One of the funniest accounts by author Sadia Dehlvi, who passed away in early August, in her book Jasmine and Djinns is about what we now call “rumali” roti.

Dehlvi, who traced her ancestry back to Mughal Delhi or Dehli (derived possibly from dehleez, or threshold, connoting Dehli’s status as the gateway to India), noted that the bread popularly called rumali was originally just “chapatti” in old Delhi homes. Punjabi immigrants started calling it rumali because of its handkerchief-like wispiness. But to old Dilliwallas, the term sounded obscene since to them, it meant a diamond-shaped piece of small cloth attached in the crotch area to the seams of trouser legs. The rumali was an innovation of Muslim tailors in Shahjahanabad to facilitate easy movement of patloons and shalwars.

I was reminded of this anecdote a few weeks before Dehlvi’s death as I saw home cooks and professional chefs post on Instagram about their attempts to make rumalis at home on ulti kadhais, or upside-down woks. I meant to reach out to her for a post on old Delhi’s cuisine, and how much of that legacy is lost despite current interest in regional and historic cuisines. But I never did.

Rumali roti gets its name because of its handkerchief-like wispiness. Photo credit: Denzil Sebastian/Wikimedia Commons [Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International Licence].

All through this year, as pandemic-enforced lifestyles keep us confined to homes, one silver lining has been the surge in interest in traditional foods and long-forgotten recipes that perhaps give us a sense of rootendness at a time when all certainties are crumbling away.

From pressure cooker cakes and chapattis (the term derives from the Urdu word chapat, or slap, because of the technique of slapping the dough into thin rounds) to dals and gravies scarcely made since grandmothers’ days, from kebabs and kheer to pickles made using the local and the seasonal, families with globalised palates have been rediscovering classical dishes as never before. If in earlier decades, Indian cuisines were approached through the western lens as “curry” even by cosmopolitan Indians, the exact opposite is happening now. Thanks to social media shares, many more people are rediscovering their lost legacies.

Culinary Exotica

This search for new-old culinary exotica, however, has a downside. Since most people don’t really remember very much of family or city histories, food history often gets distorted.

“Which dish was concocted in Lucknow as a way for bawarchis to wipe their hands on, after making qorma?” whatsapped a bored friend, a professional quizzer. I am sure nothing of this kind ever happened – in Avadhi kitchens, traditionally, the qorma cook was different from other bawarchis, all of whom were experts in specific dishes and ordered by a strict kitchen hierarchy. I nevertheless played along. “Er, kulcha?” I said, remembering though that the kulcha was more famous as a symbol of the Asaf Jahi dynasty of Hyderabad. “Close, but not quite,” said the friend confidentally. “It is the rumali!” To which I sent Sadia’s account.

With pandemic cooking dominating social media, new fables are getting concocted about cuisines such as “Mughlai”, a much-abused term anyway. The result is further mythification of a cuisine that is already characterised by hyperbole and fantastic tales: toothless nawabs ordering the creation of melt-in-the-mouth kebabs, magical spice mixes with a hundred ingredients though the tongue may be able to recognise at best 6-7, khichdis with each grain carved from almonds and pistachios, and taar (the top layer of fat) from taar qaliya surviving from Mughal times in defiance of science.

Mughlai food has an aura of mythology around it. There are stories of magical spice mixes with a hundred ingredients though the tongue may be able to recognise at best 6-7. Photo credit: Nikoli Afina/Unsplash

In many ways, this is the same fantasia or tall storytelling that lies at the heart of medieval dastaans like Alif Laila or Amir Hamza. Embellishment was an art in old Urdu-speaking cultures, and weaving delicious narratives around food was not uncommon.

After Partition, as new Punjabi enterprise took root in Delhi and a new clientele emerged, “Mughlai” became further corrupted and embellished. Flavours got less refined and every greasy gravy with indistinct spicing got credited to some emperor or his royal cook. Built on a mishmash of ideas of old Mughal or Dehlvi food, a new sort of restaurant cuisine emerged, which used Punjabi techniques like the tandoor and bold tomato, garlic-laden flavours to please new palates not used to the old sophistication of snobbish Dilliwallahs.

Lost Legacies

Unlike the bastardised gravies that pass off as Delhi’s historical cuisine in restaurants, Mughlai or Dehlvi dishes still existing in the homes of old Dilliwallahs are refined cooking of communities that made up Shahjahanabad, a cosmopolitan centre of power. These dishes bear testimony to a culture of syncreticism and, strikingly, can be found in the repertoires of different communities of the old city.

The nihari, for instance, may be Delhi’s most-recognised bazaar dish (it was created, as one story goes, as a pepper and garam masala-laced stew to ward off cold from Yamuna waters in winter), but it is the ishtew that is likely to give more joy to a connoisseur of Dehlvi food. Referencing European stews, the ishtew – meat and whole spices stewed together and then bhunoed – possibly came up at the intersection of Delhi’s Mughal and colonial worlds. Alternatively called khade masale ka bhuna gosht (the recipes are the same), it is distinctly similar to kosha mangsho, the Bengali dish that is a “Mughlai” legacy in Kolkata.

Dahi phulki, also called hing-laced moong dal or besan pakodi, is another dish found across homes, whether they be Muslim, Kayasth or Baniyas. The Punjabi khatris, who were another knowledge community of Shahjahanabad, too have the dish, albeit dipped in sour tamarind water. Poori or Bedmi aloo (potatoes done distinctively from other regions, seasoned with methi dana or fenugreek seeds) as well as nagori (small ajwain-laced pooris) with halwa are popular breakfast combinations of the Dehlvi culture. As are mithais. From the heavy, fudge-like sohan halwa (made from flour and ghee) during winter (Ghantewala, which was founded in Shah Alam II’s time and whose delicacies ostensibly “softened” the 1857 rebel soldiers fighting against the English, specialised in it) to meethe chawal/zarda of monsoon festivities, to khurchan from left-over milk solids, old Delhi’s mithais follow a strict seasonality.

Homely dishes like the seasonal salans – meat cooked with colocasia, mango, sweet green peas, turnips – are almost never seen on restaurant menus. Two kadhi-like dishes of Baniya and Mathur homes of old Delhi – mangochi and alan ka saag – are now forgotten even within homes. Mangochi is made with soaked and ground moong dal, instead of besan, and yoghurt. Alan ka saag is spinach blended with moong dal, to which besan and yoghurt are added.

Some bazaar dishes too have fallen off the map. Gola kebab, a variation of the seekh, for instance, had just one specialist till the pandemic struck. It is hard to imagine in these unusual times who will be the standard-bearer for these forgotten dishes. Unlike in modern restaurants, where one establishment serves everything, kebab street food requires specialist kebabchis. Naanbhais making baqarkhanis remain but what is a “real” baqarkhani is less evident at a time when restaurants keep tweaking old dishes to suit newer tastes and trends. In Mughal times, Baqarkhan, the bread’s inventor, had a royal patent, according to Sadia Dehlvi’s book.

As Dehli’s old syncretic culture fades away, we are left with fewer examples of its culinary legacies and a lot of tall storytelling. The romance of exotica is very well, but perhaps our new interests in regional food histories will revive Dehlvi as it once was in its homes.

Anoothi Vishal is the author of Mrs LC’s Table: Stories about Kayasth Cuisine and Culture, and of Business On A Platter.