The Rise And Fall Of The Cuisines In Delhi

Sohail posted on 02 May

This is a piece about the many-splendoured cuisines of Delhi.

Why cuisines and not cuisine? You may ask, but you’re not going to get an answer straight away.

Hopefully, if you have the staying power to hang around till the end of this long winded and meandering recap of the histories of what we eat in Delhi, you might have an answer or two about why I say cuisines.

And let me warn you before you proceed any further: This is not going to be a piece that will end in one post, there will be at least one more post before I end this narration.

But before we begin talking about the cuisine/s of Delhi and get down to the meat, {or is it the leaf and root?}, of the matter let us first contextualise Shahjahanabad. The word literally means ‘settled by Shahjahan’ or ‘the city built by Shahjahan.’ The socio-historical context of Shahjahanabad has played a crucial role in the evolution, and dare I say also in the in decline, of its gastronomic traditions, but we will talk of that later.

Shahjahanabad was one of the seven cities of Delhi. Construction of the fort and the city began in 1639 and the city was inaugurated in 1648, when the fort and many of the palaces of the nobles were ready for occupation. Like most cities, Delhi too was not built in a day, new residential and commercial localities, mohallas, kuchas, katraswere constantly added as settlers continued to pour in from far and wide.

A large population of royals, nobles, mansabdars, court officials, scholars—of spiritual,and secular disciplines—artists, poets, musicians, officials, soldiers, artisans, craftspersons and sundry hangers-on–essential components of any feudal court, arrived in Delhi from the earlier capital Agra, or Akbarabad. They arrived with their families and retainers.

Many of those that made the Agra-Delhi transition could have been descendants of those who had been part of similar to and fro, shifts between the two cities in the time of Sikandar Lodi to Sikandra and Agra, in the time of Humayun once again to Delhi, and then in the time of Akbar to Agra once again.

One needs to remember that there was a constant back and forth between the two cities, when Agra was the capital, Delhi had the status of the second capital, and Agra did not lose its importance when the capital moved to Delhi.

While ‘Nazeer’ Akbarabadi, probably the first truly people’s poet in India, moved from Delhi to Agra, Meer Taqi ‘Meer’ and a few decades later, Asad Ullah Khan ‘Ghalib’, moved from Agra to Delhi. So people were constantly shifting between the two cities—not only when the capital shifted, but also in the intervening periods, and therefore developments in one city sooner or later reached the other and changed things there, sometime for the good and others in ways that made people think nostalgically of a past that they had hated not too long ago.

When Shahjahan formally shifted his capital to Delhi, those who made the shift from Agra would have included a rich mix of Indians, including people from Braj, Bharatpur and Mewat, Rohelkhand, Haryana, Punjab, Kashmir, Malwa, Bundelkhand, Gujarat, Mewar, Marwar, Nimad, Khandesh, Bengal and Bihar—aside from Turks, Persians, Pakhtoons, Hazaras, Tajiks, Uzbegs, Mughals, Siddis, Habshis, Abyssinians and Ethiopians. This mix had been a part of the Mughal and also of the earlier courts.

All these people, as they moved from lands spread across and beyond the south Asian peninsula, carried with them their own languages, attire, music and architecture; they also carried with them their recipes and styles of cooking. All these mixed with all the others across centuries and eventually led to the emergence of new vocabularies of expression in all these fields of dance, music, attire, architecture…and food.

The food that evolved in and around Delhi, and whose effervescence was to gradually take within its embrace Rampur and Awadh, Bhopal and Hyderabad and much else besides was, therefore, essentially a product of the coming together of phenomenally diverse and rich gastronomic traditions that drew upon culinary traditions from Turkey, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Iran, Afghanistan, Balochistan, Sindh, Punjab, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Malwa, Braj, Rohelkhand, Bengal, Bihar, Maharashtra and other regions.

The two things that separated traditional Central Asian, Persian and Afghani Pakhtoon cooking from traditional South Asian cooking were: The manner in which spices were used, and their separate styles of cooking. In the Central Asian, Persian, Afghan traditions, the flavours and spices were understated, whereas in the South Asian tradition they were overwhelming.

The central Asian, Persian, Afghan and Pakhtoon cooking was more centred around the tandoor and the skewer, whereas South Asian cooking was centred on deep frying and bhunai done in stages. And so the seekh kebab, the shammi kebab, the tikka, the tandoori chicken, tandoori lamb and all its recently evolved variations, including paneer tikka, Shaami Sabz, veg seekh, soya chops and what have you—and all the tandoori rotis, naans, kulchas, are a gift from the lands to the west of the Khyber.

One needs to remember that there is an unending process of innovation and adaptation, that has continued uninterrupted, and it is this that continues to redefine the food that we consume today. For example, any preparation, whether prepared in the tandoor or slow cooked in a vessel, that uses tomatoes, potatoes, mushrooms and paneer, can lay no claim to being a traditional preparation, but we will talk about that a little later.

