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From spicy vegetable curries to creamy butter chicken: How Delhi restaurants revisit traditional Punjabi food

Traditionally, Punjabi food does not include cream or even nuts.

ET Bureau|
Sep 14, 2019, 11.34 AM IST
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Butter chicken 1
Today when a Punjabi family goes to eat at a a Punjabi restaurant they don’t relate to the dishes as their own because they never cook those dishes at home.
How different is the Punjabi food one gets in Delhi restaurants from the traditional Punjabi food practice? Anirban Bora tries to find out...

2013: Having lived with diet restrictions, a hungry Nidhu Samaddar (name changed), the retired headclerk of Baghbazar,Kolkata, visited Delhi on some work. Now I am ready for my ‘real’ Punjabi food trial in Delhi.

What do you mean by ‘real ’Punjabi food? What else but tandoori and malai tikkas, the buttery Dal Makhani, butter chicken and the delightfully orange paneer gravy?
Provoked by Nidhubabu, I embarked on a super-rich, cream-based, tomato-onion laden nut paste-loaded butter-drenched gravy based, food trail which made me and Nidhubabu sick for a week. The stereotype Punjabi food joints in Delhi usually have a few dishes in common. After this bout of overeating, I met Reetika Gill, the owner of Curry Singh Kitchen and a brilliant chef, who set a few things right.

“Real and traditional Punjabi cuisine” is simple, robust with flavours, and well-balanced with six tastes, resulting in naturally delicious food and never known to use exotic spices such as nutmeg, mace and saffron. Most restaurants have been promoting versions of this traditional food without understanding the true food philosophy.

kulcha
Bhatti (tandoor) came to Delhi with the Punjabis from Peshwar region.


This results in scores of vegetarian and meat dishes which hardly differ in flavour and taste. In the choice of vegetables, diners are compelled to choose between few paneer, mushroom and corn dishes. There is no thrust on including the seasonal bounty of vegetables which is a major part of Punjabi food. A false perception of Punjabi cuisine is promoted – which is far from the simple Punjabi food culture developed in restaurants over 30-40 years.

Further, this food does not conform to “good-feel eating” standards, which should ideally leave one’s appetite rested, and make diners look forward to their next meal. Traditionally, Punjabi food does not include cream or even nuts. Paneer too, is a much later, addition. Today when a Punjabi family goes to eat at a a Punjabi restaurant they don’t relate to the dishes as their own because they never cook those dishes at home. We must understand that Punjab (Punj= five and ab =water) was huge in size before 1947 and Partition brought in a significant number of refugees and their food cultures from West Punjab.

Rajma, chole chawal and moth kachori reached Delhi around this time and are today a prominent part of the food culture of Delhi. To be broken and served with chopped onions and tomatoes.

Bhatti (tandoor) came to Delhi with the Punjabis from Peshwar region. Guru Nanak stressed on communal tandoors where every person from the community would come to bake their breads and cook their food in the same open pit. These tandoors gained immense popularity especially among women of the houses for whom it was an escape from their mother-in-law and day-to-day affairs. In today’s Punjabi restaurants, tandoor and the kebabs are the most integral part of the menu.

Dal
Dal Makhni is whole black lentil and a small amount of kidney beans cooked in ginger-garlic paste and simmered on low heat with a large quantity of tomato, cream and butter.


Mustard is the easiest crop to grow and Punjabi food can never be complete in winter without the traditional Sarson ka Saag and Makki ke Roti, a bread made with Portuguese imported corn. 2,500-year-old Jain book Acharanga Sutra speaks of Sarson ka Saag. Milk and lassi are abundant and there are very few lactose intolerance cases in this region.

And of course there are dals.

DAAL MAKHNI
Dal Makhni is whole black lentil and a small amount of kidney beans cooked in ginger-garlic paste and simmered on low heat with a large quantity of tomato, cream and butter.

MAANH KI DAAL

( Maanh – the traditional name) is slowly cooked with a little quantity of onion and ginger, and more of garlic, over low heat. When it attains the well-cooked and desired viscosity, it can be tempered with lots of desi ghee and cumin, or if one’s taste permits, it can be additionally tempered with herbs like onion, ginger, garlic and green chillies. Alternatively, some may even skip the tempering and just add a dollop of homemade butter.

Tadka of spices and herbs is used only while preparing pulses, kadhis and saags which not only employ the use of ghee or oil in cooking, but are cooked in their own water or additional water or buttermilk. Tadka is a way of intensifying the flavour and taste of food. It has an additional benefit of increasing the shelf life of the dish by a few hours.

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Much like the ghee in the sweet Pinni which increases its shelf life. Then there are paranthas, papri chats, dahi bhallas, kulchas, achars and hundreds of dishes.

Changing with time has made the cuisine of our country diverse and brilliant but one must not forget one’s roots. Especially when that 5,000-year-old root involves food cooked with regular spices like brown cardamom, tej patta, coriander, ajwain, cumin, black pepper, clove, cinnamon, green cardamom, fennel, methi and more.
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