Sunday, March 17, 2013

Takeaways from Awadh

By the time India entered the eighteenth century, the great Mughal empire was starting to fall apart. Hyderabad was an independent state and so was Oudh/Awadh. Awadhi cuisine had transformed itself into something quite exquisite. They had abandoned the greasy and spicy Mughlai dishes for more delectable and delicate art.

What happened with the Awadhi cuisine was very political but went towards the right direction and tempted the palettes to create something special. During the skirmishes with Delhi, the nawabs of Awadh had started a culture of one up-manship. They were trying to project Lucknow as the better city and a place of excellence. They were doling out huge amount in salaries to the best cooks, poets, bards, singers, painters and other artists, to come and work in Lucknow. One nobleman is rumored to have payed an amount of 1200 Rupees to his cook, "an amount greater than the salary of any cook in the highest courts in the history of India".

Lucknow took the Mughlai cuisine and transformed it by incorporating it with the products of the fertile region of Awadh. They loved cream and used it to perfect the Qaurama/Korma. The Mughals had used the Persian method for cooking this. They used to first marinate the meat in yogurt, ginger, garlic, onions and spices before simmering it gently in the yogurt sauce. The mixture was thickened with ground almonds. The Lucknowis used a lot of cream instead and created a more rich and voluptuous preparation.

There are a number of good stories behind every Awadhi preparation. The most funny one to my opinion is the discovery of Sammi Kabab. We have all had our hands on the nice, soft, creamy kebabs that stand out as renegades in the world of highly spiced and sometimes hard to chew kebabs.  Lucknow was the place where it was discovered.

In contrast with the Mughals, who ate sparingly, the Awadhi nawabs were gluttons. In fact, nawab Asaf-ud-Daulah had become so fat that he could no longer ride a horse. He gained a lot of weight even after he had lost his teeth and thus the ability to chew. But the nawab needed his kebabs and the cooks had to do something to satiate him. The cooks abandoned beef for lamb, which was softer, and minced it into keema. The cooks would grind the keema into paste, add ginger, garlic, poppy seeds, some spices and some cream, and roll it into balls or lozenges, put them on skewers and roast on fire. The resulting kebabs were silky and soft and could be eaten by even a toothless person.

I would have more of Awadhi stories in a later post. But, for now we can conclude that what had happened in Awadh was something incredible. It had come out of mere politics and power struggle. Politics had not always been bad to the people. It may not have been a direct benefactor, but did help people in discovering new ways of living and thus enhancing the overall cultural diversity; the diversity that we all are proud of. Politics is a powerful tool to construct or destruct.
Today we do have the right to choose our own nawabs; but let's choose them well; to enhance the diversity and freedom and not to stifle the flexible and innovative tradition into a bottle in the ocean of intolerance.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Refresher of Mind

I told that I would talk of the courtly cuisine of the Hindu kings in my previous post. So Here it is..

Twelfth century India; a voracious king was eating his way to glory. There were many kings who used to satiate their tastebuds using different species of plants and animals; but I choose King Somesvara III. We should be thankful to Mr. Somesvara since he recorded his ways of satiation.

Mr. Somesvara has left us with one of the best records of the twelfth century Hindu courtly cuisine. Somesvara III belonged to the Western Chalukyan dynasty who ruled of parts of the modern day Maharashtra and Karnataka. Although parts of his empire was slipping out, this king was more interested in arts and literature than war. He ended up writing the delightfully named Manasollasa, the Refresher of Mind. This encyclopedic account of the kingly affairs described the conduct of the affairs of the states and other courtly routines to some extent, but dwelled much more into describing Kingly pleasures of hunting, massage, sex, jewelry, carriages, royal umbrellas, and the favorite - food.

Meat based aphrodisiacs and concoctions to promote youth amongst kings had been well described in ancient Ayurvedic texts. Mr. Somesvara had paid attention and had in-depth knowledge of such treatise and noted that a king should have a "suitable, healthy and hygienic diet". The king used to have lentil dumplings in a spicy yogurt sauce(The modern day curry chawal made with yogurt and besan dumplings), fatty pork fried with cardamoms(extinct in India today), or roast rump steak(possibly banned in modern day India). Some of his other lip-smackers may sound a bit unappetizing; fried tortoise (said to taste like plantain or kaccha kela) and roasted black rat.

Five centuries later, the habit of eating fabulous meats wasn't yet extinct. It was still being kept alive by the kings of Vijayanagara. Alongside mutton, pork, and venison(deer meat), “sparrows and rats, and cats and lizards” could all be found on sale in the markets of the capital city.

This makes me think, what happened to this fabulous tradition? Where did Vijaynagara or the Chalukyans go wrong? Why couldn't they maintain this rich and diverse tradition? Why is India today going more and more vegan not because it's healthy but because it's not a sin?

While looking for salvation, we lost our way into the labyrinth of gastronomic politics. We forgot that we have canines to eat meat and have very perceptive senses called taste and smell, which if neglected could lead our diverse and unfathomably deep social order into something so socialistic and equal that we may end up creating a distasteful after effect towards the decline of our civilization. Let's look into the history and see that we never were averse to anything and that made us into a golden bird. Acceptance and acceptability created a great nation and the only way to gain that state back is to create an accepting and nurturing nation; the hints of which can be felt through the culinary delights that come out of humble kitchens.

