Bond appétit

Omair Ahmad | Updated on November 09, 2018 Published on November 09, 2018

Turf war: The battle for the best mangoes rages every summer   -  ISTOCK.COM

There is no better way to get to know another culture than through food

A Kashmiri Pandit from a Lucknow-based family won over my heart when she dismissed all mangoes except for three varieties from Uttar Pradesh in her just published book on food and culture. As a UP-wallah, I thoroughly approve of such sentiments.

The battle of the best mangoes is an old one, and erupts every summer. As the fruit ripens, so do the old arguments; people from Maharashtra and UP yell the loudest, but Bengalis and people from South India also chip in with their bit. Since these debates now rage on social media, people from Pakistan, Bangladesh and even Mexico have sometimes joined in. The best mangoes are a global argument, one in which nobody manages to convince anybody else. Nevertheless, we get to hear about varieties unknown to us. It is the expansion of sweet knowledge.

There is no lovelier way to get to know another culture than through its food. Rabindranath Tagore said something to this effect: “Whatever I found good of another culture, it becomes part of my own.” It rings the truest in the passion we develop for foods that are not from our homes. I remember the delight I took in the gujia that was served to us by our Hindu friends in Gorakhpur when we visited them on Diwali. In turn they would be served siwai at our home when they dropped in for Eid. It is funny that these foods should be considered somebody else’s — even in the same town — but thoroughly enjoyed as another person’s special sweet.

The other sweet I delighted in as a child was the meetha samosa or sweet samosa of my mother’s home town Banda. Rahmatullah Qureishi sahib, a tall, stick-like man and the family friend who taught me how to hunt and shoot, would always visit us with a bag of samosas. I have never really been able to eat them since he passed away. The milk of Banda is quite flavoursome, and so the milk-based sweets of the town are a delight. Whenever we visited the old fort of Kalinjar in Banda we were instructed to buy khoya from the sweet market. Once, as a child travelling in the back of a jeep, I succumbed to the temptation of eating a pinch of khoya. One pinch led to another. Until, by the time we got home, half a kilo had disappeared.

One of the cuisines I have come to love is the Kashmiri wazwan — the many courses served at weddings or grand celebrations. It took me a while to develop a taste for it. It is partially because the meat primarily used in Kashmiri cuisine is sheep and not goat, which is preferred in North India, making the taste and texture of the dish subtly different. Furthermore, Kashmiri spices are quite different from anything found in Punjab, Delhi, Haryana, UP, Bihar, or even West Bengal. The subtlety of the spices takes a while to get used to and, although the Kashmiri Pandit and Kashmiri Muslim cooking differ in the use of some spices, to a person from UP, those differences might appear minor.

My favourite Kashmiri dish is tabak maaz (deep-fried sheep ribs). The Kashmiri Pandit version is called kabargah and made somewhat differently. Having tasted both the Kashmiri Muslim and Kashmiri Pandit varieties, I can honestly say I am willing to continue to figure out which delights me more by having both until the day I die.

A waza — traditional Kashmiri chef — runs a shop near where we live in Delhi, and every once in a while, especially when we have guests, we order a few dishes from him. A Bhutanese friend who was visiting a while ago fell so much in love with tabak maaz that he wanted us to send across some through a common friend who was visiting Bhutan.

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We duly froze and wrapped the dish and sent it off. The friend was not in Thimphu when the package arrived, and one of his colleagues had to take it to him in the south of the country. When we called to find out if the meat was okay, since transporting it over long distances is never without challenges, our friend grumpily said the tabak maaz had survived all right, but the colleague had taken his pound of flesh.

There is always a price for good taste.

Omair Ahmad is the South Asia Editor for The Third Pole, reporting on water issues in the Himalayas; Twitter: @OmairTAhmad

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Published on November 09, 2018
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