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TANDORI TALES AND CURRY TRAILS
The newspapers recently announced that the Army
had decided to change the age-old rations of their men in uniform. From now
on Curry is in! Canned rations are out! The army in question is the British
army! And the curry in question is the much-loved and much-consumed Indian
curry. Britons love their curry. So do Indians – those living in the UK,
living in India … or living anywhere in the world!
Americans, on the other hand, prefer the Indian
tandoori meat dishes – because it’s so much easier to prepare on
their backyard barbecues. And at least one American president had made
Delhi’s Bukhara Restaurant famous, just by walking in hungry and,
later on, walking out, a highly satisfied man. Shall we say – overcome by
tandoori lamb? Between the Curry and Tandoori – lies the
fascinating tale of how popular Indian cuisines found their way across the
world -- and into the kitchens of many eager, new aficionados.
From the Food-bowl of India
The fertile state of Punjab in North India was
always considered the “bread basket” of the country. It is famous for its
vast rolling plains, with unending fields of wheat, corn, millets and rice.
For the hardworking farmers of Punjab, however, every meal is like a small
celebration. The day begins with a heavy breakfast of wheat parathas
stuffed with spicy mashed potatoes (called alu parathas) and washed
down with a tall glass of cool lassi (yogurt whisked with sugar and a
pinch of salt). Lunch consists of a hurried meal of the famous
chole-bathura in the summers and sarson ka saag (spiced mustard
greens) with makki ki roti (corn bread) in the winters.
But, it is the lavish and luxurious family
dinners that the Punjabi truly loves. Marinated legs of chicken, sizzling
seekh kababs and barbecued tikkas – eaten together with bites of
naan bread – warm out of the clay ovens called tandoors. These
simple tandoor ovens probably originated in Turkey or Persia. The
nomadic tribes that crossed the Hindukush Mountains brought the traditions
of tandoori cuisine to Afghanistan and Pakistan, centuries ago. And
after the Partition, when Punjabis from the northwest frontier made their
way into India – they carried with them the tandoori style of
Now, the tandoori oven is a common
sight in almost every courtyard of every house in rural Punjab. And today,
tandoori food is almost synonymous with North Indian cuisine.
From the Kitchens of the Nawabs
From Punjab, travelling eastward to the plains
of Uttar Pradesh, we come to the next great center of Indian cookery – the
nawabi city of Lucknow, with the famous Awadhi style of cooking. To
Westerners, the style is simply known as Mughlai food – rich, aromatic and
as beautiful to see, as it is delicious to taste. These kitchens – once the
pride of the royal families of Lucknow – were famous for their mouthwatering
shammi kababs, creamy kormas, royal murgh mussalams and
The cooking of rice was raised to its highest
form in these kitchens – transforming the long-grained basmati rice of the
Dehra Dun valley into ghee-soaked biryanis and pulao, layered
with meats and spices, and topped with shredded coriander leaves and
The former nawabs of Lucknow, were known
to have a specialized chef for each dish that was made in their households.
Some of the formulas for their best dishes were even kept secret – with
punishment by death in case a cook divulged the same.
In the 1970s, after the privileges of the kings
ended, many a chef moved out of these hallowed kitchens into the kitchens of
5-star hotels, restaurants (as far away as Delhi and Mumbai) -- and some
even ended up in the kitchen of the President of India.
A rather ironic story from yester-year, tells
of a special Mughlai feast made for the Shah of Iran during his state visit
to India.. Commenting on a pulao that was served to him in the
Rashtrapati Bhavan, the Shah exclaimed that it was on par with the finest
pulao of Persia. And why not! Lucknowi cuisine – had begun its journey
in Persia centuries ago -- and had come to find its new home in India –
garnished and spiced with the new condiments of its final destination.
Unknown to the Shah of Iran, the pulao he ate had been centuries in
From the Coasts of South India
And from North India, down, down, down to the
coasts of South India. The spicy condiments and the coconut milk found in
these coastal regions gave the world its best-known Indian repast yet – the
Curry. Rice was always the principal diet of the South Indians. Rice of all
varieties – plain, boiled or transformed with a variety of additions, to
become yellow lime rice or sour tamarind rice or red tomato rice or sweet
But, the rice was always to be accompanied by a
liquid side dish. This may have been a sambar, a rasam or a
curd-based preparation. And so it was, that the hungry British settlers
stumbled for the first time on the Indian curry! Depending on cost, the
season of the year, the availability of certain vegetables and meats; the
liquid accompaniment to the rice took on a myriad of forms and colors. And
so there, you have the entire spectrum of the Great Indian Curry!
Tracing the Roots of Indian Cuisine
I have just read of an NRI chef from a small
village in Kerala – now famous as the owner of the London-based South Indian
food chain, Rasa – who wishes to trace his roots back to his homeland
and pay back some of the debt he owes to his motherland. He plans to set up
the world’s first international home cooking school in Kerala. After all, he
says, Indian food has created magic around the world. His proposed school is
a way of paying homage to Indian society and preventing the Indian culinary
traditions from meeting eventual extinction.
Today, the traditional way of cooking in India
(and indeed, traditional cooking of all the countries across the world) is
under siege from the juggernaut of mass-produced, standardized,
bland-tasting “junk” food. The battle in many parts of India today is
between traditional foods and junk food.
What does Indian cuisine have in its favor?
Well, for one thing, no one can really define
Indian cuisine. It has soaked in and imbibed the flavours and spices of
centuries of preparation. It implies a spiritual journey of taste. It
represents centuries of traditions of feeding guests. And so, there you have
it – the extraordinary meeting of tandoori, mughlai and curry – the
three most popular elements of Indian cuisine. They have traveled across the
world and into the stomachs of so many new addicts.
So, what are you waiting for? Go ahead – and
savor the tastes of India tonight!