Sunday Chronicle cover story 07 Dec 2019 A community potluck

A community potluck

DECCAN CHRONICLE. | ANUSHKA MUKHERJEE
Published Dec 8, 2019, 12:00 am IST
Updated Dec 8, 2019, 12:38 am IST
Sundays unfold differently in every home, but speak one language: the language of food.
Afghani naans sold on the streets of Little Kabul in Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar.
 Afghani naans sold on the streets of Little Kabul in Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar.

Sunday afternoon: a medley of meat and vegetables, early hours of preparation, tuned with chatter over a stove of bubbling pots. A spread that beckons second and third helpings, and licking your plates clean. Sundays unfold differently in every home, but speak one language: the language of food.

In the Indian potpourri of cultures, it’s easy to identify the spicy aromas of butter chicken or the sweet whiff of Gujarati dal. Dig around for the tangy misal pav or the sputtering hit of the kadhi pata temper — when it comes to food, every part of the country brings something to the figurative, and the literal, table. However, in nooks and crannies lie the smaller, more hidden communities and their colourful cultures. In the face of dwindling numbers, these communities are very much alive.

In a pocket of Delhi, the streets light up as Kabuliwalas sell piping-hot naans from little stalls. At a Parsi wedding in Gujarat, the bride and groom enjoy the traditional lagan no bhonu. In community meals and family recipes, these cultures find a way to not only stay rooted to their identities, but also pass the baton to younger generations. Among a potluck of myriad traditions, there are some forgotten communities that celebrate their identity with food. This is their story.

THE AFGHANIS OF DELHI

Laieq Hussain came to Delhi from Afghanistan five years ago, but for him, the capital is just as much a home. More than 10,000 Afghanis — mostly refugees — are nestled in a lively pocket of Lajpat Nagar in Delhi, aptly dubbed ‘Little Kabul’. The bustling streets are lined with Afghani grocery stores and little cubbyholes of restaurants. Stalls sell fragrant, puffy Afghani naans. Though they might look similar to the city’s beloved Punjabi naan, they are considerably sweeter.

The Afghani people are a small community in India, scattered along Delhi, Hyderabad, Pune. Families have found a home in a foreign land. Perhaps not too foreign, as Laeiq, who speaks in clean Hindi, explains. “India and Afghanistan have an old friendship. We love Bollywood movies. Indians have been very kind to us.” However, when it comes to food, it’s easy to draw a line between both cuisines. “Indian food is spicy,” Laieq points out, “while Afghani food is strong. We use a few ingredients, but develop a strong flavour out of them.” The flagbearer of Afghani cuisine is the Qabuli pulav — a delicacy of a few ingredients, as Laieq explains. Made with gosht, the pulav uses carrots and a special oil from Afghanistan. “If you visit an Afghani household and they do not serve you Qabuli pulav, well, you must assume that you are not very welcome there.”

The Afghanis associate certain food with certain occasions — like delicacies of ashak, manto and bamiya served on the Persian New Year — and build a food culture everywhere they go. “We believe that if the food is good, then our work will be good. Our identity is held in our food,” explains Laieq. But have the Afghani food traditions shed a few layers on their way to India? “No our traditions have stayed intact, so have our recipes,” he answers.

While food plays into the fabric of Little Kabul, Laieq explains that food has, in fact, found another important function for them. “Indian people come to our restaurant; they love our Afghani food, and talk to us about our culture. They identify with us. I am from Afghanistan, yes, but I have more friends here in India.” The common denominator of sitting down at a table and enjoying a meal does not see a difference in language, in colour, in faith.

Qabuli pulav

Ingredients
2 cups of basmati rice
5 cardamom pods, divided
1 onion, peeled and halved
1 whole head garlic, loose skins removed
5 whole cloves, divided
2 tsp ground black pepper, divided
2 tsp cumin seed, divided
1 tsp each of salt, white sugar, cinnamon stick, paprika, and coriander seeds
3 ½ cups of water
1 tbsp canola oil
1 onion, chopped
1 cup carrots, chopped into matchstick pieces
3 clove of garlic
½ cup each of raisins and slivered almonds

Method

Soak rice in water for 5 mins. Then, place 4 cardamom pods on a cutting board and lightly crush using a flat knife; transfer to a pressure cooker. Add halved onion, garlic head, 4 cloves, 1 tsp black pepper, 1 tsp cumin seed, salt, sugar, cinnamon stick, paprika, and coriander seeds. Pour in water

Turn up pressure cooker heat to high. Cook until the first whistle. Reduce heat. Wait for two more whistles. Remove from heat and allow the pressure to release

Strain the broth into a bowl. Medium heat a clean cooker. Add oil and chopped onion; cook and stir until softened and browned. Add carrots; cook until soft. Add raisins, almonds, and strained rice. Add remaining 1 tsp black pepper, remaining 1 tsp cumin seed, and remaining clove

