Survival of the best

MARUT SIKKA

back to issue

HISTORICALLY India has evoked visions of a land where rivers of milk flow. The Greek traveller Megasthenes, who visited India in Alexander’s wake, was amazed to see Indians ‘drink honey out of giant bamboo canes.’ He may have been confused by the Sanskrit synonym for sugarcane, madhutrina, or honey-bearing grass. Bharatwaasis were the first to taste the sweetness of sugar and share it with the rest of the planet.

Maricham, or pepper, from the verdant coast of Malabar has the most evocative names. Vellajam, translated, would mean ‘the daughter of vines’. Krishnamushanam means ‘a dark beauty with a hot temperament’. Dharmapattanam means ‘repository of virtues’. What a pity that even the sonorous maricham has been reduced to mirch. The bounty from here also includes cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, allspice and many more. We often tend to forget that the splendours of Indian cuisine derive from therapeutic and aesthetic use of spices. Colour, aroma and taste – the quintessence of gourmet foods – would not be possible without them. Spices have, for centuries, commanded a unique position in India’s trade with the world and added their zest to the global palate.

Spices are inextricably woven with this nation’s history, their impact worldwide. When Queen Sheba visited the court of Solomon, she perfumed herself with the aromatic spices of India. Some historians maintain that the Roman Empire plunged headlong into decline because the Caesars squandered their resources on pepper and other expensive spices from India.

The Arab spice traders preserved the most amazing legend. They believed that the mythological bird, Phoenix, could rise from the ashes only because it constructed its pyre-nest with cinnamon sticks! They had the world believe that to obtain the aromatic spices of Hind, they had to combat the fierce bird to accomplish their mission, and then, for millennia, used this ‘bloody battle’ as a pretext to hike the prices of the bark.

It is said that Ibn Batuta, amongst history’s most fearless travellers, was fascinated by a feast in the court of Sultan Muhammed bin Tughlaq. He quotes: ‘The crockery was gold, laid out on beautiful carpets. Invitees bowed before the Sultan and took their allocated places on the table. Before the grand feast they sipped sherbet and deliberated. The meal began by calling upon "Bismillah".’

He goes on to describe how roasted lamb was served with a special bread as the first course. ‘Many courses followed including vegetarian courses, sweetmeats – surprisingly served in the middle of the meal – and rice. The meal concluded with paan preceded by a digestive barley water. The Chamberlain called out Bismillah again, which was a signal for the guests to rise, bow before the Emperor and disperse.’ Needless to say this sensually satisfying imperial feast was prepared elaborately, served ornately, but was, in its elegance, simplicity personified.

Visualize this: You are dining with the Nizam of Hyderabad. A team of servers escorted by members of the royal guard, bring on a wooden casket covered with velvet. The covers are removed with great fanfare to reveal a magnificent spread of food. This unique vessel is called the khwan, with the food in it a complete meal for a privileged royal guest! If such fanfare will not stimulate your appetite, what else will?

 

The Brits came, saw and were ‘conquered’ by the myriad smells, sights and sounds of the subcontinent. They had to work hard, play hard and eat well! Many acquired a taste for local delicacies, married local women and made India their home. Thus were born the Children of the Raj. The encounter resulted in a unique intermingling of diverse flavours and cooking techniques, which spawned an unusually rich cuisine – that of the Anglo-Indians. Kipling notwithstanding, East and West did meet at the dining table.

These culinary innovations were not confined to big cities. They were evident in mofussil towns, far-flung cantonments and railway colonies. What eventually came to be known as Anglo-Indian cuisine is, in fact, still ‘preserved’ in places like Chakladarpur, Bareilly, Ooty, Kharagpur, Hosur, Dehra Dun and many more.

 

Contrary to popular belief, their food is not bland Anglo, but spicy Indian. Their hospitality is unmatched, and the zest for life, incomparable. A traditional Anglo-Indian Sunday lunch, for example, is ‘bad word’ curry and yellow rice. It is, actually, a kofta curry and rice. The kofta in Anglo-Indianese is meatballs. When the ‘meat’ was left out of the word, it became the ‘bad word’. Or, for example, the inability of some of them to pronounce ‘capon’, which became ‘captain’. It was a memorable trip down nostalgia lane.

The sahib may have struck terror in the heart of the native – perhaps, the spirit of Dyer possessed the British officials – but the Anglo presented the human face of the Raj. Many recall, with fondness, their governess’, tutors, teachers and, above all, friends. Who can forget Henry Vivian Louis De Rozio, the fiery nationalist, who inspired a generation of freedom fighters with his poetry, the education mission of Frank Anthony, the voice of Melville D’Mello, the sporting endeavours of Anthony D’Mello and the valour of top guns, Denzil and Trevor Keeler.

Anglo food is an astonishing discovery. Dishes include Anglo roasts, stews, cutlets, pies, curries, ‘doll’ and chutneys. Yet, it can be déjà vu for every Indian. Bengalis, Tamilians, Malyalees, Kannadiggas, Punjabis and all the other lip-smacking Indians were quick to claim that this ‘is our food’. What a tribute to a community that incorporated the best of the subcontinent to create a generic Indian cuisine.

The taluka originated when large estates were granted to loyal members of the retinue of Mughal emperors. These members were called talukdaars. A few hundred years later, they continued to be identified by the populace as rulers, sometimes even being addressed as nawab and raja. To their credit, the talukdaars lived up to an aristocratic and noble image. In the 19th century and until a few years after independence, they took upon themselves the onus of preserving and extending the art of refined living.

 

As intermediaries between the local populace and the British, the talukdaars had to entertain on an opulent scale. The more lavish the spread, the greater the access to the Lat Sahib – Governor – and greater the reputation among the peer group. It was not a question of the idle rich amusing themselves with gastronomic delights; reasons of state actually dictated the delicacy, and sumptuousness of the food.

1947 – the partition – dramatically changed the demographic profile of the country. The refugee came, survived and thrived. With him came a brand new flamboyant cuisine – the bigger the spread the better. Then dawned the golden age of spanking new Five Star hotels. With multiple restaurants they changed the skyline but not the Indian foodscape. Barring a couple of exceptions, their Indian food was of undefined origin, a masala mirchi oily mess that made even the ordinary dhaba look like a Three Star Michelin.

Today, the business of wellness seems to be overtaking the business of food. Wonderful old and new techniques are amalgamating to form a new cuisine. The same taste but quicker and lighter. Nonstick pans, light stir fries, steamed foods and microwave’s seem to be the order of the day. Whether these are here to stay, only Darwin’s theory and time will tell.

top