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Indian Food: Centuries of Parallel Evolution, Now Converging?

January 13, 2013 2 comments

Indian cuisine has been regional for centuries. But, in the last thirty-five years, Indian food habits have undergone a sea-change.

Image source & courtesy - hindustantimes.com

Image source & courtesy – hindustantimes.com

Something very strange is happening across India.

Indian cuisine has been regional for centuries.

Image source & courtesy - hindustantimes.com

Image source & courtesy – hindustantimes.com

Rajasthan has a dry cuisine that concentrates on preservation. Konkan food is full of greenery, freshness and coconut. Andhra cuisine has an overload of chilly and tamarind. Some brahmin sects in Bengal and Konkan coasts, eat fish.

But for the first time in 5000-years of Indian history, India’s Bombay High Generation (1975-2000) changed that. In the last thirty-five years, Indian food habits have undergone a sea-change.

Image source & courtesy - hindustantimes.com

Image source & courtesy – hindustantimes.com

Dosas and Idlis are now a breakfast staple across India. How much have dosas penetrated? Seen at a corner atta-chakki (a house-hold size grain-flour mill), a Muslim householder, who wanted some dosa-atta to be dry-ground. Clueless on how to make dosa batter, the family had decided to go the dosa way due to children-pressure.

Punjabi paneer items are now lunch and dinner regulars across food tables in India. Modern Punjabi cuisine, perfected in the last 500-years of gurudwara-langar cooking has taken the country by storm.

Banarsi chaat has surely spread across the country. Remember, Banaras is the world’s oldest living city.

In all this, an analysis of the food composition will show a broad focus on two things.

  • One – A good mix of carbohydrates, proteins, fat and fibre.
  • Two – Maximum variety and increasing the number of elements that go into any preparation, which is the bedrock of vegetarian cuisine.
Image source & courtesy - hindustantimes.com

Image source & courtesy – hindustantimes.com

Here is an interesting post by Vir Sanghvi on Banarsi chaat.

I’m finally coming to terms with something I’ve always suspected about myself: my favourite food in the world is chaat. Give me caviar, give me white truffles and give me the greatest hits of Heston Blumenthal and Ferran Adrià, and I’ll probably be diverted for a while. But after a briefflirtation, I will return to my first love: chaat.

One of my friends is a TV big-shot who prides himself on his foodie skills though he has a misplaced admiration for his local Bihari cuisine and little understanding of the complexities of Gujarati food! and even he and his wife were stunned by the quality of the chaat. The secret of good chaat, he said, is that UP has the best chaat in India but that it does not come from Lucknow as is commonly supposed but from Benaras. The thing about the people of Benaras, he added, is that they are naturally shy and reluctant to leave their city and show off their skills to the world.

I phoned Marut and asked him what he thought. He agreed that UP was the centre of the chaat world. But he thought that, within UP, there were many chaat traditions. He gave me the example of what we call paani-puri in Bombay. In Lucknow and Kanpur, they use the term ‘batasha’ or possibly, ‘gol-gappa’. In Benaras, on the other hand, they call it a puchhka and the taste of the paani is subtly different from the Lucknow version.

Marut thinks that there are strong foodie links between Benaras and Calcutta, which is why the term ‘puchhka’ is used in Bengal as well. He reckons that perhaps chaatwallahs from the Benaras region moved to Calcutta and seeded the city’s flourishing chaat scene.
He may be right. The more I thought about it the more chaat seemed to be a UP thing. The Calcutta tradition is essentially a morphing of Benarasi recipes to suit the city’s Bengali and Marwari clientele. This is why Calcutta’s puchhkas are tarter than the Benaras version. In Delhi, on the other hand, the chaatwallahs probably came from Lucknow and Kanpur and gave the city its own gol-gappa, which I regret to say, is easily the least interesting example of the genre.

Neither Marut nor I could work out which part of UP Bombay’s chaatwallahs originally came from. We know for certain that chaat was transported to Bombay by UP Brahmins, most of whom used the surname Sharma. (Take a poll of the chaatwallahs at Chowpatty and Juhu. You will find that most of the long-established ones are still called Sharma.)