Crush remaining cardamom seed to a powder and add to the pressure cooker. Mix to combine; pour in broth to cover the rice. Increase heat to high and seal the cooker. Cook until the first whistle. Reduce heat to medium. Cook for 5 minutes and remove from heat. Let this rest for 7 minutes; release the pressure naturally (10 minutes). Transfer cooked rice to a serving dish immediately to prevent overcooking

Bhaji Dana nu Ghosht

Ingredients
2 onions, chopped and made into a paste
1 tsp ginger garlic paste
1 bunch of amaranth leaves
1 tsp dhana-jeera masala
1 tsp garam masala
½ tsp red chilli powder
½ kg boneless mutton
100 ml fresh cream
2 tsp lemon juice
200 gms fresh green chickpeas
Salt to taste
200 ml oil

Method
Chop the onions and make a paste out of it in a food processor. Fry in some oil until it turns brown. Set aside
Chop the Amaranth leaves and sauté them in oil. Make a paste in a food processor. Set aside
Peel chickpeas, boil them for 10 mins in hot water, keep aside
In a pressure cooker, add the leftover oil, the onion paste and the ginger garlic paste. Sauté
Add in the dry spices: the dhana jeera powder, garam masala, red chilli powder
Once the spices no longer smell raw, add in the Amaranth paste, mutton and salt. Sauté for another couple of mins. Add in 500ml of water and close the pressure cooker. Allow cooking for 3 whistles and 10 mins on slow
Once the pressure is released, allow the gravy to simmer until thick. Add in the chickpeas
Finish the gravy by adding the cream. Turn off the gas and add the lemon juice. Serve with soft pav

THE PARSIS OF INDIA

Ask a Parsi about his food, or ask him about his day. You may get the same answer. As Cherag Khajotiya, who was born into a Parsi family that runs a catering business emphatically mentions, a Parsi is nothing without his love for food and drinks. Perhaps one of the oldest communities to seek refuge in India, their arrival to Gujarat is painted in a lovely story. When the king of Gujarat feared that the refugees from Iran would take up space in his kingdom, the leader of the group poured sugar into a glass of milk and said, “We are like the sugar in your milk: not only will we assimilate into your land, without spilling over, but we will also make it sweeter.”

“We are vanishing,” admits Cherag. The Parsis dwindle by the day: inter-faith marriages shun members out of the community, and the dearth of a younger generation further pushes the number downward. So, it becomes all the more important to celebrate what makes the community stronger: its food. “Even when someone dies, we celebrate the life of the departed with a final farewell of the dhansak.”

The Parsis are an embodiment of happiness: they make sure to celebrate every birthday, every navjote (religious induct), every lagan (wedding) with great cheer and, of course, a special menu. “A lagan no bhonu (wedding feast) will include murghi ni farcha (fried chicken), patra ni machhi (fish steamed in banana leaves) and Parsi mutton pulav,” Cherag enlists. In fact, one doesn’t have to wait for a wedding for a feast. “Every Sunday calls for dhansak with kebabs.” With six types of lentils caramelised with onions, the dhansak is symbolic of the Parsi cuisine. “We also love to cook every type of vegetable with meat. Okra with mutton, spinach with prawns — you name it.” The food, the language, the shared history — Cherag speaks of a community that has assimilated seamlessly into the country, but struggles to keep afloat. He hopes that the Parsi community, in all its delicious glory, continues to thrive.

THE ANGLO-INDIANS

In the 1800s, in an old, raking mansion, the English saheb enjoys a meal of ball curry and yellow rice. Christmases of roast chicken and wine, yes, but for the rest of the year, the cook whips up curries and koftas. Anglo-Indian food has a simple origin story: the British colonialists of India brought their European recipes — and sprinkled them with Indian spices. The Railway Mutton Curry, mulligatawny, the dak bungla mutton curry, these are all misadventures born out of a history of communities and colonies. A couple of centuries later, the community is still very much a part of the country’s identity, and yet, it stays upright in its traditions of food and religion.

Conrad Young, a Delhi-based member of the community describes it best: “We are a happy, accepting community.” One often associates the Christmas cake or roast chicken with Anglo-Indians — but that’s barely scratching the surface of their culinary tradition. “Every Anglo dish hints at a European recipe, but carries the Indian spirit. We changed paprika to red chillies, thyme to coriander,” Conrad explains. “The Anglo food of Lucknow picks up an Afghani scent, whereas in the South it adheres more to their style. Anglo-Indian food is about assimilation.”

