Sweets and meats

Anoothi Vishal | Updated on January 16, 2018 Published on October 28, 2016
Made for each other: Pairing cleansed-in-ghee Vedic cooking with Mughal red meat

Made for each other: Pairing cleansed-in-ghee Vedic cooking with Mughal red meat   -  Shutterstock

Made for each other: Pairing cleansed-in-ghee Vedic cooking with Mughal red meat

Made for each other: Pairing cleansed-in-ghee Vedic cooking with Mughal red meat   -  Shutterstock

Mrs LC’s Table; Anoothi Vishal; Non-fiction; Hachette India; ₹350

Mrs LC’s Table; Anoothi Vishal; Non-fiction; Hachette India; ₹350

The poori-kaliya Diwali tradition of the Kayasth community symbolises something much larger than a grand festival repast

India is a land of contradictions. It’s hardly surprising then that even our festival foods reflect our fairly mixed-up identities, cultural and culinary... and that disparate influences have shaped us as much as they have shaped the gujiya.

When I was growing up in Lucknow, Kayasth food — which my community regularly cooked and ate at home —hardly meant anything to me. Sure, we were aware of the cornucopia that awaited us every Diwali and looked forward to much of it, but we didn’t really think of it in exclusivist terms.

After all, the business of feasting was pretty universal — everyone around was gorging on shakar paras and besan sevs, sitting down to poker parties over badam, kaju and whisky (for the adults), and winding up in the wee hours with a biryani feast.

However, there were also a few rituals unique to our family. On the main day of Lakshmi Puja, after praying, lighting diyas and setting off firecrackers, we settled down to a rather lovely family meal, whose menu remained unchanged every year. Besides the mandatory zimikand (yam) — which is supposed to bestow prosperity — we also ate meat curry (in a thin gravy made from zealously browning onions in yoghurt and whole spices) with hot, fluffy pooris. This was considered an auspicious meal, guaranteed to usher in a new year of plenty.

But pooris with meat? That was not unexceptional. How come a Vaishnavite household that traced its lineage to the Koshalpur raja Ramchandra himself got to prize its kaliya, the Mughal-style meat curry, so much? The questions never arose for me, at least not until much later. It was only when I started writing on food history and placing our culinary traditions within larger cultural frameworks that it occurred to me that the poori-meat Diwali tradition symbolised something much larger than the eating of a grand meal.

As a community, the Kayasths are well known as India’s first bureaucrats. Traditionally well-educated, the members of this privileged community are fairly widely scattered geographically — certainly all over the Indo-Gangetic plain, and even beyond in places such as Hyderabad. Yet a common cultural thread unites all the sub-sects — the composite ganga-jamuni culture, which survives in their lifestyle, speech, sartorial preferences and food practices. As scribes to the Mughal emperors, the Kayasths assimilated elite Muslim manners, Urdu, an absorption in the arts, and food preferences.

The big-ticket Kayasth dishes even today include the yakhni pulao, mutton pasande, shami kebab... Then there is an array of faux-meat cooking for the women who cooked meat perfectly but preferred not to eat it, in deference to vegetarian Vaishnavite mores. Experimenting with simple stuff in their kitchens, they came up with creations such as aate ka keema (mince made with wheat gluten) and moong ki dal ki kaleji (faux liver fashioned out of dal). The meat preparations, though, regularly featured on our festival menu during Dussehra, Diwali, Holi, and even Karva Chauth. One friend recalls his grandmother breaking her fast with meat curry and poori.

The Diwali meat-and- poori eating interested me as a food writer. That we were pairing cleansed-in-ghee Vedic cooking with the Mughal red meat kaliya was an incongruity that was seemingly lost on my family, many of whom were quite religious. But its significance cannot be lost on anyone studying food history. The Kayasths are not alone in boasting this kind of syncretism. Several other celebratory foods in our midst show a fusion of diverse influences. During Holi, the chaat on offer is a melange of sweet, sour, hot and tangy flavours.

Chaat, literally meaning tidbits, first appeared during Mughal times, in the glittering bazaars of Shahjahanabad, according to several oral accounts. These small inventive snacks were meant to amuse the ladies, and the khomchawallahs arrived at the zenana with treats to surprise and delight the palates.

How did these bazaar bites become intrinsic to Holi?

Perhaps it happened around the same time that the music-dancing-shayari routine took root, inspired by the Bhakti movement seeped in the mythical revelry of Krishna and gopis. The frolicking and the food during Holi again reflect the ganga-jamuni sabhyata.

As for the gujiya, as this mawa-filled maida dumpling is called in Uttar Pradesh, it is the one sweet that unites many festivals in India. In Bihar, it appears as pedakiya, with a slightly different filling; filled with coconut, it becomes karanji in Maharashtra, and so on. As we bite into a hot gujiya this winter, we would do well to remember how it travelled to the subcontinent, into our homes.

All the way across in Turkey, the heavily-sugared sweets with nuts enclosed in phylo cases are prominent. Like the savoury samosa has its equivalent in the sambusak, the gujiya too travelled to India from this region. But like so much else in India that has been absorbed and made uniquely our own, the gujiya too has been firmly nativised — not just as a pan-India sweet but also in all its regional avatars. There is indeed unity in diversity. And a lot of diversity in cultural homogeneity. Festival food teaches us this delectable lesson.

Anoothi Vishal is a Delhi-based columnist and food writer. Her book Mrs LC’s Table: Stories about Kayasth foodculture was published earlier this year by Hachette India

Published on October 28, 2016
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