If we were to remove the mushrooms, the cottage cheese, the potatoes and tomatoes, that did not arrive through the Khyber Pass, the remnants—including the kebabs and the stuff on the skewers that did—did not arrive in the shape and flavour in which we enjoy them today. The kebabs, for instance, that one gets in Central Asia or even nearer home in Peshawar and Kabul and Qadhaar are totally different from our versions of the same thing.

Similarly the qorma, the biryani, the yakhni, the pasende, kofte, the haleem, the nihari,the paaye, the khichda, the large number of methods of cooking fish, are dishes that have evolved here in the sub-continent; a few might have had their precursors in Central Asia or the in the Persian-speaking lands, but what those ancestors looked, smelled or tasted like is anybody’s guess, though one thing is certain, they did not look, smell or taste like the stuff that we eat today.

Preparations of yams like arvi, kachaloo, rataalu, kaseru, the bharwan karela, the bharwan tinde and parmal; the large number of runny and dry dal preparations, like the sarson and chane ka saag and virtually hundreds of other dishes made with greens, roots and gourds have their roots in methods of cooking that are quintessentially South Asian, though a few of them might have parallels in central Asia and Persia as well.

It is necessary to see the food that we consume in Delhi in this context because without this frame of reference, we run the risk of making the kind of horrible mistakes that we continue to make on a daily basis. Let us take the most common of these mistakes and see how they vitiate our overall understanding of the culinary traditions of the sub-continent.

Most restaurants {and I am talking of restaurants patronised by a majority of those who go out to eat} classify the foods they serve into four broad categories viz. Indian, South Indian, Mughlai and Chinese. For the time being we will leave out ‘Chinese’ from our discussion, because this is a project under construction and we have no idea where it will eventually end-up!

We already have Punjabi, Garhwali, Kumaoni, Himachali, Haryanvi, Tamil, Malyali, Oriya and Bengali Chinese varieties, and new ones are emerging on an hourly basis; the last word on the fecundity of this cross cultural creature is yet to be said. So let us leave that out for the time being and talk of the other three. The Indian, the South Indian and the Mughlai.

The last should actually be Mughalia, if one was to be linguistically correct, but we will let that also pass, why worry about linguistic correctness in something that is a strange mishmash put together by people who cannot cook without tomatoes? But before we come to the third, let us pay some attention to the Indian and South Indian.

What precisely is meant by Indian, and is south India not part of India? Does all of south India cook and consume the kind of stuff that is handed out in these joints in Delhi, and is ‘Indian Food’ that graces the menus of these ‘popular eating joints’ universally consumed in the non-south-Indian India?

Will any self-respecting resident of UP, especially central and Eastern UP, Bihar, Jharkhand, MP, Chhattisgarh, Odissa, Bengal, Assam, Manipur, Tripura, Nagaland, Mizoram, Meghalya and Arunanchal and Sikkim eagerly and willingly identify with the “Indian” dished out in Delhi restaurant as food that has, now or in the distant past, ever been even remotely connected to their varied cuisines?

After some elimination, I had concluded that this strange concoction, commonly described as “Indian” in these restaurants, caters essentially to the self-centered image of Indian-ness that has been created by the narrow minded exclusionist vision of the North-Indian Right-Handed Upper-Caste Male.

This aforesaid vision consists in placing everybody in little compartments, in the tradition of the English Clerk, primarily with the objective of declaring the rest of the territory as his domain. I thought, given the tunnel vision of this member of the human species, this could perhaps be an attempt to define North Indian Roti Centred Vegetarian Food as Indian Food, and to create categories like South Indian and Mughlai to compartmentalise others as aliens, and that is why they were clubbed with the Chinese.

But I was soon to realise how absolutely wrong I was.

Look at any “Indian” menu and you will realise that this so called vegetarian menu is singularly bereft of vegetables. What you will see listed are about 15 variations of paneer—Shahi Paneer, Paneer Tikka, Paneer Malai Tikka, Paneer Masala Tikka, Paneer Malai Masala Tikka, Paneer Rolls, Paneer Kathi Rolls, Paneer Spring Rolls, Fresh Paneer, Paneer Kofta, Paneer Pratha, Paneer Kulcha, Paneer Naan, Paneer Bhujia, Paneer Pakoda—you can go on and on.

The next all-time favourite is mushroom and is available in all the above combinations on its own or with paneer, these two, namely the paneer and the mushroom are then cooked in about twenty three different combination with potatoes. Where are the vegetables you wonder? And then you see the matar and gobhi, each cooked with the first three. That is it.

The interesting bit about this “Indian” menu that is also trying to impersonate vegetarian fare is that this stuff is neither vegetarian nor Indian. According to K.T. Achaya {A Dictionary of Indian Food –Oxford University Press 1998} paneer was brought in by the Portuguese and first introduced in Bengal in the 17th century. So this is just how far back in the past, this hoary tradition of chhena-based sweets like rasgulla goes back in the East.

