Wah! Moplaaah! and my Blah! Blah!

Posted in Food journey-Delhi with tags , , , , , , , on October 25, 2009 by ashthefoodie

There are tales; and there are stories. This is somewhere in between. A story intertwined in tales of survival.

Many people in Delhi may have never heard of this place called Sarai Julena. Adjacent to New Friend’s Colony, it is at the periphery of Jamia Nagar. If you walk around that place you will clearly understand its demography. Malayalam and North Eastern faces dominate the ambience and you will not take too much time to guess that a majority of them are courtesy the Escorts hospital. I am about to talk about somebody who is courtesy Bombay riots.

This couple has fought displacement more than twice in their lifetime. During these troubled times they stuck to was what they did best-being patient and good food.I will not go as such into details. Did not feel like making an issue out of something Ali and Mercy had long buried in their hearts. They have run all their lives.

When I stumbled upon Malabar Hotel-a small restaurant in a cramped galli* in Sarai Julena thanks to a foodie friend and journalist Joji Thomas, I definitely anticipated something interesting. It was ‘aromating’ migrant cuisine. My nose has become accustomed to tracing the best of the rustic cuisine in these gallis world over. So, in no way was I surprised that this hotel served simple and delicious food from one of southern India’s most beautiful states, Kerala.

*galli: a small by lane

The Galli

The Galli

The ever serene Mercy this time proclaims with pride, “We serve the best Malabar biryani in Delhi.” Do I agree? Well, the fact of the matter is, I go to this place for the mackerel and beef fry, the meen mouli, the egg roast, the thaali, the stew, the aappams, the chicken prepared with pepper and the leafy paronthas. And I visit this place over and over again, not just because the food is good and unbelievably reasonable, but I am simply moved by the spirit of this couple. But before getting into that, let me give you a brief idea about their background. They belong to a community in Kerala called the Moplahs. And no brownie points for guessing that I am mentioning this because Moplah cuisine is truly blessed by the Gods.

Mackerel fry

Mackerel fry

Being readers of food and history, we all probably know about the Spice trade which had started much before the birth of Christ and Prophet Mohammed. Indeed, food had to come before religion! Arabia was one of the most important territories engaged in the spice trade and it is tremendously fascinating that from 950 BCE to the seventeenth and eighteenth century, people in Kerala received different batches of traders who had converted from one belief to the other. The last batches of traders to come were Muslims, who would stay back in Kerala during the monsoons.  Amongst those who stayed back, a lot of them inter married. What some historians told me is that many Hindu people got married to the Arabs in order to escape from the shackles of staunch cast system that existed in Kerala at that point in time. What developed as a result was a unique Malayalam speaking Muslim community called Moplah. I have been given to understand that the term traces back to the words Mapillai, meaning newlywed groom or son-in-law of the house (both in Tamil and Malayalam) and Mahapillai, someone you hold in great esteem.

Now let me come straight to the food. Yes, I had already started missing it! Moplah cuisine is a divine confluence of Arabic, Persian, Moghul and Malabar cuisine. I say divine for that’s how I describe good food. Moplah cuisine consists of a fascinating array of fish, meat and vegetable dishes along with some delectable desserts and snacks.

Rice is staple and cooked in several ways. A special fried rice preparation is done with ghee and is called neychoru. The Moplahs also prepare a very interesting biryani. Many believe that it was neychoru that was gradually transformed into biryani after a Moghul influence that migrated through the Deccan. The biryani which developed as a result is completely different from what you get in the rest of the country specially the north Indian style. They also have their own rendition of the dosai and parontha which are leafy and the dosais-wafer thin. A special kind of chappati is called pattiri which is prepared from rice flour and stuffed with keema* or chicken. The Coorgis also have a similar dish in fact, about which I shall write eventually in my blog.

*Keema: Minced meat

One Moplah preparation I am always fascinated by is something that is called mutta mala literally translated as egg garland. For someone (like me) with a sweet tooth and a restriction of sugar, this dish acts as the perfect seductress!



The delicacy is prepared from egg (of course) yolk and sugar syrup. The concoction with a single string consistency is carefully poured through a device made out of coconut shell with a small hole after it is being cooked. This is served with kinnathappam prepared from the white of the egg. Some are of the opinion that duck eggs make a better mutta mala. Mentioning muttamala and skipping aleesa could be registered as a crime. Aleesa’s Arabic origin makes its texture and flavours very interesting. It is a thick porridge prepared from wheat and lamb/chicken meat. It is laced with ghee and usually eaten with sugar. I say that it is of prime importance to mention aleesa after muttamala because it is a typical sequence in which the  conglomeration of three dishes is served in a Moplah wedding. The  meal is initiated with muttamala followed by aleesa. the main course is the Moplah Biryani.

