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Rakhshanda Jalil
Monday , September 24, 2012 at 17 : 26

Cooking in the age of homogenisation


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In a world of falling standards, nothing has been worse hit than good ol' fashioned home-style cooking in Muslim homes across Upper India. I was struck by the full import of this somewhat simplistic pronouncement in the midst of my mother's complaints about household help. Blissfully unaware of the political incorrectness of her terminology (she still calls them 'naukar'), she is especially critical of those who pretend they can cook ('aaj kal ke naukar', as she calls them).

As she quite rightly points out, it is this new breed of folk passing themselves off as cooks (in Delhi they are most often than not from two eastern states known to export vast armies of domestic help to the rest of the country), who have homogenised cooking to a shocking degree and we, hapless victims terrified that they will take offense and leave us stranded, can do no more than mutter behind their backs. Let me give a few examples of the dreadful homogenisation that has taken over our kitchens and numbed our palate in the wake of a silent and unsung putsch.

First and foremost: the business of 'baghaar' or 'tadka' as those from the Hindi-speaking belt refer to the tempering with hot oil that is an essential part of most Indian-style cooking (north and south of the Vindhyas). No one can quite pinpoint when this subversive subterfuge took place but before we knew it we were eating everything with the same baghaar! There was a time -- one that even I remember from my hoary childhood -- when each dish had its own distinctive baghaar. The arhar ki dal for example -- loved by the true connoisseurs, including Mirza Ghalib, as confessed in his letters -- had a bagharof one sookhi lal mirch and roughly chopped cloves of garlic giving it a wonderfully roasted, nutty flavour. The masoorki dal would have browned onions; the urad(always white and not yellowed with turmeric as it comes now) would arrive smothered under a melange of crispy brown onion, juliennes of ginger, finely chopped green chillies and green coriander and the faintest smidgeon of heeng (asafoetida) to reduce its baadi (gas-inducing) qualities!

Of course, till our family moved to Delhi from Aligarh, we had never eaten the bigger legumes such as rajma or chhole or the sabut dals (those with skins on) except maybe as sabut urad ki kicchdi during deep dark winter months. My father, till his dying day, would refrain from eating rajma and look wonderingly at us when we wolfed it down with a gusto we had emulated from our Punjabi friends and neighbours. But I am digressing.... To return to the business of baghaar, aaj kal ke naukar give us a standard version - over-generous amounts of zeera(cumin) that lodge themselves in your teeth and make you urgently wish to floss; un-browned onions which float about like pale wraiths; and worse of all, chopped bits of uncooked tomatoes. It is the last, actually, that evokes the strongest reaction. 'Har cheez mein tamatar daal dete hain,' as my mother never tires of pointing out.

I am convinced that these wretched red globes, the product of India's famous Green Revolution, have done more harm than good to our palate. Frankly, I cannot recall very many dishes that once used to have tomatoes; now the most ubiquitous vegetable on our dining table is the tomato in some form or the other - diced, sliced, pureed, cooked, raw! And its absence from our fridges can cause our temperamental cooks to throw a mini tantrum. There was a time when the tomato made its appearance in a sharif Muslim household along with sliced onions, lemon wedges and long green chillies in the form of a 'salaad'. Occasionally, it might even appear as tamatar gosht (an unimaginably reddish-brown dish of well-done mutton in thick gravy). After that, it was a strictly 'no-tamatar' zone.

Now, as though making up for lost time, the tomato has surreptitiously entered every dish - be it vegetable, meat or legume. Also, instead of the distinctly flavour some albeit anaemic-looking desi tamatar, we now have absurdly-large, uncannily red versions that are grown from hybrid seeds in hothouses. The new-age cooks use them to thicken gravies, add colour to dishes that don't quite need help from a 'foreign hand' and slosh generous quantities of the pureed version to create another modern marvel that my parents' generation had never dreamt of: the kadhai chicken. That something as utilitarian as a wok should walk from the kitchen to the dining table was itself an untenable idea, but that it should contain two such disparate elements as a tomato and a fowl was stranger still.Moreover, growing up in Nehruvian India, chicken (called murghi, it always made me wonder at the sagacity of those who had cooked the bird and knew it gender) was a special dish, and a stand-alone one.

Another strange marriage wrought by the present crop of cooks is that between tomatoes and cottage cheese (paneer). Pretty soon, we will run out of a generation that had not grown up eating paneer and for whom paneer is strictly an acquired taste, one that they are still trying to figure out. Introduced to Independent India by those who came from the other side of the newly-created border, its squishy whiteness lent itself to all manner of experimentation to a nation slowly shedding the 'shackles of convention'. Initially, only those who suffered from gout or hyper-tension and were advised to stay off red meat as well as those who adopted the new creed of vegetarianism by choice, embraced this new wonder, consumed in copious quantities by the newly-arrived Indians called sharanarthis (or 'refuge-seekers' as those from west Punjab were called in the early days). Along with rajma chawal and chhole bature accompanied by gajar ka achar, it came to UP-wallah families like mine through Punjabi friends. Now, however, we find ourselves eating paneer with virtually no assistance or prompting;although every now and then my racial memory gags at the thought of this Johnny-come-lately having nudged out several family favourites to become the default option on many a weekday nights.

Like the ubiquitous tomatoes, we have another country cousin and gift of the Green Revolution that has swamped our kitchens and played havoc with traditional menus, namely the green peas. Once eaten only in winter, for in the plains of Upper India it grew only during the cold months, it is now easily available throughout the year. Cold storage and cold chains have caused problems of plenty on the same scale as the tomato; it is everywhere and in such abundance that it is paired with virtually everything. My memories of sitting in the sun helping shell vast mountains of tender field-fresh green peas - and popping as many into my mouth as in the waiting bowl - are only memories. The mystique of eating seasonal hari matar (fragrant with crushed pepper corns) for afternoon tea is just not there if it involves defrosting a packet from the deep freeze. What is more, I yearn for a time when one had matar only in the form of qeema-matar or aloo-matar.

Of course, no rant on 'Cooking in the Time of Homogenization' can ever be complete without mention of roti. My children -deprived creatures that they are - have never known the delights of ulte tawe ki roti, those large, thin but perfectly round creations tossed on to the back of upturned skillets by skilful hands that knew how to knead the dough just so. Poor city-bred kids, they have been raised on a steady diet of phulka - a sort of roti that is only slightly bigger than a puri and is wonderfully fluffed out when eaten straight off the fire but within seconds collapses into a leathery rubberiness and has none of the moist softness of the roti.

And, finally, possibly the worst casualty of this coup d'etat in our kitchen has been culinary vocabulary. There is of course the tadka that is commonly said for the baghaar but what of the other words that possibly my children will only ever find in qissa-kahanis or dictionaries: tarkari(now it is subzi or, more often than not, subji); pirch (plate); pyali(cup), chammach(spoon), safi (duster). I can go on, but I must hurry. I have to tell my Shabnam (who hails from a village where her staple diet was bhaat eaten with freshly-caught fish) to make matar paneer.

(Rakhshanda Jalil blogs at www.hindustaniawaaz-rakhshanda.blogspot.com)


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More about Rakhshanda Jalil

Rakhshanda Jalil writes on culture, literature and society. She has published over 15 books, including the much-acclaimed book on Delhi's lesser-known monuments called 'Invisible Delhi' and a well-received collection of short stories, called 'Release & Other Stories' (Harper Collins, 2011). She blogs at www.hindustaniawaaz-rakhshanda.blogspot.com. Her Ph D is on the Progressive Writers' Movement.
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