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Unity in culinary diversity

Not sure if there is any other country in the world that can match India’s diversity in terms of climate, topography, vegetation, ethnicity, language, dress, culture and religion. This also extends to food.

But in our daily eating habits, there is a commonality stringing the four corners of the land, which is fascinating and appears to be getting stronger by the day. Just think of this silent string of national integration binding the people of the different regions of India much more effectively than all the programmes being assiduously pursued by the government’s publicity agencies.

There has been an age-old commonality in daily home-cooked food, cutting across regions: the good old kadhi made with besan and dahi , and khichdi (rice and lentils), is popular from the Himalayan mountains to the plains of Punjab and Haryana. The cow belt of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar all savour kadhi . And migrants from the Sindh province of undivided Punjab, now settled mainly in and around Mumbai, love their Sindhi kadhi . The kadhi is also made in Maharashtra and Gujarat I know, but this does not extend south beyond the Vindhyachal range.

Khichdi in the north is eaten with papad, dahi , ghee, chutney and achar , and also in the south. In Tamil Nadu it is called pongal and in Karnataka, besi beli bhath . It is given religiously to the young and the old who have upset tummies.

There are two other items that constitute our staple daily diet. The glass or kulhar of sweet lassi with malai (cream)/butter in Punjab, Haryana, the cow belt, is one. Then there is the good old butter milk, called mathha/chhach in Gujarat and Maharashtra, and rai (black mustard) seeds, curry patta and chillies tadka in the deep south taken as an appetiser or digestive before and after lunch. Dahi is generally not consumed in the northeast.

Then there is the dal tadka (lentils), an essential item of the diet all over the north to go with rotis. It gets converted into sambar and rasam, more peppery with spices and tamarind water added to it, and taken with boiled rice in the south. In Maharashtra, where it is extensively used, it is called ambat varan .

The good old papad s, thicker and spicier and either roasted or fried in the north but thin and papery and served fried in with rasam ( appalam or papadam ) are in the southern States.

Across the regions

I feel happy to observe that silently but very noticeably, Indian cuisine is cutting across the regions. Chaat in different forms such as gol gappas, aloo tikkies, samosas and chholey bhaturey , a mainly north Indian phenomenon, is spreading to all parts and being devoured even in the deep south. And dosas and idlis with sambar and coconut chutney are being enjoyed in the north.

Bhel puri of Mumbai is a popular chaat item all over the north. The tandoor (clay oven), which was an unknown form of cooking in the south a few decades ago, is becoming popular all over the south, especially among the young who throng small dhabas set up by sardarjis , never lacking in business enterprise, big or small. They enjoy tandoori and butter chicken with ma ki dal (urad) and naan . The northeast is also contributing to this phenomenon, as one notices. Nepalis from Sikkim and Darjeeling doing brisk sale of noodles and momos: vegetarian and chicken with chilli sauce, from small kiosks that have sprung up in every nook and corner of Delhi.

Non-vegetarian dishes are also travelling far and wide: tundey ke galawati, kakori kebabs and Awadhi biryani of Lucknow, and Hyderabadi biryani, are hot-selling items in Mughlai restaurants that have come up all over Delhi and other north Indian cities. The younger generation even in north India are switching from red (mutton) to white meat (chicken and fish) on health grounds. But traditional fish-eaters, Bengalis, Oriyas, Konkanis and Keralites, stick to their preferred varieties: hilsa, rohu and katla for Bengalis, and pomfret, mackerel, prawns, lobsters, crabs and oysters for those living along the coastline. Singharas and mahseers, fried, remain the favourites among Punjabis.

Although there is a bewildering variety of Indian sweets eaten from north to south, like milk cakes and gulab jamuns in Punjab and Haryana, jalebis, laddoos, pedas and rabri in Uttar Pradesh, kulfis all over the north, rasogullas, sandesh, chamcham and rasomalais in West Bengal; mysore pak in the south, sooji ka halwa and kheer (made of milk and rice) is the common dessert denominator being called kesari bhath and payasam in the South. But the Tamils must cap their meals with thair sadam (curd rice).

I think this commonalty in food in India has a lot to do with the local produce. Unlike the developed world where fresh food products are available globally, here we have to depend largely on local crops.

Of course, the food packaging industry is making snacks and masalas available everywhere.

There is also a reverse swing in motion with popular dishes from the Western world and the Far East silently converting the eating habits of our young ones: take pizzas, hamburgers, chow meins, chilly chicken, Thai curries, both red and green. But we shall talk about this later. Bon appetit !

anil.chowdhry@gmail.com