One of the reasons why I love Moplah cuisine is because of the predominance of the non vegetarian. From sea food to beef to mutton to whatever-Moplah food teases you and tickles your taste buds. The Konchu curry-a prawn dish cooked in coconut milk and curry leaves is a sea food lovers delight. However, for the more adventurous ones, there is a mussels dish called kallummekkaya. The mussels are first cooked in coconut milk, and later ftossed in Malabar pepper and fried. Fish is extremely popular and meen mulagittathu cooked in tamarind and red chilli peppers has the distinct tangy flavour of tamarind. However, the Moplah cuisine can also boast of a few interesting vegetarian dishes. They usually prepare tapioca, yam leaves and pumpkin.

See, as I always do, i.e., get diverted from my topic of origin, this time is no different. I was to tell you Mercy and Ali’s story and I shall. This couple as I said belongs to the Moplah community in Kerala. Several years back they leave Kerala to settle down in Mumbai and started a well received catering business. They were doing well, when destiny took a completely different turn. The Bombay riots of 1993. They were left with no other choice but to leave the city bag and baggage. They chose to remain alive in place of running a business. This enterprising couple decides to head to the capital territory of the country, hoping they could start life afresh.

That’s how the concept to Malabar Hotel was redesigned, reinvented and resumed. It started off as a restaurant on the Sarai Julena main road and had started doing impressive business, also considering the fact that they would take catering orders as well. But as their trying destiny would have it, people of Delhi saw another major shift during the sealing episode. Well, I do not want to get into the legalities and rights and wrongs of the situation, but the bottom line is, Ali and Mercy once again lost their business in a mass action/uprising; this time in Delhi.

Finally after a few months of struggles and uncertainties, with two children to bring up, they managed to start the restaurant a little on the inside.  If anybody has read a story called the Martyr’s Corner written by R.K. Narayan, you will understand what kind of adrenalin rush did I have when I heard about it. However, unlike the character Rama of the story, Ali and Mercy haven’t yet accepted martyrdom. They have been working relentlessly, both in the restaurant and their catering business and are doing very well to my knowledge. Kindly read the Martyr’s Corner-it is a beautiful story anyway! (The description of the vendor’s south Indian food by R. K. Narayan can only lead to hunger, anticipation and fantasies of just digging into it.)

Couchsurfers' day out

Couchsurfers' day out

Time and again I have taken my friends to eat there-this time I went with a bunch of fellow couchsurfers (couchsurfers are a community of global travellers who stay at peoples homes thereby bridging cultures together). Couchsurfers meet up, host each other and on many occasions travel together. That day about ten of us, met up at the Malabar Hotel and the rest, I can only pictorially explain. Let me explain what we ordered: rice thaali ten plates, mackerel fry almost six to seven plates, chicken 65 about five plates, meen curry four plates, beef fry five plates, vegetable stew four plates…in short, we hogged and we hogged only to pay Rs 1600 approximately forty USD.Where will you get such value for money.

The last piece of chicekn 65 left on our plate, which of ofpurse was eventually eaten

The last piece of chicken 65 left on our plate, which of course was eventually eaten

Rice and Poppadum

Rice and Poppadum

Malabar resturant is not really a Moplah resturant as such but they do serve a few Moplah dishes and good kerala food.However if you ask Mercy and Ali  to cook some exclusive Moplah food for us I am sure they would gladly do it and with pride. For me they have never refused.


Posted in Food History with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 2, 2009 by ashthefoodie
The Land of tea

The Land of tea

When I first compiled this article, I wasn’t fully satisfied as every time I taste food I discover something new. Assam (one of the states in North East India) has always been close to my heart and I wrote a small article on what I knew of Assamese cuisine and I thought I knew a lot-no sir no-that was not enough. So I probed further-cooked, experimented, read and seeked. Today, I sit to pen down all that I know and my experiences with Assamese cuisine and I feel that this still is just a drop in the vast Brahmaputra ( the world’s third largest river and at some places in Assam it has a vast expanse of almost 15 kms.)

