The culturing of cuisine

Published: December 10, 2012 - 13:08

“Your staple diet must be idlis and dosas?” was the rhetorical question from a cheery young waiter at Lahore’s Pearl Intercontinental when he learned I was from India. My prompt protest that, being from Delhi, I ate food similar to what was being served in the expansive breakfast buffet failed to convince him. “This is what we have been told. Try our nihari and halim. I am sure you would not get it in India, which I hear is vegetarian,” he went on. I refrained from saying that nihari and halim probably originated in the lanes of Delhi and Hyderabad, respectively. It was evident that the robust young fellow was proud both of what had been laid out on the table as well as his country, Pakistan, being the sole inheritor of Mughlai culture and cuisine. And I really did not want to cause too much confusion in his mind about the origin of the delicacies in the spread. I decided to put a spin on cricketer Virender Sehwag’s dictum of “See ball, hit ball” and turn it into “See food, eat food” and immersed myself seriously in relishing it.

‘Nihari’ literally means morning so it is a breakfast meat curry dish cooked overnight. The Partition and diminishing of Mughlai culture saw such delicacies, that are cooked painstakingly, disappear from upmarket menus and become confined to the old quarters of Delhi, Lucknow and Hyderabad as well as other cities that were under the sway of Muslim rulers. Understandably, a culture that was devalued and disowned had to find new inheritors. A Muslim state carved out of India was keen to establish its own identity, which meant rewriting history, creating its own cultural icons, lending a historical and geographical continuity to its eating habits, and generally doing things that would differentiate it from the land it had been carved out of.

As the transfer of population during Partition was based on religion, faith-based politics started influencing eating habits too. A good example is how the twin cities of Lahore and Amritsar have been impacted by Partition and politics. The famous street food of Lahore, for instance, incorporates the cuisine of the frontier areas and Central Asia as well as Mughlai. Lahoris have meat even in their vegetables! In comparison, the food in Amritsar, which is barely 30 km from Lahore, tastes distinctly different. It’s not just due to the milieu of vegetarianism that subtly pervades many of the Amritsari dhabas, including the famous “Brothers dhaba”, but also to how they use tomato, dairy products and spices. Amritsari fish, tandoori chicken and the curries all have a flavour that is far removed from what one finds in Lahore. And Amritsari non-vegetarian cuisine is very different from Mughlai.  

As the transfer of population during Partition was based on religion, faith-based politics started 

Partition seems to have impacted the cuisine of the two Bengals too! During my recent visit to Dhaka’s famous watering hole, the Dhaka Club, which is also a place reputed to serve some of the best Bengali cuisine (including the famous steamed hilsa), it became apparent that the style of cooking was very dissimilar to that of Kolkata.

Bengalis on both sides of the divide would say that the cuisine of East Bengal has always been different, but the food that is served in India by the former refugees from East Pakistan settled in Delhi’s Chittaranjan Park and their interpretation of their cuisine is very different from what is
now available in Dhaka and elsewhere.

A food critic based out of Dhaka, Showkat Usman, had a programme on a Kolkata TV channel explaining why the cooking in Dhaka is so different. The food is richer, greasier and spicier than one finds just 200 km away in Kolkata. Expectedly, the cuisine has more meat and spices very similar to those used in Lahore. Undoubtedly, Pakistan’s occupation of East Bengal and its endeavour to turn the region into an Islamic society left its imprint on not only the way hilsa and bhetki are cooked there, but also in putting more red and white meat into the menus. Restaurants like Dhanasri in Dhaka’s tony neighbourhood of Gulshan-2 are popular for biryani and bhuna gosht. And all the dishes are, predictably, very Mughlai. Indian cooking, in comparison, has an imprint of vegetarianism leavened by pro-Hindutva politics. Do I love this? I am waiting for my next trip to Lahore and Dhaka.

Editor of Delhi's Hardnews magazine and author of Bad Money Bad Politics- the untold story of Hawala scandal.

Read more stories by Sanjay Kapoor

This story is from print issue of HardNews