It is a tribute to Bombay’s culinary genius that the UP chaat tradition was able to successfully mate with the Gujarati snack/farsan tradition so that a new chaat culture was born. The Gujaratis took the principles of UP chaat (something fried, lots of crispy things for texture, chutneys, dahi, potatoes, etc.) and created new dishes. The most famous of these is bhel puri but there are many others.
The Bombay dahi batata puri has its roots in UP chaat but is very much an individual dish in its own right. Ragda pattice is a Gujarati adaptation of that north Indian standby, tikki with channa. And Marut reckons that Bombay’s pani-puri, which is the local variant of the gol-gappa/puchhka/batasha chaat is probably the best expression of this dish. (I love Bombay but here I disagree with Marut: my money is on the Calcutta  puchhka.)

The more Marut and I talked about it, the more convinced we became that we could trace nearly all genuine chaat dishes to waves of migration from UP. This explains why it is so difficult to find a chaat tradition south of Bombay: the UPites did not venture further down the Peninsula.

It is funny, though, that at a time when every state is doing so much to put its cuisine on the map, UP takes so little credit for being the home of chaat. Kerala may brag about its spices, Goa may trumpet the virtues of vindaloo and so on, but UP seems to have surrendered all claims to chaat, which is now seen as a pan-Indian favourite rather than a regional cuisine.

The public image of the food of UP leads only to the Awadhi haute cuisine of Lucknow and to pots of steaming biryani or animal fat kebabs. I love Lucknawi food as much as the next man but I doubt if it has been as influential or as popular as chaat. And yet, the chaat geniuses of Benaras, Lucknow, Kanpur and other UP towns get almost no recognition at all. Their wonderful tradition is disparaged as being ‘mere street food’.

But India lives and eats on its streets. And that night as I turned away all the fancy food that Marut and the Michelin-starred chefs had cooked and stuck to the Benaras chaat, I pondered the injustice. In America, they celebrate the hamburger and the hotdog; pizza is Italy’s global calling card; and Britain is known for fish and chips. So why, oh why, do we in India not give chaat the respect it deserves? Why is it without honour even in its home state?

I say this not just because chaat is my favourite food. I’m sure that millions of other Indians are also crazy about chaat. So, for once, let’s give haute cuisine a rest and stand up for what we really love: the cuisine of the Indian street.

via Rude Food: the cuisine of the street – Hindustan Times.


History at La Martiniere

La Martiniere School, where Akhilesh Yadav will be sworn in to become CM of UP was the scene of a ferocious battle between Indian soldiers fighting to throw out the British.


Image by Felice Beato in 1858 of La Martiniere Lucknow  |  Street by Street, building by building, Indian soldiers fought for Lucknow. |  Click for image.

Image by Felice Beato in 1858 of La Martiniere Lucknow | Street by Street, building by building, Indian soldiers fought for Lucknow. | Click for image.

May 3, 2002: Mayawati’s swearing-in ceremony held at La Martiniere ground.

In 1980s and early 1990s, not more than 1,200 persons were invited. Senior government officials, political party functionaries and a few guests were invited for the function. But now, leaders want at least their MLAs and party workers to attend the event.” Another official from the secretariat administration department (SAD) that plays a key role in organising the event and bears the entire cost agreed. “It’s a grand affair,” he stated.

As per the estimates gathered from the sachivalay department, around Rs 60 lakh is being spent in readying the venue. “A normal shamiyana for 400 guests in a wedding ceremony costs at least Rs 1 lakh. The ‘tentage’, lights, sound, fans could cost about Rs 1 crore for 10,000 guests,” admitted an engineer at LDA. Not only this, around Rs 1 crore would go in paying rent for holding the event on La Martiniere ground. Actually, the use of the ground is managed by La Martiniere College board whose ex-officio chairman is a Justice of the Allahabad High Court.

At present, Justice Umakant Singh holds the position. When Lucknow administration approached the college management for using the place, the board convened its meeting. Considering that the preparations for the event had begun, the board said that the occasion should be treated as a one-time exception. It gave the permission but asked the organisers to pay Rs 1 crore as compensation for using the place to which the administration agreed. “The cost will be borne by the state government,” said Anil Sagar, DM, Lucknow. (via Swearing-in assumes ‘grand’ proportions – The Times of India).

150 years ago

More than 150 years ago, Indian soldiers paid with their lives, attempting to rid India of the young British Raj. After spending crores on this event, at this venue, for the swearing in ceremony of Akhilesh Yadav, it may be worthwhile to remind ourselves that some very valuable blood was shed for this to happen now.

Those who died, battled for a future. A better future, they could not live to see.


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