I was recently invited to a wonderful food event – a celebration of the traditional food of the families of Old Delhi. The recipes had been collected and recreated by food writer Anoothi Vishal and hosted by The Claridges Hotel in Surajkund and although it was a bit of a trek for lunch, it turned out to be well worth braving the last of the monsoon floods for.
While I worked my way through almost everything on the menu, Anoothi, whose own family hail from the old city, gave me a fascinating overview of Old Delhi’s different communities and the food they cook. Many of the dishes were completely new to me and confirmed what I have long suspected – most of India’s great cooking goes on in the domestic kitchen using recipes handed down from generation to generation.
Some of the food highlights – the Paneer aur Aloo Bukhara ke Kofte shown in the picture above, (kofte made from paneer and stuffed with prunes) were unusual and divine, perhaps Persian in origin. The Mutton Pulao was the most succulent I’ve ever tasted, the meat and stock having been cooked slowly in the rice, resulting in delicate flavours, moist rice and melting meat. One very unusual dish was Anoothi’s family recipe for Take Paise, small chick pea flour discs (‘paise’) which are steamed then fried and served in a rich sauce.
By the end I was begging Anoothi to write Eat and Dust’s first guest post and to share one of her own family recipes. Both she kindly agreed to do and I’m extremely grateful to her for taking the time to bring us these fascinating insights.
At home, In Old Delhi
by Anoothi Vishal
In a country where virtually every home turns out the most delicious of specialities, it is a unique Indian peculiarity that the food we eat in restaurants — even “Indian” food—is not the same as anyone would cook at home. Nothing can be truer of Delhi and its khana. While the street food of old Delhi, its Mughali kebabs and vegetarian chaats, is famous all over the world, it is not really the food that old Delhi families cook at home. Or, at least, let me say this— Shahjahanabad’s street food does not reflect the entire and diverse repertoire of old Delhi’s many cuisines.
Indian cuisines – because there are so many distinct ones in this country– are primarily a product of both geography and caste/religion. Even within the same region, the way the same ingredients are cooked changes drastically from community to community. This can be best understood in terms of a simple fish curry that changes its character as one goes from one southern Indian state and community to another simply because, if nothing else, the souring agent changes. In Delhi, the cuisines of the old city can be roughly divided into the foods of the three dominant communities who were socially prominent in Shahjahanabad, Shahjahan’s ambitious capital. These were the ruling muslim elite, the kayasthas, who were the administrators, bureaucrats, accountants and the legal eagles, and the baniyas, the mercantile community of traders and land-owners that controlled all commerce in the Mughal capital.
These three communities had three very distinct cuisines and yet they shared many commonalities too. The cuisine of the Mughals, of course, though much bastardized in its present form in India, is well known. Bearing distinct Iranian influences (as in the use of nuts in the curries, as also in the origin of the kebabs and biryanis of the Subcontinent from Persian equivalents), this was predominantly non-vegetarian, and much stylised since it was the cuisine of the court. The kayastha cuisine is all but lost from our consciousness in modern India since it remains confined to private homes and is simply not available in restaurants. This is ironical, because the kayasthas were always known to be very shaukeen, discerning patrons of all things fine — from the arts and music to good food. They maintained a fine table and prided themselves on their lavish hospitality. They shared a great cultural affinity with the ruling elite of the day. This was reflected traditionally in their dress (men wore a sherwani, or muslim style long coat, as formal wear instead of the unstitched dhoti-kurta of the other hindus), in their speech and manners, as well as in the strong non-vegetarianism prevalent in the community (unusual for high caste hindus).
The baniyas, on the other hand, despite being inherently frugal and seen to be forever penny-pinching nevertheless had the best of fruits and vegetables not to mention ghee as ingredients at their disposal because this was a well-to-do community. Because of the influence of Jainism (many converted to this reformist movement that took birth in India, pre-Buddhism), they were “pure vegetarians” and did not eat even onion or garlic.
Today, Delhi food is inextricably linked with two necessary evils: chicken tikka and paneer. Ironically, both these, chicken and cottage cheese, were alien to the old city. They came in much later into commercial repertoires with the arrival of the Punjabi refugees, post partition. In the absence of the fowl, it was red meat—goat meat—as also game and birds such as partridges and quail that made it to muslim and kayastha tables. Instead of matar-paneer, that north Indian staple, curried peas with cottage cheese, fresh green peas valued for their sweetness were curried in the winter months (food was after all seasonal) on their own or with nuts and dried fruits like makhane (lotus seeds), cashews and almonds added for extra richness on special occasions. The gravies would be simple and rather watery in baniya vegetarian cooking—with not even grated onions added for thickness, as it is done today. Tomatoes, that have rather ruined north Indian gravies with their indiscriminate and widespread use, were unknown. Instead, the common souring agent—including in Mughal and Kayastha non-vegetarian gravies was yoghurt. The colour and richness of a dish came from bhunoing the masala right, on a low flame, till the oil separated from it. Haldi was always added to Hindu cooking—as opposed to Muslim food where the rich qormas and qaliyas are without haldi, turmeric. This was probably because turmeric was and is regarded as an auspicious ingredient in Hinduism—its absence from a food connoting dishes made during mourning.
