Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Special Cuisine | The Incredible Tales and Tastes of Kayasth Cuisine


Once you stop learning, you start dying!” ~ Albert Einstein.

Of all the wondrous topics that I enjoy learning about, ‘food’ is undoubtedly the most delicious! {Ok, I admit, this is probably the cheesiest start to any of my articles, but this doesn’t mean that it isn’t true.} The more I am learning about the amazing cuisines of the world, the more I realize how little I know. So the best way forward is to move along with an adventurous palate and a mind ready to absorb the incredible details underlying delicious dishes and also the fascinating history that contributed to the evolution of various cuisines.

ITC Maurya, is one of the front-runners for bringing lesser-known cuisines to the table. Their latest endeavour was centred around the gastronomy of the Kayasth community. Curated by the multi-talented Anoothi Vishal, who is an author, food critic and columnist, a select group was treated to Kayasth Khatirdari at a very elegant sit-down dinner.

Anoothi is a proud Kayasth and is a pro at hosting pop-ups. For this special menu she selected dishes that showcased the grandeur of this community, who were courtiers to Mughal Kings. "The unique Ganga-Jamuni culture of the community developed as a mix of diverse influences - the local cultures of the Indo-Gangetic Plain, courtly Mughal etiquette and British Colonialism," she says. The lifestyle that evolved was rich with music, shaayari and khaana-peena (of which Scotch was an integral part). Hence, the rich food was paired with equally rich Scotch.

The Elegant Set Up.

Our evening started with the ritualistic bites of savouries and sweets, traditionally known as namak daan and shree daan. This is how guests are welcomed in a Kayasth home. {I suspect the term ‘daan’ elevates this offering to a spiritual level, especially where guests are equivalent to God (atithi devo bhava!).} The platter of moong dal fritters and a bite-sized chaat called cholai anar ke kulle also had mithais like lauki ki lauz and pisteh lukme, which was typically made for an auspicious start for weddings in Mathur households. This khoya mithai had bits of crunchy mishri in the centre. Paired with the creamy and honeyed Johnnie Walker Gold Label, this certainly was a great start to the evening that followed.

Kayasth Cuisine
Clockwise from Top Left: Namak Daan and Shree Daan; Badaam Pasinda,
Thande Masale ki Machhli, Sookhi Urad Dal; Dessert Platter;
Fish in a Jacket, Mrs LC's Bake.

The Mughal Nama, comprising shammi kebab, thande masale ki machhli, badam pasinda and kathal ki tahri, was paired with Johnnie Walker Blue Label. This course included many revelations: Firstly, the ‘thanda masala’ that is ideal for hot Indian summers is a mix of cooling spices as opposed to the largely used garam masala. Anoothi acquired this recipe of the fish from landowning families of UP and Bihar, who were granted rights for fisheries in various lakes and taals. Next, ‘pasinda’ comes from the word ‘pasand’ or choice, referring to the choicest cuts of meat that are used in this preparation. And finally, Anoothi explained the difference between biryani, pulao and tahiri. Pulao is typically a meat dish, using mild but aromatic spicing. In this, the meat and rice are cooked together in the same pot. Biryani, on the other hand, uses more robust spices, and involves layering of rice and pre-cooked meat; in this the meat is not cooked with the rice. Finally, tahiri is a vegetarian rice dish that is cooked like a pulao – in this the vegetables and rice are cooked together. “No matter how many restaurants have a vegetarian biryani on their menu, there is no such thing!” emphasizes Anoothi. A vegetable pulao is known as tahiri. We are thus served a flavourful kathal ki tahiri along with the wonderful curries, hari mirch ka achaar and alu papad.

As I mentioned earlier, the Kayasths were also influenced by the British who assumed power after the Mughals. Along with their language, the community also adopted English manners, the art of hospitality and of course recipes. Baking was an integral part, and thus developed dishes like Masala Mushroom Wellington, Mrs LC’s Bake, Fish in a Jacket and Fancy Nancy Roll. While the last is an Indian masala bread roll, ideal with a blob of butter and steaming cup of tea, the puff-crusted fish is what hit the spot for me. The wonderfully flaky crust was definitely made with dollops of butter, and the crispy shell gave way to warm and wonderfully flavoured fish.
The fabulous food and drinks were matched with a beautiful setting of long tables laden with flowers and candles and exemplary service. And the evening came to an end on a sweet note, showcasing the diverse influences in one platter: fruit trifle, bread pudding, meethe chawal and sone ki ashrafi.

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