Creative cuisine

Written by Advaita Kala | Updated: Jul 28 2013, 06:28am hrs
If one wishes to understand Rajasthani cuisine, it is imperative to take into account the landscape and climate of the region to inform that study. A predominantly arid area, the harshness of the weather and the environment has influenced the cuisine and the ingredients, as well as the substitutes used. An obvious example is the scarcity of water and its impact on the cuisine. As a result, it is used with caution; buttermilk or diluted yogurt is added to thicken curries and gravies. Or take the famous Dal Banjara, which is traditionally made from chana dal as it is the most commonly available and inexpensive dal in the region. However, with its transition to five-star hotel menus, Dal Banjara has evolved considerably, including the use of ghee, which was something the banjaras could never afford. But Rajasthani food lends itself to these convenient mutations. After all, creativity is an intrinsic tenet of the cuisine, albeit driven by necessity.

I had a cooking lesson from chef Murari Meena and executive chef Shivaji of Amanbagh Hotel in Alwar district, Rajasthan. Chef Meena hails from the neighbouring village of Ajabgarh, is a self-taught cook who was absorbed into the hotel kitchens after cooking for the project team. It has been eight years since and chef Meena has grown to become the in-house Rajasthani food expert at Amanbagh. He tells me that there is great diversity in the cuisine, but it is not in the way one would assume it to be so. For example, Lal Maas is cooked a particular way in these parts, but the recipe goes through a transformation by the time it gets to nearby Jaipur. It is but one of the dishes that belongs to everyone across community and class barriers.

Chef Meena, who hails from the predominantly Meena village of Ajabgarh, tells me that in their community whilst women do most of the cooking, it is the men who make the non-vegetarian food. He has learnt these dishes, not from his mother, but from his father, who is a fine cook. So it was not a big leap for him to take to cooking as a career; he had been learning all his life.

Economic factors are another aspect. Royal households had the resources to cook the same dishes in ghee and boasted an increasingly Mughal influence in successive years; inter-marriage being one reason for this merging of cuisines and the use of ingredients like cashewnut paste. However, economic constraints made this impossible to emulate for the majority. But the ingenuity of the Rajasthani cook cannot be ignored. For example, an often used substitute for the rich saffron of the palaces was turmeric dissolved in water, so if not the flavour profile, at least the colour palette was similar. Even today in many villages in Rajasthan, key ingredients like ghee, butter, flour and mustard oil are made at home or locally. In most homes, buttermilk is churned to make butter and ghee, while wheat is ground to flour.

This micro-cooking, in a sense, ensures that recipes change not only from district to district, but home to home. The method of cookery is slow cooking. In the past, the use of brass utensils ensured that the dishes were cooked at an even temperature and pace. Today, however, the constraints of modern living have made that method a luxury. Gram flour is a chief ingredient and is used for multiple things like gatta pakodi

and papad.

At the Amanbagh in Alwar, there has been a conscious attempt to incorporate the local cuisine (that is, from village Ajabgarh) into the menu. An organic farm is on the premises and the three acres of farmland are managed and tended to by the villagersokra, corn, etc, are just some of the seasonal vegetables grown. A guard is on duty to ward off mischievous monkeys who stake primary ownership on trees and crops. Leopards and wild boars keep a respectable distance. It is a charming idea and the food is delicious and healthy. One recipe worth sharing is a simple salad made of brussel sproutsDal Moth Salada popular Amanbagh dish. Healthy, nutritious and tasty to boot, it is a worthy inclusion in everyones daily diet.

Wash and parboil the sprouts. Add chopped onions and tomatoes, and salt to taste. Follow this with a pinch of chaat masala, red chilli powder, chopped coriander, olive oil and a squeeze of lemon. Sprouts have never tasted so good!

Advaita Kala is a writer, most recently of the film Kahaani. She is also a former hotelier having worked

in restaurants in India and abroad