Scent of History

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World cuisine may take you places. But reminders of the past and our own nativity lie in foods which are sadly being fast forgotten.

It was only a jute bag of raw rice, a gift from our landlord in Delhi. Reaching in, I lifted a handful to my nose, and its sweet inner scent made tears spill from my eyes. Just one whiff summoned memories of my father who’d bring home sackfuls of ambe-mohar, a mango-scented rice from Maharashtra. My mind rewound to forgotten foods and extinct meals. I could see my father, wearing a white sadra and pairan, waiting for crisp mayalu chi bhajji (a leafy green pakora). Perched crosslegged on a chair, he’d contentedly crunch on this heart-shaped fry, harvested from a creeper found only in the Western Ghats and places where silence still has hues of green.

Sometimes he’d wrap a bit of bhakri around bajirao gewde, a broad bean stuffed with kheema, and feed me this morsel once I’d timidly tiptoe to his side. Though my mother swears otherwise, I still believe this bean’s haughty title has Peshwai provenance. One nibble would make me hold up my fist and sound out the Maratha war cry “Har Har Mahadev” to the screech of imaginary tutaris (trumpets). 

More than those mouthfuls, what I remember most about those vanished feasts was their intense localness. Everything came from five bazaars in Mumbai. From the batatawala in Bhaji Galli to the bombil-wali at Citylight, every vendor recognised Vakil Saheb who arrived in a black Ambassador, spoke gently in Marathi, offered medicines and legal advice, and trotted out his wife in her best silk sari to greet them on Diwali.

In Delhi, bereft of a bhajiwali to banter with in Marathi and with no call of konfal (a deep purple yam), kantoli (a tiny bitter gourd) and oa (an aromatic fuzzy leaf), I ask for gobhi and lauki and leave. In Mumbai, these local hero-veggies are tumbling off thalis. Taking their place are foreign foods on porcelain plates. Bhaji Galli’s loudest bellows are ‘galangal and broccoli’. Beneath this, who can hear the Marathi whimper of ‘taaze mayalu (fresh mayalu)?”

We’ve all had aromatic epiphanies that return us to lapsed food sagas. In the realm of the senses, smell works faster than sight at peeling back the heavy husk of food history. Fragrances evoke the way we ate. Who we were. And what we’ve lost. Like Assam’s Bihu saag, a bounteous collection of 101 greens and herbs, now only made with 14 varieties due to dwindling biodiversity. A third-century Tamil rice dish made with betel leaves that’s almost erased. And oemberiyu, a toddy-soaked version of the vegetarian Gujarati undhiyu, made by Parsis that couples meat with beans, sweet potatoes and plantains. It died in the village-city crossover. You can’t light fires in apartments, nor is toddy easy to find. So too with UP’s rustic divinities like tapkay, whose fruity pizzazz came from now obscure desi mangoes.

In just 150 years, so much food history has been written and washed off our shining steel thalis. The Rani of Jhansi and all her fellow freedom fighters who gave up their lives during the War of Independence might have died without having tasted a tomato. 

This fruit from the New World appeared in our markets in 1890. Even potatoes and green chillies were imports, says KT Acharya in his authoritative History of Food in India. Tea, discovered by the British among the Singpo tribes, was something that we hardly sipped till the 1900s. It was a beverage designed to promote productivity among factory workers during the Industrial Revolution. Sur Samrat KL Saigal wooed India into drinking chai. In an advertisement for the Indian Tea Market Expansion Board ad, he said, “Mujhe ek pyala chai pilaiye, phir sunata hoon (Give me a cuppa, then I’ll sing).”

Tea made us abandon our repertoire of sherbets: made of bel, Shiva’s favourite fruit; the juice of phalsa berries that grew wild on the Gangetic plains; cooling khus ;and the purple kokum, a Konkan fruit . We’re now the world’s largest tea drinking republic. My father-in-law, a school-inspector in UP, distributed tea among students to popularise chai in the 1940s. A time when India was hungry, not thirsty (the poor still need food, not tea).

Compared to the past, we cook like clods, using measures, not andaaz. Who can conjure royal intricacies made in Mughal kitchens like narangi kofta kalia, wound to have citrus-like contours with orange silk that wouldn’t show up in the kalia (gravy)? All so Jehangir could smile at this kofta-trompe-d’oeil? Culinary historian and researcher Salma Husain says, “The Mughals ate lavishly, their food was garnished with gold, silver and gemstones which had cooling and warming properties. Hakims knew about the emperor’s health and made constant adjustments.” We use one recipe, rather than sensitively re-measure for seasons and constitutions.

