The food trail

Seminar, August 2014

AND the instructions were, ‘When you reach SBBJ Bank under the giant peepal tree, turn left into this by-lane, keep going till you reach an intersection where you should ask for Churoko ka rasta. The moment you turn into this lane, there are two kachoriwalas opposite each other. The one on the right sells the authentic table tennis ball sized heeng kachoris which will be a transformative epicurean experience for you.’ What I wasn’t warned was that this intersection would come after an intensified assault on the olfactory senses for over a kilometre. The heeng kachori was well worth the walk and this comes from someone who can’t tolerate kachoris at all.

It’s good for the soul. It’s not good for the girth. All this walking the by-lanes of Jaipur to rediscover the flavours of food and what it means to its people here has evoked a strange mélange of feelings. From a ‘I am so glad traditions are still persisting’ to ‘OMG, who eats so much deep fried and so much sweet stuff still’ to ‘I can’t resist anymore’ and it’s a battle lost – taste buds triumph. Mapping and routing food is the best way to know a city, understand its people and the osmosis of cultures.

The next set of instructions was, ‘This Sunday, Dilip Bhatt is performing a tamaasha based on Gopichand Bhartihari’s legend outside the Ambikeshwar Mahadev temple in Amber. Watch the performance under the tree and then go meet Badrinarayanji, who makes the best gunji in Amber; his shop is at the bus stop.’

The shop is being run by the fourth generation of Badrinarayanji’s family. Gunjis have been served as the prasad at the Shila Devi temple in Amber for over three hundred years. It’s a sweet made from khoya which is bhunnoed, with sugar and green cardamom added to it. One piece is about 30 grams and they manage to sell about 30 kgs every day. Amber was a picnic palace with waterbodies around. Food formed an integral part of the ‘picnic’ routine and gunjis were the ideal way to end a meal. Badriji says, ‘Jab chiknai achi hogi toh cheeni koh zapt kar legi. Our food has an entire medical department present in it. If you mix sainda namak and ajwain, you don’t need to eat churan to digest your food.’

There is an entire philosophy of food which is intertwined with every festival. Winter months see an influx of gajak, revri, tilpatti. There is a tilkutte ki chauth, which is observed by most women in Jaipur. Women are meant to worship the moon by offering ark to it and break their fast with tilkutte ka prasad. All chauths are an integral part of a woman’s calendar of fasts here. The focus is to pray for good health and a long life for their families.

Seasons change and so do the colours associated with them. For every festival, food flavours take on what nature’s colours offer and culinary traditions are built around such changes. For Holi, Jaipur’s royal family follows the tradition of going to the Govind Devji temple to mingle with people, and shower on them gold and silver coins, gulaal gotas and mishri as their blessings. The manner of celebrating Holi reassured the praja that the eldest member of the ruling family considered the people of the city his extended family. Tamaashas took place at the chotaa akhaada in Brahmapuri. Art, craft, and performances came together to create a spirit of equanimity and equality. Many of these traditions and practices are now close to vanishing. On this occasion varied versions of gujiya stuffed with mawa and dry fruits do the rounds in homes and mithai shops.

We move to Sheetlaashtmi in March, which marks the worship of Sheetlamata to ward off all pox diseases. It also marks a change in season and food is cooked a day earlier to be eaten cold on this day. Moth and bajra are soaked overnight in a clay pot and this is the first prasad that marks the festival. Fresh butter is dolloped into this water and butter is applied to eyelids and navel to protect the body from seasonal changes and keep it cool. Food made for this day predominantly has its base in curd, butter milk, milk, bajra, gram flour – all of which keep the body cool. Rabri made from jowar, bajra, and corn with buttermilk is a favoured staple on this day. A corn and gur laapsi, which is basically broken wheat or corn similar to porridge, is also commonly made.

The tradition of daal baati churma is centuries old. Churma is made from wheat, gram flour, pistachio, roses, corn and a baati is either plain, stuffed with potatoes and masala or sweet with mawa. There are over twenty thousand goths (a sit down meal, normally in a temple) serving dal, baati, churma during Shraavan. The Kholeke Hanuman ji temple has an advance booking of two years for these. Beats the top restaurants in New York! During this month, if you cross Johri Bazaar at 8.30 am, there are over 300 kaarigars forming a chokhti, all waiting to be hired for the day’s labour of cooking dal baati churma.

