeared to have no time to regret this substantial loss of business.
One of the heartening fallouts of the extended lockdown has been the rekindling of the desire of Middle Delhi to spend weekends in neighbouring destinations—for just a change of scenery. On long weekends, especially, no one seems to be keen on staying at home. For many of these urban escapees, a long weekend in the past meant an opportunity to head in the direction of Dubai or Bangkok, but now, with people still chary of flying, destinations such as Agra have opened up as weekend hotspots—and how!
With destination weddings in Thailand or Malaysia also ruled out because of the widespread reluctance to fly, Agra has regained its popularity among Delhiites as the go-to place to seal marriages. And with the upper limit for the number of guests allowed at such social occasions being raised from 50 to 200, hotel managers such as Sethi are breathing easy, especially because the period from November to January has 22 auspicious wedding dates. A number of families are also booking hotels for “post-wedding parties” to compensate for their inability to invite all their near and dear ones during the lockdown.
The good news is that Agra hotels have regained their weekend business, and their weekday numbers are also expected to pick up, riding on the back of the impending wedding season. And just in case you pack up your bags and head for Agra without a marriage to worry about, do something different this time—visit the churches (the oldest being the Akbar Church, whose history dates back to 1600, and which still survives in the shadow of the grander St Peter’s Church), and the old English cemetery, or visit the city’s old temples, such as the Mankameshwar in the vicinity of Agra Fort, which, as legend has it, was built by Lord Shiva so that the child Krishna could see him from Mathura. There’s so much to do in Agra, but if you would like to just chill, take your must-read book along and keep reading it only to come out of your reverie for a meal washed down with copious quantities of beer!
Community cuisines: Not just another passing fad
Dining out has never been about the meal itself. It is an experience to remember through social interaction, be it with friends, family or colleagues. People are now trying to replace going out to eat with a special experience at home with various wonderful dining in options. The Internet has played a huge role in bringing people together on networking sites during the pandemic with a deluge of shared health tips, traditional recipes and stories about food and their origins. As communities have come closer during this time, a few brilliant minds have come together to revive authentic recipes and slow cooked food made in traditional ways to bring out the flavours and character of each and every dish.
“The idea behind traditional food is to revive heirloom regional recipes and cooking them with centuries-old techniques. Nothing beats ghar ka khana,” says Osama Jalali, whose Village Degh has taken Delhi-NCR by storm. Sugandha Saxena, known for her amazing laddus, has also become a household name within the span of a few months, thanks to Okhli, which serves traditional Kayastha cuisine.
Her Mastane Kofte are slow cooked, with delicate and beautifully spiced minced mutton balls which take half-a-day to be made! “Kayastha cuisine is a community cuisine which has a strong Mughal influence, but with subtle differences. For instance, we do not use any animal fat in our cooking and have a pulao instead of a biryani. There are vegetarian dishes as well like the nimona, which is a winter specialty made with fresh peas only.
The Muttone-Dadima is my grandma’s recipe and tastes exactly the same each time,” she says. Another lesser known community cuisine is AngloIndian food, brought to India by the British and Indianised in Kolkata through the use of various spices and personal touches. The popular Anglo-Indian dishes brought to life by Antara and Leena Daniels, through Park Street Khana, are also made with a lot of care. They do a handmade pork sausage curry, where the sausages are made from scratch, a traditional mutton stew with lots of vegetables and whole garam masala, and the pork vindaloo, which is distinctly different from its Goan cousin.
“The way to eat the sausage curry is with aloo bhaja and bhaath,” they say. In fact, this is exactly what community cuisines are about: Pairing them right and eating them in particular ways. Sugandha recommends that her tikde rotis, which are small but slightly thick rotis, should be crisp while eating with Kayastha mutton dishes. Osama Jalali’s silbatta lehsun and hara chutneys are to be eaten with food to enhance the taste of each dish. Similarly, the paye ka shorba, which is a signature dish from Shehnaz Siddiqui’s Begum’s Legacy, is to be eaten with rogan rotis made out of wheat flour and ghee.
“The idea is to make each morsel memorable, and there’s nothing better than the desi khana that has been prepared and eaten by our families and communities through generations,” says Shehnaz, adding, “Our food is slightly sweet because of the bhuna pyaaz which we use a little more than in typical Mughlai food.” Similarly, as per Rajni, “Kashmiri Pandit cuisine is eaten only with boiled white rice, whether it is vegetarian or non-vegetarian.” The Kashmiri wazwan was always well-known, but Pandit cuisine has been gaining popularity lately, thanks to authentic recipes being in demand. A few dishes that are an integral part of the Kashmiri Pandit community are rogan josh, kaliya (mutton cooked in turmeric), masch (minced mutton balls cooked in a rich red gravy), the haaks (saag), razma, and maadur pulao (sweet rice infused with saffron and dry fruits). “The main thing about our food is that we do not use any onion, garlic, fresh ginger and tomatoes in our cooking.