Old Delhi’s favourite breakfast, for all communities, was bedmi aloo. The potato curry would be tangy with the addition of a methi dana chutney, soaked fenugreek seeds, which also gave it a slight bitterness and hence complexity of flavour. The trick to turning out great bedims was to roll these thin and fry them crisp. These would be stuffed with a filling of dal, ground roughly for texture, and while commercial cooks didn’t always, families would heighten flavours by adding chopped ginger and green chillies to the mixture filling the dough. Bedmi aloo would be served with jalebis as a street breakfast. A rather unusal kayastha home treat is the nagori. Rather like a mathri—made out of maida, and deep fried—this is puffed up like a poori and seasoned with ajwain. On Navratras, the festival of the nine goddesses preceeding Dussehra, when pre-adolescent girls are worshiped as incarnations, nagori stuffed with halwa was distributed as Prasad.
There were other popular breakfast items too—some of which you will still find in the old city. Paya (trotters) and nahari (beef) was cooked with whole spices, stewed overnight so that it became so tender that the meat slipped off the bones. This was eaten with a khameeri roti, fermented bread, and accompanied with onions, ginger juliennes, cut green chillies and a dash of lemon. A warming winter breakfast. However, these were—and remain- dishes that were not really cooked at home but ordered home by the muslim families, who would send containers from home for “takeway” a night before.
Muslim home cooking was much simpler. Salans, or seasonal vegetables cooked with meats, were popular every day dishes. Sadia Dehlvi shared a wonderful recipe for her aloo-gosht salan, mutton curry cooked with potatoes, that is hard to resist. The secret, according to her, for these old Delhi mutton gravies is making a masala with browned onions (stored as a matter of routine in airtight jars) blended with yoghurt and then adding this to the dry whole spices in which the mutton would be sautéed. This method of making a curry is different from how the same thing is done, say, in a Hindu home or elsewhere in Lucknow et al, where they use raw, grated onions as a base to build their curries on.
For special occasions, qormas, richer by far, would be cooked. But there were also dishes like nargisi kofte (hard boiled egg wrapped in mince and curried) and bharwan pasande (flat pieces of mutton, rolled, stuffed with dried fruits and curries) that were specialities and required very definite kitchen skills. The kayastha homes shared in this repertoire and pasande are very much recognized as their specialities along with kofte—dried or curried—made from mince and left to cook in curry on slow flame. Both the muslims and kayasthas homes also specialized in the yakhni pulao. Biryani was a poor man’s rough dish. Instead, it was the delicacy of a pulao that was preferred by the elite. In yakhni Pualo, rice cooks in mutton stock and hence each grain has flavour.
Most of the kayastha women were vegetarian and hence there is a huge vegetarian repertoire of the community that shares in some of the baniya dishes —except that onion and garlic are much more frequently used in kayastha home cooking and the preparations are richer by far. Kadhi, butter milk thickened with besan, was regarded as an auspicious dish in Hindu homes and cooked on weddings, birthdays, festivals. Essentially, this kadhi is different from the Punjabi kadhi as in no onion is used and the seasoning is just hing and methi dana. Dry potatoes were made with this and this remains a favourite combo.
While baniya cooking uses seasonal vegetables, lightly sautéing these with a pinch of asafetida and cumin, kayasthas treated their vegetables almost like they would treat the meats. Bhunoing is an important process in kayastha cooking and even simple vegetables like zucchini, gourd and lady’s finger bhunoed with onions.
An interesting innovation are the mock-non-vegetarian preparations in kayastha homes. Since there were no taboos against meat eating and yet, half the community remained vegetarian owing to their Vaishnavite roots, this was perhaps inevitable. I remember my grandparents having “mock fish curry” (made from raw bananas), and even mock liver (!), made from moong dal and so on with great relish.
Old Delhi chaats are also unique though they were traditionally never made at home (khomchawallahs came bearing these offerings every evening in platters made out of leaves). Chaats like Kalmi Bade, Moong Dal ki Pakori, alternatively called Ram Laddo by khomchewalle on the streets, kulle, bursting with the freshness of fresh fruits but spiced up with chickpeas and chaat masala, are just some of these elusive treats that you may not find anywhere else. The custom of dousing every chaat item with yoghurt is relatively new and a Punjabi construct. Daulat ki chaat was really special and a sweet really made from just froth of thickened milk.
Desserts included a wide range of halwas depending on the season (carrots, gourds everything was used), besan laddoos made at home and consumed as an evening snack, malpue, a monsoon speciality, lauj (made of dried fruits or even gourd but without the addition of khoya in it) as well as Mughal-inspired phirni laden with almonds and kulfi that was flavoured by fruits ranging from figs to pomegranates and apples. Special halwais were called upon to make these. Alas, that tribe is all but gone.
The recipe Anoothi has shared with us is for Makhane ki Kheer, another dish that was new to me. Makhane are puffed lotus seeds which are often used to make Indian ‘popcorn’ but here have been transformed into a creamy kheer dessert. Fittingly, as we head into the festive season, this recipe is suitable for Navratri
A Recipe for Makhane ki Kheer
- 2 kg milk
- 250 gm makhana
- 500 gm sugar
- 100 gm small cardamoms, crushed
- Split the makhana in half and dry roast in a pan. Boil milk on a slow flame for around 10 minutes or until it thickens. Add roasted makhana and boil for another 10 minutes. Remove from heat, add sugar and stir well to dissolve. Garnish with crushed cardamom.
(Anoothi runs the blog indiafoodandtravelguide.com and recently curated a festivalof old Delhi family recipes at the Claridges Surajkund. To read about the festival, go to http://indiafoodandtravelguide.com/delicous-delhi)