Seventy-one years after Independence, while it’s fair to question the actions of the British and other foreigners who tried to rule us, it’s also fair to appreciate the ingredients that came our way because of them. Of course, some ingredients could have come our way without us having to lose our self-dignity and ability to self-rule for centuries. After all, the entrance of asafoetida or hing into our kitchens was absolutely bloodless.
In 1894, Laljee Godhoo, the patriarch and founder of Laljee Godhoo and Co, one of India’s oldest food ingredient manufacturing companies, had met a Pathan, who had come on foot and horseback, all the way from Kabul. The Pathan had brought with him a sack of dates, dried fruits and lumps of hing – an ingredient which caught the canny Godhoo’s fancy. He immediately started sourcing and marketing it in Mumbai. Hing, which isn’t grown in India other than in small batches in Kashmir, is still sourced from Afghanistan, but is a staple in most kitchens of India, flavouring our dals and many breads.
But few cultural and culinary incursions are so peaceful – and the incursions are many. There’s clear Muslim influence in the food of Hyderabad from its Persian rulers. The Portuguese influence on Indian cuisine can be seen in vinegar marinades, chillies, potatoes, tomatoes, pineapples, cashews, fennel and guavas. And while we may not want to accept it, onion came from Afghanistan, and potato was brought from the Andean mountains by the Portuguese. They also brought the tomato, tapioca, groundnuts, corn, papaya, pineapple, guava, avocado, rajma, cashew, chiku, capsicum and chilli. Tilapia came here from Africa. The Chinese brought the mulberry, blackberry, litchi, cherry and the peach. And of course, tea.
Just look at the vast variety of bread that Goans eat – from pav to the pita-like poi, katro pav (butterfly bread), and kakon which resembles a bagel. The Portuguese introduced oven-baked bread to India. This happened way back in 1510, when Goa became one of the Portuguese holdings in India, and later the capital of the Portuguese Estado da India (State of India). Wheat was easily available in India, but no one had heard of yeast. So the Europeans, while resourcefully figuring out new methods to loot us, also figured out that toddy was a good ingredient to prove dough in the absence of yeast.
Necessity is indeed the mother of good food.
In her book Cozinha de Goa: History and Tradition of Goan Food, Goan historian Dr Fatima da Silva Gracias writes that the Portuguese Jesuits taught bread baking to locals in the villages of Salcete in South Goa in the 16th century. Today, Portuguese-Goan bread is a staple across Maharashtra, Goa and Gujarat. What better way to soak up the spicy oily remnants of pork vindaloo and Goan sausage curry? The term pav is, in fact, from the Portuguese pao, a generic word for bread.
And thanks to bread, we got bread crumbs. Which helped us adopt that great British export – the cutlet, and what we Bengalis call the “chop”. Before bread crumbs, a mixture of flour and water was used with a coating of poppy seed for a crunchy exterior.
Here are some of my favourite colonial and post-colonial dishes and a dash of trivia on some hybrid culinary creations which might not have come about – at least in the shape and flavours they did – if not for our foreign visitors. A number of them are from Bengal, purely because it was the capital of the country for the longest time, and home to the East India Company, and therefore the hotbed of firangi movement – and flavours.
Smoked hilsa: A big favourite in Calcutta, and of people who don’t want to choke to death on the needle-like bones of the hilsa or ilish maach, is that great invention which even Bengali restaurants serve now – the smoked hilsa. I remember my grandmother basting the hilsa filet with a marinade of molasses, Worcestershire sauce and other spices and then smoking the fish over a base of khoi, or puffed rice. The bones used to melt away when she cooked it. When I tried this same method and served it to guests, they almost punctured their gullets. I assume that the smoked hilsa was created for the powers that be, so that they could enjoy the flavour of the fish without dirtying their fingers. Although there is a theory that it was cooked on cargo steamers which used to ply back and forth on the Ganga pre-Independence, and the day’s fresh catch was cooked on top of charcoal stoves, which ended up disintegrating the fine bones of the fish.
Pantaras, a common menu item in many Bengali homes, is essentially a pancake with a stuffing of mince, which is then fried. Then there’s the ledikeni, which is essentially what North Indians call gulab jamun and Bengalis call the pantua (which is an elongated version of the gulab jamun). The ledikeni has a raisin in it usually and is made from chena or split milk, as opposed to the other two, which are made with khoya or reduced milk. It is soaked in as much sugar syrup as the former two. The ledikeni was created for Lady Canning, who was the then Vicereine of India and married to Lord Canning, the first Viceroy of India. Lady Canning had asked the sweet-maker Bhim Chandra Nag to make a sweet specially for her birthday – at least she didn’t ask for a swathe of land – and was presented with this hybrid. It’s highly popular in Bengal and easily available. So, I’d recommend just heading to a sweet shop in Bengal, rather than venturing to make this.