Well, to begin with, I needed a bit of help. Asked a very dear friend to identify a few green leaves which were not laai, lofa, paleng, dhoniya, podina, matikanduri, maanimuni, dhekia, durun, khutora, narasingha, xoroyoh, jilmil and kosu( these are Assamese names of the various popular green leafy vegetables). And guess what. She wanted to give me ‘authentic’ information. Hence called up her mom who sat with her grandmother on speaker phone to go really really deep. To the days when Assamese people actually used to have a hundred and one green leaves on the eve of Bohag Bihu( festival of spring or new life). Cutting things short (phew!), let me name some of the greens viz., modhusaleng, rohbaghini, bonjaluk, xukoloti, pipoli, titabahok, borkosu, xetbhedali, bhumloti, xewali, keturihalodhi, mermerilota, tongloti, ghilalota, tengamora, long pasoli, brahmi, kolmou, xuka puroi, monua, masandari, ponounua amongst several others. This is Assamese food…rustic, healthy, bland yet hot occasionally. Ummm…the mouthwatering kosu xaak aka colacacia leaves with lots of black pepper leaves your nose drained, yet enriches you with a marvelous experience! If I consider the banana plantain to be one of the greens, then its stem known as posola is the next delicacy I have to mention.

 Though we cannot categorize the Assamese people as carnivorous, but they have their share of flesh for every special occasion be it a duck roast, goose curry, pigeon meat, pork with spinach leaves and bamboo shoot or other ‘lesser’ meats like chicken! Duck and goose are best cooked with kumura or the ash gourd. Also used is posola-the body of the banana plantain, as I mentioned earlier. For the inquisitive readers, it will be rather interesting to know that not a single part of the banana plant goes waste in an Assamese kitchen. While the fruit, flower (koldil), and stem are edible, meals are served on banana leaves. But hold on, there’s more. The sheath of the plant known as kolpotuwa is used for making bowls like doog, dona or khool for serving jolpan (a breakfast preparation), particularly during auspicious occasions and religious ceremonies. Kaanh or brass utensils are commonly used in Assamese households.

Kaanh or brass utensils are intrinsic to Assamese households

Kaanh or brass utensils are intrinsic to Assamese households

A jolpan usually consists of various forms of rice like chira (flattened rice)/kumol saaul (a softened rice form prepared by grains soaked and then mildly cooked) /bhoja saaul (rice prepared from roasting the grains) /bora saaul (sticky rice) /pithaguri (rice powder prepared from unroasted grains)/xandoh guri (rice powder prepared from roasted grains roughly ground)/korai guri (rice powder prepared from roasted grains finely ground)/ doi i.e. curd, and jaggeri. Till a decade back, grains were pounded on a dheki (a traditional pounding contraption operated manually with feet). However, with passing time or timelessness mills have started replacing this system in case of mass production.

 *Saaul : Rice      *Guri: Powder 

Coming back to bananas (See, it is very easy to get lost while writing about food), the banana peel is dried and burnt; the ash mixed in water and the extract results in kol khar -the indigenous tenderizing agent. The modhuna or root of the plantain is also used to prepare khar. I think am already going bananas! In fact Khaar is so much an integral part of Assamese cuisine that many people use khaar khuwa (khaar eaters) as a slang to describe people from Assam. I think it is a beautiful terminology and hardly derogatory.Rice prepared in banana leaves in Singphu dhaba near MargheritaNow, there is another term that the Assamese use for themselves i.e. bhotuwa, a term that can be traced to the word bhaat which means cooked rice. It does not need rocket science to understand that rice is the staple food of Assam, and is best relished as plain steamed. However  the flavour of the rice depends on the kind of utensil and fire used, . There is a form of preparation of rice called sunga saaul (sunga meaning an elongated hollow particularly bamboo in this case). Rice is put in a hollow bamboo with water and sealed with banana leaves and then put into charcoal fire. People normally use sticky rice for such preparations.Can you imagine the  aroma that prevails?  There is another interesting form of consuming rice and is called pointa bhaat. Leftover rice is soaked in cold water and is kept for one or two nights. The rice starts fermenting and depending on the number of days, can give you the perfect punch (wink. hic hic hic). 

Talking of Assamese food and not mentioning fish is like commiting hara-kiri or suicide. The blessed land that Assam is, the Brahmaputra and its tributaries and various other fresh water resources like the pond(Pukhuri) at your backyard, the paddy fields, the streams and springs are endowed with various kinds of delicious fish. Small, medium, big…all sizes and shapes are available. Small fish like donikona, puthi, bheseli, randhoni, kholihona, misa etc., medium sized fish like goroi, magur, kawoi, muwa, pabho, bato, tura, botiya, neriya and bigger ones like rou, borali, xitol, khoriya, sengeli etc. just tickle your taste buds with their umpteen flavours. Maas, as the natives call it are caught on jaakoi (straining contraption made of bamboo used in ponds and paddy fields), thuha, khuka, sepa, (bamboo traps placed in paddy fields), boroxi (fish hook) or zaal (fishing net). Fish is stored in a bamboo container called khaloi and can be hung around your waist while fishing.