Food is an extended affair here, often days-long. “Before Christmas, we prepare salt meat.” A huge chunk of meat is salted and prepped for 10 days, and then it lasts for days. From kidney pies, quiches, hams to rose cookies, cakes and wine, the people make everything at home. But if this brings you an image of the women of the household slaving over stoves for days, Conrad will shake you out of your illusion. “In our community, the men go into the kitchen, and are just as much as part of any feast as their wives.” One thing remains clear: every grand feast certainly brings everyone together.

For Anglo-Indians, their community is family. At Christmas and Easter, the members prepare a celebrated spread for the elderly of the Anglo-Indian old-age homes of the city. “In a potluck of sorts, we make merry with food and wine with the elderly. Everyone is family, after all.”

Through recipes that are now available, people are rediscovering the culinary gems of a community that imbibes the best of the East and the West. In keeping the community bound and in giving them an impetus, the food of the Anglo-Indians is only one example of how our meals can make history.

THE BAGHDADI JEWS OF KOLKATA

Only 30 Baghdadi Jews remain in Kolkata — the descendants of a colourful community that found a home in the City of Joy. 90-year-old Flower Silliman is the oldest member, but her memories of growing up with Jewish food are clear as day. In stories of Jewish-Kolkata traditions that Flower mentions, it’s obvious: across thousand-mile migrations, changing traditions and dwindling numbers, food continues to be a binding thread to keep the Jewish identity alive in Kolkata. “The Jews  came from a place where there was no ginger. The food was bland,” explains Flower. The Jewish folks created simple recipes that borrowed from their heritage and lent themselves to the spices and techniques available in India, like adding garlic to a regular stew, “and it was actually tastier!” laughs Flower.

Over the years, the Kolkata Jewish cuisine saw innovation, while always keeping in mind the most important part of a Jewish diet: eating Kosher. “We do not have dairy with meat,” Flower is firm about the rules. This gave way to ways of skirting around this duo in a land of biryani-with-raita and yogurt-marinated chicken tikka. “We marinate the chicken in coconut milk, or lemon juice. And if you want a little bread pudding with your meal — well then, you have to wait four hours!”

Flower remembers her grandmother’s baklavas and samboosas, and many family recipes like kakh, a crispy sweet. Another such delicacy is the aloo makallah — unique to the community here, it is a marriage between Bengali and Jewish cooking of the trusty aloo. “What I think happened is,” Flower elaborates, “that a Jewish housewife saw her Bengali neighbour making aloo bhaja — traditional Bengali fried potatoes — and thought of making her own version. But she was too lazy to cut up the potatoes, so they are fried whole.” Aloo makallah is an important part of the meal on Friday evenings before the Sabbath. The occasion, in all its food-laden glory, brings together families in this community. Stewing gently on a low flame overnight, a pot of stuffed chicken swimming in rice, broth and vegetables makes way for three dishes to be had on the day of rest: the meat, the rice and the crust at the bottom.

The Jews of Kolkata do not stray from their identity. In her grandmother’s halcoons (a sesame-seed-based dish) and mahashas (stuffed capsicum), Flower keeps the tradition alive. Her daughter, Jael, documents their heritage on an online archive, immortalising the Jewish-Kolkata life, art, food and history. They refuse to be forgotten.

Mahashas

Ingredients
5 medium bell peppers (any colour)
5 large and firm tomatoes
¾ cup basmati rice
½ pound ground chicken
½ – ¾ cup canola oil (depends on pan)
1 lemon’s juice
3 tbsp fresh mint leaves, finely chopped
1 tsp each of kosher salt, ground
ginger, and garlic powder
½ tsp ground turmeric

method
Set your oven to preheat at 375°F. Rinse  rice in until the water runs clear, and then place it in a bowl and soak it with water
Cut the tops off the tomatoes about ¾ of an inch from the top. Save the tops. Gently cut around the tomato edges to loosen the veins and seeds from the outer shell. With a spoon, scoop out the seeds and flesh from the tomato’s insides. Place the juice and seeds into a large bowl and flesh on a cutting board
Cut the tops off the peppers about ¾ of an inch from the top. Save the tops. Discard the ribs and seeds
Finely chop the tomato flesh/puree it in a food processor/immersion blender. Add to the bowl with the tomato juice and seeds. Add the lemon juice, 2 tbsp of canola oil, salt, turmeric, garlic, ginger and mint. Stir. Drain the rice. Add the rice and ground chicken to the mixture and stir again. Ensure a thick soup consistency

Coat the bottom of a foil pan/baking dish with canola oil. Place the tomato ‘shells’ and the peppers in the pan. Fill each tomato/pepper ¾ of the way to the top. Drizzle the filled vegetables with some canola oil on top. Place the tops back on the tomatoes and peppers

Cover the dish with foil. Cook in the pre-heated oven for 45 mins. Then, take the foil off of the dish and cook for another 15 minutes. The vegetables should be tender; the rice cooked

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