In her modular kitchen in Gurgaon, Husain is unable to recreate quas-e-qazah, rainbow koftas made from khoya and paneer. She stains some koftas pink with beets, some green with spinach and some brown with birishta (onion paste). Then she stops. “Who can afford silver and gold leaf nowadays?” 

We all know about the Punjabi refugee from Pakistan who wowed Delhi with his red-clay-oven-creation in 1947. Kundan Lal’s tandoori chicken is now the world’ most eaten bird. Infinitely more refined is a lost-after-Partition dish from East Pakistan, chitol maach muitha, made from a prized Brahmaputra catch. The back of a chitol fish (whose weight ranges from 5 to16 kg) is carefully flaked and then tossed in the palm into free-form dumplings. These are steamed and then fried before being floated in rich onion gravy.

At 6, Ballygunge Place, a speciality-Bengali restaurant with branches in Kolkata and Bangalore, Chef Sengupta, who has recreated this dish, confesses, “I get scared when grandmothers come in.” He should be. Didumas who’ve got a hand for making these delicate fish dumplings could box his ears if the muithas are too hard.

Historian Akhilesh Mithal sounds harsh when he declares: “Indians today are no longer Indian, we are Ibn Macaulay (sons of Macaulay), divorced from our language and heritage.” At his home in Delhi, filled with ancient Indian art and antiques, Mithal who calls himself a Dilliwala, says, “I am lucky my carpet sellers bring me chochi’waru bread from Srinagar, I get pedhas from Mathura, mishti doi from Kolkata and onatams snacks from South India. He recalls eating kamkrakh (star fruit), “the best of which came from Shalimar Bagh in Kashmir”, says this man approaching age 90. He disdainfully points out, “Delhi had 12 varieties of flatbread which we gave up for double roti—tasteless, useless bread.”

Trying to wrest recipes from paatis (Tamil grandmothers), culinary historian, TV host and restaurateur Chef Jacob Aruni, once begged a silver-haired matriarch Sigupi Pungul Ali, a mother of 18 children, for a third-century recipe for paan made with garlic rice. She was unwilling to divulge the ingredients, until the boy she thought was an ingénue cooked a paruphi halwa, a sweet made of starchy cotton seeds, originally made in Nagercoil. Mouthfuls of this halwa, darkened with black jaggery, loosened paati’s lips. The secret ingredients for vetrilai poondu sadam spilled out… jeeragu sambar rice, masala, betel leaves and dry ginger. “That halwa did it; it’s a bestseller at my restaurant. Since no one knows how to make it, now farmers use cotton seeds as cattle-fodder,” says Chef Jacob.

In Guwahati, till some years ago, to celebrate Bihu a homemaker could wander down to a nearby pond and gather 101 varieties of bitter, sweet, astringent and fragrant leaves to make a bohagar xaak khoa reeti. Now city folk get by with a mini-harvest of seven or 14. “Amroli parua, the tangy soft white ant eggs we eat this dish with, can’t be found easily in Guwahati,” says Jyoti Das, who’s documented Assam’s ethnic culinary history in Ambrosia.

Cradling her cheek, wistfully looking into the distance, cookbook-author Bapsi Nariman, who lives in Delhi, says, “Parsis, who migrated to India and married Persian food to Indian spices, hardly make khariya (trotters) anymore.” She remembers learning how to cook a trotters and black-eyed peas curry from her father. He laboriously showed her how to clean and cook the hooves “till the last hair comes off”. From the gravy, after multiple strainings, they made sweet jelly flavoured with a shot of brandy. Now she makes this dish for her grandchildren “who love it”. Nariman’s sixth book Traditional Parsi Cooking includes recipes for kharia and oomberiyu.

The flavour of seasons has also loosened its hold on our tongues. “The taste of saawan came from tapkay, made from unbranded desi mangoes,” recalls Aligarh-based artist Farhan Mujib. With no place in a hierarchy ruled by dasehris, pairis and landgas, orchard caretakers paid no attention to desi aams that dropped to earth (tapak-tapak, so the name tapkay). Last year, when a friend brought him a sack of these stony fruits, he recreated a kalonji-flecked tapkay from memory. His guests licked it down to its last pulpy bits.

