Archive for the Cuisine and Spirituality Category

Unforbidden Food of the Forbidden Land

Posted in Cuisine and Spirituality with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 3, 2012 by ashthefoodie

Today is the third day of year 2012. The Mayans may have predicted the end of the world this year, but for me, it is definitely a new beginning, a new journey and another quest to share my thoughts with friends and foes alike.

As I sit in the balcony of my house chilling (literally) in the winter winds admiring the lush green mustards fields in front I suddenly feel hungry which is nothing unusual for me, with the wintery feel , the mist and the  cold – the cuisine that engulfs my senses is Tibetan! A piping hot Thukpa laced with some super hot dried chilli flakes would be the perfect catalyst to tingle my senses as well as filling up my pot belly that gargles in hunger. And in my house of course, any desire for food is never left unanswered.

Thukpa - Tibetan Soup Noodles (Internet Image)

My home aside, one place where I love venturing into to satiate my craving for authentic Tibetan food is of course Majnu ka Tilla – Tibetan refugee colony. Though Majnu ka Tilla also has a fantastic Sikh history and promises a lovely Langar at the gurudwara, my senses simply dictate me to step into that small Tibetan galli(ally) and enter the portals of a world that only a select few in Delhi would relate to.

Majnu Ka Tilla - Tibetan Refugee Colony (Ashish Chopra Image)

Majnu Ka Tilla – the story in short

It is said that few hundred years back, there was a person who would be engrossed in meditation for days together in this area. He had become weak, but would not stop meditating. People around the region started believing that he had lost his mind and started associating him with the legendary majnu. One of the gurus of the Sikh faith visited this place and was touched by this person’s devotion and blessed him and said that he would be remembered by posterity. Later when the gurudwara was built in this location, it became popular as Gurudwara Majnu ka Tilla.

But today, Majnu Ka Tilla also has become synonymous to the Tibetan refugee colony and its culture around it. With the University of Delhi in its vicinity, MKT as the students like to refer to it as, has become a gastronomy hub for students from various parts of the country, especially India’s North East and of course the Tibetan community.

I go really far back with Tibet. How do I even start penning down my thoughts here?


Way back in college (Government College, Chandigarh), we seniors decided to question these two young freshers – Tsering Tashi and Gyari Kalsang as a part of the very traditional ritual called ragging. Apart from the usual questioning and mischief, the foodie that I always was, I asked them about Tibetan food. They gave me the first insight about traditional Tibetan food. Needless to say, they were (perhaps) compelled (morally?) to invite me to their house for an authentic Tibetan meal. Let me remind everyone, that momos had not become omnipresent in India as yet. Though I had eaten enough of momos during my journeys to the north Indian hill states, I had never tasted a shabalay before. That snack at Gyari and Tsering’s place blew my mind! Today Gyari is a member of the Tibetan Parliament in India and Tsering is closely associated with His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

With His Holiness (Ashish Chopra Image)

The Journey Ahead

Needless to say, the spark had managed to ignite the fire within me to know more about the Tibetan community and culture. Over the next couple of years I spent a lot of time researching about the Tibetan situation – culturally as well as politically.  In 1989, I found my Golden moment. I had the opportunity to meet His Holiness himself at an International Conference for Human Rights. I was mesmerized by his presence and almost a child like aura. Blessed were my stars because that was not the only time I got the audience of the spiritual and political head of the Tibetan community in exile. We were to have many rendezvous later – some by chance, a few others, planned, sometimes formal, at times personal. I was naïve enough to propose to him that I would renounce everything and become a monk. He only laughed and told me one thing, “Ashish, you do not have to wear the robe of a monk, but discover the monk within you.”

What is Tibet?

I say what because Tibet is not just a region or its people; it has become a philosophy and a cause for many. But for the uninitiated, in Dalai Lama’s own words: “It was a beautiful country. Our village, which lay on a little plateau, was almost encircled by fertile fields of wheat and barley; and the plateau, in turn, was surrounded by ranges of hills which were covered by grass – thick and vividly green.” (My Land and My People – Memoirs of the Dalai Lama of Tibet)

In Conversation with His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama (Ashish Chopra Image)

The Human Trail: When humans started inhabiting Tibet, it was already a highly isolated land surrounded by forests and snow-mountains. Gradually some people became chiefs and started leading their tribes. About 2000 years ago, these tribes came together and formed their kingdom with Nya-Tri-Tsenpo as the first king to be succeeded by forty generations of kings.  During the reigns of the first twenty-seven, the religion called Bon flourished in the country. However, it was during the reign of the twenty-eighth king Lha-Tho-Ri-Nyen-Tsen, that a volume of Lord Buddha’s teachings fell into his hands and Buddhism was initiated to this land. During the thirty-seventh king, Thi-Song-Deu-Tsen, Indian pundits and Tibetan scholars who knew Sanskrit were invited to translate the teachings of Lord Buddha. That was around 790 CE and the Samye Monastery was established and the first seven monks were ordained in Tibet.

Gallery of the Three Great Kings of Tibet displayed in Doll's Museum (Norbulingka Institute, Dharamsala) (Ashish Chopra Image)

Changing Times:

Till the fortieth king, Buddhism flourished in Tibet; but their ties with neighbouring nation China soured. They had frequent wars followed by multiple pacts of mutual peace. However, their mutual distrust remained intact. The forty-first king of Tibet spelt havoc. He tried to abolish Buddhism from Tibet. After his demise there were in fights and the entire country was split into various smaller territories. In 1253 CE, the High Lama of the Sakya clan became the political head of Tibet followed by twenty generations of Sakya monks and monks of Phamo Drupa lineage. Tibet in between had secular monarchy in the 15th, 16th and 17th century. It was after that, that the Dalai Lama received temporal power over the whole of the country and the present form of Tibetan Government Gaden-Phodrang was established. Between Chinese attacks and British infiltrations, from 1912-1950, Tibet enjoyed de facto independence. But it continued to remain isolated from the rest of the world.  His Holiness says: “If only we had applied to join League of Nations  or United Nations or even appointed ambassadors to a few of the leading powers, before our crisis came, I am sure these signs of sovereignty would have been accepted without any question.”

