Saturday, August 15, 2009
The Thali in regional cuisines of India
Today is the 15th of August and foodie real estate across the board is in patriotic fervor of serving up food in saffron white and green hues. It’s a trend that I shudder at. I am all for the golden hues of saffron feathering out in a dish, the balance that cereals bring to our diet and the importance of greens on the plate but I draw the line at color coding my food in celebration.
Flu (not the dreaded swine flu but the equally painful normal one) raged rampant in our home last week and beyond home walls, the country seems to be facing many ills; drought, swine flu and a million lifestyle diseases, I am more and more convinced that we need to return to traditional diet and cuisine practices. And then in all this strife comes the good news. My sister, the baby of the family will be getting married this December.
So today, I would like to celebrate something as unifying (and perhaps as colorful but in a far less shudder inducing way) as our national flag, the Thali. That every day meal so named because of the plate it is served in. But in its very unity is its diversity, because as you travel around India and you will find every regional cuisine boasts its own version.
It seems appropriate to celebrate the Thali, since we Indians have an innate sense of hospitality, stemming from the essential role food plays at religious and social gatherings in our lives. Beginning with the first sip of water proffered to an arriving guest continuing into as lavish a spread of food as the host can afford, winding through delectable desserts and concluding with a selection of mukhwas and paan. The Thali is not just a meal, neither is it just a utensil, it is in fact, a tradition.
Nowhere in the world do the rituals of a wedding compare with those in India. With myriad gods and an equal or more ways to praise, petition and appease them, the sense of pageantry is inherent in every Indian. Of course no celebration in India whether in celebration of initiation or naming ceremony, religious ceremony or wedding is complete without food! Indians will never miss an opportunity to bring colour into their lives so why should weddings - viewed as the union of two families more than individuals – be left out?
Food is integral to the Indian lifestyle. At any Indian wedding, holding its own amidst the pomp, pageantry, rich apparel, music and dancing is the delicious anticipation of the traditional wedding feast. The work area for a wedding feast is wondrous to behold, a large area is designated for cooking within which a mobile kitchen is set up and before you can blink, each aspect of the feast has a specific area and production has begun in earnest vessels of colossal sizes that bubble and boil with all manner of delicacies under a heady cloud of aromas. The waiters or serving staff know where to refill each dish and play their role of keeping the groaning buffet tables teeming with food.
A while ago I had done a story for an airline magazine on wedding feasts from around the country. Here are a few highlights. The Southern part of India is not represented here, but I hope to redress that soon.
Kashmiri Wazwaan An important part of the ancient silk route and home to the most expensive spice in the world, Kashmir’s geographical location and historic position have led to it being home to a bounty of produce and resulted in a cuisine that is a happy marriage of spices, meat and dairy produce, augmented by a wide variety of vegetables and a veritable orchard of fruit. Although daily meals in Kashmir are not so elaborate, the Kashmiri Muslim “Wazawaan” an elaborate ritualistic meal for special guests especially at weddings is legendary. Do not make the mistake of declining an invitation to one. These meals prepared by Wazas – master chefs of Kashmir descended from chefs that served the Mughals - are nothing short of spectacular. Comprising of upwards of thirty or more courses of specially prepared meats and vegetables, dishes to look out for include; Rogan josh a meat curry red with Kashmiri chillies, Yakhni a meat dish cooked in delicately spiced yoghurt, March wangan korma a chilli mutton curry, Daniwal korma a superbly tender meat on the bone the delectable Tabaq Maaz unspiced rib cuts fried to a crisp, Rista balls of pounded mutton cooked in a gravy, Gushtaba pounded meatballs cooked in yoghurt. The meal concludes with the Gushtaba, a very exclusive dish, and one that is never refused, Phirni for dessert and a cup of Kahwah, the green tea flavored with saffron, cardamom and almonds, and the wazwan is over - a meal that is an experience in Kashmiri hospitality. There are very few desserts Phirni is a rice cream delicately fragrant of rose water, Shufta a stew like concoction of cottage cheese and dryfruits in syrup and Modur Polav, a sweet rice dish cooked in clarified butter, milk and water, along with dry fruits, saffron and fragrant with spices - a favourite dessert of Kashmiri Pandits.