Maasor tenga (sour fish curry) is the most popular Assamese fish preparation. Various souring agents like ou tenga, thekera, tenga mora, local tomatoes, lemon etc. are used during the preparation of the jool (thin curry). Minimal spices characterize Assamese cuisine. Use of chillies like khud (pinch)/mem jolokia (referring to the spicey flavour despite its grain size), bhut jolokia (also known as Raja Mircha-world’s hottest chilli). Pepper or jaluk is common be it in fish preparations or duck and geese.
Maasor tenga (sour fish curry): I can in fact see a pice of ou tenga floating

Maasor tenga (sour fish curry): I can in fact see a pice of ou tenga floating

Another form of preparing fish is by wrapping it in banana leaves. Freshly prepared yellow mustard paste with salt is used for marinating the fish. The fish is then wrapped in banana leaves and steamed. Naraxinha or curry leaves and podina (mint) paste is also used to marinating and fillings. The preparation is more popularly known as bhapot diya maas (steamed fish)

Fish intestines also known as petu is a delicacy. It is fried with onion, naraxinha leaves and either mixed with a little steamed rice or powdered rice (pithaguri). It is either served after tossing and frying or again wrapped in banana leaf and roasted.

*tenga: Tangy/Any Lemon  *jolokia: Chilli

Khorikat diya maas: fish grilled on bamboo sticks

Khorikat diya maas: fish grilled on bamboo sticks

Apart from curries, fish is relished deep fried and roasted on charcoal fire. Small fish like puthi is roasted and mashed with mustard oil, salt, chopped onions and coriander leaves. The rustic cooking and impeccable raw flavour is simply out of the world! In Assam anything that is mashed is called pitika, the most popular ones being bengena (brinjal) and aloo (potato). All Assamese will swear by it. Potato is popular especially it is customary during Magh Bihu (harvest festival) to have sweet potatoes (mitha aloo, muwa aloo, kath aloo etc.) while the morning meji (a huge customary fire during Magh Bihu) is lit. While I have reached to the point of Bihu, and not mentioning pitha will be criminal. Pithas are traditional rice cakes prepared during the festive season. Both sweet and salty, pithas are dry and either steamed or roasted while others are fried. Jaggery is the most popular sweetener. Til pitha, gheela pitha, xutuli pitha, sunga pitha, tekelir mukhot diya pitha, paat pitha, muthiya pitha, pheni pitha are few that I think of. Til pitha is unique considering the fact that it is dry, has a black sesame and jaggery filling and looks like, ah well, an oversized cigarette. The best way to consume, following the traditional way is by dipping it in  ronga saah (literally red tea but is actually black tea).

*Saah : Tea    *Bhaapot Diya : Steamed   *Bihu: An agro based festival, celebrated three times a year-April, January and October in Assam signifying various stages of agriculture 

While I am still talking about harvest and Magh Bihu-a Bihu that signifies a good harvest and of course is signified by having huge feasts. And the spread, you got me, is what we call a foodies’ delight. You will find all what I have discussed so far, all under one roof on a single day and of course much more. Yes, I am coming towards the ‘meaty’ part of my article.

Gahori: pork

Gahori: pork

I have been mentioning duck and geese quite often in my article, and that’s because hanh (duck) and raaz hanh (geese) are regarded delicacies during special ceremonies. You can say, they are the ‘turkeys of Thanksgiving’.  While local chicken is more popular for day to day use. Gahori manxo or pork is the ‘forbidden’ meat and is nevertheless consumed by various communities and has different styles of preparation. There are some who store the pork in a pit while others cook it dry with crunchy spinach leaves.

Some use bamboo shoot or khorisa and make a curry out of it. The Ahoms have an old saying that if you did not have gahori on Bihu, then you will be born as one in your next birth. Probably it came as a mischievous story told to children in the families by the older ones and the legend spun itself hence forth. Paaro manxo or pigeon meat is also a delicacy. Two preparations are most popular-a dry one with koldil or the banana flower or a jool (curry) with lots of black pepper. Gosh! I am getting hungry by the minute, and I am waiting eagerly for my next golden chance to run to North East as always.
Xewali-the flower and leaf are bitter, but a delicacy nevertheless

Xewali-the flower and leaf are bitter, but a delicacy nevertheless

Assamese are not devoid of other delicacies like crabs, river shrimps, linkori (aquatic black beetle), various flowers like tita phul, xewali, endi and paat leta (silk worm chrysalis). Ahoms and a few other communities have a tradition of consuming eggs of red ants (amlori tup) on Bohag Bihu-the festival of spring. In fact, the eggs from the big nests on mango trees are the best ones and believe  me; the boys in villages have to undergo quite an ordeal with the red ant formic acid bites! But what’s good food without a little adventure? But I hardly see many youngsters enthusiastic enough to go through the same ordeal of celebration these days. Or probably even there are not many forests left to provide such scope. Or for that matter, community feasts have almost become a redundant concept. Some people say that the sense of neighbourhood is gradually extinguishing in Assamese society. It pains deep down within, but then I say that it is probably in for a new evolution. 

