I might not know my cumin from my saffron but food has always interested me because I believe every morsel has a story to tell. So, when I got a chance to interact with Chef Parvinder Singh Bali, Dean of the Culinary School, Oberoi Centre of Learning and Development, I jumped at it. I like talking about food and listening to the stories it has to tell more than actually eating it. Chef Bali didn’t disappoint. “There’s nothing called Punjabi cuisine,” was his opening statement, after the customary “hello”. I was hooked! Delhi-based Chef Bali is in Bangalore spearheading the Rivaayat-e-Patiala food festival at Le Jardin, The Oberoi. It is a celebration of rare dishes from the royal kitchens of Patiala.
The prominent traditional cuisines of the region of Punjab include the Patiala cuisine, Amritsari cuisine and the Pind cuisine (rural cuisine). “What we call ‘Punjabi cuisine’ today is actually ‘Restaurant Punjabi Cuisine’. It was created to be served in restaurants,” says Chef Bali. “Because no one was going to come to a restaurant to eat traditional food that their grandmothers and mothers cooked at home and cooked it well.” The contemporary Punjabi cuisine evolved after partition. The roadside eateries, usually situated next to a bar and serving tandoori chicken, played an important role in this evolution. “Most of the time these guys innovated with leftover chicken and the ingredients that were available in the kitchen.”
PATIALA TO BANGALORE
The Royal family of Patiala was one of the foremost royal families of India. They were renowned for their extravagant lifestyle and their love for all things good in life. Food was a significant part of their grandiose lives.
A few months ago, Chef Bali chanced upon 400-year-old handwritten traditional recipes from the kitchens of the royal family of Patiala. The recipes were written in Gurmukhi (the script used by Sikhs and Punjabis). The loose leaflets were fragile, yellowed and forgotten. Chef Bali decided to revive these ancient dishes. Out of the 350 recipes, the chef has recreated 150 so far, not straying even a bit from the original recipes.
The age-old recipes give us an inkling about the food culture of the people of Patiala of yore.
FROM THE PAGES OF HISTORY
Hundreds of years ago, bajra and not wheat was their staple diet. Paneer and potatoes, the two ubiquitous ingredients of the contemporary Punjabi cuisine, were nowhere in the picture. Everything was slow cooked, rustic and robust. Since there were no refrigerators during that time, salt and oil/ghee were used extensively to ensure that the food stayed fresh for long. Also, back then, game meat was the popular choice of meat. Copious amount of oil was used to cook the meat since oil softened the meat.
There wasn’t a single paneer recipe in the book. Nor was there a potato dish. There were interesting recipes for vegetarian dishes made of unusual vegetables such as ghol (the fruit of the banyan tree) and fiddlehead ferns. The vegetarian dishes were also made of pumpkin flowers, fox nuts, green peas and raw beans. There was no mention of kidney beans in the recipe book. They also didn’t use green cardamom, but black cardamom was common. So were green chillies, black pepper and cinnamon. Mountain goats cooked in oil and spices was a favourite. Many recipes in the book did not include heating of oil or cooking masalas like we do today.
The Gurmukhi recipes had old style measurements such as masha, rati and tola. One recipe had ek ser ghosht and chaar anne ka ghee (ghee worth four annas).
Chef Bali discovered dishes in the recipe book that he had never heard of before. “There was a dish called Dal Bhukpari which was made with moong dal and ginger. I researched the meaning of ‘bhukpari’ but I couldn’t find anything. Later, when a chef told me that he felt hungry whenever he ate the dal, it struck me that perhaps that was the reason for the dish to be named as bhukpari. From ‘bhook pad gayi.’ Ginger is a digestive after all,” he explains.
Dal Bhukpari is made with only three ingredients – dal, ginger and salt. Take two kilos of ginger, chop it finely and soak it in water overnight. Next morning, drain the water and use it to boil one kilo of dal along with salt. Chef Bali believes this basic dal recipe was the foundation for all dal recipes found in contemporary Punjabi Cuisine including dal makhani.
The old recipe book also had a recipe called Shahi Bharta where the baingan’s (brinjal) cooked with garlic, cloves, onions, ghee, green chillies and yoghurt. This is such a unique dish. It is whitish, has great spice levels but doesn’t have tomato which is usually found in a bharta.
There’s also another interesting anecdote about the rustic Patiala cuisine. Interestingly in those days, when soldiers went to war, in the evenings they would cook a one-pot-meal called the Junglee mass. They would use one of their iron shields as a vessel to cook the meat. They would then cover this with another shield and dum cook the meat too.
My favourite dish from the Patiala royal kitchen is the chilli ka halwa – an unusual dessert. The dish can be made using either deseeded green chillies or capsicum. It’s an exciting dish. I was clueless about how it would taste. It’s almost jade green in colour. The spicy aroma of the chillies is unmistakable. So I was expecting to taste at least a tinge of spiciness. But I could only savour the delicious sweetness of the halwa while the flavour of the chillies was hovering at the back of my throat. An uncommon taste indeed!
If you want to taste the exclusive and mouthwatering fare from the royal kitchens of Patiala then here’s your chance. RIVAAYAT-E-PATIALA is on till November 15th, 2018 at Le Jardin, The Oberoi. Lunch & dinner.