Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The ‘Sufi’ in the Indian cook... About ‘Una waale’ Darshan Lalji

The biggest takeaway from my food travels is the personalities I meet and the relationships to
food that I discover. Like the Maslows Theory I have found a common thread in the
development of the persona of the Indian kaarigar. The first being the unsure cribbing stage
and the last being the one-with-food ‘Malang’ stage. I consider myself lucky to have a met a
lot of the Sufi malang kaarigars in my travels. My conversations with them end up being
‘uneditable sermons’, as Gaurav Jang, Zee Khana Khazana’s programming head smilingly
puts it.

It’s amazing how after cooking for 45-50 years one gets a sense of freedom from the world,
one can live and work anywhere, keep smiling forever, and cook with sheer intuition and no effort.
The last guy who I met who fits this character sketch is Darshan Lal Chaudhry, who amazed me in 15
minutes of conversation with his composure and knowledge about Indian sweets.
After leaving his home in Chhota Nangal Khurd (Una, Himachal Pradesh) at the age of 16 and working his way to being a halwai at the age of 23, he moved to Jaipur and has been there for 28 years. His three sons have no interest in the profession, they work in factories and farms. “They will be very rich I am sure , but they will never have a smile as big as mine,” he says. That Sufi smile is the gift of food, and a sign of a happy relationship with self. After an hour of conversation, he took me to his ‘AC’ room, which had his bed an almirah and a parant full of dough. This, he said is my past time — making 100 kilograms of feeni (thin seviyaan ) a day. A three-stage process of deft dough pulling that ultimately yields dough bunches that fry themselves to the thinnest doodh feeni I have ever seen. When I wake up, it’s puja, shower and then kneading the seviyan dough. I leave the air conditioning on and visit it every three hours to pull it. After 12 hours and three ‘pulling’ sessions, he knots up the feeni and hands it over for frying. This has been his routine for the last 12 years since his guru Shyam Sundar Sharma passed away. It’s my puja supplement he says and laughs.
In a ‘celebrity chef’ and a ‘foren’ obsessed world (and yeah I am a part of that world) where handmade noodles are a craze and oriental chefs, who master this art are demi gods (and rightly so, as noodle making is no childs play) this Sufi from Una is quietly and smilingly carrying on this ritual in his room. Write to us for his number and try meeting him the next time in Jaipur and please do get a kilo of doodh feeni for me as well.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

ILISH ...a love story

Having grown up in a Bengali neighbourhood, I have always found fascinating Bengal’s love for Chhana Mishti, its fish, and the inbuilt importance of fish and food in Bengali rituals, from pujas to marriages.
It’s said that Bengal has more fresh water fish than weeks in a year, and many customs and rituals revolve round these fish, like dressing up a pair of Rui carp in beautiful detail, like a bride and groom, and sending it to the girl’s house on the eve of the wedding or presenting a Joda ilish to Maa Saraswati post which only it comes to the house for consumption.
The fish that undoubtedly stands tall above all others and is my first and eternal Bengali love is Hilsa or Ilish, and that’s our conversation today.
Bengal has two distinct cooking styles the ‘Ghoti’ style represents West Bengal and the ‘Bangal’ style from East Bengal, which is more rustic and tastier in my opinion, and voicing this opinion has made me many enemies among my Ghoti friends. Among other heated arguments that ensue when Ghotis and Bengalis eat together, the most common one which I recently was a witness to is about the queen (ilish).
Sudipa n me at the Gariahat fish market
Sudipa Mukhopadhyay is a wonderful lady, who cooks the most amazing Bengali food and hosts the longest running cookery show in Bengal Rannaghar. She shared the most interesting Ilish recipes and stories this January on my visit to Kolkata. Her husband is a Bangal and they are a lovely couple except when it comes to the conversation on which ilish is better, the Ganga Ilish from West Bengal or the Padma Ilish imported from Bangladesh. This conversation lights up the dining table instantly like a haybarn on fire, and that fire is the spice to her marriage, she jokes. But there’s no difference of opinion over the fact that Hilsa is the Queen of Bengal and it rules both sides of the Padma. The fact that no fish can rival its exquisite flavour and tenderness, not even the giant prawn with its succulence and flavoursome coral-filled head.
All good stories have a message right? Even love stories. This story has a heartfelt message too. It’s painful to see the Ganga Ilish become a rare commodity due to river pollution and overfishing. The Padma Ilish is the only variety available in fish markets and the Ganga Ilish are only becoming rarer and smaller and skinnier because of the not so great water of today’s Ganges. If you are a fish lover, try out this recipe, fall in love with the ilish and then do drop a line to the Ganga pollution control unit giving them another reason to
keep up the good work.

Ilish Patori
l 1 inch Ilish Darne (locally known as the ring cut): 2 no.s
l Poppy seed paste with green chilly: ¼ cup
l Kasundi mustard: ¼ cup
l Mustard oil: 1 tbsp
l Curd: ½ cup
l Turmeric powder: 1 tsp
l Salt and lemon juice to taste
l Banana leaf to wrap
Marinate the fish with turmeric and salt, leave aside for five minutes. Mix all the other ingredients and apply
on fish. Wrap in banana leaf and steam, serve hot

Magic, even at 95

            Lucknow has its share of great food and some bewildering food fables. Stories of dal cooked with gold that bought an old dead tree to life or of ‘Parind Pooris’ that had small birds fly out of them when cracked, are just a few common ones that you would hear sitting in an erstwhile Nawab’s or Taluqedar’s house. 