Though daal, baati, churma came from Jodhpur to Jaipur, tipore, made from green chillies, were added to the repertoire. Green chillies cut to about an inch in length are first added to hot oil, followed by the dry masalas – saunf, amchur, salt, red chilli powder and whole coriander seeds. Kalyug Halwai in Khunteton ka Rasta (Kishen Pole Bazaar) has specialized in tipore for over 180 years. The family doesn’t know why tipore was added to the menu. They sell tipore at Rs 14 per 100 gms. Rase wale alu sit in a bucket, covered with a coat of rich red veneer of oil, are priced at Rs 20 per 250 gms. They sell about 20 kgs of tipore every day. ‘Our tipore doesn’t burn your tongue; we use the best quality of desi green chillies and our dry masalas are procured only from Janta Masala Udyog in Jhalaniyon ka Rasta.’

Every community has its own pakwaans for each special day. On Anant Chathurdashi, which marks the final day of celebrations around Ganesh Chathurthi, Jains make a roth (a thick, larger version of our roti) with ajwain, roasted over coal fire, dipped in ghee and eaten with pumpkin raita made from hung curd with a tadka of mustard seeds, black pepper, black salt, mint. Laapta is made with a paste of wheat flour, water and sugar, which is cooked and brought to boil to reach the right consistency.

From tipore I moved to traditional sweets – Bhagat’s doodh (milk) laddoos. Bhagat Mishthan is almost like an institution for Jaipurites. Though they existed professionally as halwais even earlier, Bhagat emerged as a successful name under Kanhaiya Lal Bhagat. Amit, the young grandson now running the business, recalls his father meeting a kaarigar who suggested making the gram flour batter for laddoos in milk instead of water. The resultant flavour of milk and caramelising sugar while the boondi for the laddoo is being fried is what gives the special piquantly sweet flavour. The traditional chouguni laddoos are still made, but not with four times the sugar, as the name suggests. Served as a part of the prasad at the Govind Devji temple, these laddoos can easily keep for about a month. ‘We test our sugar by making syrup – it has to have a shine. If it’s brown or reddish, it can have some dust or moisture and we get rid of that by adding milk to the syrup to remove it,’ Amit said. Bhagat’s balushahi is equally famous. Amit also tells me that daal ki pakodi with fresh coriander chutney is a must on Sankrant, just as raabri made with bajra in buttermilk is a must for Sheetlaashtmi.

The day after Diwali is Annakoot, which is important as it marks the posh ka maheena (onset of winter). Poshbada is a combination of sweet rice and mung daal vada,flavoured with black pepper and whole coriander. For Amit, just one typical dish for each festival forms a part of his food memories. Gatte ki sabzi is made for every festival in his home; if not that, then chana daal combined with either eggplant, bottle gourd or cucumber, arhar daal. It is still a no garlic household although ‘onions came into our home around fourteen years ago.’

Following the trail of instructions, I reached Sodhya Halwai in Lal ji Saand ka Rasta (Chaura Rasta) known for its mohan thaal – a sweet made from deep frying a batter of moong daal, ghee and water. Once cooled, the large balls are broken down and ground to be put back into large woks and roasted for another forty minutes over medium heat. Sugar syrup is added before mawa (thickened milk), made in-house and mixed with saffron, gives this chunky piece of heaven its final twist. This sweet is essential for Sheetlashtmi and Naag Panchimi festivals. Ritesh, the owner, says, ‘I have the ownership papers of this shop since 1857. It could be older and was gifted to my great grandfather by the then His Highness, Jamna Lal Sodhya.’ The shop became famous under his grandfather, Kailash Chand Sodhya, and is still a family run enterprise. A 100-kg sale is normal every day, which goes up to about 400-500 kgs during festivals.

