How intolerance has left India’s culinary culture poorer

An excerpt from ‘The Flavours of Nationalism’, in which human-rights lawyer and writer Nandita Haksar explores love and hate through the lens of food.

I do not remember going out for a meal during my childhood except for an occasional visit to Moti Mahal. It was there that I heard of a dish called butter chicken.

Butter chicken was in fact an invention of Kundan Lal Gujral, a Punjabi refugee from Lahore who came to India during the Partition. In his new home in Delhi, Gujral founded the famous restaurant, Moti Mahal, in Daryaganj. The lack of refrigeration apparently led Gujral to put unsold tandoori tikkas into a rich tomato gravy full of butter and cream and the butter chicken was born.

I remember Papa driving us to Moti Mahal. He dropped us at the restaurant, Amma and I got down from the car and he drove off to park it opposite the paanwala without realizing that Amma had fallen into a manhole as she stepped out of the car. She was rescued and we all had a laugh.

The restaurant has attracted world leaders, including Zakir Hussain, Jawaharlal Nehru, Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. Freedom fighter and independent India’s first education minister, Maulana Azad reportedly even told the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, that while in India he must make two visits – to the Taj Mahal in Agra and the Moti Mahal in Delhi. And the Shah followed his advice, adding his name to some of the most renowned patrons of Moti Mahal. More recently, Moti Mahal was visited by none other than renowned master chef Gordon Ramsay.

Amma was quite happy to go to Moti Mahal but would never have admitted that butter chicken could compare to anything like the food in Lucknow. In any case, she never ate butter chicken.

I must have imbibed these prejudices from my mother. Long after I had graduated, I took some friends to dine at Karim’s at Jama Masjid. A family was sitting at the table next to us and I heard a child order butter chicken. Without thinking I told them that this was not the place for butter chicken. They should go to a restaurant serving Punjabi food.

I half expected the family to tell me to mind my own business but a young man turned to me and apologized: ‘The children do not know.’

The waiter came to me and said they had to put butter chicken on their menu after repeated demands from their Punjabi customers who did not know the difference between Old Delhi’s Mughlai food and Punjabi food.

Although Kashmiri Pandits are traditionally meateaters, there are many men and women who were vegetarians. Both my Masi – my mother’s older sister – and my Chacha – Papa’s younger brother – were strict vegetarians. But neither of them ever objected to anyone in the family eating meat, and in both their homes, meat was cooked and relished by other family members.

But in recent times this tolerant attitude is all but gone. A very different kind of vegetarianism is creeping into the culture of the Kashmiris – those who have had to leave their homes in the Valley in the aftermath of the insurgency in 1989, and even the downstairs Kashmiris, like my family. I was shocked when I invited an aunt to my home and she told me on the phone: ‘Don’t order food from the Muslim place in JNU; we can have vegetarian food.’ I knew my Mamu liked the food from Mughal Darbar, a popular restaurant inside Jawaharlal Nehru University. The kebab-roti reminded Mamu and me of the delicious kebabs with rumali roti and biryani Nana used to bring for us from the Gymkhana Club in Lucknow. Besides, Kashmiri Pandits always bought halal meat from Muslim butchers. My aunt’s intolerance is a reflection of the present times; an intolerance based on the false belief that upper-caste Hindus did not eat meat in the past. But every historian has stated that our ancestors were predominantly non-vegetarian. Not only did she not want to eat food cooked by Muslim hands, she also wanted to impose her distorted, bigoted ideas on us.

As I grow older, I sometimes long to taste our traditional Kashmiri food. Sometimes the longing is almost painful. It is not only the food, but also the smells from the kitchen that I long for; something familiar that will remind me of those days when we gathered together as a family. But then the family has drifted apart – I meet them once a year, if that. I think it was the food that bound us together and now the food has disappeared. Kashmiri men no longer know how to cook, and many of them have married women from non-Kashmiri communities who do not enjoy cooking or eating Kashmiri food. Now, when we meet sometimes my cousins offer a Subway sandwich or a simple meal low on calories and also on taste. Besides, everyone has become very conscious of their health; almost no one eats red meat.

Gone are the bowls of meat and vegetables rich in calories and taste. There is not that sense of plenty, and the warmth of hospitality has been replaced with obsessive concerns about health.

There are a few weddings but we have to stand in queue and serve ourselves at the buffet. Buffets do not allow you to sit down and suck out the marrow or chew the bones. Most times we eat with a fork and spoon rather than make luqmas with our hands.

The slow disappearance of our culture and cuisine began long ago, even before we realized what we were losing. By the time my younger sister got married in May 2001, there was only one professional cook who cooked for weddings, Topaji. He, along with many Kashmiri Pandit families, had already left his ancestral home in Old Delhi and settled down in Gurgaon. And much of his knowledge of cooking he claimed was from Bua’s book, which was just a home cook’s collection of recipes. I noticed she does not give the recipe for khhatti kaleji.

Some of my aunts and uncles had trained their servants to cook basic Kashmiri food. The most famous was Moti, Dada’s cook. But all these men (and they were all men) had disappeared from our lives one by one.

In our home at least the loss had to do with the disappearance of our meatwala.

Every single day, Muslim meatwala cycled all the way from Jama Masjid to Race Course Road where we lived, and later to Shanti Niketan. This meant he cycled 15 kilometres to our home and then 15 kilometres back to Jama Masjid. He came on his cycle with a blue wooden box tied to the pillion. It had a net around it, not just to keep away the flies, but also to keep the meat fresh. He announced his coming with a ring of his bicycle bell and Amma would call out to the cook: ‘Dekho, meatwala aa gaya.’ And then she would have to decide what kind of meat we wanted. Each meat dish had a different cut.

On some days I would stand and watch him cut the meat. Painstakingly, he would remove the fat and the white membranes, and then if we wanted pasandas, he would take each piece and beat it with the back of the knife, or if it was mince, he would mince it in the mincer he carried. It was all done quietly and politely. He never let us down, no matter what the season.

Then, one day he did not come. He had told us he was afraid because there were accusations that he and other meatwalas were selling beef. But he kept coming, till the day he did not turn up. He disappeared from our lives. In those days there were no mobile numbers or even phone numbers for the meatwala. Now I realize we did not even know his name; at least I do not remember ever calling him by name.

And it was from then on that our cuisine was diminished – we never had pasandas. Now I realize how much more we lost.

Excerpted with permission from The Flavours of Nationalism: Recipes for Love, Hate and Friendship, Nandita Haksar, Speaking Tiger.

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This article was produced on behalf of Siemens by the marketing team and not by the editorial staff.