             These are more than just stories and food folklore, they are the connect to Lucknow’s glorious cultural past. While tracing this past in parlance I met a gentleman, Rishad Rizwi, in his haveli in old Lucknow. He was a proud Lucknowite with his stash of secret recipes and family dishes, on requesting a taste of which he invited me over for lunch. I was more interested in the cooking process and so chose to start early morning with his chef Mubarak Ali. 
              But before that, here’s how old Nawabi kitchens were set up: each kitchen had a ‘daroga’, who was the administrative head and bawarchis, who would cook for the courts, hakims, who would identify what the royal family needed to eat as per the season (or their body needs) and the raqabdars, who were the highly paid cooks and would cook only for the Nawabs/Taluqdars. 
            The bawarchis were the famous lot, as they would be widely appreciated by virtue of their food being tasted by a lot more people. These chefs had their names printed on wedding invites, as they would be the real crowd pullers. A famous chef cooking for a wedding was sure to draw huge crowds.It’s the raqabdars though who were the masters of creativity and finesse, as they cooked for the most choosy, moody and the easily-bored class. These raqabdars are a lost tribe now, and the next morning when I learned that Mubarak Ali was a third generation raqabdar I felt honored to be working with him.
             When I arrived to meet him, I saw a frail, old and lazy man lying on his charpai and abusing the whole world.When he got up, he could hardly walk, had a very noticeable hunchback, and then the raw material arrived and the transformation happened.
           Suddenly there was a glow in his eyes, he was sprinting between his three wood-fired chulhas and talking to me like we were friends forever. He started cooking with his father when he was 12 and professed to being 95! Which meant he had cooked for eight decades!! A fact later verified by his knowledge of ingredients, his skills, and his never ending stories, and later by Rizwi saab himself. 
               His kitchen had only fire wood, itr and potlis of masalas not numbered, not named, and all I did was light the fire and follow him around trying to keep up. He cooked a meal for six people of six dishes in 45 minutes while I was just wondering what hit me. Then he yelled at the waiter to take the food and quietly lay back on his charpai and started abusing the whole world again. What I had witnessed was like a dream for a chef; pure magic of a raqabdar, a 95-year-old chef, who would probably never have his work or his name acknowledged outside of the royal family he cooks for. So Mubarak chacha, here’s a small chef trying to talk about a grand master chef... when he is still stunned and speechless.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014


             We are in the middle of the festive season, when our fitness resolutions are put to test. Mine at least..... 
             Starting from the excellent food at the Ganapati pandals (GSB being my favourite) to the Durga Pujo pandals to Dussehra,Diwali, Christmas... Oh and I forgot Onam, my latest love after having an amazing Onasadya in Kochi. Sadyas are traditional banquets in Kerala. Food is cooked in Giant urlis and served on a banana leaf. 
                 Here are a few interesting protocols that I found out after eating a lot of sadya.The banana leaf is placed so that its narrow part always points to the left side. Sadya is served from the top left corner of the leaf, on which is placed in order, a small yellow banana, sarkara upperi (shakkar paras) and papad. Then the mango pickle, injipuli (a thick ginger tamarind curry), lime pickle, and the thoran, olan, avial, pachadi, kichadi, Erissery (a pumpkin chori bean combination like no other) and salt are placed in order. Here’s where I lose patience and focus and delve deep into awesome food!
               This Onasadya was special for two things that I learnt. One — payasam and crushed papad (Apallam) is an amazing combination because it gives you the sweet and salty balance that is so “in” (and it soaks up the milk so that you can eat payasam with your fingers just like the pros) and two Palada is the best dessert ever, hence I am sharing a must-try recipe with you. 
                 Well now that I am done expressing my immense new love for Sadya, allow me a few gyan lines on eating in the festive times. Almost all our festivals accompany change of seasons and hence a change of produce. All our traditional festive fare is based food being essential to how we feel and having a certain effect on our mind and body, whether it’s the gajak and til laddu in the chilly Lohri to warm our body or the Thandai in Holi to cool it down, food is meant to sync the change outside with what’s happening Inside us. To sum it up this gyan conversation — eat seasonal and local... and this festive season might initiate a very healthy phase in your life. Eat traditional because that’s what will sync with you. Try and remember what your grand-mother used to cook as special festive dishes, dig out these “well-being” recipes this festive season, cook them (and please share them with me). Wishing you a healthy happy eating!!!

figuring out the sadya kitchen

Palada Payasam
300 gms Unakkalari / uncooked rice
2 tsp coconut oil
4 litres milk
50 gms sugar
800 gms sugar
1. Wash the rice well and grind it with water. Add sugar and coconut oil to it, and mix it till it is becomes thinner than the dosa batter consistency, but thick enough to be spread on a leaf.
2. Tear the banana leaves into five portions and remove the fibers. Spread the batter on each leaf, flatten and smoothen it out, steam it.
3. Gently separate each ada from the leaf when it cools. Cut each of the adas into very small pieces.
4. Into an urli pour some milk and when it boils add the sugar and continue boiling until it thickens. 
5. Add the ada pieces into it when the solution is well reduced / thickened. Serve warm.