Tibetan Migration to India 1959 (Internet Image)

The Exit:

In 1949-50 in the Battle of Chamdo, China finally occupied Tibet. Between1950-59, several sporadic rebellions had taken place against the Chinese invasion. However the Lhasa Uprising of 1959 infuriated the Chinese and they started massive military crackdown of rebellions. In 1959, the fourteenth Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso along with a few thousand Tibetans had to abandon the Potala Palace – the official residence of the Dalai Lama and flee Tibet. They entered India after a tumultuous journey and were given refuge by the then Prime Minsiter Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru.

Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru Welcomes His Holiness to India (Internet Image)

In a telegram delivered to His Holiness as he entered Tezpur (in Assam) said: “My colleagues and I welcome you and send you greetings on your safe arrival in India. We shall be happy to afford the necessary facilities for you, your family and the entourage to reside in India. The people of India who hold you in great veneration will no doubt accord their traditional respect to your personage.”

Back on Track – Food and Culture:

However, I have to tell you about another facet of Tibet – its lovely food.  Traditionally, Tibet was divided into three regions – Amdo, U-Tsang and Kham. Amdo is the region from where His Holiness comes from.

Amdo is known for its traditional cuisine. One of the dishes from Amdo which has become a favourtie dish of many Tibetans is thenthuk. This soupy pasta dish is uncomplicated – chunks of meat and diced vegetables chucked in to the stock along with wanton shaped noodles.

Shabalay (Internet Image)

However, my first love – shabalay is simply sinful. They are like meat samosas or patties. But the juice of the beef or meat that makes the filling also reminds me of a shepherd’s pie – only thinner in consistency, and the meat inside drier than a pie. In Delhi I have tried my shabalays everywhere possible – restaurants in Ladakh Boudh Vihar (Tibetan Monastery Market), Lajpat Nagar, Humayunpur, but eventually my heart and taste buds clicked on to this not so old restaurant in Majnu Ka Tilla called the Big Apple. Their shabalays are succulent and just of the right consistency.

Tingmo (Ashish Chopra image)

There are two versions of this dish – one is deep fried and another one is pan fried. Both renditions are of my liking and I shall refrain from picking favourites here. Another dish that I simply love is called tingmo – fermented Tibetan bread. I combine it with shapta– a traditional beef dish sauted with spices. A perfect meal.

Key Ingredients:

Gyuma - Tibetan pork sausages (Ashish Chopra Image)

I gave a brief history about Tibet before getting down to food in order to understand the requirement of that region, availability of ingredients and above all the spiritual philosophy of its people. Tibet being a cold mountainous region, it is natural that its cuisine would have lot of ingredients from yak – be it yak milk, yak cheese or yak meat.  To preserve beef and mutton, the protein is sliced into thin strips and air dried. The cold climate kills all the bacteria in the process and hence the meat can be consumed straightaway.  Green vegetables are scarce in the hilly regions; hence you will see very less variety of greens used in a traditional Tibetan dish. Though, some of neat and simple Tibetan dishes can have tinge of greens like bok choi (pak choi) here and there.

Tsampa - Tibet's staple diet (Internet Image)

This however, brings me to the carbohydrate requirement of the people. Tsampa – a dish prepared from roasted barley flour (Pretty much like the Assamese pithagudi or xandohgudi except for the key ingredient – rice) fulfills this gap. It is simple to prepare tsampa and is consumed usually with salty butter tea or milk. However, as simple as it may be to prepare, the consumption has a peculiar style; some of the roasted flour is put in a bowl with butter tea. The concoction is then mixed by rotating the bowl with the left hand and mixing the contents with right. Finally roll the mixture into small lumps and squeeze them into your mouth with your finger. There you are consuming Tibet’s staple diet.

Butter Tea - tea, milk and salt (Internet Image)

Butter Tea and the Great Butter Festival: Tibetan people are very fond of their butter tea or po cha. This salty tea is consumed several times a day because it not only heats them up but also energizes people to move about in the hilly terrain.

The Great Butter Festival is actually a Butter Lamp Festival where the entire city of Lhasa would be full of butter lamps and butter sculptures like flowers, figurines, birds and animals. It is celebrated on the fifteenth day of the first lunar month according to the Tibetan calendar. It is believed that the Great Butter Festival of Tibet started in 1409 when the founder of the Gellugpa Sect instituted the Great Prayer festival in Lhasa. This great Prayer Festival is known as Monlam.

Inside the Treasure House - a Time in Tibet

Catriona Bass in her book ‘Inside the Treasure House’ recounts her memories of the festival in Lhasa: Full moon brought Monlam to a close with the Butter Festival – “The Offerings of the Fifteenth Day”. The making of sculptured butter offerings originally comes from Bon, Tibet’s pre-Buddhist animist religion, but the festival probably dates from the time of the Great Fifth Dalai Lama.

During the cultural revolution China abolished Monlam. However, in India and Nepal the followers of Tibetan Buddhism celebrate this festival with utmost devotion. In India, under the mentorship of the Karmapa, Monlam is celebrated every year.

Tibetan Butter Sculpture Prepared Specially for the Great Butter Festival (Internet Image)

Shoton – the Yogurt Festival: Also known as the Yogurt Banquet Festival, it is one of the most important festivals of the Tibetans celebrated to mark the end of the annual summer meditation retreat of the Buddhist monks. It Tibet, it was celebrated right at the end of summer when the grass was lush and the animals would produce milk.  Since yogurt was produced in abandon during that season in Tibet, the participants would offer yogurt to the retreating monks. This festival too originated in the 15th century at Drepung Monastery near Lhasa. Later it would be celebrated in Potala Palace (residence of the Dalai Lama in Lhasa), Norbulingka (Dalai Lama’s summer palace in Lhasa) where Lhamo troupes would come from all over Tibet to perform.

Lhamo (Tibetan folk Opera) performers during Shoton or the Yogurt Festival in Dharamsala (Internet Image)

The Tibetan community in exile in India celebrates this festival in spring. In Dharamsala six troupes from various places in India perform traditional Tibetan opera during this festival; though yogurt no longer plays a key role. I guess the Tibetans had to submit to the topography and environment of India.

