Travelogue Archive

Family Secrets

I’ve been cooking for myself since I was 11 years old. Learnt how to cook like a professional in the last few years.

If you aren’t trained in a few fistfuls of culinary techniques, you’re probably not as fast and efficient with food as we are. Sometimes I wish I could keep cooking as a simple recreational activity, go to office every morning, stay home on Sundays, have a social life and blog about the things I’ve eaten.

Sadly, I couldn’t, and I can’t give you an answer why. I don’t think any professional chef can.

Anyway, when it comes down to cooking, most professionals don’t always end up cooking outrageously delicious food. They just make sure cooking is done fast. Really fast.

I firmly believe that the best food comes out of a home. Any home where people work hard and cook with love, with care, with the luxury of time. The difference is that we aren’t blessed with time, so what you cook at home in an hour, we have to get done with in 30 minutes. If you’re lucky enough to grow up eating food cooked by someone in the family, you wouldn’t want to venture out into a restaurant and pay exorbitant amounts of money on a regular basis. Had I this good fortune growing up, life would have been so different.

I visited a friend who lives in Jaipur who confirmed this theory. She took me to her family’s dargah — Miskeen Shah, a 200-year-old institution which has its own mosque, a well and family graveyard. Its founder, it is said, had travelled all the way from Kashmir to spread Islam in the region. He also has a street named after him in Srinagar. This dargah also serves very good home-cooked food to the poor every Thursday. I’ve had langar (free food given to devotees by religious institutions) before, it’s usually vegetarian and minimalist in nature. This langar , however, wasn’t quite the same as this one which served dal gosht (mutton in a lentil-based gravy).

I’d heard stories of the food she ate back home every time we had a craving for Mughlai food (which satiates my meat cravings like nothing else). The best Mughlai restaurants in Delhi never interested her. She said the food at home was a “million times better”. I always thought she was either homesick or a little strange. One dargah experience later, I invited myself for dinner. Conversation would focus on Mughlai food, with people who eat it on a daily basis. I’ve been trained in Mughlai cooking myself, I think I know the basics and most techniques used at such restaurants. But today I was after authenticity.

After speaking to almost everyone in the family over a two-hour conversation involving me taking notes and asking all sorts of intrusive questions, I’ve come up with the following observations that I hope helps simplify this type of cuisine:

  1. Traditional Muslim families all over India eat meat (almost) on a daily basis, along with usual accompaniments such as dal, a vegetable, and a salad. By meat I refer to everything permitted by the Q’uran, slaughtered by the halal method. All the food is not necessarily laden with ghee and dry fruits, as we were taught to expect. Those dishes are reserved for special occasions only. Common day-to-day fare includes lauki gosht (meat with gourd), dishes involving offal such as liver, kidney and brain, egg curry, egg halwa (pudding), keema (minced meat) and so on.
    Biryani and quorma (rich onion gravy) are usually reserved for occasions, as I mentioned.
  2. Cooking techniques and ingredients vary from place to place. For example, a family in Hyderabad will cook their biryani using the Hyderabadi kachhi gosht technique. Families in North India will use the Awadhi (Uttar Pradesh) style of pakki ghosht.
  3. A basic quorma does not use a lavish amount of dry fruits. In fact, it doesn’t use them at all. The gravy credits its distinct taste and colour to the use of fried onions which are mixed with curd and, of course, the meat’s natural juices. You can add dry fruits as a garnish. For abadami quorma, almond paste is added.
  4. A biryani of any kind has neither too many dry fruits nor kewra (fragrance) water. At most, it uses very little of these. We add these things at restaurants to fill your stomach and make you go home stuffed and happy. They’re hardly used at home. (Also, seafood biryani is a made-up dish, you should just call it seafood and rice). Biryani is derived from the Persian word “beriyan“, which means “roasted”. Unless the main ingredient is roasted and layered with rice and cooked using the dum method, it does not count as a biryani, technically at least.
  5. The big roti you see in old Delhi is not (a) bakarkhani, (b) sheermal, (c) whatever else you call it. That’s their version of a simple tandoori roti with the addition of baking powder. A bakarkhani is a baked Kashmiri bread with spices. A sheermal is the granddaddy of unleavened breads and has honey and milk as taste enhancers. It closely resembles a waffle.
  6. Punjabi and Mughlai food both involve the use of a tandoor to prepare kebabs and breads. This is because of the presence of both communities in Punjab and North India. Punjabi kebabs and breads include chicken tikka (red), chicken malai tikka (white), chicken haryali tikka (green), tandoori chicken (red), Afghani chicken (the same white marination), kulcha, and Punjabi naan (very different from the Persian variety). Mughlai kebabs include Seekh kebab (common to Punjabi and Mughlai, only marinations differ), tunde kebab, reshmi kebab, kakori kebab, galaouti kebab, rumali roti, varqi parantha, sheermal, lachha parantha with egg.

This list makes it easier to those who aren’t sure of what to order when one visits a restaurant which claims to be masters of all the above.

  1. If confronted in a situation where you come across “ishtew” in a Mughlai restaurant’s menu, do not be under the impression that it is anything like stew. It’s not.
  2. Gravies vary from place to place. Here are names of some iconic curries made by the community in different parts of the country. Quorma(North India), Salan (Hyderabad), Rezala (West Bengal).
  3. The halal method of slaughter is actually recommended for better results by most chefs in the world. Excess blood is drained, cleaning the insides, making the meat tender and increasing its shelf life in the process. If you want softer meat, marinate using tenderizers — coconut, pineapple and raw papaya, to see surprising results.
  4. Incorporating the use of pulses with meat to create rich, hearty dishes is very common in Mughlai food. Dal gosht and haleem, to name a few, are usually served in mass feedings and on special occasions.
  5. Desserts are usually in the form of a halwa or the milk based phirni and sevaiyan (vermicelli) eaten once in a while. Decadent desserts such as double ka meetha and shahi tukda are reserved for sweet shops and very special occasions.

This information helped me understand the food of a community whose food is rather misinterpreted in restaurants that claim to sell it. The truth is, although a few of these dishes can be traced back to those eaten by Mughal royalty, most of what we see on menus today —with suffixes like Jahangiri and Mughlai — are just versions of authentic dishes with lots of unnecessary ingredients which, when added, somehow make the dish appear royal and opulent.

These were the dishes exclusively created for the kitchens of kings and statesmen. They are adaptations of what people ate at home but weren’t fancy enough to be served to kings. Maybe that’s one thing Mughal cooks and we modern-day cooks have in common.

If the king didn’t like his food, the cooks were usually punished and humiliated.

If a customer doesn’t like our food, it’s really the same thing.

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