*Manxo : Meat   *Leta: Chrysalis

Paan Tamul

Paan Tamul

Have I missed anything? Yes, a lot! I am not yet done with the pickles, tamul (actually tamul-pan; a combination of beetle nut and the leaf) and the legendary xaaz or laupani or the local rice beer. Like all other north eastern states, Assam also has its traditional rice beer. Various communities call it by various names and with slight change in the distillation process; it gives a little variation in the zing. Pithaguti (a cake of several herbs) and rice are the prime components all over. 

Assam is abundant with fruits. guavas, litchies,jolphai(olives), kola and boga jaamu(jamoa), robab tenga(grapefruit),  anaaros(pineapple), kothaal(jackfruit) etc. are few on the tip of my tongue.  A summery afternoon post lunch, just pick a robab tenga, a little salt, fresh green chillies on a banana leaf or kolpaat as they say and have the most orgasmic cytrus pulp on earth. Kothal or jackfruit is eaten raw and ripe both. The seeds of the ripe jackfruit is another delicacy. Dry the surface, peel it, wash it and chuck a few into your daal. Orelse, dry the surface, chuck some into the fire, take them out roll them over the floor (better if it is a clay surface) to remove the peel and consume with a little salt.  What I like most about Assamese cuisine is that nothing goes waste really. I mean look at rongalau or the pumpkin. The peel is turned into a great dry subzi, better still if black pulses are added to it. The seeds are roasted. Leaves are consumed separately.

No, I cannot go on and on and on. I have to bring it to a halt, or else the gigabytes of space on my blog will not suffice to document everything.  It is difficult to cover any cuisine in one article. Especially with a culture which has a varied demography. Assam is partly tribal (hills/plains), partly non tribal, partly Hindu, partly Muslim, Christian and Buddhist. People in Upper Assam and those in lower Assam do not even understand each other’s Assamese dialect forget about the Karbi, Kuki, Mising, Dimasa, Hajong, Bodo, Rabha, Singphu, Deuri and Lalung population. While some parts have a Silhetti influence of cooking, the rest have evolved through variations in terrains and availability of particular items. However despite all differences, the indelible truths that bind them all are the River and the Rice.



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 North East and Me with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 1, 2009 by ashthefoodie

My father was an Anthropologist. Hence, I accredit my interest in tribes and culture to those genes I inherited by virtue of my birth. And I still do not remember where did my interest in cuisine start. My remotest memory traces back to days, when as a ten year old along with another mad foodie childhood friend Mighty Bhullar aka Rattan Amol Singh Bhullar who later became a popular and passionate chef amongst the the tea planters of Assam, I would sell household junk to buy sausages from Harrison’s, Chandigarh and have them with fried onions.

A combination of these fundamental interests was to prove quite lethal gastronomically in years to come. After all, it was to sober down the fire of hunger for which civilizations came about.

Fisherman fishing in the Luit/Lohit or the mighty Brahmaputra

Fisherman fishing in the Luit/Lohit or the mighty Brahmaputra

It is not easy to be born in India and to be writing about food, let alone tribal food. This country can proudly boast of thousands of varieties of food keeping in view its rich cultural diversity and traditions. My trail of tribal food started almost three decades ago when as a child I would accompany my late father on many of his field trips to remote corners of Himachal, Kashmir and subsequently to the North eastern states. It became part of my gastronomical adventure. My interest graduated to a passion and now has now post graduated to an obsession.

Known as the ‘Children of God’ the tribals or adivasis are the indigenous people of India who have carefully preserved their age-old customs & traditions till this day.  Observing the vast differences in lifestyle and culture, one can only wonder whose children we are. Although a large part of the tribal populace has integrated with the mainstream and has undergone a sea change in lifestyle, what has remained closest to its purist form is their cuisine. As I was exploring all of these I could also see a gradual unfolding of patterns, common threads and designs. It gives me the same feeling of enigma, which surrounds the possible trade between various civilizations.

In an age of growing animosity and apathy amongst men, tribal hospitality and strong love for one and all is a shining example for all. Their festivals, dance & song are pulsating with power, joy & enthusiasm for life.