Perfect Ingredients for Tibetan Cuisine sold in MKT (Ashish Chopra Image)

Coming Back to Majnu Ka Tilla: One of course sees the changing face of the Tibetan community in India which has blended traditional customs with modern day living. My visit to Majnu Ka Tilla is replete with vignettes of graceful Tibetan women in their traditional attire selling thukpa and momos in the monastery courtyard, cacophony of little Tibetan children playing around the giant prayer wheel, the wizened old lady with her motherly smile selling dried meat, a few others selling fresh green pok choi leaves – all I do at times is sit on a bench in front of that monastery and spend hours marveling at the beauty of this rich culture.

First ever Tibetan Metal Singer - Rejoice! (Ashish Chopra Image)

As I go towards my favourite eateries through the narrow lanes, I see a poster promoting the first ever Tibetan Metal singer.  I also see octogenarians who probably have now given up hope of ever visiting the motherland they had to leave as a young boy or girl, again. I also bump onto a young Tibetan lad who works for a popular News Channel, filling in for his brother in a cool cafeteria that he runs.  I see monks wearing their snickers and craftsmen busy carving out prayer lamps.

Sometime one wonders where this Tibetan issue will converge. Then I am reminded of one thing. We are a blessed land – a land despite its own woes and strife has had the honour to support over 1.5 lakh Tibetans for more than 50 years. Blessed is this nation which has His Holiness making India his temporary abode and blessing the land with his spiritual aura. Tibetans have added a beautiful element into the culture of India. Most importantly, it has given young India its new found favourite snack – THE MOMO.

Momo (Ashish Chopra Image)

The Spirit of Iftar

Posted in Cuisine and Spirituality with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 10, 2010 by ashthefoodie

I know this is way past Ramadan and this is an unpardonably late article. But unfortunately yours truly was bed ridden with a slip disc limiting my travel and documentation process. But, as I witnessed another Eid-ul-Fitr passing by, a gamut of memories engulfed my mind. I tried recalling many of them; especially those from my childhood. I remember Prof. Nurul Hassan – a friend of my Late father and a renowned educationist of his time, would invite us to his residence in Delhi for iftar meals.

Prof. S. Nurul Hassan

Prof. S. Nurul Hassan in 1995

It was not just the food and the warmth of the family that are embedded in my mind. It was the sheer persona of this 6’4” tall I am guessing, 120 kg heavy man that made these occasions unforgettable. Nurul uncle was a kebab man. He would relish his kebabs irrespective of which part of the world they are from. The iftari at his place would be large spreads of sweets, dry fruits, meats and breads. For a long time as a kid I thought it was an average dinner in a Muslim family and wished I was born in one!

As I grew older, my passion for food grew even more. I started inviting friends for iftar at my own house. During my days in Assam, my Eid would be spent at a dear friend Abzar Hazarika (Abzar da, as I would fondly call him)’s house. The iftari at their place would also have a strong Assamese influence. The mutton they would make would be unlike any korma you usually get – one with potatoes. And the biryani would remind me of the typical biryani that one finds in Kolkata. The most distinguishing feature of Calcutta Biryani (sorry can’t call it Kolkata Biryani, just doesn’t seem, right!) is the usage of potatoes. This type of Biryani is an evolution of the Lucknow Biryani and has a unique flavor. When the Nawab of Awadh was exiled to Bengal, his entourage of cooks travelled along with him. The impact of all of that is pretty evident in the cuisine of Bengal that was till then predominantly fish based.

My post today however, is not about biryani. I have already written the charm of Aas Mohammad’s biryani and the spiritual experience in that small shack in Sikandarabad in an earlier post. This time it is about another form of spirituality – the spirit of rituals and festivals and why we still as a species believe in customs – it is definitely not instantaneous human behavior? I would like to believe that the reason is an unputdownable bribe; festival cuisine. My post today is dedicated to the spirit of iftar cuisine. What is afterall iftar or iftari? Let’s brood.

The Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar – a month in which the Holy Quran was revealed. Hence this is a month when Muslims are expected to cleanse their body and soul, reiterate their practice of self discipline, restraint, empathy and sacrifice. Throughout the month adult Muslims practice a fast, abstain from sex, alcohol and smoking from dawn to dusk. Ramadan is a month of reliving the name of Allah.

The fasting practiced during the month of Ramadan is known as roza. The evening meal that commemorates the breaking of the fast is called iftaari and is undoubtedly one of the most fascinating arrays of dishes world over.

For devout Muslims Ramadan is a month of sacrifices but along with that sacrifice comes a tremendous sense of fulfillment. The prayer or dua for iftari says: O Allah! I fasted for You and I believe in You (and I put my trust in You) and I break my fast with Your sustenance

Now, let me come straight to the real deal, that is, my deal. Iftar is a gastronomical marvel. I have had the opportunity to enjoy iftari at different corners of the world during this lifetime, thank God for that. It is so interesting to observe the connotation of a feast – communion, fellowship, warmth, compassion and above all sharing.

World Population of Muslims

World Population of Muslims

While we are talking about iftari, let me begin with the country which has the world’s largest Muslim population – Indonesia. I still fail to believe that I have never been to this country – there it goes into my bucket list! But the Iftar cuisine of Indonesia is something to talk about. It is called buka puasa meaning “to open the fast”.  Needless to say, the buka puasa platter is an awesome assortment of seafood, salads and meat. Like many other countries, Indonesia too has its buka puasa markets that bustle with people throughout the month of Ramadan. The Bendungan Hilir market in Jakarta is one such market that happens once a year, but Muslims all over the city throng to this market to break their fast. While dates are popular, kolak – a special dessert prepared with coconut milk is an important dish of buka puasa. There are many variants of kolak; however the jackfruit kolak seems to be the most popular of all apart from the ones with banana and cassava.

Muslims attend prayers on the eve of the first day of the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan at Al Akbar mosque in Surabaya, East Java, Indoneisia on August 21, 2009. (REUTERS/Sigit Pamungkas)

Indonesian people enjoy their special drink cendol prepared from coconut milk, rice and shaved ice. It is more of a dessert and less of a drink and is quite filling. They also have a special multilayered cake called kue lapis. Interestingly, most Indonesian cakes are not baked and instead steamed. And their sea food, from fish steamed in banana leaves (reminds us of eastern/North Eastern Indian traditions) to satay – their rendition of grills is something I can probably go on and on about. Satay is an extremely popular dish in Indonesia and several other countries of South East Asia and of course resembles our very lovely seekh kebabs.

