Last week, we began our culinary journey across the country starting with the four metros and some of their standout if unusual dishes which for me captured the essence of each of these cities. Now, as I travel through each state through the trademark dishes from some of its food capitals, I will follow a more
organized north-south, east-west route to maintain geographical continuity. While I can promise some surprise additions based on my own journey of eating, alas, I have travelled only up to a point and the rest of my knowledge comes through books, research, old neighbours and friends and their grandmother’s recipes, encapsulating the flavours of this curious and baffling country.
Tandoori Chicken (Punjab)
There are few dishes that are more ubiquitous and that have travelled as far, leaving the population of chickens a little smaller and leaving its spicy orange-red imprint in restaurants, dhabas, street shacks, fast-food corners, food courts, TV dinners and homes across the globe. For me, a plate of perfectly spiced, moist and fresh-out-of-the-oven tandoori chicken will always be comfort food, no matter how far away from home I might be. It is a lasting testament to my mixed Bengali-Punjabi heritage and a food memory and association of a dish with a place. In all my travels through North India, the smoky tandoor with its ever-popular skewers of well-done meat has been a constant landmark on the culinary map. It is the base ingredient for the butter chicken, the progenitor of the chicken tikka and the invention that has made a certain enterprising British-Indian businessman into a curry king as well as a lord. The tandoori chicken is a perfect representation of its people and is a robust, full-bodied expression of their culture.
Goshtaba and Rista (Jammu & Kashmir)
There couldn’t perhaps be a greater tragedy than the one that has riven this spectacularly beautiful state of mountains, valleys and chinar trees by violence and political tumult. It is also no mean feat that Jammu and Kashmir continues to hold on to the tatters of its former self in its rich cultural traditions, art and cuisine. The reason I have chosen two dishes as representative of the state’s culinary wealth is because of their resonance with a past that was less fraught with communal and territorial tensions. Unlike the vegetarian bent of the rest of the Indian Pandits, the Kashmiri Pandits and the Kashmiri Muslims have held on to a food tradition that is a reflection of their common Kashmiriyat or an age-old religious-cultural accord between the two communities of this state. Thus their cuisine is similar and while it is meat-centric, it completely excludes beef. Goshtaba is a representative Kashmiri Pandit dish which is a finely minced mutton ball/kofta cooked in a delicate yogurt-based gravy and is delicious in its richness as well as subtlety. The Rista is one of the main dishes of the Wazwan, the traditional Kashmiri Muslim repast and is much like the Goshtaba meat ball, except it is cooked in a more full-bodied tomato-based gravy. For me, these two dishes epitomize a harmony that once was and a marker of what things could be.
Bathua Roti Makhan (Haryana)
The Haryanvis are men and women of the soil. They are equally hardworking and simple in the lifestyle choices that they make. Their culture and cuisine is a reflection of this ethos. Living in the Delhi NCT region which shares a porous border with Haryana, I was a happy recipient of Haryanvi recipes that came my way courtesy of the many cooks who have worked with me, bringing with them all the traditional flavours of their home based on the rich seasonal bounty of the land. The Bathua Roti Makhan was a simple roti-paratha hybrid stuffed with the piquant leaves of the bathua or pigweed plant and toasted on a tawa and then served piping hot with home-made white butter. Yet, there was nothing that was more redolent of winter or warmed the cockles of your heart better. Unfortunately bathua doesn’t travel all that well, so it remains a specialty of the northern agricultural belt, meant to be savoured in traditional homes overlooking fields with the waving heads of golden wheat and under a benevolent winter sun.
Pahari Madra (Himachal Pradesh)
Today, a visit to any cafe in one of the hill stations of the mountain kingdom of Himachal will yield a menu plentiful in momos and thukpas and other Tibetan delicacies as well as the numerous German bakeries specialising in apple pies and all manner of sweet confections. However, this new cuisine is born of the influx of political refugees as well as foreign travellers to this state and has little to do with its indigenous traditions. The local Pahari food is largely lentil-based and known for its tangy sweet-sour gravies with tamarind, dried mango powder and yogurt. The madra is a delicious and spicy curry that is perfect for giving you that much-needed shot of warmth and energy on chilly winter nights. While the base lentil can pretty much be anything including red kidney beans or black eyed beans or chickpea, the textured and complex yogurt-based gravy is what lends it the rich flavour. So the next time you find yourself in Himachal stop by a local dhaba or better still make your way to a homestay and settle down for a traditional and delicious meal redolent of the hills, its people and their produce.