No such thing as Punjabi food?

Chef Parvinder Bali forages for ingredients, recipes and family histories on his mission to showcase the depth and richness of food emerging from Amritsar to Ropar

January 06, 2023 04:38 pm | Updated January 07, 2023 08:49 am IST

To step into the world of Chef Parvinder Bali, is a lot like leaning over a buffet where each preparation is an indissoluble chunk of history. Bali has authored several books on culinary theory like Food Productions and Operations, Theory on Bakery and Patisserie which are taught in culinary schools across India. Associated with Oberoi Group’s Oberoi Centre of Learning and Development, New Delhi, he was looking to connect with historians to collate a book on the langar (the communal meal served in a gurdwara) cuisines of India. 

His plans took an interesting turn when he was introduced to former chief minister of Punjab Captain Amarinder Singh, who hails from the erstwhile royal family of Patiala.  Instead of langar, the Captain advised the chef to write about the 450-year-old recipes handwritten in Gurmukhi, emerging from his own gharana in Patiala. .  

A work in progress, the book comprises Raja Bhalindra Singh‘s (Amarinder’s uncle) collection of preparations from Patiala. At The Trident in Chennai recently, Chef Bali laid before us the pages from India’s rich culinary history lost in the crevices of time. Originally from Baramulla in Kashmir, a plethora of recipes emerging from the kitchens of different maharajas punctuated his stories, starting from Maharaj Raj Rajinder Singh’s (1892) Martabaan Wali Bateyror quails cooked in pickling spices in an earthen pot, Maharaja Bhupinder Singh’s (1910) Mirchi Ka Halwaor green capsicum pudding to Raja Baba Ala Singh Sidhu‘s (1764) Moongphalli Waley Meat Kebabor Lamb kebabs with crushed peanuts, Maharaja Bhalendra Singh’s (1932) Shalgam Wala Gosht or lamb braised with turnip, and Maharaja Bhupinder Singh’s (1905) Khaam Khataior green gram lentil kebabs.  

Curiously, the book does not contain any paneer or potato recipes. Bali explains, “Potatoes were introduced in India only in the 1500s by the Portuguese, and paneer was a result of Turkish influences. It was called peynir and was consumed as raw slices for breakfast.”

The chef went on to share an anecdote on the introduction of the potato to the Calcutta biryani. When the Portuguese set foot in the subcontinent, they started growing the plant which was later popularised by the British. Potatoes were a delicacy and five times more expensive than meat. At this juncture in history, Nawab Wajid Ali Shah sought to add potato to the biriyani and develop a culinary-counter narrative, which would negate his insolvency. Since then, the potato has lived on as a legend on our plates.

Studying flavours

Each time Chef Bali , enters a kitchen, he brings to the table his cultural frontiers, the battering of Partition and an acute culinary dexterity. All of this is embodied in cooking techniques, traditional recipes and unique menus.

 “If you go to an 85-year-old grandmother in Punjab and talk to her about Dal Makhni and Butter Chicken, she will look at you in amazement,” he proclaims. 

“There’s nothing called Punjabi food. There’s food emerging from the riyasats of Punjab like Amritsar, Jalandhar and certain villages like Malwa, Doaba, and Ropar,” affirms the chef whoseculinary theories are taught across India, Kenya, Nepal, Malaysia, and Hong Kong.

Traditional vs. Western

According to him, many factors give dimension to a dish — the thickness of utensils, heat sources used (charcoal, wood or gas), time of the year, day of the month and the time of the day. For instance, in pre-air conditioner days, the Dal Bhukpari (made with green moong dal) was soaked overnight under the soft moonlight in an earthenware pot to allow the ingredients to absorb the cool temperatures.  

When one of Bali’s guests tried the famed dal Bhukpari, he remarked that he was famished shortly after the meal. This was when Bali did some research and theorised that bhukpari was perhaps a metamorphosed version of the Hindi phrase bhuk badh gayi or an increase in appetite.  

Speaking of the recipes emerging from the riyasats, Bali prefers using the word ‘traditional’ over ‘authentic’. Most of the recipes are simple one-pot preparations which were cooked in humble homes for farmers who would work hard in the fields all day.  “The recipes are simple but the challenge is that the measurements used are ancient like—masha, tola and chattank.” Now standardised as 0.97grams, masha is a traditional unit of mass whereas one tola equals 12.5 grams and five tola is equivalent to one chatank

As food drifts towards progressive cooking, which is heavily influenced by Western culture and ingredients, what gets lost in the process are ancient ingredients, he says. “Asparagus was indigenous to Kashmir, it was called shatvar and was used in medicines but there are no dishes created out of asparagus. The Europeans have now appropriated it,” adds the chef. 

Ingredients like gohal or fruit of the banyan tree, wild karonda or cranberry, kachnar ki kali or white and red bahunia flowers are difficult to source too, he adds.

“Indian cuisine history is so complex,” says Bali, adding “What we have in written scripts by maharanis, kings and nawabs is hardly 450 years old and that is all Mughlai food; it’s alien spices that came to us from Persia.”

In his free time, he says he likes to meticulously forage for ingredients and live life ‘Patiala peg’ size.

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