Kolak; courtesy Room Candy Blog

Okay, I need to move to my next region. Let’s talk about Africa. Egypt, Morocco, Zanzibar, Tunisia, Libya and many other North African countries are predominantly Islamic and thank God for that, blessed with their fantastic cuisine.

Ti begin with, Moroccan food is to die for! Mohammed Ifriquine, a dear friend of mine from the Moroccan Embassy in India was a buddy, fellow traveler and adventurer almost a decade ago. We shared some wonderful moments together especially trying and tasting foods from all over the world. His Moroccan iftar spread was something I can never forget. Many a times I would either eat at the embassy with him or go to his then residence in Vasant Vihar. While I’d teach him the art of preparing Indian cuisine, he’d give me tutorials on Moroccan food.

Harira ; BBC Good Food picture

A Moroccan iftar starts with dates, milk and juices. Harira – a traditional soup of Morocco is very popular. It is prepared from lentils and tomatoes. It is seasoned with various spices from cardamom, pepper, saffron to celery, parsley and lemon juice. It is regarded as a meal in itself. Well known author of culinary books and expert on the region, Nada Saleh writes in his book Fresh Morccan, in Ramadan, at the setting of the sun the fast is broken with harira. It is traditionally served with lemon wedges, dates and chebakia (honeyed cakes), but could be served as a one-pot meal, followed by some fresh fruit.

Chebakia-Moroccan sweet dish

The chebakia is actually a cookie where you put generous amount of high quality saffron, sesame and honey and is prepared throughout the month of Ramadan in Morocco. Another awesome dish served during Ramadan in Morocco is bisteeya. It is a meat pie, traditionally prepared with pigeon meat, but now also prepared with chicken and fish. It is simultaneously sweet and savoury and culinary historians believe that it was introduced to Morocco somewhere around the 15th century by the Andalucians. Here goes the Spanish influence! However, this pie was finally perfected by the Moroccans and now has become an uncompromising dish on a Moroccan iftar table.

Bisteeya; courtesy :

Morocco is the culinary heaven of North Africa. The indigenous people to inhabit this beautiful land were the Berbers whose culture dates back to several thousand years. Today, I won’t go into the prehistory and etymology of these beautiful people because honestly, there is a lot to write about. Let’s stick to Iftar. Moroccan food has a world wide appeal and is delectable and sinful. It is very diverse due to its interaction with several world cultures – Arabic, Mediterranean, Moorish and more. While there is a predominance of usage of rich spices from saffron, turmeric, cinnamon, ginger, cumin and chillies, you also see usage of Mediterranean ingredients. Morroccans call this blend of spices Ras el Hanout.

While Moroccan have a strong Mediterranean influence, countries like Zanzibar have Asian influences. You will see harees being served as an important iftar dish. Harees is a traditional Arabic dish that is prepared from wheat (whole wheat soaked overnight), meat (or chicken) and salt. It is very popular in the Middle East.  This dish certainly originated in this region and traveled all over the world with the Arabs. Hence, in countries like India and Pakistan you get haleem, its mouthwatering rendition. Slightly different in texture and spice levels, this dish is definitely very popular throughout the region; especially for iftar.


I must mention one of world’s favourite iftar desserts from Turkey i.e. baklava. The history of Baklava has been traced back to the Assyrians. The Assyrians ruled the region between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers in Mesopotamia (present day Iran) 2400 BCE. However, it was not until 8th century BCE that they started the concept of putting a few layers of bread together with nuts, pouring honey over it and baking them. Gradually it became popular but the ingredients like dry fruits and honey were expensive. Hence, many believe that it was mostly the royalty and other rich people who could afford to prepare this at a daily basis. Today, this sweet dish is the sweet heart of Turkey and no festive moment could be complete without its presence.


Habibi and Yours Truly

Okay, while I am on it, I have to tell you this uncanny story. About fifteen years back like Mohammed Ifriquine, I had a very dear friend Said in the Oman Embassy. In fact Said, Carlos (from  Brazil) and I were like a trio having a blast in the corridors of Delhi. Oh those days of pure fun and food! Not that we have changed much; but it so happened that Said and Carlos got transferred and I left for an assingnment abroad and subsequently for the North East for almost seven years. Then of course there was no media networking or mobile phones. In short, we lost touch.

Three years back Arin, a few other friends and I were having dinner at Fujia a chinese resturant at Malcha Marg in Chanakyapuri in Delhi. This place again reminds me of my childhood. Some of the waiters there have been working in this place for thirty years now and they till date blackmail me in front of my friends by mildly mentioning some ‘childhood’ adventures.

Anyway, we were the last people in the restaurant and it shut after we got out. It must have been past 12:30 at midnight and most of us were smokers in the group. Smokers, who had cigarettes, but had no lighter. It was Delhi winters and only a post dinner smoke could have well, saved us. Okay we were getting desperate. Since when did Chanakyapuri gate keepers stop carrying match boxes? No shops open, no shacks around. And there we see at a distance two sheikhs in their traditional attire doing what? Lighting up of course!!! We suddenly became strong believers in the forces of God.

We decided to send Arindita to be the communicator. So there she goes with her diplomatic (well, I guess natural) smile and says, “Excuse me, may I have a light please?”

Sheikh 1 in the process of turning towards Arindita and us (our group standing at a distance of say 10 meters) and replies, “Sure…”

Sheikh 1 and Ashish Chopra speak in unison, “HABIBI!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

That was my long lost friend Said who I was meeting after ten years.  The name Said roughly means ‘to bring happiness’. How true!

Do I have to still tell you that he is my supplier of Omani dates and coffee and food? And that his charming wife prepares this mouth watering dry fish pilav and oh man…let’s leave right here.

Home Sweet Home:

Kheer being arranged in Jammu and Kashmir (REUTERS/Mukesh Gupta)

I know the article is far from complete. But then I do not want to put you through the strain of reading an encyclopedia or an Ashish Chopra memoir.

As we meander from region to region in India, cuisine and culture – two indispensible compatriots change their colour, but the fervor remains undiluted. People who know Indian food are very much aware of the difference between Muslim cuisine of Hyderabad, Lucknow, Delhi, West Bengal, Kerala, Kashmir, Gujarat or for that matter North East. But, let’s just try and elaborate or rather journey through the iftar experience in this unbelievably diverse country.

