Partition Changed India’s Food Cultures Forever

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At the far end of a crammed Daryaganj gulli, bustling with all manner of trade, is a heavy wrought iron gate. Push it ajar and you step into an overgrown garden defining its central courtyard. The Terrace is an old sprawling home that takes you back in time. It’s the last intact kayasth haveli in “Shahar” – “The City” – the once magnificent Shahjahanabad, the only city that really mattered for its residents.

Two years ago, on a peaceful winter afternoon, the sun streaming on to our armchairs in the garden, I met Mrs Rajesh Dayal here for the last time. She had lived here since the 1930s. I was interviewing her for my book on Kayasth cuisine and culture.

“I remember Booby,” she had said earnestly at one point in our rambling conversation. Booby, the cook from the Muslim quarters of Ballimaran, had been quite in demand back then. The Kayasths, great epicures and fond meat-eaters, called him home for family weddings, sangeets, Holi and Diwali gatherings. Booby would get to work, digging up the soft ground in a clearing by the Yamuna, lining the pit with hot charcoal, placing a big, fat degh of meat, spices and vegetables inside this pit and then covering it with earth. It was in this craftily assembled indigenous oven that he would let fabulous dishes like the shabdegh stew overnight – till the meat and turnips that went into the smoky curry were of the same texture, splitting at the touch of a spoon.

“I have never had that kind of shabdegh again. It’s a dish that disappeared,” Dayal’s voice had trembled. Dayal died before the book, Mrs LC’s Table, saw the light of the day. Along with her what passed away were memories of those elusive stews and treats and the men who had cooked these. As for Booby, like many others of his ilk, had been swallowed up by Partition, never to be seen again.

The bloody years post Second World War II up to the Partition of India in 1947 rent Delhi’s older cultural fabric in a decisive way. Cuisine was a minor but still a very significant casualty. What the city lost in terms of its artful, elaborate dishes was replaced by newer, bolder, tomato-laden flavours from western Punjab. As a new immigrant community poured in from across the new border, new tastes and techniques gained ground. Tandoori became the food of Delhi. Mughlai, the older cuisine that had come about as a result of a composite culture of Shahjahanabad, faded.

Some of Shahjahanabad’s fabulous Mughlai treats can still be found: shabdegh, the meat-and-turnips winter delicacy, mutanjan pulao, rich with dried fruits, gola kebab, where the art lay in removing the kebab with such dexterity from its skewer that a whole round of mince fell off on the plate, special Meerut kulfi that shaukeen denizens of shahar preferred, dil ke kebab, pieces of the heart, roasted on the sigri.

But most of these delicacies live only in faint and fading memories. “There was just one kebabchi outside Jama Masjid who did gola kebabs till about two decades ago. When he stopped, I asked him why and he replied, ‘bibi, ab woh purane log hi nahin rahe. (The old connoisseurs are all gone)’. His new customers only wanted cheaper indiscriminate kebabs,” says Salma Husain, Persian scholar and author of the book The Emperor’s Table on the cuisine of the Mughals.

Delhi’s true Mughlai food was the product of a syncretic culture brought about by the close living together of Shahjahanabad’s four original communities: The Muslim aristocracy, the educated kayasths, part of the court and the baniyas and khatris who owned businesses and banks. It was a cuisine that developed over two-and-a-half centuries, thriving on sustained patronage much after Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last emperor of Hindustan, was exiled. Partition changed all that.

The tandoor (or “tannur”, as it is called in Arabic) is of Central Asian origin, where it is still used to bake bread. That was the tandoor’s initial use in the Punjab too. The culture of sanjha chulha in the villages of the Punjab was centred on a common tandoor, around which women gathered to bake fresh bread but to also exchange the minutiae of their lives.

Hindu refugees from the Punjab carried their clay ovens to the great metropolis of Delhi. Their grit, hardiness and enterprise was apparently no match for the culturally sophisticated but effete Dilliwallah. Businesses changed hands and Delhi’s cuisine became firmly and predominantly tandoori.

In 1947, a refugee from Peshawar, Kundan Lal Gujral, first opened a restaurant called Moti Mahal in Daryaganj, not far from The Terrace. “The building had suffered badly during the rioting; its roof had disappeared and parts of it hung dangerously,” says senior Delhi resident Anil Chandra, one of Moti Mahal’s early patrons, who got to know Gujral.

In this building, Gujral, set up a tandoor and started selling roasted chicken with naan in the style of old Peshawar eateries. “The old residents of Delhi, both Hindu and Muslim, were not chicken eaters and there was some resistance till younger people got exposed to the new flavours,” says Chandra. Dal makhni, tandoori chicken and naan aside, there was soon a demand for curry. At this point, the practical Gujral decided to use leftover tandoori chicken (since refrigeration was expensive) in a rich sauce he concocted with butter, curd, tomatoes. The makhni gravy was born and “Indian” food would never be the same again.

It wasn’t as if the old Mughlai food disappeared entirely from the old city, though. Restaurants like Flora were still famous for their Mughlai delicacies in the early decades post Partition. “These restaurateurs and caterers such as Hakim, who was one of the most famous caterers of old Delhi, chose to stay back after Partition. Some of the kebabchis and kulfi and chaat wallahs who had disappeared in the aftermath of Partition, scared and scattered, also returned,” points out Husain. But business was no longer the same. Much of the old gentry had moved out. Newer tastes were emerging – and newer ways of doing business. The old food businesses shut.