Enough to make you want to ditch the trappings of modern mayhem for a loincloth and a fancy headdress? For the un-decided here is the final factor that will tilt the balance: tribal cuisine! While Indian cuisine has taken the world by storm with the ubiquitous curry, tribal cuisine avoids those very items that define Indian food: oil and spices. Depending on raw and roasted food, vegetarians lean toward dishes of sweet potatoes, salt and wild leaves. Dried seeds of fruits like mango and jack-fruit are often consumed. Ragi is the cereal of choice. Non-vegetarians are spoilt for choice with dishes ranging from pickled red ants to animals like rats, boar, snails and the like roasted or boiled.

Though tribes are differentiated on the basis of six primary ethnic groups: Negritos, Pro-Australoids or Austrics, Mongoloids, Dravidian, Nordics and Western Brachycephals. For the sake of convenience we will rather segregate them on basis of the region they inhabit. I’m certain you will be far happier singing North, South, East & West than spewing a mouth-full of syllables! And for this particular issue, we will stick to what we call India’s northeast.

 North East India my Favourite land

Northeast India, the only region that currently forms a land bridge between the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia, has been proposed as an important corridor for the initial peopling of East Asia. As for me, northeast is home- the brilliance of colourful hand woven textiles, the captivating folk heritage, its uncut umbilical chord with nature and most importantly the wonderful variety of food. Dancing your way through the hills seems like just the way to travel through this picturesque, breathtaking land. I can already picture myself jumping hills in a single leap. No wait…that’s Superman! For mere mortals however, modern conveniences will suffice. Though the tribes have their own dialects, Hindi, English and Assamese are also widely spoken as link languages in this land comprising eight beautiful states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura and Sikkim. And it is a promise that it will be no less than a spiritual journey to walk through the lanes of these hills and discover what these people are made of. But for today, let it be just food.

Pork is the favourite meat of the tribals of North east the picture shows women selling smoked pork

Pork is the favourite meat of the tribals of North east the picture shows women selling smoked pork

Peculiar, bland, hot, aromatic, healthy, fleshy, fatty-yes these adjectives can be used all at the same time for a northeastern tribal meal. While a meal is incomplete without a steaming platter of steamed rice, various green vegetables and predominance of meat and fresh water fish is obvious. Though each state has their peculiar culinary style, each of them definitely has a nose for the pungent aka bamboo shoot, fermented soya beans, fermented fish, and fermented flesh amongst others. Bamboo shoot is used widely as a souring agent in almost all the tribes. Fermented soya bean popularly known as akhuni in Nagaland, kinema in Sikkim and turumbai in Meghalaya, is a significant ingredient, used to create a pungent aroma in various dishes, also used as a pickle. When I say pickle, an array of hot chilies is indispensable for me to mention. The world’s hottest chilli popularly known as Raja Mircha or the king chilli has various names like U-morok in Manipur and bhoot jolokia in Assam and is widely relished. None of the pork dishes for e.g. in a state like Nagaland is complete without the flavour of this fiery chilli. I’d say, if you have a brave heart and a desire for fire, just ask for it.

The land of the freedom-loving, martial race of the Nagas, Nagaland itself has almost sixteen tribes and an umpteen number of sub tribes with their distinct food habits. Tribes like the Semas and Angamis prepare their pork with akhuni while Ao Nagas love their pork with anishi –a preparation made of dried yam leaves. The Angamis prepare galho a stew, adding lots of green leafy vegetables a little portion of rice and akhuni and of course now all of them prepare all of it.My Charming Godmother or Aunty Tutu the daughter of the legendary Phizo makes the best Galho that I have ever tasted. There are other styles like pork with dried bamboo shoot, with lettuce and spinach leaves and others. The Lothas love their bamboo shoot and cannot live without the Raja Mircha-infact dry bamboo shoot  from Wokha the land of the Lothas is awesome. These tribes smoke their meat at home, over their large kitchen fire, ferment them underground, literally. Well, the same goes with beef, chicken, fish, snails, shrimps, silk worms, red ants and others. And of course it is not just peculiar to the Nagas but various other tribes of northeast India. For the tribes in Arunachal, killing mithun or the bison is the symbol of utmost valour and wealth. And of course eating it!
Arunachali Kitchen

Arunachali Kitchen

Rice is fundamental. You have various kinds at that; the favourite of them all is the wild sticky rice. Many a times rice is prepared in hollow bamboo tubes. Apart from steaming the rice, they prepare them like a stew. The Bodos of Assam prepare a stew out of chicken and a rice powder called onla wangkhrai. The tribes in Meghalaya have a rice preparation called jadoh out of rice and pig liver. In Arunachal Pradesh too, like all other states, rice is consumed at every meal and has different names; ekayi, tongtep, khautek, porok amin, dung poo are a few. Dals and lentils are also staple, however, the methods of preparation varies. Most of the times in the north eastern states, rice will be prepared with yam stem, bamboo shoot and other locally grown herbs.