As you walk through the bustling streets of Old Delhi in the evenings of the holy Ramadan month, you can feel the zeal, the festivity and the spirit of fellowship. The shops glitter with Id specials.  People have just thanked their Gods for blessing them with the spirit to live life. I keep remembering the restaurant Gareeb Nawaz that, whether the holy month or not, serves food to 300 poor people at an average every day. He talks about ‘barkat’…déjà vu.

The month of Ramadan transcends into the celebration of Id-Ul-Fitre and one forgets all boundaries and simply delights on the festivity. The moment the proclamation for breaking the fast is announced, the process of iftari begins. People from all walks of life gather with the spirit of exuberance, warmth and colours to savour the divine flavours of iftar. The fast is normally broken with dates and fruits. And then comes the main course. The mind boggling kebabs, delightful nihari, biryani, korma, khamiri rotis – the list is endless. This trend continues throughout the month till Id. And this gets me to wonder that despite violence, aggression and negative energy all around, iftar brings a ray of hope, feeling of brotherhood and the expression of kindness and warmth.  So all I can say is if kebabs be the food of love, eat on, eat on, eat on…


Posted in Cuisine and Spirituality on August 19, 2009 by ashthefoodie

 IMG_1016                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 Some people say it is my quest for the hunt; I say it is my ‘kismet'(destiny) that I come across these places whose food speaks volumes about the ‘barkat’ (blessings) that they hold. It is only divine and unadulterated love for feeding people and watching them enjoy a meal that can bring a food joint to such a pedestal.

 Creative that my mindset is having dabbled with art and music I decided to dabble with yet another exciting venture-pottery though food remains my all time consistent companion in my search for bliss. The impulsive madness to design pottery using tribal motifs took me to Khurja in UP on the Aligarh highway famous all over for its pottery. En route to Khurja it was imperative (of course) that I stumble upon one such street corner in Sikandarabad. Thank God my Sweet Lord for exposing me to such interesting gastronomical temples which add the fire to my palate; Aas  Mohammad Ki Sikanderbadi Biryani is one such example. Delicious, delectable, to die for. Light on the belly, even flavours, good grains of rice and an uncompromised recipe-love, of course.



The first time I chanced upon this place, I barely managed to get a few plates of chicken biryani, and it was 9:30 in the morning. Then on it was beef biryani that was to be served, and according to them till 10:30-11.00 am, all of it would be polished off. So I asked the fellow at the stall the schedule. He starts setting up his stall at around 7.00 in the morning. The morning quota of chicken and beef finishes by 11.00 am. The next phase starts at 01:00 pm and lasts till 2:30 pm. Lunch times barely passes when Aas Mohammed’s helpers start their evening arrangements. By 4:00 pm the biryani stall reopens and by 6.00 pm, shop shuts. This is a routine which has been persistent since 14 years now.  Biryani freshly cooked on charcoal fire.

IMG_1066When I had reached this crowded place next to a busy street in Sikandarabad, I wondered who would come and visit this place early in the morning for a plate of biryani. I got my answer in less than five minutes. Within no time, the place was filled with people, all standing next to the stall waiting for their first meal of the day. People had come in cycles, cars, motorbikes-all clumsily parked next to the stall. There were buses, and trucks honking on the street, worse still a horrible traffic jam. But nevertheless, there was an extreme sense of peace in the place. Nobody was yelling at the person serving at the stall. Nobody was actually yelling at nobody. It is strange to observe people sitting peacefully, waiting for their turn for the biryani. An apologetic driver who had just splashed some mud while reversing his car on a person standing next to stall eating his biryani, came for his share of food. No, there was no animosity, but gentle glances of ‘it happens’, and both continued to savour the flavour of the biryani. I was wondering what blessing this place has, that has tamed an unusually angry race of humans.

IMG_1072IMG_1055IMG_1068After having savoured the magical flavour of Aas Mohammed’s biryani-I felt an inane desire to meet him in person-I asked for him and I was ushered into a big base kitchen where I encounter the man himself working with a fellow worker in draining out the water from the soaked rice. He looks at me with a smile and I reciprocate and we knew there was an instant connect.


IMG_1060 “As-salaam-wale-kum” , I say

“Waale-kum-as-salaam”, he replies.

“Aap kaise hein (How are you?)”, I ask.

“Allah ki rehmat hai (I am fine by the grace of Allah)” , he replies.

Before I could speak any further, he promptly offered me a plate of freshly prepared biryani as a welcome gesture. Never did it occur to either of us that he was actually offering me beef biryani. He could probably instantaneously connect with my foodiness than my religion.  I’d like to believe, Aas Mohammed is always careful before offering biryani to non Muslim people. Indeed I was immensely happy when I saw his inhibition disintegrating amidst the aroma and transcending to the delight of serving his food to people who genuinely loved it. I gobbled up my third plate of biryani (had two plates earlier in the pre-introduction stage) and rose from my seat satiated and emotional. The experience was no less sufiana.

Apart from the biryani, the stall also served some rustic seekh kebabs. The juicy meat carried a distinct flavour of green chilies and aromatic spices. The rough rustic texture of the meat gave me immense delight.and they were hand pounded, though I did not bother cross check as I was too engrossed relishing them and packing almost half a dozen plates for friends back home.


IMG_1053Spoons are readily available, but Aas Mohammed insists we have the biryani with our bare hands. He sells over a thousand plates a day at the rate of Rs. 25 for 250 gms, and employs around 7 people. Blessed by Almighty, as he puts it, he has been able to invest in property and has been able to buy cars. But he also understands that his ‘barkat’ is this place, and hence refuses to move out and start a bigger entity. We parted company with a promise to meet again; this time, at my place. I told him, I’d prepare some korma for him. He heartily accepted my invitation with a condition that he brings the biryani.




Posted in Cuisine and Spirituality with tags , , , , , , , , on November 4, 2008 by ashthefoodie



Bhutanese family beating rice

Bhutanese family beating rice

We talk about friendly neighbourhoods, and we talk about Bhutan. Resting peacefully in between the Indian states of Sikkim and Assam this Himalayan kingdom is a land of inimitable beauty, serenity and spirituality. Also sharing its international borders with China, Bhutan has been able to preserve its spiritual culture alive till date. The Bhutanese call their country Druk Yul which means “Land of the Thunder Dragon”

Personally speaking, food is a spiritually binding force. And I am sure many spiritualists would think like that.

