A Culinary Journey

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A chutney prepared in a mixer-grinder would taste somewhat different from one made on a stone grinder. Heritage style of cooking from diverse regions, though elaborative and with a more delightful effect on the saliva, were on display and their aroma was tempting. Tapati describes a culinary journey through an array of counters, bridging time, in her weekly column. A Different Truths exclusive.

“We are what we eat” – declared my friend before laying hands on his favourite sweet, the hot Jalebi and Rabri. I was pulled by him, forcing me to leave the area of secluded enlightening, standing as an onlooker. It was one of the celebrations of Diwali where people were buzzing in the vast lawn, exchanging pleasantries with familiar and new acquaintances with a fixed smile and folded hands, forgetting the “Hi’s and Hello’s” aside. The festive seasons bring us back to our roots and Diwali is always a great occasion to enjoy with all your family and friends.

The whole atmosphere was heart-warming and beaming with lights; children were running after the fireworks and the elders were enjoying in small clusters. As I completed taking a round of the place meeting and wishing all, there was one crowded corner of the lawn where I could not venture into. I could make out that these were the food carts where people were thronging into. No sooner we joined them, my friend dragged me into the dessert area and we looked around just to realise that we have missed the main food area in the crowd and there were many more counters to start with. However, there was an irresistible charm in standing by the carts offering quick and spicy bites that evoke emotions which are both timeless and nostalgic. No Indian can deny that food and its varieties found across the country bind communities together and is savoured by people from all strata of society.

Scripting an ode to the eternally popular and immensely rich form of gastronomy in India, a team of chefs from different places had put their carts and strived to create its magic as a part of Diwali celebration. They had thoughtfully created the much-loved dishes and their popular havens through which one could relive the delightful moments of culinary craft.

The spacious area was transformed into small eateries with an array of display of the methods and condiments.  In an age of microwaves, ovens and electric tandoors, we have somehow forgotten the authentic taste of food which comes essentially only when cooking is done in a traditional way. For instance, a chutney prepares in a mixer-grinder will taste somewhat different from one made on a stone grinder. Heritage style of cooking from diverse regions, though elaborative and with a more delightful effect on the saliva, were on display and their aroma was tempting. We started a culinary journey through an array of counters:

Bamboo or leaf steaming: In the eastern region of India, we have a style called ‘fresh bamboo and different leaf steaming’ style which involves wrapping raw food inside. The leaves used are the banana, poi or colocasia leaves.  Fish, meat or panir is wrapped in the leaf or bamboo with flavouring and cooked in steam or flames. The unique style helps in preserving the nutrients.  

Woodfire: Cooking over a live wood fire is a popular style of cooking on north India.  Here vegetables or meats are cooked at high temperature in a tandoor or sigri or chulha, imparting a smoky flavour to the food; here oil use is very limited and a healthy cooking system.

The tandoor was brought to India from Persia via the Afghanis, also was originally an oven in the ground. There is also evidence that tandoor was native to India as far back as 3000 BC, as there have been small mud plastered ovens, similar to tandoor, found in different sites of  Harappan civilisations.

Tandoor was made transportable by Jahangir, who instructed his cooks to build and design a tandoor which could be easily taken along on his travels. The combination of the yogurt-based marinade, the charcoal, and the high heat gives tandoori food a unique quality flavour of its own.

Stone ground: In this process, a hand operated stone grinder is used to pulverise the ingredients. Chutney prepared by this method retains its natural colour and tastes great.

Dum cooking: This style originates from the northwestern region. Dum style or sealed cooking involves cooking food in their own juice. Certain meat and rice dishes are cooked in this method, which retains the natural flavour and nutritional value of the food. Dum Phukt, which literally means “containing the steam” began with the meat eaters in Persia and brought to north India. A pot was filled with meat and spices and the lid was sealed using chapatti dough. The pot was placed in the dug hole with hot charcoal and left to simmer for hours and finally, when the lid was open the aroma would enthrall the diners’ senses.

Curing and smoking: Another style is followed by curing and smoking of meat and vegetables. The curing leaves a special taste and smoking adds an extra flavour.

Earthen pot cooking: Here utensils made of mud are used. The flavours get mixed with earthy and fresh spices. Mud griddles are used to make rotis. Our ancestors must have cooked food in earthenware because they did not know about plastic, steel, and aluminum. But that was not the only reason for it. Cooking in clay pots adds calcium, phosphorus, iron, magnesium, sulphur, and several other minerals to food. Clay pots are also alkaline in nature so they mix well with acidic food and balance its PH level. 

Wooden mallets:  Wooden mallets or hammers are used for pounding meat or other items in a wooden bowl to make it soft. It works like magic when added with spices before cooking.

Copper vessels: Here copper vessels are used to cook over slow fire for meats and copper adds a distinct taste to the dish.

Sun drying: Indians love their pickles and this is done in a unique sun drying method. Using vegetables, mustard oil and freshly ground spices, it is matured in direct sunlight. Papad is also a flattened roti made by sun drying. This creates a special texture and flavour and preserves the food with its essential nutrition.

Fermentation: Fermentation is used to make curd or yogurt, a regular food in India. Also, different types of drinks are made using this fermenting method.

Pit cooking: It is an ancient technique still alive today in many cultures and culinary circles. It is not to be mistaken with grilling, which has evolved from pit cooking but is not quite the same thing. Traditional pit cooking is actually cooking with a hole dug in the ground lined with stones and firewood. The fire is ignited and allowed to burn down to glowing coals, heated up similar to preheating the oven. The layer of leaves between the fire and food gives it the smoky flavour but these days mostly charcoal is used.

In old times, a belief was established that the purity of the individual was synonymous with the purity of the things they consumed. The religious traditions eventually established rules, rituals, and regulations surrounding food. The belief in the connection between mental health and nutrition became a widely regarded.

It was a culinary extravaganza for all ages to enjoy this extensive fare and satiate one’s appetite for food and related knowledge. After visiting the live counters dishing out lip-smacking varieties, we came to an end of our meal on a fulfilling note by indulging in the wide range of scrumptious desserts and had a plate of ultimate happiness on our hands, a plateful of Jalebi and Rabri.

That was the time to depart with profusely thanking our host for this extraordinary evening of a walk down to heritage cooking lane and recollect fond memories from our grandma’s kitchen.

My host was standing at the rear with a child, their granddaughter, offering packets of sweets to the guests to depart in a sweet note. Before leaving, the guests were treated by the child not by any popular rhymes but with a recital of few lines in Sanskrit to our great amusement.

“In fact, she has been awarded in a recent competition of reciting short poetries in Sanskrit”: the grandparents declared gleaming with faces.

People were bursting with applause with of the child’s zeal and also the exuberance of her school imbibing traditional teachings to the students. But all were left speechless when she stunned everyone reciting few lines of great philosophy: “From food life springs forth, by food, it is sustained, and in food, it merges when life departs.”

Her timely recital set free every soul of the feeling of guilt of indulging. After all, it was part of a great celebration! And food is an essential part of any celebration all over.

©Tapati Sinha

Photos from the Internet

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Tapati Sinha is educated from schooling to Post-Graduation from Visva-Bharati University with a Doctoral degree from Nagpur University in A.I.H.C.A. She loves Indian literature, Indian and world history and continues her personal research. She picks her subjects from various spheres including historical data, daily experiences of life and varied work places. Tapati is passionate to pursue her writings, novel, poetry, short stories on multifarious topics, past and present under the pen name Anjali.