Varities of the matar have been cultivated in the Indus Valley region as early as 2,000 BCE, but the gobhi is as recent as the second half of the 19th century. It is possible that Bahadur Shah Zafar had neither heard of nor seen the cauliflower.

Before the early 1960s, there were no mushrooms to be had in Delhi for love of money. It is thanks to the researchers of IARI {Indian Agricultural Research Institute- Pusa} who popularised the cultivation of mushrooms in cattle sheds and fodder stores in rural Delhi and neighbouring Haryana, and created an alternative source of income for poor peasants.

I often wonder what stunted contours of growth our hospitality industry would have followed had the IARI not popularised the consumption of this tasteless fungus.

So what is being pushed down our gullets in the name of Indian food is not so Indian after all. Is it possible to demand that all restaurants serving this videshi stuff as Indian food, should be declared deshdrohis and be charged with sedition ?

Where are the sponge gourds, the bitter gourds, the green gourds, the apple gourd, the pumpkin, the okra, the parmal, the lotus stems, the large number of greens like spinach, the fenugreek, the, green and red Amaranth {Chaulai} the Chenopodium or Bathua?

Let us come now to the Mughlai, which should actually be Mughalia.

Mughalia is meant to suggest food eaten by non-vegetarians. Now, before proceeding any further, let us remove some clutter from this senseless jargon. Let me, after acknowledging the contribution of Kanhiya Kumar to my vocabulary, state very clearly, that the binary of vegetarian/non-vegetarian is false.

There are vegetarians, and among them there are very strict vegetarians, who will not touch anything that is not a vegetable product, but there is nothing like a strict non-vegetarian, who consume vegetables, pulses, milk products and what have you. So there are vegetarians and there are omnivores.

The binary has been created, named Mughalia, and placed as a counter-point to suggest that the Mughalia is not Indian. Let me tell you, outside of the sub-continent India-Pakistan-Bangladesh, no one knows what Mughalia is. This combination of the central Asian, Persian, Afghan-Tandoori and the Indian spice and ghee/oil-rich deep and stir fried slow cooking is an Indian concoction and like the Indian Chinese, this too is a project under construction.

Let me assure you that no Mughal ever ate the stuff. They could not have eaten this kind of food because It did not exist in their times. Mughalia food, defined as it, is by its richness and its spices and the rather generous use of chillies could not have been cooked during the time of the Mughals since a major ingredient, the chilli, was not so easily available.

The chilli, like so many phenomenal fruits and vegetables, was not known to the world before the Portuguese and the Spanish landed on the eastern coast of the Americas—by the time Babar was defeating Ibrahim Lodi, the Portuguese had already started cultivating at least three varieties of the fiery chilli in Goa.

So, if there was something called Mughalia cuisine, at the time of the founding of the Mughal Empire, it must have looked and tasted totally different from its purported progeny. The fact that the Portuguese were cultivating it in Goa, does not mean that it was available in the markets of Agra.

We have enough recorded evidence that tells us that these colourful cousins of the brinjal and tomato were for a fairly long time cultivated by the Europeans not only in Goa but elsewhere including Europe as ornamental plants, and in any case given our categorisation of food as Rajsik, Taamsik and Saatvik, and our distrust of things being introduced by the malechhaas, there would have been resistance to its consumption and it would have been sometime before the chilli found acceptance in the Konkani kitchens.

Meanwhile, the Portuguese were trying to get a foothold in the Mughal court and it was only during the time of Akbar that Father Monserrat and Father Xavier were able to succeed; one could assume that the chilli would have reached the Mughal court through this agency, just as the flightless turkey and the dodo had reached Fatehpur Sikri, but apparently the travels of the chili followed a different trajectory.

Even after it came to be accepted in the Goan kitchens it took almost two hundred years, according to Lizzie Collingham {Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors}, for chillies to reach the north-Indian plains and the agency that introduced the chilli to the north were the Marathas. The Marathas must have acquired the taste from the Konkanis and through them, the chillies would have travelled West, North and East through the armies of the Gaekwads, the Holkars and the Scindias and sundry others.

People would have carried tales about its ability to enhance the taste of food and the word of mouth publicity would have gradually made it acceptable in ever growing ripples, starting from the Portuguese colonies on the west coast.

So we have the chilli reaching north India by the end of the 17th century, around the time that Maratha power begins to collapse under the advancing jackboots of the armies of East India Company. The combined forces of the Marathas lose the battle to control Delhi and General Lake emerges victorious in the battle of Patpargunj in 1803.

The Battle of Patparganj removed the Marathas from the political scene of Delhi and brought in the Brits. Delhi now began to undergo major changes and one of these, that concerns us, was the change in the food that was eaten in Delhi and it is this that we will talk about in the next series of this piece.