For instance, Swami Vivekananda-the great philosopher would travel extensively in India to understand its people and what the cause of various sufferings is. He witnessed inequality, poverty and a discomforting disconnect with the core of spirituality, religion and the common people. Well, I am not here to discuss his philosophy today, but an instance. During his travel to Rajasthan, he spent a few days in the railway station where people had started gathering to hear his preaching. People would approach him with a volley of questions on religion and life. After three days and three nights of relentless conversation and advice, there was only one person who approached him with food and water; a low caste shoemaker. While most of the people present there protested this, and asked Swami Vivekananda to not to have food from a low caste person and in fact were rather astonished at his behaviour and approach despite being a religious person. But he went ahead and savoured that simplest of food prepared; needless to say he bonded the best with that shoemaker than innumerable people from the higher castes who had the rigidity of religion but had no idea of liberality of spiritual practice.

And once again it was food that reached the heart.

Yes, we were talking about Bhutan. The land as I said is spiritual with the augmentation and practice of Mahayana Budhhism. In Mahayan Buddhism as opposed to early Budhhism, most scholars believe that nirvana is too narrow an aspiration and that one’s aim should be to attain bodhichitta i.e.; awakened mind both for oneself and for the benefit of all other sentient beings. And one of the primary wheels of knowledge is compassion or karunya.

Bhutan, interestingly is the only country in the world to have adopted Mahayana Buddhism in its tantric form as its official religion. With the practice of Budhhist faith and karunya as a key, the Butanese lead their life with utmost compassion. Naturally, their food also contains the same affection, symplicity and mysticism.

The Bhutanese love to eat and love to feed. I must have been to Bhutan at least seven to eight times, each time hosted by various segments of people including the royalty. They are awsome hosts! You cannot escape the hospitality of the Bhutanese especially in their own land. Let me begin with what is available in that region.

Yak meat, cheese, the milk are obviously widespread. But what is the most important ingredient in any Butanese meal is chillies. Till such time one is not sweating it out while eating, they feel it is not worth the meal. In fact if you have visited Bhutan or ever get a chance to visit Bhutan, you’ll yourself notice the predominance of chillies even in the market place or people’s kitchen gradens. The national dish is of course the fiery ema datshi. It is a dish comprising of green pepper and cheese and is eaten with Bhutanese red rice as a staple diet. Any other aspice is negligible in their curries. Another staple dish is cuyred dried pork. There are several dishes which are prepared from pork including pork fing, phaksha pa, kewa phagsha, etc.

Five kilograms per head per week is the normal consumption. As this is the only crop cultivated, rice finds its way in various forms from breakfast to dinner. It’s either rice with curry or curry with rice. Two categories of rice are used in Bhutan. The urban areas including Thimpu, Paro and Phuntsholing use the white rice while the rural population use the red rice (the grained variety). This rice is grown 8000 ft above sea level. Bhutanese red rice is a red japonica rice. It is semi-milled; some of the reddish bran is left on the rice. Because of this, it cooks somewhat faster than an unmilled brown rice. When cooked, the rice is pale pink, soft and slightly sticky.

Rice based delicacies include ‘Desi’, a tasty mixture of white rice, butter, sugar, golden raisins and saffron and ‘Zow’ or fried rice mixed with sugar, butter and sometimes oilseeds. Both these are the favorite of His Majesty King Jigme Wangchuk and are served on special occasions.

In eastern Bhutan, some wheat is cultivated and the staple diet is ‘Puta’ or wheat noodles. In most families of Southern Bhutan, corn kernels are dried in bamboo shoots and then ground coarsely to make ‘Kharang’. This is then added to the leftover curry and made into a ‘Thukpa'(porridge) style breakfast.

The rice is served in a special tightly woven bamboo bowl called ‘bangchung’ made in the Kheng province. Meat, especially Yak meat, is a staple food for the non-vegetarian. Yak is a common sight in every household. Not a single part of the animal is wasted, similar to the banana plants in India. Beside meat, their milk is dried and made into cheese, even the skin is fried and served as a snack with drinks.

The Yak herders come down from the highlands in autumn and sell meat, butter and cheese to villagers in exchange of rice to last them a full year. The average meat an adult Yak yields is 250 to 260 kg. It also produces 1 kg of butter and an equivalent amount of cheese in three to four days. The locals sometimes hang thin strips of yak meat in the courtyard to be dried in the hot sun and stored for use in the winter. “The dried variety is more delicious”, quipped a village woman on enquiry.

Though they appreciate the pleasure of meat, being a Buddhist country, slaughter of animals is restricted. In Bumthang, a district in eastern Bhutan, slaughter of animals is not allowed at all. But you can eat the meat if the same animal fell off a cliff. What a concession!

The common preparation of meat is ‘Pa’, a curry. Large chunks of meat are mixed with lots of vegetables and chillies and boiled for a long time to make a curry. Turmeric or other spices are not used, leaving the curry white.

‘Zhasonpa’ is prepared in the same manner, except chicken pieces (Zhason) are used instead. This specialty can be tasted … obviously without the chillies. Bhutanese also love ‘Momos’. Though a Tibetan specialty, it has occupied a permanent place in the Bhutanese culinary. Chicken or Pork Momos are favored but cheese Momo is most common.

Coming back to ‘Ema Datshi’ or churpi or yakshi we call in India—very popular in Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh but in the Twang region. Here is a brief on how it is made

To make the cheese, pour boiling water to the liquid yogurt left in the butter churn after the butter is removed. Stir gently till it turns into a soft yellow paste that is fried with butter and sugar to get the ‘Datshi’. Finally, add chili, salt and cook with the Datshi to make a curry.

Sometimes the Datshi is dried for a few more days to make it hard. It is then cut into pieces, stringed and kept over fire for three to four months (yes!) and Wow! The stone hard chewing gum is ready. And this is what the Bhutanese chew all the time. They say it helps to keep the body warm. I tried it and actually liked it but my friends threw it out in no time due to its pungent odor.You just have to develop a taste for these things actually 


The Kitchen

The Kitchen

How do they wash down all these hot, spicy delicacies?The answer is simple. Either with drink or with Tea. The Bhutanese can drink ‘Suja’, butter tea or ‘Ara’, a locally made wine. Ara is made from any grain cultivated in the region, rice, wheat or Barley. In traditional feasts an unusual snack is offered. Butter is heated with egg and Ara is poured over the whole offering.