Despite the predominance of flesh in their cuisine, the people of northeast are heavy vegetable consumers as well, given the fact that they are grown naturally in abundance. Nagaland and Mizoram are organic by legislation! In Sikkim they ferment leafy vegetables like rayo saag, leaves of mustard, radish and cauliflower and sun dry it for later consumption. They call these preparations gundruk and sinki. Sinki is prepared from radish taproot only. Momos and thukpa of course make a wholesome meal! And of course, Sikkim is known all over for its cottage cheese.

Like pork, chicken, duck and all all other edible flesh, fish is also very popular and has variety of ways of preparation. Fresh water fish is barbecued in banana leaves in Meghalaya, Assam and other states. Fish intestines are relished. Many people make mixture of rice powder or a handful of steamed rice and fish intestines and prepare a delicious preparation out of it. Fermented fish chutney, dried fish chutney with oodles of green chillies let your nose running for hours after you eat them. People in Tripura love their fermented fish preparation called shidal. The Riyangs of Tripura love to cook their vegetables in hollow bamboo over chacoal fire. Just imagine the flavour it would exude!

Koldil: banana flower

Koldil: banana flower

Robab tenga: grapefruit

Robab tenga: grapefruit

Technically Manipur is not a tribe-dominated state, as their prime inhabitants the Maiteis are staunch Vaishnavaits. However, Manipur also has its fair population of tribes namely the Kukis, Paiteis, Zilliongs etc. manipur has some of the best chutneys that I have relished. Singzu is chutney prepared from green vegetables, chick peas and fermented fish called ngari and is relished all over the state. The most interesting part of northeastern tribal cuisine is the usage of minimalist spice. A chilli or two (enough for sparking the fire), ginger and garlic, occasionally sesame and some local herbs are the ingredients to tickle your taste buds.

Beverages in North East:

What does these intoxicatingly beautiful people do when it comes to intoxication? Why, they brew their own beer of course! All the tribes have their recipes of brewing rice beer. As it is self explanatory, it is brewed from rice. Rice is soaked in water for several days to let it ferment. Few intoxicating agents are added to give that zing. These agents are mostly local herbs. In Arunachal, the local rice beer is called opo or apong or yu, o or marwah. While in Assam it is called laopani or kshaaz. Each tribe has their own method of distillation, however the raw materials are more or less the same. Most of the times, the rice beer is offered to the deities before consumption, and needless to say, every celebration is pretty incomplete without serving rice beer.

Apong bieng prepared for a wedding in Kenri's home in Basar in Arunachal Pradesh

Apong bieng prepared for a wedding in Kenri's home in Basar in Arunachal Pradesh

But of course, we must not forget that Assam is the tea hub of the world. Though the people involved in the laborious cultivation are the adivasis who were brought by the British planters some two hundred years ago from the Chota Nagpur plateau primarily the region of Bihar, Bengal, Orissa, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. Hence a huge number of Oraon, Mundas, Khariyas, Saoras have become completely engrained in the demography of Assam and follow not only some of their original food habits, but also certain assimilated habits. Black tea which the people in Assam call laal saah, is mostly consumed with jaggery and is extremely popular in the villages. Towards the Northern part of Arunachal Pradesh lies the great Himalayan range and it’s chill and the mountaneous topography definitely makes butter tea extremely popular, especially in the districts of Tawang, Siang and Kameng.

As I say, it is never enough when it comes to food-be it eating, cooking or writing. I still feel a little incapacitated because of the fact that there are several things, several dishes I had to give a miss because of the extensive subject matter. Considering the fact that the northeast India’s demography is tribe dominated, time and space is always insufficient to talk of the legends.Here is a link to a small video where I have made my own little version of the Naga Pork Curry

and here is my recipe for the Pork curry with Raja Mircha on this link http://www.hindustantimes.com/Entertainment/Food/The-hottest-chillies-in-the-world/Article1-560139.aspx



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.


The KING as it is rightly said.