The Gujarati Thali - Often referred to as haute cuisine for vegetarians the bright, colourful festive fare from Gujarat is delicious. The Gujaratis have truly perfected the art of vegetarian cooking. Even the simplest of ingredients are transformed into mouthwatering delicacies. The Gujarati 'thali', is an endless procession of fresh vegetables cooked in aromatic spices, a variety of crisp, fried snacks and an array of delectable confections typically appear in the 'thali'. Gujarat is known as the land of milk and butter. Obviously so, yoghurt and buttermilk are a part of the daily diet. Offerings include Khaman Dhokla lightly steamed spongy yellow lentil Khandvi silken gram flour rolls flavoured with buttermilk Patra pinwheels of Collocasia rolled with a lentil paste, steamed and fried. Main course specials that cause nostalgia with mere thought of them include Undhiyu an aromatic medley of vegetables with fresh green garlic slow cooked on a wood fire. The sweet hot Gujarati daal best enjoyed with steaming hot rice & a dollop of clarified butter. There are a plethora of sweets that are served alongside the savoury including halwas and the delicately scented Shrikhand made of thick creamy sweetened natural yoghurt.
The Lagan nu Bhonu or Parsi Wedding feast - Parsis are a very intellectual, talented community that came from the area that was formerly Persia and is now Iran. They entered India through the state of Gujarat and contemporary Parsi cuisine is a tantalizing marriage of Persian and Gujarati styles; like the nuts and apricots they added to the Indian curry, they stirred the richness of Persian cuisine into unassuming Gujarati food. Very rarely chilli hot Parsi cuisine is a complex blend of flavour and texture with a partiality toward chicken, mutton and eggs. Parsee weddings are joyous celebrations full of tradition and joyous feasting. Long white linen covered tables stretch the length of the dining hall and dinner is served in 1 or 2 seatings. The actual meal is served in numerous courses on a fresh banana leaf with fish, rice and meat delicacies accompanied by classic desserts including Lagan Nu Achar (a hot sweet pickle, Kolmi na Kevab - Crisp fried shrimp kebabs, Marghi na farcha - chicken marinated with chillies, garlic and coriander and pan-fried in an egg coating and Kheema Pattice - minced lamb aromatic with spices and encased in puff pastry served with a sour-sweet tomato sauce. Mains would include Patra ni Machchi - fish marinated in spicy green chutney and steamed in banana leaves) and/or Saas Ni Macchi - fish in tangy white gravy, seasoned with coriander), Sali Chicken a chicken curry served with salty potato sticks Kid Mutton and Pulao Dal A must dessert is the Lagan nu Castard –a rich creamy egg nut enriched custard flavoured with nutmeg.
The Marwari Thali Rajasthan being largely a dessert area, makes the best of what it can get, even in its cuisine. Kair (capparis decidna) are the small green berries found in the dessert, that usually cooked as vegetable or pickled with Sangri, slender green pods that appear on the khejri (Prosopis cinararia) during the blazing months of June and July, (the root system of this plant go seventy feet deep, allowing it to withstand years of complete drought). Marwaris, Have a rich diet and also subscribe to the precepts of the Jain diet. Dried beans and spices such as aesofoetida, dried mango powder, red chillies, mustard seeds and dried oods such as 'papads' and 'badis' form a large part of Rajasthani cuisine as these have a longer shelf life and proved to be very useful in the early days when there was little produce in summers and transport was not so efficient. There is a minimal use of fresh vegetables because Rajasthan is a dry region. Marwari cuisine uses a lot of lentils and spices and whatever little veggies are available are dehydrated and stored for use round the year. Most Marwari food can be preserved for long periods, having evolved from the Marwaris who are essentially traders, having to travel long distances and needed to carry food So with Marwari cuisine the "Raita" is sans vegetables and vegetables like "Gatte Ke Saag" have been created, made of chickpea flour and "Dal Ki Belvi Poori" with only lentil stuffings. Yoghurt is used in good measure, for it’s coolng properties and chillies are favoured to add zing to the food. Rice is considered a delicacy in Rajasthan as it does not grow here. Besides the Ker Sangri, a Marwari thali could offer choices such as Chaats, Gatte ke Saag, Zari Palle Ka Choorma, Dal Ki Belvi Poori, Ghee Bhaat, Bhutte Moongdal Ki Pakori and Raita made of Phogle seeds.
Bengal has long been cited as the land of plenty and so it should be. After all, it IS the only state in India that extends from the majestic Himalayas in the north to the Bay of Bengal in the south. Fertile lands, innumerable water bodies and a large coastline make the land truly blessed!