In the Northern District of Ha and Lingzhi, another queer dish is prepared from Yak haunch. The entire haunch is wrapped in a cloth and kept for two to three months and then served with chillies and wine.

In the Kheng region, raw meat is served with drinks and on special occasions, the whole village participates in the feast. In Bumthang, a rare tea is made from a parasitic plant ‘Neshing Jurma’ that grows on Oak trees while the predominantly Nepalese area of Southern Bhutan savor ‘Shel Roti’. Salt and sugar is added to rice flour and made into a paste, which is then fried, in bubbling hot oil.

These days however, the Urban Bhutanese are tilting towards the Western type of food and even the rural population is not interested in this laborious process. But in festivals, weddings and other traditional gatherings they always go for the cuisine of the land.




Posted in Cuisine and Spirituality on July 13, 2008 by ashthefoodie
Kar Sevaks Preparing Roti

Kar Sevaks Preparing Roti

Guru Ka Langar (literally, langar or refectory of the Guru) is a community kitchen run in the name of the Guru. It is usually attached to a gurdwara. Langar, a Persian word, means ‘an almshouse’, ‘an asylum for the poor and the destitute’, ‘a public kitchen kept by a great man for his followers and dependants, holy persons and the needy.’ Some scholars trace the word langar to Sanskrit analgrh (cooking place). In Persian, the specific term langar has been in use in an identical sense. In addition to the word itself, the institution of langar is also traceable in the Persian tradition. Langars were a common feature of the Sufi centres in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Even today some dargahs, or shrines commemorating Sufi saints, run langars, like Khwaja Mu’in ud-Din Chishti’s at Ajmer.

The principle of Guru Ka Langar is so important that even when the ruler of India Emperor Akbar visited Guru Amar Das Ji, he too sat in the pangat to take Langar before he was allowed to see Guru Ji. Hence the mighty ruler of India also sat amongst the common people as an equal and had the same simple food. So impressed was he by the Langar that he offered a great jagir (a great amount of land and wealth) as a contribution to it’s maintenance. As the Mahima Prakash records, the Emperor refused to step on the silks spread out for him by his servants when going to call on the Guru. He turned aside the lining with his own hands and walked to the Guru’s presence barefoot. The Guru would not accept the Emperor’s offer of the jagir, so Akbar offered it as a wedding present for the Guru’s daughter. It is believed that the gifted land is today, the city of Amritsar.

When President Nasser of Egypt visited the Golden Temple he was so touched to see so many Kashmiri Muslims, Hindu’s, Christians and Sikhs sitting together to eat in the Langar that his party left all the money they carried with them as a contribution to it’s running

The Langar is run by sevadars ‘voluntary selfless’ Sikhs and others who wish to help. It is a community kitchen and anybody can help in it’s running. This function of Sewa brings a community feeling in the persons mind and destroy their ego and the feeling of “I” or “me” by the performing of this valuable service to humanity.

The langar continued to perform its distinctive role in days of the direst persecution. Bands of Sikhs wandering in deserts and jungles would cook whatever they could get, and sit in a pangat to share it equally. Later, when the Sikhs came into power, the institution of langar was further consolidated because of increased number of gurdwaras running the langar, and assignment of jagirs to gurdwaras for this purpose.

Rules concerning the tradition of Langar – The Langar must be:

1. Simple and vegetarian

2. Prepared by devotees who recite Gurbani while preparing the langar

3. Served after performing Ardas

4. Distributed in Pangat without any prejudice or discrimination

5. Fresh, clean and hygienically prepared

Importance of Langar to Sikhism

Bhai Desa Singh in his Rehitnama says, “A Sikh who is well to do must look to the needs of a poor neighbour. Whenever he meets a traveller or a pilgrim from a foreign country, he must serve him devotedly.

Maharaja Ranjit Singh made grants of jagirs to gurdwaras for the maintenance of langars. Similar endowments were created by other Sikh rulers as well. Today, practically every gurdwara has a langar supported by the community in general. In smaller gurdwaras cooked food received from different households may comprise the langar. In any case, no pilgrim or visitor will miss food at meal time in a gurdwara. Sharing a common meal sitting in a pangat is for a Sikh an act of piety. So is his participation in cooking or serving food in the langar and in cleaning the used dishes. The Sikh ideal of charity is essentially social in conception. A Sikh is under a religious obligation to contribute one-tenth of his earning for the welfare of the community. He must also contribute the service of his hands whenever he can, that rendered in a langar being the most meritorious.

“Keep the langar ever open” are reported to have been the last words of Guru Gobind Singh spoken to Bhai Santokh Singh before he passed away at Nanded. One of the lines in his Dasam Granth reads: “Deg tegh jag me dou chalai—may langar (charity) and sword (instrument of securing justice) together prevail in the world.” The first Sikh coin minted in the eighteenth century carried the Persian maxim: “Deg tegh fateh—may langar and sword be ever triumphant.”



An essential part of the gurudwara is the Langar, or free kitchen. Here the food is cooked by sevadars and is served without discrimination to all. After the Sadh Sangat has participated in any ceremony, they are served the Guru’s Langar. It was inspired by Guru Nanak’s act of serving food to wandering holy men when given money by his father to strike a good bargain. The practice of serving food to all was started with Guru Nanak’s Sikhs at Kartarpur.

The Guru’s Langar is always vegetarian, and traditionally is made up of simple, nourishing food. Strict rules of hygiene and cleanliness are important when preparing the Langar (i.e., washed hands, never tasting it while cooking). Individuals with communicable diseases should not participate in the preparation of Langar. It is also suggested that

Once Guru Gobind Singh, disguised as an ordinary pilgrim, made a surprise check of the langars at Anandpur. He discovered that Bhai Nand Lal’s langar was the best maintained. He complimented him and asked others to emulate his standards of dedication and service. One of Guru Gobind Singh’s commandments was that a Sikh visiting another Sikh’s door must be served food, without hesitation or delay. Another of his sayings ran: “Gharib da munh guru ki golak hai — to feed a hungry mouth is to feed the Guru.” This spirit of common sharing and of mutual co-operation and service was the underlying principle of the Sikh tradition of langar.

