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April 08, 2020

Culinary Histories

Text by Madhu Jain. Illustration by Studio Misa

The origins of recipes, some of them accidental, fascinate Madhu Jain who travels back in time to her grandmother’s rich, layered paranthas

Debating the origin of an iconic recipe can lead to heated arguments — even fisticuffs in some cases. A discussion about the origins of butter chicken can raise temperatures more easily (and higher) than an argument about the merits of one political party over another. Or, who’s prettier: Deepika Padukone or Kangana Ranaut? Or, even, who are more intelligent: rice eaters or wheat eaters?

Food is not just something you put in your mouth to savour and linger over. Or, simply to survive. Certainly, it descends through your alimentary canal and keeps you alive and standing. But, it does so much more. Some dishes serve as triggers for nostalgia and memory — like the crumbs of the shell-shaped madeleines dipped in lime blossom tea that transported French writer Marcel Proust to his past. Those little pastries brought the past to life, into the present and his cork-lined room.

Grandmothers, mothers, wives
Clichés such as, ‘the way to a man’s heart (could be many a woman’s too) is through his stomach’, embody a truth barely changed down the centuries. Grandmothers, mothers, wives and lovers have long known this, despite the fact that the greatest chefs in Europe and the United States have predominantly been — or are said to have been — men.

My paternal grandmother had six sons and a daughter. All her sons were supposedly equal, but the chapattis (or phulkas) she made for them were clearly not. Each roti had a pre-determined destination: the perfectly round one for one son, a lavishly buttered one for another, a crisp one for the youngest, and so it went. Each to his own. As for her daughter, a widow who was in the kitchen with her, she made her own. Don’t get me wrong: my grandmother loved all her children, but perhaps a couple amongst them a little bit more than the others.

My maternal grandmother may have been more egalitarian: first come, first served was the règle du jeu — and of the kitchen. But poor thing, she always seemed to be cooking. Since family members came home at different times, she would stoically get the chula (stove) going (the huff-and-puff kind) and shell peas in the courtyard. Fresh was the guiding principle: there was no refrigerator (it came in later). Leftovers were not a part of the household’s food culture. Even today, a good and younger friend of mine (shall we describe her as anachronistic) never eats any cooked food that has previously entered a refrigerator.

Perhaps Shakespeare got it a little wrong. ‘If music be the food of love, play on’, he wrote in his play, Twelfth Night. But in our extended family, food alone (well, mostly) was a manifestation of love — never mind what it led to. In some cases, it was the raison d’être. My grandparents, like other bureaucrats and clerks, used to move to Shimla in the summers, when the British government shifted base to the hills. The British memsahibs could not take the harsh winds and blistering heat of the plains. So, they moved to cooler climes lock, stock, barrel, cooks and khansamas — our indigenous form of butlers, one could say.

However, my grandparents didn’t move every year. But that didn’t mean that all communication between those who went up to the mountains and those who stayed down in the plains stopped. The crackling telephone lines between the capital and hill stations kept the conversations going. My grandmother in Old Delhi and her neighbour who had moved to Shimla for a few months, continued to discuss which dal each one had made that day.

I don’t recall either of my grandmothers or other elderly relatives talking about dishes they had invented. They usually followed hand-me-downs — traditional family recipes. But it was the hand that mattered: the way the dough was kneaded and the rotis were made. My grandmother and aunts prided themselves on the fact that they didn’t use rolling pins — they used their bare hands to make the perfect rounds or squares.

Layered paranthas were the speciality of the house, and the rolling pins were dispensed with. The women twisted the prepared dough this way and that for those miraculous paranthas that Generation Next could never emulate. These were no less magical than the mille-feuille that the French make: those delicate, thin and crisp layers with some sort of custard between each one. They are as close to culinary heaven that one can get on earth.

The accidental dish
Origins of dishes can be fuzzy — and controversial. Take the aforementioned ubiquitous butter chicken. A dhaba owner in outer Connaught Place in New Delhi might have created this dish. Apparently, a customer asked for chicken curry. Since there wasn’t any left he took a few pieces of leftover tandoori chicken and dunked it into a sauce made from tomatoes, added a dollop or two of cream — and a new dish was born.

Accidental dishes are the most interesting. My favourite story is about the genesis of the ice cream cone. Perhaps it is just legend. During the first World’s Fair in New York, an ice cream seller and a waffle maker had stands next to each other. While the former was filling a cup for a customer, the ice cream was about to fall to the ground. The waffle maker caught the falling scoop with a waffle. And voilà, the ice cream cone was born.

If there isn’t already a tome on accidental cuisine, there ought to be.

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