I draw the line at smoking dal. Dal, for goodness sake. Whatever happened to the old dal-chawal stereotype? Comfort food is supposed to be easy, right.
That’s why I did a double take when I found ITC Hotels’ secret dal recipe. Flipping through a new publication of theirs titled ‘India’s Culinary’ lessons, this ‘collectors compendium’ has an entire section on ‘dal khuska: Comfort food of India.’ According to legend when Emperor Humayun organised a feast for the Persians, his chefs made an array of elaborate dishes. However, Persian ruler Shah Tahmasp asked for repeated helpings of just dal-khuska – a food he had never tasted before. Apparently this combination triggered off the Indo-Persian trade in Indian rice, desi ghee and turmeric.
ITC hotel’s version features a simple khuska: basmati rice boiled with salt and lemon juice, before being laced with ghee. The dal, however, involves placing a betel leaf over cooked lentils, then balancing a piece of burning coal on the leaf, before pouring in half a tablespoon of desi ghee. The dish is then covered with a tight lid to allow the smoke to infuse the dal with its distinctive flavour.
Overly fussy perhaps, as far as recipes go. But then, that’s the best part about being vegetarian in India. Or at least, it used to be. After all, traditionally, to be vegetarian meant you had access to variety, drama and colour on the dining table – thanks to decades of carefully constructed, untiringly tweaked, intelligently designed recipes. Now, even as Michelin starred chefs of the world are realising that vegetables don’t always have to be the supporting cast for a meat-starring menu, Indian recipes are going global. So it’s ironic that so many of our multi-cuisine restaurants have little to offer besides potatoes and paneer in myriad forms.
Where did we lose our way? Since we’re on the book trail, let’s turn to ‘Dining with the Maharajas: A thousand years of culinary tradition’ by Neha Prasada and Ashima Narain. The book talks of a royal cook in Patiala who had 140 recipes for pulao alone. They also took their ingredients seriously: Sayajirao Gaekwad III of Baroda, for instance, always took two cows for fresh milk when he travelled to Europe. (And while this is admittedly unrelated to this topic, since we’re on the subject of cows, I just have to mention the story of the King of Rampur, famous for going to great lengths to make guests comfortable, simply because it’s so spectacularly quirky. When hosting the Raja of Benares on one of the top floors of Khas Bhag palace, he learnt that the Raja was in the habit of waking up and seeing a cow every morning.So the King of Rampur ordered for “a cow to be pulled up on pulleys and taken to the room so he would not miss his daily routine.”)
Given the quirks of the Kings, it’s not surprising that most of India’s royalty celebrated meat – sometimes in very strange forms. Maharaja Vikram Singh once told me that his grandfather invented a mutton halwa made with meat, khoa, cardamom and rose water, adding, “It was usually served to surprise guests. We would then ask them to guess what it is…” (Side note: Oh look how fancy I am – dropping names of royalty.) But they also took their vegetables seriously. Years ago, I had lunch with Kunwar Rani Kulsam Begum, the niece of Salar Jung III from Hyderabad, at the Park Sheraton kitchens, where she was curating a ‘Royal Repast of the Salar Jungs’ food festival. As we worked our way through Santre ki rotis, kneaded with orange juice and ghee, she talked of how cutting vegetables is an art, adding that they tested new cooks at the royal kitchens by asking them to cut onions. “Onions need to be cut differently for every dish – biriyani, vegetables, chicken – if they didn’t know that they wouldn’t get hired.”
For a more contemporary take on Indian vegetarian cooking, let’s turn to our final book – Vidhu Mittal’s ‘Pure and Special: Gourmet Indian Vegetarian Cuisine. Her first smart move is expanding the new age Indian cook’s larder by adding goosefruit leaves, Indian water chestnut and lotus stems to the repertoire, in addition to vegetables usually perceived as being ‘Western,’ like olives, broccoli and sweet basil. Her second is creating accessible recipes that can be served anywhere in the world. Think Corn-Palak Florentines, Masala Maize Puffs and Lentil puddings. Mittal’s meticulously crafted recipes aim to prove that Indian cooking can be light, healthy and stylish.
And about time too. We’ve been the nation of stereotypical, greasy, over spiced balti chicken for too long.