Navina Jafa maps our culinary heritage with the flourish of a master raconteur

If there is someone who literally walks the talk in this city, it is Navina Jafa. The noted heritage consultant opens so many windows to India during her walks that you start wondering which view to behold. However, her system never goes into a hang as she lucidly brings together divergent point of views and packages them into a palatable whole. From the physical to the poetic, every facet finds a place as she explores tradition in nooks and corners to make sense of our pluralistic identity.

Navina’s cuisine walks in Old Delhi are much sought after, so as we meet in the Chutney, Bar + Tandoor restaurant of The Metropolitan Hotel, Navina gives us a taste of our culinary heritage. “Food is a very important way to understand our civilisational identity,” says Navina as we are treated to jashn-e-khumra by the team of executive chef Sandeep Panwar.

Made of red pumpkin, fresh mint, ginger, kewda, lemon, the chilled welcome drink retains the flavour of each of the ingredients without any overlap. In fact it is the speciality of Panwar that in his preparations no constituent is cornered or unduly suppressed.

With charcoal grilled baby lamb chops for company, the conversation rolls on as Navina reels out the story of tandoor and the give-and-take of recipes along the trade routes. She reminds that tandoor is an Afghan influence that entered the Indian culinary landscape because of the trade through G.T. Road and Khyber Pass. “Before that it was about nihari and biryani. Nihari comes from the Arabic word nahar, which means something cooked overnight underground. The Mughal emperor used to start his day with nihari.”

She talks of Sohan halwa’s Iranian lineage and how Habshi halwa owes its name to Ethiopia. An accomplished Kathak dancer, Navina finds choreography in chhokan (spices with which food is seasoned). “You see there is an oral tradition which outlines the way spices are put in a dish. It is always heeng-zeera and not the other way round.” She reminds of the songs that villagers in Rajashthan sing for the betterment of their produce of zeera. “At night they take off their pagdis and sway them to protect the crop from dew.”

The most interesting thing, she says, is the way weight is described. “Ek mutthi bhar (one fist full), ek chutki bhar (one smidgen). In our effort to get upwardly mobile we are missing out on this oral tradition. We are forgetting that in our culture food is known to provide sensory pleasure of all the five senses. In Urban India most children no longer live with their parents and don’t earn enough to afford a trained cook.”

The cultural activist points out that we seldom find older generations eating out. “The five stars have a responsibility to bring back our traditional recipes back on the plate. May be with a contemporary twist but it should be part of the regular menu and not limited to food festivals,” she suggests.

Over the years vegetarian food has become a B-team of non-vegetarian food. Navina says that even the nomenclature reflects the ascendancy of non-vegetarian stuff. “The way chefs put shahi and makhani before paneer reflects the tendency. Paneer has become the top choice for guest food in vegetarian cuisine but it was not always like that.”

Soon nalli roganjosh makes its presence felt with navratan and gosht biryani in tow. Navina compliments Panwar for handling the nakhras of his ingredients rather well. “Yes, food has its tantrums!”

She recalls how her grandmother experimented with the buds of silk cotton and kachnar. “The other day I cooked jackfruit for my guests from different Embassies to give them a taste of meat without actually having anything non-vegetarian on the table. For a long time jackfruit ruled the list of rich vegetarian choices.” She talks of the cross-cultural influences that affected our eating habits. “In Kayastha food you will find a lot of influence of Mughlai cuisine because they served Muslim families. Like jackfruit is cooked in dum pukht style over slow fire and the masala is almost similar to the non-vegetarian varieties.”

Today onion and garlic are intrinsic to chaat but there was a time, says Navina, when Vaishnavs formed a large part of business community and Delhi chaat had no place, for what many call, ingredients that heighten desire. Talking of desire, she reminds how paan, one of the greatest aphrodisiacs, is losing out in the march of civilisation. “There was a time when every home had a paan daan. My grandmother could roll paan in 15 different ways. Once eminent food historian Pushpesh Pant equated it with the map of India as clove comes from Kerala and saffron travels from Kashmir, kattha is sourced from Bihar and betel nut comes from somewhere else.”

A substantial portion of Navina’s doctorate deals with the history of leisure. So this heritage consultant for Shahjahanabad Redevelopment Corporation, Government of Delhi brings in Basanti, a popular courtesan in Chandni Chowk, and her fascination with the food of Basant….peela chawal, meetha chawal and tehri in describing the Chawri Bazaar that it once was. She talks of Mian Kababi who used to sit on the stairs of Jama Masjid with his wide array of kababs and of course the mota biryani wala who doles out the rice delicacy with a zest as if there is no tomorrow.

Navina is convinced that nothing ever really dies. “Now people are getting increasingly nostalgic about home food. You can see that in the food blogs that dot the cyber space. We have to go away from the identity to understand its value. It happened with our classical arts. It was when our celebrated artistes performed abroad that they realised the layered riches of what I call cultural and creative industry. We are sitting in Delhi and are nostalgic about our home towns. The dry urad ki daal of Bijnor, the chaat of Kashi….” But where are the baingans, the favourite vegetable of Navina? Well, Panwar does bring out the eggplant but in the form of a dessert suffused with rabri with saffron and paan leaves adding distinct flavours of their own. And for once it is Navina, who is surprised!