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Fragrance and History In The Indian Kitchen
by Fred Ferretti

Preserving the pith and spice of India's gastronomic past is virtually impossible, Jiggs Kalra as telling me one afternoon as we walked the street markets of Bombay, simply because much of the country's grand cookery remains with the aging and secretive cooks who worked in the kitchens of the maharajahs. All of them kept, and keep, their recipes in their heads and they are dying.

One such cook, an elderly man, had for more years than anyone could remember prepared that very special snack enjoyed by his maharaja and his family. Jiggs could not be certain whether the snack was one of those fried lentil pastes, wadas, or a version of their fried wheat-flour triangles stuffed with potatoes, peas, and coriander called samosas. But it was a fact that the recipe had died with the old chef, a distressing circumstance be sure, which was in part responsible for the gastronomic mission of J. Inder Singh Kalra, who upon being introduced insists: "Call me Jiggs."

Jiggs Kalra is a determined fellow who has taken it upon himself to rove about his country, talking and cooking with chefs, coaxing the longtime kitchen retainers, the traditional family cooks, and the aging restaurant chefs, learning, collecting — an effort he compares to climbing the Himalayas alone, but one that will yield, he hopes, a codification of all of India's food and the preservation for future cooks of culinary secrets and recipes that the elder cooks customarily prefer not to share.

"These old fellows jealously guard their positions, particularly in wealthy households," he said that afternoon while we were in Bombay's 1871 English-built Crawford Market among the Kerala pineapples. Nagpur oranges, Kulu apples, and redolent spice dealers' barrels. Another obstacle is that India has never really honored its chefs, according to Jiggs. So what he does is meet with these chefs and cook with them and "give them honor by writing about them." He has published one book about some of India' finest cooks, which includes their recipes, entitled Prashad: Cooking with Indian Masters, and he is working on another.

"Come with me this afternoon to see the best kebabmaker in all of India," Jiggs suggested.

So off we went to a tiny restaurant called Kebab Korner, the kitchen of which is the private empire of Haji Mohammned Murtaza, who would not tell me his age but admitted that he had been a cook for fifty-three years. "To get warmed up," as Jiggs told me I should, I tasted his shammi kebab, minced lamb mixed with ground chick-peas and lentils and made into patties; chicken Afghani, chicken marinated in yogurt flavored with cinnamon, cardamom, and cloves; and prawn biryani, fried prawns flavored with fresh mint.

Then Chef Murtaza began to cook and Jiggs began to taste and to write. In one pot was gobhi gosht, a spicy but not hot mutton and cauliflower stew flavored with coriander and ginger. (In Bombay, as in most of India, the term mutton refers to goat.) Another pot contained a sweet mutton stew called badam pasanda, with almonds and cashews, and still another pot was filled with still another mutton stew, this one flavored with the subtle heat of Kashmirian chilies. Each was different, though the basics were similar, and Jiggs was kept furiously writing down their ingredients.

"But I taste onions here," he said with exasperation to Chef Murtaza about one pot. "And I taste anise here, and ghee (the clarified and strained butter used so much in Indian cookery). You don't list coriander for this one." His hands flew, pointing from one pot to another.

The old chef listened, smiled, nodded, then said, "But they do not have to be written down. Everybody knows they belong in those recipes. They should know."

"See?" said J. Inder Singh Kalra, turning to me. "See what I mean?"

"Many people, including those who should know better, contend that all of our food is hot, searing hot," Premila Lal was saying over a drink of lassi — cold churned yogurt flavored with cumin — before lunch one afternoon during my excursion to Bombay. "Yes, much of it is hot, much of it relies heavily on chili peppers and on our blends of ground spices, our masalas. But certainly not all of it is hot. We also hear it said that our cooking lacks subtlety, that there is little variety in it. People who say such things are quite wrong."

It was some of these more egregious misconceptions about the foods of India that occupied most of my luncheon conversation with Premila Lal, whose real name is Kiki Watsa but who is known within the Indian culinary universe by her nom de cuisine. Premila Lal had come to lunch at the Oberoi Hotel's small Kandahar Restaurant which specializes in the spicy, marinated, and grilled foods of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and northwestern India, as well as in an unusual green paratha bread, rich with butter and fenugreek. She wished to talk about the cuisine of India and how she evolved into her country's version of Elizabeth David.

A most forceful woman, she illustrated her contentions by pointing out the diversity in Indian food as well as examples of dishes that lack heat: lamb cooked in a fine sauce of purŽed green and yellow lentils; apams, rice and coconut pancakes cooked with coconut milk; corn on the cob roasted and rubbed with lime juice, salt, and a touch of paprika; potatoes roasted in the tandoor; candy made from saffron, pistachios, almonds, and rosewater. And, she added, the use of cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, and chilies is restrained in the best of Indian cookery.

It was years ago as a university art student that Premila Lal was asked to take on, without payment, the writing of a food and recipe column for a magazine called Flair. "At the time I had only eight recipes given to me by my mother. I began with these. It was enough for the magazine. And they also gave me my name. 'Your name is Premila Lal,' they said. I became the first cook to be a public figure in India."

From this beginning came more columns in magazines and newspapers, the first two of her cookbooks, Premila Lal's Indian Recipes and Indian Cooking for Pleasure, and her reputation as India's doyenne of traditional cookery. She is a straightforward person, not at all self-effacing when talking about her talents, which now embrace weaving, farming, and the practice of psychoanalysis. "First you cook, then you wonder why you cook," she smiles.