We also do not use turmeric unless specified in a dish like the mutton kaliya. Traditionally, there is heavy use of hing,saunf powder and Kashmiri laal mirch in almost everything we cook, whether it is vegetarian or non-vegetarian food, and we use only mustard oil in our cooking,” says Rajni Jinsi, who has done pop-ups with Pandit cuisine in several hotels. The best part for me as a consumer is that I don’t have to go back to the same curries used for meat and vegetarian dishes. This is the time for niche markets and being the queen/king of one instead of catering to everyone like a jack of all trades! The concept of ‘real food’ is returning in a big way because people have begun to realise its importance and the benefits of traditional cooking techniques. “It all started way back when I was writing a column for a newspaper and went to review a restaurant. A samosa chat came deconstructed with chutneys as foam. Then I saw a trend of every Indian restaurant rebranding themselves as ‘modern Indian’ or ‘progressive Indian’. That struck me and I started documenting, researching and promoting regional Indian cooking and forgotten cooking techniques,” says Osama. Shehnaz explains, “I use the silbatta for grinding the meat for my kebabs because otherwise we get a texture that is either too smooth or too coarse.
I do many kinds of kebabs and people have given me lots of love and support for them.” Sugandha Saxena’s brand resonates with traditional food, evident from the name, Okhli, which refers to the typical mortar and pestle used in Indian households.
While restaurants are going through testing times, some of the most brilliant community cuisines have emerged, which are not only strong in terms of bonding with people, but also offering the choicest of menus and delivering the best of meals to their customers. As Osama says, “Cuisines and trends will come and go but regional food cooked with patience and passion will stay forever.”
Does cooking make a man more charming?
For Netflix India, this is the season for romantic comedies (rom-coms)—Emily in Paris, starring Phil Collin’s daughter Lily, was the one I binge-watched over a night, soaking in the sights and food experiences of the French capital, and I have just finished seeing Ginny Weds Sunny, a soul-warming Karol Bagh romance that centres around emotions and paneer, the two must-haves of a Punjabi life, as a character in the film famously puts it. What struck me most was the centrality of food in both rom-coms.
The Mr Darcy in Emily in Paris is a chef who every woman wants on her plate— played by French model and actor Lucas Bravo, the chef, Gabriel, is a rising cookery star with a bustling restaurant, who, by the end of Season One, leaves Emily, an American who takes up a social marketing job in Paris, with conflicted emotions, even as he breaks up with his girlfriend, the daughter of a wine producer in Champagne, and a good friend of Emily’s.
In Ginny Weds Sunny, Vikrant ‘A Death in the Gunj’ Massey, who plays a hardware shop owner’s son Sunny, is obsessed with the idea of opening his own restaurant where tandoori chicken would be king.
He keeps cooking at home, which spurs his mother, even as she agonises over his inability to get any woman to marry him, to comment wryly that at the rate at which the family was having two dinners in a day, they would soon deplete their rations! Sunny, though, does find his way into the heart of the seemingly unattainable Ginny (played memorably by Uri: A Surgical Strike star Yami Gautam) by cooking matar-paneer for her and getting it delivered to her office and then digging the dinner they have at her favourite dhaba, which her ex-boyfriend would avoid like the plague. Even their relationship, after several twists and turns, gets sealed over kadha-parshad at a Delhi gurudwara. The stomach, indeed, is the best way to a person’s heart.
Oldest Bengali cookbook comes alive
The Burdwan Estate may not ring a bell today, but it was a princely state in British Raj Bengal that was established in 1657 by a Khatri merchant-prince from Punjab named Sangam Rai Kapoor. Emperor Shahjahan apparently owed a favour to the dynasty’s founder, so he gifted him the principality and at the peak of its glory, its sphere of influence extended across 5,000 sq km covering the present Burdwan, Bankura, Howrah, Hughli, Medinipur and Murshidabad.
Burdwan’s claim to fame, however, is not its history, but for publishing India’s first printed cookbooks written for a mass audience—Pak Rajeswar and Byanjon Ratnakar—in 1831. The cookbooks, printed by Maharaja Mahtab Chand, who ruled from the 1830s to the 1870s, are notable for the absence of potatoes and tomatoes, cabbages and cauliflower, which are used extensively today in Bengali kitchens.
Interestingly, the cookbooks also do not have the recipes of two signature desserts of Burdwan, namely, mihidana and sitabhog. Still, there’s plenty going around for a dinner, curated by the inimitable Pritha Sen, to be laid out on Saturday evening at the Labnurnum, Gurgaon, home of vintage and classic car collector and fine wine aficionado Rajiv Kehr and Nisha Mahtab Kehr, a descendant of the Burdwan royal family. I am salivating at the thought of digging the Mahi (fish) Shammi Kababs, brinjal bharta with paneer and boiled eggs (Vartakur Shirazi Bhorta), freshwater rohu (Rohit Matsyer) Shirazi, duck cooked with chickpeas (Hansh Diye Buter Qaliya), and Hussaini kababs served in a gravy.
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