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 (Manmohan Melville)

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 cooking.

 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 fragrant biryanis.

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 raisins.  

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 the making!

 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 coconut rice.  

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!