There are, she said, some fine restaurants in Bombay that are serious about the authenticity of their foods, and she suggested that I ought to visit them. "But perhaps you should not go to a restaurant. Come to my home and allow me and my cook to prepare dinner. Would that be pleasant?"

Indeed.

So that evening I went off to Premila Lal's huge high-ceilinged house, a leftover from English rule and a registered landmark that is situated on a road called Cuffe Parade. There I had some of my first foods in India, some of the best I was to have — a pomfret, a flounderlike fish, that had been baked in a tandoor; rice cooked with onions, peas, cinnamon, and black pepper; roasted sausage-shaped ground lamb with raw onions; cooked shredded cabbage with fresh mustard seeds; chicken braised in the style of Goa, with a hot coconut-milk curry; a fine dal of lentils boiled with turmeric, ginger, and garlic; and an absolutely marvelous gulab jamun, meaning "rose fruit" — an egg-shaped cake of Indian cream cheese filled with pistachios. It had been warmed in Indian rum and sprinkled with rosewater before serving.

They were sweet and light, and I used them as the standard against which I judged the gulab jamuns of other chefs as I traveled around India. Those of Premila Lal were the first, the best. Which wouldn't have surprised her at all.

When my Indian journey reached Bangalore, I simply had to go to tiffin at the M.T.R.. I was told. That, of course, is what I did the first morning I was in that lovely, bustling city of parks and flowers in southern India.

Tiffin is a bit of English-Indian slang, the truncation of tiffing, which means drinking, usually tea, usually at breakfast or lunch, and thus it has come to mean eating a light and early meal. Tiffin is a tradition that has continued unbroken since the days of the English Raj, and in Bangalore, it is said, the quintessential tiffin is found nowhere else but in the Mavalli Tiffin Room, or the M.T.R..

A morning tiffin is best, said Sandhya Harendra, our guide in Bangalore, so off we went that morning across the city, pulling up amid bicycles, scooters, and taxis parked in front of the square concrete restaurant on Lalbagh Road. We went in, past a man in a wooden booth who waved us upstairs, and left our names with another man, who showed us into a lounge constructed of highly polished red and gray granite trimmed with walnut. One must wait one's turn at the M.T.R.. "No tips, no influence here," Miss Harenda said. Actually we waited only briefly before we were led through the noise and bustle of one tiffin room, where families ate and drank and mingled and laughed, to another, where we were seated at a small wooden table with a middle-aged Indian couple. Our orders were taken after the couple, who said they liked Boston and Cleveland, told me what I should have.

Samber, a lentil soup, they suggested, and a dosa, in fact a masala dosa, which turned out to be a folded triangular pancake made from a flour of semolina, rice, and lentils, filled with potatoes, onions, and more lentils, and fried in ghee. They also recommended an egg-shaped cake of millet, flavored with coriander and stuffed with carrots and coriander leaves, called rava idli. "Perhaps they should have coorgi as well," Mrs. Visalakshi Santhanam said of a dish of rice noodles with a curry sauce poured atop, a dish from India's Coorg region, which she liked.

"Too much," her husband said.

He was right. We ate our breakfast, drank many cups of mint tea, and talked about Boston and Harvard, where the Santhanams' son had been a student. We also discussed M.I.T., there in the M.T.R.. Then, tiffin over, we left to look at Bangalore's greenery.

The street in old Delhi — really the district — is known as Chandni Chowk. It is a rich marketplace so thick with people buying and selling and moving about that you must leave a car or taxi behind in New Delhi and venture in by foot or on a two-seated pedicycle. And then you must take care not to miss the small alley off Chandni Chowk called Parathe Vale Gali, the Street of the Breadmakers.

Once, I am told, this narrow street housed nothing but makers of breads, bakers who would turn out those wonderfully varied breads of India, the tortilla-like unleavened chapatti, the puffed and golden-yellow poori, the sourdoughlike bhatura, the baked white-flour naan, the crisp wafers called paratha that is often filled with vegetables or used to sandwich a kebab, and commonly fried in ghee. These days, however, the Street of Breadmakers is the street of the makers of paratha.

Many of the bakers have been supplanted by fabric and sari vendors, but the street remains the place where much of Delhi, New and Old, comes for its traditional bread. I stop in front of Baburam Devidayal Parathe Vale and watch an old man, squatting, pick up a fistful of dough made from wheat flour and water, roll it, flatten it into a pancake, stuff it with one of the many cooked fillings and pastes he has made — of potatoes, lentils, radishes, fenugreek, pickled cucumbers — fold it, flatten it again, and hand it to a younger man who fires the filled bread, the paratha, in ghee.

This tiny bread shop, with its four tables, has been in Chandni Chowk since 1880. "It was opened by my father, but I have been here for many, many years," says Devi Dayal, who sits in front of his shop watching his breads frying on a rough iron skillet called a tava. "I make pappadums too," he says, picking up one of the round, crisp, and peppery breads from a stack. "Taste." I do. The combination of the crispness and the pepper is addictive.

Farther down the street is Kanamya Lal Durga Prasad with its sign 1875, A Tradition of 100 Years and its six tables set inside a room of embossed green tiles. Shivkumar Dixit takes as much pride in his tiles — "each one is a different flower from Japan" — as he does in his very good parathas filled with purŽed lentils. And farther along the Street of the Breadmakers, is Gaya Prasad Shiv Charan, which advertises an Experience of Five Generations, Desi Ghee Preparation.

Who is older? Who is better? Just ask the breadmakers of Chandni Chowk.

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