“Pure winters dignified the turnip,” says Mujib, recalling shabdegh, where this root vegetable is cut and turned into koftas and cooked along with meatballs overnight. Mujib last cooked it 15 years ago. Seasonal specialties like kachnaar kali ka ghosht (meat made with bauhinia flowers) remind him of feasts where his naanai dressed in embroidered dupattas and wore ittars, khus in summer and shamatual amber in winter, and pinned bela flowers to her kurta.

Born of true thrift and taste, the Moplah community of Kerala “used to eat puttu, paper-thin rice pathris (pancakes) and attilthala (a goat’s head) bathed in coconut gravy for breakfast”, says Abida Rasheed, a Moplah food revivalist. Today this community, who trace their ancestry to Arab and Yemini traders who visited the spice-coast, eat only the puttu and pathri. Ever since chefs from the Park Hotel discovered Abida, who runs a garment shop in Kozhikode, they’ve had her at the helm of Moplah Food Festivals in Delhi and Bangalore, where aleesa is the star feature, a meat and wheat porridge dish taught to the community by Arab settlers. But even her prowess can’t produce a thalikani koi, chicken pillow, as made by her grandmother. “She could take off the skin intact, remove the meat and shred it. She would cook this kheema with masala, stuff it back in the chicken, drape the skin again before cooking it whole.” Abida confesses, “No matter how careful I am, the skin tears.”

Though Abida still maintains culinary continuity by using stone grinders and cooking on slow fires, we’ve moved on from earthen pots and pumping primus stoves to using non-stick vessels on high-pressure piped gas. We gobble down microwaved leftovers, sprawled before the TV. We forget that “chairs and dining tables entered Indian interiors only in the 1920s”, says Amin Jaffer, Christie’s director of international art. Yet when we see achari mutton served in martbans or on kansa (bell metal thalis), something makes us clutch at these semblances  of our past.

In Tetrapak times, fruit orchards have been replaced by Sintex tanks, satellite dishes and sparkling Santros. In Mumbai, Theresa Menezes, who belongs to the dwindling East Indian community famed for their bottle masalas, asks, “Who makes duck moilee now? We used to rear them outside our bungalows in Bandra, now you get skinny ducks that are tasteless. While duck moilee was a must at weddings, I didn’t serve it when my four children got married.” At family gatherings, she says, “We always talk about food that we ate like honey balls and tope, a meat curry arranged on pohe (rice flakes).”

A small farmer’s movement is committed to sowing “bhikre bhoole anaj” (forgotten foods). These include millets that were central to our food bowl. “These nutri-packed, water prudent grains have been pushed to the side by the Green Revolution that created rice and wheat monocultures,” says Maya Goburdhun, president of Navdanya, an NGO network of seed keepers. Re-skilling farmers in South India, Vanaja Ramprasad, who runs the Green Foundation, is working with them to revive rare millets and vegetables like yellow ladyfingers, sponge gourds and an array of beans. 

“They’re seeds in internal exile,” says Ramaprasad.  In a post-colonial era ruled by false refinement and convenience, we’ve abandoned millets. Urban Maharashtrians, who consumed a panoply of bhakris (flatbreads) made of jowar, bajra and ragi, have switched over to wheat.

We once had 200,000 types of rice, ranging from the colour black-purple to snow-white. Rice, an aquatic grass, was born in the Indo-China plains. Yet, our rice dictionary is getting thinner each season. That’s why Navdanya are running a programme called Seeds of Freedom in Delhi schools, where they are re-acquainting Class VI–VIII kids with traditional grains and vegetables.

Our gods haven’t yet succumbed to pastas and Peking Duck. Sacred rites have kept food rituals alive. To know what Indians ate during antiquity, eat as the gods do. Take a secular mouthful of a Ramdana (God’s own grain) laddu, an offering in Uttarakhandi temples, kuttu puris made during Navraatri, and snack like Ganpatti-bappa does in South India on khotte, idlis steamed in aromatic jackfruit leaves.

Faced by a future, where Climate Change could cause agricultural wipeouts, last year India put 30,000 seed samples into protective custody under Arctic ice-caps in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Time zones away from this doomsday chamber, here in Delhi, thank God I can still sniff a handful of ambe-mohur rice and recapture a sense of lost nativity.