BENGALURU: This week, we continue our culinary journey across the country picking up exactly where we left off, somewhere in between the syncretic fulcrum of food and identity in Kashmir and the simple, wholesome and rustic fare of Haryana and Himachal. This week, as we move from the mountains to the northern Gangetic plains which is the ancient seat of power, the heartland of India and the proverbial rice bowl of the country, the task at hand for this humble chronicler becomes harder as this belt is a vast swathe of influences — from the ancient to the medieval to the modern era in terms of religions, culture and, by extension, the cuisine. Food is the cumulative result of a civilisation’s transitions through history and this week’s picks aim to be a reflection of the same.
Mutton Kebabs (Uttar Pradesh)
It is hard to pick one dish in a state that is synonymous with food. From a royal repast to street food delicacies, from the best of Awadhi cuisine to the princely Nawabi variations of the same, from chaats to an array of desserts, Uttar Pradesh is a gourmand’s dream with every part of the state offering a peek into a way of life and eating and Lucknow is the crown jewel.
While I have chosen mutton kebabs as a representative dish, this is more a sub-genre which covers everything from the esoteric and fragrant kakori kebab, the tender and spiced boti kebabs, the melt-in-the-mouth galawat or galauti kebabs to the robust shami and pasanda discs and the delicately spiced seekh cylinders. There is very little chicken in the kebab lexicon of this region. These kebabs are part of the elaborate set of starters in a traditional Dastarkhwan (a ceremonial meal) conceptualised by gifted khansamas (chefs) as well as the common man’s victuals from the smoky street tandoors paired with a variety of unleavened breads. Uttar Pradesh’s kebabs are ubiquitous as well legendary. Thus there is the myth of the toothless kebab-loving nawab in whose kitchen the famed kakori, or the softest kebab in the world, was born. Then there was the tale of the one-armed genius kababchi called Tundey Miyan who tenderised his meat with the stump of his amputated arm to create perfectly consistent kebabs, earning him legions of fans and a reputation that lasted generations. These stories are part of the food lore of a state whose cuisine has to be experienced to be believed.
Bal Mithai (Uttarakhand)
The beautiful mountain kingdom of Uttarakhand is washed by the River Ganga, resplendent in natural beauty with its misty mountains, folk traditions, ancient temples and sprawling national parks. The fairy tale setting of the region is in sync with this iconic sweet of the region which is rich, sweet and milky and covered in sugary balls that pop in your mouth. One can imagine this to be the treasured candy out of an enchanted edible house that tempts all with its appearance and aromas. Especially popular in Almora, some version of the Bal Mithai is found in most towns of the state. Cooked with khoya, cane sugar and covered with sugar coated poppy seeds (posto), this home-grown fudge which was invented by an enterprising Almora halwai, is a hit among kids and adults alike. With no cocoa content, it is interesting that this sweet is locally known as ‘chocolate’ and is a delicious treat on winter days that will warm you right till the cockles.
Laal Maas (Rajasthan)
This list does not escape the bias of the listmaker and in this case, my own love for meat. Despite being an avowed carnivore, this state’s vegetarian food is a treasure trove with offerings that smack of invention and are derived from the local produce. With culinary influences ranging from the all-vegetarian Marwari community to the robust meat-centric Rajput cuisine, Rajasthani food is an amalgam of its land, its weather conditions and its people. Thus one can pick from an assortment of savouries like mirch ka pakora (batter-fried chilli peppers) and pyaaz kachori (onion fritters) and preparations like the ker sangri sabzi (a piquant desert preparation of dried beans and tart berries). But for me, Rajasthani food shall always be the eye-popping and aromatic Laal Maas, a fiery red mutton curry cooked in a dried red chilli paste. Redolent of garlic, chillis, yogurt and more chillis, the base meat can be goat, deer or any other game meat and while sure to raise your temperature by a couple of notches, this food of the Rajput warriors will transform food into a sensory experience intended to fire your blood with new life and vigour.
Litti Choka (Bihar)
This traditional celebratory food, this spiced wheat and powdered lentil ball is infused with fragrant ghee and roasted over coals or a chulha (traditional oven fired by cow dung cakes), or even deep fried. This cross between bread and savoury fritter is accompanied with chokha, a delicious flame-roasted eggplant and tomato preparation. Litti-chokha is a wholesome meal in itself to be had on winter evenings by a raging fire and while time-consuming to make, is equally comfortable in both urban and rural settings.