Gulabsakri is the traditional bhog made for Lakshmi Pujan during Diwali and although the name is misleading since it has no rose flavour, it still is the most mouth-watering of all freshly made milk based sweets, doused with saffron and green cardamom. Somi Lal Kishan Lalji’s Rawat Mishthan Bhandar in Sothliwalon ka Rasta (Chaura Rasta) is another sweet shop existing since 1856. Sawai Man Singh ji is known to have always ordered gulabsakri from this shop. It sells most during Diwali, since that’s the time when a fresh crop of saffron is released and its flavour has commonly been considered akin to that of fresh roses though I don’t agree. Rajendra Rawat, the present owner, speaks proudly of the ghewar they make during Teej and Gangaur and their hara chana barfi during Holi. ‘Winter is the time to eat kheechdo, made from bajra or corn and wheat jaggery halwa. Kheechdo has to be piled on a plate, a hole punched into its centre, and ghee poured in, garnished with a generous sprinkling of castor sugar. It’s a heavy-duty dish but yields warmth to the body during winter.

Shraavan ka maheena (month) coincides with the worship of Shankar. Jaipur, however, is as much about the Govind Devji temple as it is about the Tarkeshwar temple – a unique sub-culture of food exists around the Govind Devji temple reminding us that epicureanism is very much a part of our existence. The original Govind Devji temple was in Brindavan, built by Maharaja Man Singh ji, and its shrine was moved to Jaipur to save it from being destroyed by Aurangzeb. This is why there is a strong western UP influence on the food prepared inside the temple to be served as bhog to Krishna. It normally has bedvi, kachori, jhol waale alu, dahi badas. Chappan bhog is still made for Annakoot, which is the most important day in Krishna Bhakti. It has all the main dishes made of different vegetables, different types of chutneys, pickles, pakodis, puris, kachodis, a variety of sweets including different types of laddoos, fruits and paan. The paan is made of high quality, rare saffron and rare suparis, and is the most important part of the bhog.

‘Krishna seva has four main seasons, of which summer is devoted to Yamuna and has an array of light food, mainly white in colour, like kadhi and rice. The saavan seva, known as Radhaseva, is when the richest and most elaborate shringaar is done, the bhaav is romantic, colourful and the food is also made to maintain that mood. This is the period when Hariyali Teej falls and the food made is green. All green vegetables are used; pistachio and mint based flavours dominate,’ says Krishna bhakt and artist Shan Bhatnagar.

Chandrika seva sets in with the winter, coinciding with Annakoot. ‘Lalita seva heralds spring – the season for meethe chawal. Janamashtmi is called Anand Mahautsav, which has a feast served with a variety of sweet meats. The bhav is that Nand, the foster father of baby Krishna, is host and treats everyone,’ Shan added. 

Though considered predominantly vegetarian, Jaipur can boast of certain specialized non-vegetarian food, influenced both by the Muslim cooking traditions and those of the Rajputs. Although meat eating is not as strongly pervasive here as it is in Ajmer, Agra and Delhi, a popular speciality is the kulfi kebab sold at the Muhammed Hotel in Chandpole Bazaar, just ahead of the Hanuman Mandir. The mutton mince is shaped like a kulfi and sold on sticks like a kulfi and has a similar texture to gushtaba. The Muslim Musafirkhana area near Moti Doongri is another haunt for meat lovers in Jaipur. Firdaus Hotel serves its famous ishtew, a mutton stew, and shammi kebabs. Kallu Hotel in Ramganj Bazaar is famous for its rich korma and sheermal. The inside dining area sells korma made in ghee while the outside counter sells regular mutton korma made in oil.

The Mathurs, who moved from UP to Rajasthan, have added another dimension of non-vegetarian fare to our lives. Save on full moon nights or Tuesdays, their daily food is focused mainly on mutton dishes. The Navratras (April and October) has mutton cooked without onion and garlic. Khus Khus ghosht, tempered with cloves, ginger and red chillies thrown in, is made as bhog. There is a strange tradition of adding two cloves per person in the family to the mutton that is being cooked. This, with alcohol, is served as prasad after the havan. On Dusshera, the tenth day, the Mathurs cook fish in curd, served with rice. While most festivals centre around girls and women – like the chauths, Teej, Gangaur, Raakhi – Ganesh Chaturthi is one day when unmarried boys pray for a good mate and a good career. Daal, baati, churma is served along with kheer and motichoor ke laddoo.