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on May 18, 2008 by ashthefoodie

The hottest chili pepper in the world– bhoot jalokiya/naga jalokiya/raja mircha/u-morok

The King

The King

Since 1994 and until 2006 the record holder as the “hottest pepper” was the Red Savina Habanero with an SHU rating of 577,000. In 2006 two agronomists, Joy and Michael Michaud, in Dorset, England, bought some chili peppers at a Bangladeshi market in Bournemouth, took them home and found them extremely hot. They took some seeds and grew them in their garden and when they tested the harvested bite-size chilies they recorded an SHU of 876,000. They sent it to a laboratory in New York where it recorded even a higher SHU of 970,000. They called it Dorset nAgA recognizing that it is a variant of Bangladesh’s fiery Naga morich. With all the certificates of analysis they applied for the “hottest pepper” status in the Guinness Book of Records. At about a million SHU, the Dorset nAgA became the hottest pepper around. End of story? Not quite!

In August 2000, some Indian scientists from the Defence Research Laboratory in Tezpur, Assam, reported on a new chile cultivar which they identified as Capsicum frutescens cv. Nagahari. It was dubbed Tezpur chili and also referred to as Indian PC-1. The native name is NAGA JALOKIYA, “chili of the Nagas”, after the inhabitants of Nagaland. Its heat index was 855,000 SHU. The results were published in the journal Current Science, (79, 287, 2000). However, the work invited considerable criticism for lack of proper calibration of the HPLC apparatus that was used in measuring the capsaicin content.

In addition, authentic NAGA JALOKIYA A material was not available outside of India for others to corroborate the results. Also it was questioned whether a Capsicum frutescens variety (to which the Tabasco pepper belongs) could engender such a high SHU material. However, in 2003, it was suggested that the Tezpur variant could belong to Capsicum chinense (to which the Red Savina Habanero belongs) which lent some credence to the heat claim. The Dorset Naga, which is a variant of the Bangladesh species, was characterized as C. chinense. It appears that NAGA JALOKIYA has the genes from both C.frutescens and C. chinense. This NAGA JALOKIYA is commonly grown in northeastern India (Assam, Nagaland, and Manipur) and Bangladesh

NAGA JALOKIYA is also called variously as Bih jalakia (“poison chili pepper” in Assamese language) in some places of Assam, Bhoot jalokia (“ghost” — perhaps due to its ghostly bite or a reference to its introduction from neighboring Bhutan), Nagahari, Naga morich, and Raja Mirchi (“king of chilies”). In Manipur it known as U-MOROK.Despite such different names they all refer to the same chili with the name Naga, a name associated with the warrior clan of Nagaland. Ripe NAGA chilies measure 6 to 8 cm long and 2 to 3 cm wide with an orange or red color. While similar in appearance with the Habanero peppers, the skin of NAGA peppers is dented.

The Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, New Mexico, decided to test the validity of the “world’s hottest pepper” claim from several entries starting in 2001.The director of the institute received seeds from one “bhut jolokia” from someone who collected it while visiting India.

The institute grew those seeds to get some bulk seed in order to conduct field trials and compare with other varieties. After a few years they had enough seeds to conduct field trials of seeds from bhut jolokia, orange habanero and red savina.

After growing all the three under controlled conditions, the pods were harvested and the SHU of each was measured by HPLC. The orange habanero measured 357,729 SHU while the red savina was even less than the orange habanero. The bhoot jolokia crossed the million mark at 1,001,304 SHU. DNA analysis also indicated that bhoot jolokia had genes of C. frutescens and C. Chinense. Correspondingly Assam-based Frontal Agritech had their Bih jolokia tested at 1.041,427 SHU thereby affording independent verification of the chile pepper from north-eastern India/Bangladesh being the “hottest chile pepper in the world”.

In February 2007, Guinness World Records certified the Bhut Jolokia (which is the preferred name for the Indian pepper at the Chile Pepper Institute) as the “world’s hottest chili pepper”. As noted above, all the varieties, bhut jolokia, NAGA jolokia, and Raja Mirchi belong to the same class and originated from north-eastern India/Bangladesh. The Dorset NAGA that was mentioned at the outset, likewise, is a derivative of the NAGA JALOKIYA. So, at this point and until some other species/cultivar can claim a higher SHU, the Bhoot Jolokia/Bih Jolokiya/NAGA Jolokia/Raja Mirchi/Naga Morich clan can hold the title as the “hottest pepper in the world” When a chemical called substance P is released from a neuron (nerve cell), pain gets propagated. Capsaicin reduces the amount of substance P in nerve endings and interferes with pain signal transmission to the brain. Capsaicin can be used in a cream or ointment form to relieve neuralgia (pain in the nerves near the skin), and minimize the pain caused by diabetic neuropathy, osteo-arthritis, or rheumatoid arthritis. Capsaicin also relieves the pain caused by shingles (blisters around one side of the waist caused by the chicken pox virus) in adults. A Danish study confirmed the pain-relief effect of capsaicin when applied to the wound area during/after surgery