In Delhi, what also disappeared was the Anglo-Indian food. Cutlets, chops and scones were replaced by Indian snacks served up by fancy restaurants in Connaught Place, now owned by Punjabi families. Restaurants like United Coffee House and Kwality had come up as cafes in the early 1940s, catering primarily to Europeans and troops posted in Lutyen’s Delhi around the time of the Second World War. In the aftermath of Partition, as tandoori took over and the Punjabi palate gained ground, the European and Anglo Indian food these places served too changed.

You can still come across a certain style of “continental” food at Kwality and United Coffee House. But these old-fashioned au gratins and chicken a la kievs that we still spot on their menus are a throwback to the 1960, when a second round of “conti” appeared on fashionable tables.

It wasn’t just Delhi either that saw a change in its food culture, post Partition. Places like Lucknow and Meerut, where Awadh’s composite but inward-looking culture had engendered all sorts of fabulous delicacies for the tables of the aristocracy and rich landlords, also saw a shift. Things like kali mirch chicken appeared in stalls near the railway station with the advent of the migrant dhaba owners.

Intricate older dishes such as the malai paan lay forgotten. Shami kebab, pasande, meat-and-vegetables curries were left confined to a few homes because entertaining declined as many of the rich Muslim landlords migrated.

Umami is a relatively recent term being brandied about in the world of food these days. Much before this “fifth” taste, described as meaty or brothy, was recognised by the Western world as essential to gastronomy, the Punjabi palate had zeroed in on the tomato (naturally rich in glutamates, which contributes to the sense of umami).

Instead of the refined spicing and yoghurt-based cooking of Mughlai food, robust tomato-onion-garlic gravies bursting with umami began to define every single dish in Punjabi restaurants (which, ironically, dubbed themselves Mughlai). If Partition brought about one definite change in the history of Indian food, it was this idea of generic ‘Indian’ gravies. This generic Indian food, tailored for the Punjabi palate, was entirely restaurant created. In India, where there is such a diversity of cuisines that dishes change their character every 100 km, it is ironical that this Punjabi-restaurant creation became the template for “Indian” food both within and outside the country. Foreigners, with little knowledge of regional Indian food, still identify “Indian” exclusively with these bastardised gravies.

The dominance of this kind of restaurant food – kadhai paneer, balti meat, butter chicken et al – continues till today even within the country, though we seem to be finally rediscovering regional Indian cuisines  of late. The indomitable Camillia Panjabi who was responsible for conceptualising so many restaurants at the Taj, the Indian hotel chain, in the 1980s-1990s, says in her book, 50 Great Curries of India: “Attempts to introduce regional Indian dishes in menus always met with customer resistance, in the sense that customers continued to order the Punjabi dishes on the menu. In India, the majority who eat out as part of their lifestyle are Punjabis… Since they form the backbone of the clientele of almost every Indian restaurant in the country, restaurant owners are extremely wary of directing the menu away from Punjabi favourites.”

This culture of eating out may be finally changing with the millennials, but for most of our post-Independent life as a nation, Punjabi food that had first made inroads into Delhi post Partition defined Indian restaurant food.

Partition, of course, brought about other changes too in our food cultures. In Mumbai, as immigrants arrived from cosmopolitan Karachi, they brought with them the widespread culture of snacking in the evenings. “Chaat beyond bhelpuri only appeared with the appearance of the Sindhis, post Partition. They were the great snackers, ” says Panjabi. Chaat, a product of UP’s composite culture, had come to India’s commercial capital in a roundabout way, if we are to believe these accounts.

In Bengal, the hilsa became a source of much rivalry. As migrants from East Bengal brought their own “more refined” way of cooking (as it is widely rated), there was nostalgia for the quality of ilish from the Padma river (in East Bengal, then known as East Pakistan), which is supposed to be better than the fish from the Ganga.

“The quality in Bangladesh is better. In India, the size is also shrinking due to the demand-supply gap. They catch the fish early here and the taste is not so good,” says restaurateur Anjan Chatterjee, whose restaurant chain Oh! Calcutta has a menu that balances East Bengal and West Bengal cuisines.

Chatterjee’s wife belongs to an East Bengal family – he, on the other hand, is a ghoti (from West Bengal), and he acknowledges the superior cooking of the eastern lot. (The culinary rivalry can be as intense as any football one.) While much of the East Bengal food was brought in by the refugees to the common culinary culture of the state, some recipes and foods became elusive.

“There are recipes such as ilish wrapped in a pumpkin leaf, marinated with mango pickle masala, put inside half cooked rice and then steamed that are lost,” says Chatterjee. Dried fish shutki and special pickles from Sylhet, sweets like the malai chamcham and bhapa doi from Comilla and the kormas and kachche gosht ki biryani from the “dawaats” in old Muslim homes in Dhaka are still stuff for nostalgia.

Many of these exquisite dishes may in fact no longer exist in Bangladesh today, where the old Bengali epicurean culture has given way to a newer order. But that’s what large-scale upheavals do. Put us in the churn; some things are lost, others gained – many foods of pre-Partition days are long forgotten, but that cataclysmic event also brought new flavours to India.

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