Then there’s the Dhakai porota. Not paratha. The Dhakai porota is a multi-layered, flaky, deep-fried paratha made with refined flour, found on the other side of the border. This is Bengal’s answer to the Malabar paratha and few breads are as delicious or as capable of clogging up your arteries.
Speaking of parathas, there’s a deadlier and more robust version of the Dhakai porota, which supposedly made its way to Calcutta’s streets from Dhaka where it’s a common street food – the Mughlai Porota. This is not for the faint-hearted, literally. The Mughlai Porota, which no Mughal might have known of, is rectangular in shape, made from refined flour, shaped like a parcel and stuffed with either egg or with keema, then dipped into more egg and deep-fried. The paratha is usually served cut up in squares. We are a genteel people after all and believe in finger food, even if it is deep-fried finger food. The streets of Calcutta and, I’m given to believe, Dhaka are dotted with vendors making this deadly, but delicious, porota. While there seems to be little to connect the “Mughlai” Porota to the Mughals, it is surprisingly similar to the Malaysian martabak. Which could well mean that it entered Bengal along with the Bohri Muslims, who were returning from Malaysia.
Malaysia is also credited with being the birthplace, or having a strong influence, on that other Bengali favourite, Chingri Malai Curry. There is no malai or cream in the curry, and in Bengal we don’t refer to coconut as malai. But the strong coconut milk and light chilli flavor is very similar to a coconuty Laksa, minus the fish sauce. Which would explain the malai in the name.
My favourite though, and another deep-fried adventure, is the potato chop – which has less to do with potato and more to do with mince. A bastardised version of the mutton risole, it was gifted to us by the British and made famous by the Anglo-Indian community. It was then adopted with open arms, and bulging bellies, by the Bengalis. Kheema or potato chops are Worcestershire sauce and pepper-spiced mince balls, which are wrapped in mashed potato and rolled in breadcrumbs to form an egg shape, and then deep-fried.
500g – Mincemeat
3 onions, chopped
1 tsp – Ginger paste
1 tsp – Garlic paste
A handful of chopped coriander
4 Chillies, chopped
1 tbsp – Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp – Sugar
1 tsp – Salt
1 tsp – Pepper
Juice of 1 lime
1 tsp – Freshly ground garam masala powder
For the potato casing
6 potatoes – Boiled and mashed and seasoned with salt and pepper
1 large cup – Bread crumbs
2 eggs, beaten with 2 tsp water
* Fry the onions till translucent. Then add all the remaining ingredients, other than the sauce and lime. Saute for 2-3 minutes.
* Then add the mince and sauce and the lime. Keep cooking on low flame till the mince is cooked. It should be a deep brown colour.
* Let it cool and form into small balls. Encase each ball inside a one-inch covering of mashed potato.
* Then dip in egg wash, roll in the breadcrumbs till fully covered.
* Let sit in the fridge for 15-20 minutes and then deep fry till golden brown.
One of my favourite pre-Independence recipes – and which has led to heated debates on food groups, even though none of us has tasted the original – is the Goalondo Steamer Chicken Curry. This curry gets its name from a steamer that ferried people across the Padma River that runs through Bangladesh and India.
It was cooked by the Muslim boatmen of the “Goalondo-Narayanganj” steamers in pre-partition India (Bangladesh, India and Pakistan). My grandmother’s youngest brother tasted this curry on the steamer that used to arrive in the town of Goalondo, now in Bangladesh, on the banks of the Padma in 1947. According to him, all Assam-bound passengers from Kolkata would disembark at Goalondo to change steamers.
He remembers the gravy being thin, and slightly spicy. The cooks on the boat served passengers unlimited unpolished rice and dal, but rationed out two pieces of chicken. While we can never experience this trip or the chicken curry again, here’s my version of Goalondo Steamer Chicken Curry – a hybrid of a number of recipes that I have tried over the years. The gravy is created from the water released by the onions.
1kg – Chicken
600g – Onions, sliced
1 tsp – Sugar
2 tbsp – Freshly minced garlic
2 tbsp – Freshly minced ginger
8 – Dry red chilies, ground into a paste
1 tsp – Turmeric
8 – Sliced green chilies
½ cup – Mustard oil
1 tsp – Salt
* Marinate the chicken in all the ingredients and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes. Heat a pan, add the chicken with its marinade and cook on high heat for two minutes, until the chicken starts to change colour.
* Lower the flame to medium, cover and cook. Stir every few minutes. The longer you cook it the better, but the chicken should be ready in about 20-30 minutes. It would have a thick reddish-yellow gravy from the juice of the onions should have formed by now. Do not add any water.
* Serve with rice.
There are other delicacies and oddities such as Jumbo Prawn Chiney Kebab, Frontier Samosas and Karachi Biscuits. The list is long and delicious. Write in and tell us which are your favourite Indian delicacies, which just might have emerged from the kitchens of those we ousted from power.