COOKBOOK Businessman- journalist Yashbir Sharma believes Punjabi food is fit for the kings
Y ashbir Sharma has donned many hats — businessman, journalist, author — but it is his love of food that gets him into enthusiastic conversation. “I can cook anything under the sun”, says the culinary aficionado, who has cooked his way through Madhur Jaffrey's “A Taste of India”. “I used to go all the way to Amritsar from Delhi to eat at the dhabas there,” says Sharma.
No surprise then, that the man who has written books on chess, decided to write one on his favourite foodie destination. Geetika Kalha, Principal Secretary, Punjab Tourism, was impressed enough with the tome, “The Dhabas of Amritsar”, to commission one more on the gastronomy of four of Punjab's cities — Amritsar, Jalandhar, Patiala and Ludhiana. Sharma jumped at the offer, and has produced a profusely-illustrated and detailed food travelogue, “The Food Trail of Punjab” (Rs. 380) on what he says is the world's finest cuisine.
Why do you say Punjabi cuisine is the world's finest?
Punjabis live all over the world and they will bear out that Punjabi cuisine is the finest. I can authoritatively tell you that their lassi, Amritsari fish, dal makhani and cream chicken are downright delicious. They take exquisite care in finishing their dishes; their sweets are on top of this world. Take the dal makhani, cooked in an earthenware vessel overnight on a slow fire and then finished with cream, butter, tomatoes and milk – it is food fit for the kings.
Could you tell us about the history and influences surrounding Punjabi cuisine?
In the good old days, farmers used to carry roti and mutti mar kar pyaaz (you place the onion on a slab and smash it with your fist), with a dash of salt — delicious after a hard day's labour. Since then, the essence of the cuisine, its simplicity, has not changed. Kesar Da Dhaba in Amritsar is more than a 100 years old. Both the proprietor and the chef are the fourth generation of their families running this place and they say the food has remained the same.
Was there nothing interesting in the smaller towns of Punjab? For instance, the atta chicken of Kotkapura? And why is there nothing on Chandigarh?
In my earlier book, “Sensational Defeats of Bobby Fischer”, I wrote that perfection is not granted to mortal men. I thought I was an authority on Punjabi cuisine. It was silly of me to think that. I had not heard of atta chicken.. my assignment was to write about the four major cities. But I could easily have included atta chicken had I known about it. Chandigarh has nothing to rave about, food wise.
Which is your favourite cuisine other than Punjabi cuisine? Do you cook it at home?
I love cooking Mughlai food. There is so much variation and one can experiment a lot. Kakori kebab and mutton korma are my favourites.
Where do you get good Punjabi food outside of Punjab?
Whenever I travel, I taste the local cuisine — like hilsa fish in Bengal, appam and stew in the south, or dal-baati-choorma in Rajasthan.
How did you build such a good rapport with the dhaba owners that they shared their secret recipes with you?
This current volume took me almost two years to complete. During this period I made a number of visits to Punjab. In Amritsar, there is nothing like keeping your recipes secret. So, I got to see the dhaba owners cooking in the open. I took the opportunity to note down their recipes. By then, the dhaba owners knew me well. I told them that this book will be read by people all over. This helped. Then, Mohinder Singh, of Amritsar's famed Makhan Fish Corner, gave me the secret recipe of Amritsari fish. His recipe is the piece de resistance of my book.
Why did you self-publish the book?
I went to several publishers with disappointing results. One had the audacity to ask me for money to publish the book! One had an eye on the money I was to get from Punjab Tourism.
Then, another wanted the cover of the book changed. All this finally convinced me to do it myself. I am the publisher, writer, photographer, proof reader — all rolled into one. Because of this, there are a few errors in the manuscript. But I have satisfied my creative urge. I will not be earning much, maybe 20 to 30 rupees per copy. I have not compromised on the quality.
What are your upcoming projects?
I am working on the scripts of two books, “The Food Trail of Delhi” and “The Food Trail of Surat”.
Yashbir Sharma is available at firstname.lastname@example.org.
SHILPA PAI MIZAR