In India controversies over food are few but still one finds people debating voraciously over a dish, more so when the dish happens to be a well known dish like Rajma Masala, a famous dish for the people from Punjab and other North Indian states.
Rajma ought to be made with kidney beans but if hard to procure, one may crab their hands on other varieties of beans like pinto, cannellini or even chickpeas. The usual recipe calls for fresh tomatoes and finished off with a dollop of cream, but one may even substitute with tinned tomatoes and instead of cooking on a stove top one may even put in oven to be baked till perfect. As a variation one may before placing it in the oven sprinkle a little grated cheese and a little cream and instead of serving with the usual rice and chapatti one may be innovative enough to serve with buttered toast or with flour tortillas. This is a modern take on rajma, which plays around the dish while preserving its essential flavour and character.
Well, food critics may find it awkward that the rajma be made with other varieties of beans, as well as scattering cheese on them and baking it. But then it’s a different style of redoing the dish without sacrificing its character.
It does not matter with cannellini beans, and there is nothing wrong to bake in the oven rather the sauce will mellow down and the sides caramelise giving it a more intense flavour. Similarly, instead of cream a little cheese is not a bad option too. But one is reminded that how Indians are defensive about their recipes and do not wish to have any alterations to it. Maybe this overprotective attitude has to an extent held Indian cooking in its original avatar.
For that matter, French cooking is a combination of old and contemporary techniques, but the chefs are encouraged to be creative and at the same time adventurous. A classic roast chicken is simple with a brown sauce but there is no wrong in trying to make the same with an addition of cheese. In India if one dares to alter the ingredients for tandoori chicken the chef will surely look at you with wrathful eyes.
Since Indian cooking is a collection of recipes, no diversions are appreciated and innovative chefs are treated with skepticism. The food thus prepared is often dubbed as ‘fusion’ or even ridiculed as ‘confusion’.
During a chefs’ conference, a chef who had gained name and fame in Australia, lectured his Indian colleagues, that the Indian food which he made was light. He demonstrated on ‘Rogan Josh’ by skimming all the fat from the gravy before serving the dish to health conscious Australians.
Manjit Gill, one of India’s top chefs stood up from the audience and said that probably the dish was surely delicious but cannot be called Rogan Josh? The Rogan or the fat that rises up from the gravy gives it the real flavour, and that if the Rogan is removed then simply it becomes a kind of a meat curry.
The chef felt a little humiliated and replied to Majit Gill that though he had grey hair did not mean that he knows everything. But actually Manjit was not wrong, one just cannot alter the major ingredients from a classic dish completely, like one cannot remove wine from Coq au Vin and call it Coq au Vin. But then chefs need to be encouraged to experiment on recipes taught to them at the Catering College.
Many of our famous dishes in Indian restaurant do not come from traditional recipes; they were created within the last 100 years or so. The tandoori chicken for example was invented in Peshawar in 1930 where a chef thought he could use the tandoor more than making just the breads. Similarly, butter chicken was invented in Delhi 1947 by Kundan Lal Gujral of the famous Moti Mahal restaurant to utilise the leftovers of tandoori chicken.
The butter chicken one gets in Delhi is very much different from the one created by Moti Mahal. Likewise, there was no recipe for Dal Makhani, no Punjabi ever put tomatoes in their dal it was as recent as 1950 when Moti Mahal started doing it and the same dal was altered and presented by a restaurant, Bukhara of the hotel ITC Maurya in Delhi in 1978
So when Indian chefs make fun calling ‘fusion’ as ‘confusion’ and talk about, going astray from traditional recipes, they are chasing a chimera. There is no traditional recipe for most great Indian cooking – well bacon kulchas were invented of Floyd Cardoz in New York in 1999. Lamb shank rogan josh, created by Vineet Bhatia in London in the 1990s.
If one goes back in time, there will hardly be any recipe that one could call authentically Indian. Every Punjabi regards Rajma masala as his birthright but does any old text mention about it?
The food historian K.T. Achaya notes that Rajma and likewise other beans like Pinto, Kidney beans came from South America. He is of the opinion that the French brought these beans to India and started using it in Cassoulet but pretended it to be a very old French ingredient and later the British plated these early varities of rajma beans in Punjab. As also the corn which is from South America, started to be cultivated in Punjab by the British and from there the famous Makki ki roti or flat bread made with corn meal came into being. How ancient and traditional can recipes for these dishes be? when the ingredients themselves were only introduced to India by colonialists?
A Punjabi grandmother may have a mouth watering recipe for rajma masala but maybe her own grandmother had never even seen a rajma bean. So which is the authentic rajma masala recipe? the one made at home or the one which is found in the dhabbas on Punjab highway with oodles of butter and ghee??
We should be inspired by the recipes, irrespective of who has made it and when. There is no one particular way of making rajma. There is no authoritative style for a South American bean brought by French, cultivated by British and cooked by Indian mothers in their home kitchens or the chefs in restaurants or the cooks at the humble roadside dhabas. If it tastes good, feels good and looks good, just eat it…