Bengali food is the only cuisine in India that is served coursewise. Food is traditionally consumed sitting on the floor on mats or Aasans. In front of each Aasan is placed a large platter fashioned out of bell metal/steel or a large section banana leaf. Around this platter are positioned a number of small bowls in which portions of dal, vegetables, fish, meat, chutney and dessert will eventually be served. Rice enjoys the pride of place in the center of the platter flanked by vegetable fritters, wedges of lime, whole green chilies and perhaps a bit of pickle. The piece de resistance is little hole in the middle of the mound of rice that is topped up with a spoonful of ghee!
Whatever the number of dishes the most important part of eating a Bengali meal is eating each dish separately with a little bit of rice in order to savor its individual flavors. The order of consumption goes from the more delicately flavored dishes first and slowly graduating to stronger ones. Vegetables, especially bitter ones, come first, followed by dal, perhaps accompanied by fries or fritters of fish and vegetables. Then come complex vegetable dishes like Ghanto or Chachchari, the important fish Jhol as well as other fish preparations in that order. Meat will always follow fish, and chutneys or ambals will provide the refreshing touch of tartness to make the tongue anticipate the sweet dishes.
Bengali food is a revelation for the uninitiated. It is a fusion of textures - Crisp bhajas, grainy mustard sauces, oily fish head biting into juicy prawns - and a tactile feat of picking one's way through fish bones to get at spicy, delicious bits of Ilish, (chewed fishbones are proof of an authentic Bangla meal), thin, light Luchis that put Puris to shame. And then there is Panchphoran! The five-spice mixture that is the mainstay of Bengali food. Rice is the staple, and cold pressed golden mustard oil is the pungent Bengali cooking medium. The “ranna-ghar” or cookhouse is the centre of the Bengali home. It is here that the magical meals are conjured out of mere ingredients! Preparation for each dish is elaborate, with emphasis being laid not only on freshness but also how certain fish and vegetables are cut. Spice combinations are precise and each dish is individually made. In more orthodox Bengali homes, fish and vegetables might still be cooked over separate fires and lamb, if cooked is done on a makeshift fire outside the kitchen.
Everything is eaten with the fingers. What better tool for the dangerous task of picking out treacherous fish bones? The textures of the food are appreciated first by the fingers and then enter the mouth. The other notable factor about Bengali eating habits is the amassing of miscellaneous debris by the plate. Vegetable stalks, fish heads, meat, fish and chicken bones, are all meticulously chewed to extract every last drop of flavor prior to being added to the heap with accompanying sounds of chomps and slurps (a measure of the quality of the meal) and a great burp as the crescendo!
Thalis in Mumbai
The Rajasthani Mahila Mandal Griha Udyog stock kair and sangria. Rajasthani Mahila mandal bhavan, 12 Krantiveer Vasantrao Niak Cross lane (Forgett St.) Near Sai Baba Mandir, Gowalia Tank Mumbai 36. (23873197)
Chetana Veg Restaurant and Bar 34, K Dubash Marg, Kala Ghoda (2284-4968). Daily 12.30-3.30pm, 7.30-11.30pm. Gujarati thali Rs 210, Rajasthani thali Rs 270, health thali Rs 230.
Friends Union Joshi Club 381A Kalbadevi Road, Narottamwadi (2205-8089). Mon-Sat 11am-3pm, 7-10pm; Rs 70 plus Rs 15 for an optional sweet. Sundays and holidays 11am-3pm, Rs 90.
Panchvati Gaurav Near Bombay Hospital and Metro Adlabs, Marine Lines (2208-4877). Tue-Sun 11am-3pm, 7-10.30pm; Mon 11am-3pm. Rs 170 from Mon-Sat. Rs 200 on Sundays and holidays.
Rajdhani 361, Sheikh Memon Street, opposite Mangaldas Market, near Crawford Market (2342-6919). Daily noon-4pm, 7-10.30pm Rs 152 from Mon-Sat. Rs 191 on Sundays and holidays.
Samrat Prem Court, Jamshedji Tata Road, Churchgate (2282-0942). Daily noon-3.30pm, 7-10.45pm. Gujarati thali. Rs 141 (lunch) & Rs 175 (dinner) on weekdays; Rs 174 on Sundays and holidays. Prices are inclusive of taxes.
Swadshakti Ayushakti Ayurved Health Centre, Bhadran Nagar Cross Road 2, off SV Road, opposite Milap theatre, Malad (W) (2806-5757). Daily 11am-9.30pm. Special thali, Rs 80 (limited) & Rs 100 (unlimited).