Post Selected for Tangy Tuesday Picks March 12, 2013

Monday, March 4, 2013

Beef? No Thanks.. For Now...

When I am out eating with my American friends, it is quite often that they end up ordering vegetarian food; the more informed ones wouldn't go all vegetarian, but would stay off the beef. A question has always stayed within me; since when did we stop eating beef and start being Hindu with respect to the faith that we follow.

When Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, a French jeweler, traveled to India for buying precious stones, he found it difficult to maintain his cuisine. He found that in large villages governed by Muslim governors, it was possible to find sheep, fowl and pigeons for sale; but in the ones populated with Hindu merchants, or Baniyas, those stores were limited. Pietro della Valle had grumbled, “I found much trouble in reference to my diet … as these Indians are extremely fastidious in edibles, there is neither flesh nor fish to be had amongst them; one must be contented only with Rice, Butter, or Milk, and other such inanimate things.”(Tavernier, Travels, I; Valle, The Travels, p. 294.) Tavernier and Valle would have been happy today with the fine dining options available.

For the Hindus of sixteenth - seventeenth century, there was a taboo associated with the consumption of beef. Beef consumption was considered vile and vulgar. It was regarded as a low thing. But this had not always been the case. The ancient Ayurvedic documents discussed the qualities of beef. They also warned of it's difficult to digest nature. Beef broth was considered a medicine for emaciation and was suggested as a diet to people with active lifestyle.(Chattopadhyaya, Tradition of Rationalist Medicine in Ancient India: Case for a Critical Analysis of the Caraka-saṃhitā, pp. 212-213) Cattle was also apparently used as sacrifice to the Gods.(Jha, The Myth of Holy Cow). The use of cattle meat reduced over the centuries; India was transforming into an agrarian economy, cows and bulls were increasingly being used as drought animals and farmers were reluctant to slaughter them. Another reason for the slow but steady deviation from meat eating was the emergence of Buddhism. 

The courtly cuisine of the then Hindu kings of tenth to twelfth century wasn't devoid of meat. But that comes in some later post.

Historically we haven't been non-beef eaters. We ate beef and used it in rituals. But the beauty of Hinduism lies in its plasticity. With time, economy and new beliefs, we did get rid of eating something that had some better use. The clever brahmins made it into a taboo thus enforcing the apparent need into a belief.

The question today is if we still need this taboo. I say no, and the brand of Hinduism I follow can do without it (others are entitled to their own opinions). Over the centuries, we may get over this one and would add new ones. Being too rigid isn't being Hindu; hope that transcends into our culinary culture and hope that culinary culture brings forth newer and more delectable ways for us to express ourselves.

Note: The text above is my own interpretation of history and every single person has his/her right to interpret in his/her own way. But it is not intended to hurt anyone's fragile sentiments.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Hungry Cook?

What happens when you go a day without food? My mom would say "nothing beta, I do that every once in a while". My dad would say it's good if you do that once a moth, quoting all the big physiologists he knows of. My sister would say, well, you don't know, it depends how your genes are made and what virus reside in you; and I would try to run off. My roommate would say, "Man, if I don't eat today, you'll have nothing in the fridge tomorrow. So, let me eat.". But I say, it makes you a dangerous cook the next day.

Hunger has a wonderful way of effecting how you think. With a full tummy, there's every possibility that the food that you cook wouldn't be as good as when you are slightly hungry. I say slightly because when you are very hungry, the food that you make would be very oily, full of proteins and spices; your body would make your mind do that.  I wonder if that's the reason why the cheap Indian eateries serve so much oil in the food; the cooks are starving!

Hunger also affects judgement. Every time I have skipped breakfast, I have seen the head of my boss replaced by a samosa and the keyboard replaced by a big bar of dark chocolate. I used to wonder why samosas and dark chocolate out of all things!?! Well, have you ever been hungry after eating two full sized north Indian samosas or a full bar of chocolate?

There are a few hunger busting tricks. Tea, Coffee and aerated beverages with caffeine are potent hunger busters. My girlfriend sips tea when she doesn't have time to eat and yet is hungry. Eating asparagus, lettuce or spinach kills hunger in cold blood. These veggies fill the stomach up fast and take time to digest. They are not high on calories so although the stomach being full would deny hunger, hunger itself would coax the other parts of body to burn the saved up fat. Foolish body! I wonder if in the hungry Indian country, we should subsidize tea, coffee, coke and spinach.

So, on an empty stomach I started cooking today. What I cooked would have made the conscientious foodies faint. I took a slice of ham, fried it on a pan with some clarified butter. Took some potatoes, boiled them, sliced them and fried them. Took two slices of American cheese, melted it with ground chicken and made a patty out of that. Took a sour dough muffin, dipped it in beaten egg yolk and fried it to make a salty french bread. Next I assembled all of the above into a sandwich with lettuce and mayonnaise between each layer.

Can't move after eating that. Never cook when you are very hungry. Ask someone to cook for you or buy something.... Why didn't I do that... As a friend once said, I feel like a Python.....