Guru Nanak and his successors attached a great deal of importance to langar and it became, in their hands, a potent means of social reform. The former gave it the central place in the dharamsala he established at Kartarpur at the end of his preaching tours. He worked on his farm to provide for himself and for his family and to contribute his share to the common langar.

He had such of his disciples as could afford to set up dharamsalas and langars. Among them were ‘Sajjan Thag, then lost to godly ways, and a wealthy nobleman, Malik Bhago, both of whom had converted to his message. Bhumia, formerly a dacoit, was asked by Guru Nanak to turn his kitchen into a langar in the name of God. A condition was laid upon Raja Shivnabh of Sangladip (Sri Lanka) that he open a langar before he could see him (Guru Nanak). The Raja, it is said, happily complied.

Guru Angad, Nanak II, further extended the scope of the institution. He helped with cooking and serving in the Langar at Khadoor Sahib. His wife, Mata Khivi, looked after the pilgrims and visitors with the utmost attention. Such was her dedication to work in the langar that it came to be known after her name as Mata Khivi ji ka Langar. The Var by Satta and Balvand also applauds Guru Amar Das’s langar wherein “ghee and flour abounded.” In spite of rich variety of food served in his langar, Guru Amar Das ate a simple meal earned by the labour of his own hands. “What was received from the disciples was consumed the same day and nothing was saved for the morrow.” Contributing towards the Guru ka Langar became an established custom for the Sikhs. Partaking of food in Guru Ka Langar was made a condition for disciples and visitors before they could see the Guru. Guru Amar Das’s injunction was: “pahile pangat pachhe sangat”—first comes eating together, and then meeting together.” Langar thus gave practical expression to the notion of equality.

At Goindwal, during the time of Guru Amar Das Ji a rule was instituted that anyone who wanted to have a meeting with the Guru (receive his Darshan) would have to eat food from the Langar. Even when the Emperor of India, Akbar came to see Guru Amar Das, he sat in pangat (where Langar is served) before meeting the Guru. From that time forward, at Goindwal, Langar was served 24 hours a day.

Bhai Jetha, who came into spiritual succession as Guru Ram Das, served food in Guru Amar Das’s langar, brought firewood from the forest and drew water from the well. By such deeds of devoted service, he gained enlightenment and became worthy of the confidence of Guru Amar Das. Langar served to train the disciples in seva and to overcome class distinctions.

The institution of langar had become an integral part of the Sikh movement by now and, with the increase in its numbers, it gained further popularity and strength. With the development under Guru Ram Das and Guru Arjan of Amritsar as the central seat of the Sikh faith, the capacity of the local Guru ka Langar increased manifold. Sikhs came from far-off places to see their Guru and to lend a hand with the construction work. They were all served food in Guru ka Langar.

Bhai Manjh, was was attracted to Sikhism from a Muslim sect, engaged himself in serving the Guru’s langar by fetching fuel wood from the nearby jungle. Once, due to inclement weather, he fell into a well whilst carrying wood on his head. On hearing this, the Guru Arjan Dev rushed to the well with necessary equipment. When the ropes were lowered, Bhai Manjh requested the Guru to draw out the fuel wood first, as he considered dry wood more essential than himself. It was done, and when Bhai Manjh was drawn out, the Guru embraced him in his wet clothes blessing him, “Manjh is the Guru’s beloved. Whosoever keeps his company shall be redeemed.”

Guru Hargobind and Guru Tegh Bahadur travelled extensively in north and northeast India. This led to the establishment of many new sangats. Each sangat meant an additional langar. In the reign of Guru Gobind Singh, the institution of langar acquired further significance. At Anandpur, the new seat of Sikhism, a number of langars were in existence, each under the supervision of a devoted and pious Sikh. Food was available in these langars day and night.

 The Protocols

When preparing food for the Langar, the mouth and nose will be covered by a piece of cloth known as a “parna”. Also during the preparation due regard is made to purity, hygiene and cleanliness, the sevadars (selfless workers) will normally utter Gurbani and refrain from speaking if possible. When the Langar is ready, a small portion of each of the dishes is placed in a plate or bowls and placed in front of the Sri Guru Granth Sahib and a prayer called the Ardas is performed. The Ardas is a petition to God; a prayer to thank the Creators for all His gifts and blessings. A steel kirpan is passed through each item of food, after the “Guru-prashad” has been blessed. The blessing of the Langar with Ardas can be done anywhere, in case the Langar needs to be served before the completion of the Gurdwara ceremony. The Langar is not eaten until the Ardas has been recited. After the Ardas is completed, each item of food is returned back to its original pot or container. It is said that the blessings of the “holy” food are thus passed to the entire Sangat through the Langar.

When serving the Langar, the servers must observe strict rules of cleanliness and hygiene. Servers should not touch the serving utensils to the plates of those they serve. When serving foods by hand, such as chapattis or fruit, the servers’ hands should not touch the hand or plate of those they are serving. Those serving should wait until all others have been completely served before they sit down to eat themselves. It is advisable not to leave any leftovers.

Since some Sikhs believe that it is against the basics of Sikhi to eat meat, fish or eggs, hence non-vegetarian foods of this sort is neither served nor brought onto the Gurdwara premises. Others believe that the reason vegetarian food is served in Gurdwaras is so that people of all backgrounds can consume the food without any anxiety about their particular dietary requirement and to promote complete equality among all the peoples of the world. Alcoholic and narcotic substances are stringently against the Sikh diet, hence these with any meat products are strictly not allowed on Gurdwara premises.

A Means of Social Reform

Community kitchens came into existence with the Sangat or holy fellowships of disciples which sprang up at many places in his time. Sikhs sat in pangat (literally a row) without distinctions of caste or status, to share a common meal prepared in the langar. Besides the kitchen where the food was cooked, langar stood for the victuals as well as for the hall where these were eaten. The disciples brought the offerings and contributed the labour of their hands to prepare and serve the food. The institution of Langar had thus demolished the long established caste barriers and gender prejudices of the time. Gurbani be recited during the preparation.

High caste Brahmins would eat from the hands of low caste Sudar and vice-versa. This practise, slowly overcame the century old established prejudices ingrained in the minds of common people of the land. Before the establishment of Langar, a Brahmin would not eat in the presence of a low caste person and was thought a bad omen if a low caste person was to enter a room where the high caste Brahmin was eating. The institution of Langar removed all these barriers in the culture of Northern India.