I’ve noticed that a lot of Rajput men really take their food seriously and even cook with a devotion which is marked for its zeal. In a city like Jaipur, one can grow up living next to royalty and yet remain happily unaware of the aromas and flavours, which are symbolic of much more than how they assault the senses. These flavours carry history forward and bring alive stories about the era when cooking was a ceremonial affair, replete with a richness which had layers of majestic, royal repasts, Rajput hunting and warrior traditions. I lived next to royalty in Jaipur and always took laal maas, govind gattas, doodh ke samose, kaleji ka raita, khad khargosh, khargosh ki mokal, lahsoon ki kheer as a regular part of everyday cooking, always hearing smattering of such recipes being talked about as routine.

Man Singh of Kanota sums up the loss of royal cuisine succinctly. ‘Earlier it was ninety per cent game meat being cooked something which is not legal anymore. The quantity of dry fruits, ghee and butter used for cooking some of the royal dishes is also no longer recommended by doctors. There were lots of ittars that were used to give special aroma to the food, like pure chameli oil or oil from Juhi ki bel (creeper), which are no longer made in their pure form. Between lack of time, a sedentary lifestyle and the law, most of the old food, along with the traditional techniques, is slowly dying out.’

The disappearance of palace recipes becomes glaring if you are invited to sample anjeer mutton, Mewari korma, whole brinjals, khadi daal, khus khus ki roti and lauki ki kheer. Piquant kaachri and aloo pyaz served as accompaniments, but these are still a regular part of table food even today. The focus was obviously on the Mewari korma and anjeer mutton – masalas for both were prepared on the traditional broad circular handis on coal fire. ‘It’s the perfection of the aanch (the flame) which gives theruaab (flavour) to the meat. I’ve been cooking for almost thirty years now and it’s the ras (juice) in my hands that gives the food that unique taste,’ he smiled. Onions reddened, curd added, cloves, green cardamom, cinnamon, cumin pip up the spiciness just to the right degree for the chicken as it relents to the gentle coating of home-made ghee and the masalas.

The anjeer mutton released teasing hints of the sweetness of the dry fruit – so delicately that attention had to be paid to it. The khadi daal threw up a strong aroma of garlic, whole red chillies and cinnamon. But what really stood out was the khus khus roti – it could be eaten just like that, without dipping it into any gravy or vegetable.

Himanshu Rathore was energized by watching his grandfather cook sulas over a sigri with patient care to detail, while he also learnt some of his cooking from his mother. Kaachri chicken, for which a local wild cucumber is used as a tenderiser along with a marinade of curd, garlic, paste of brown onions and which is finally smoked with ghee and cloves poured over hot coals, is one of his patent dishes. Khada masala meat, which is so typical of the rugged terrain of Rajasthan, is another staple and popular preparation. A simple rendition combining mutton, ghee, dry whole red chillies and salt and letting it cook in its own juices as jungle maas sits well with most of us. Safed (white) maas, which has a base of poppy seeds, scraped coconut, almonds (normally cashewnuts but Himanshu prefers using almonds), whole chillies from Marwar – they are longer, sweeter in flavour and not so hot – and whole coriander seeds, is another mutton dish which is very popular. ‘My version of laal maas has lots of fresh green coriander added to the mutton while it’s being cooked over a slow fire.’

‘For sulas, the cut of the meat is essential – it has to be sliced meat and we use raw papaya, kaachri, red chillies, turmeric, brown onion paste, hung yoghurt, salt to marinate it. We smoke the marinated meat first. It’s fixed on two spindles of skewers, tied with thread in a grid pattern and put over the aanch, carefully keeping the charcoal only on the sides. It’s basted with garlic water from time to time and then with ghee, taking almost one and half to two hours of slow cooking. Finally, a tempering of ghee and cumin seeds is added.’ Himanshu swears he can convert non-eggplant eaters to love it for life. ‘Bharwan baingan made in a gravy of fresh tomatoes, cumin, finely chopped onions, ginger, garlic, red chillies and turmeric stuffed into them and also used as a thick gravy.’ On his table vegetarian fare is otherwise limited.

The trail isn’t over yet, although the instructions also include going as far out as Sanganer, which has a namkeen shop more than two hundred and fifty years old, selling a large variety of chana and moong daal namkeen made in ghee in different flavours. The Bikaji namkeen is a poor substitute. The last of the instructions was to stop at the churanwala – the need for a digestive self-evident.

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