My village is located mid-way between Lucknow and Faizabad, both capitals of the Awadh region at different points of time. I have extremely fond childhood memories of our stay there during summer holidays, back in the late 80s and early 90s.
For several years, our village had no electricity. Hence, refrigeration was non-existent and all meals were cooked fresh. Any leftover food was served to the cattle, so there was zero wastage. Everyone ate dinner right after dusk and woke up at dawn for the morning namaz. The vegetables were fresh from our farm and seasonal produce was cooked. The rice, wheat and lentils were cultivated on our lands. The masala used in cooking was freshly pounded. All grinding, pounding and mixing was done by hand on a sil batta (traditional stone equipment). Meat was procured from the local weekly market and cooked the same day. It was soft, tender and slow cooked on a mud stove. The taste of the food was incomparable.
The rice, wheat and lentils were cultivated on our lands. The masala used in cooking was freshly pounded. All grinding, pounding and mixing was done by hand on a sil batta...
The kababs, qormas and biryanis of the Awadh region are world famous and need no introduction. However, this region also offers unique dishes for the vegetarian palate. I am particularly fond of certain dishes that I enjoyed during childhood which are now rarely seen on the dastarkhwan (dining spread) as the experts have either passed away or due to old age have retired from the kitchen. The next generation clearly has different priorities.
My maternal grandmother was a cook par excellence and I have had the privilege of sampling her delectable cooking. I remember three dishes, partially because of the taste but also due to the allure of their exotic names—seodha, rikocha and dukhatta.
Out of the three, seodha is perhaps the most back-breaking one. It is a dish whose main ingredients are colocasia leaves (arbi patta) and urad dal. The dal is soaked overnight and ground into a paste. Each arbi leaf is then painstakingly cleared of its multiple veins, some of which are very fine. An expert hand is required for this job else the leaf could tear easily. The urad dal paste is applied on the leaf and another leaf is placed on top of it. This process is repeated for at least four or five leaves. It is then rolled into a tight cylinder shape and horizontally cut into round pieces. Some more of this glutinous urad dal is applied on each side of the cut, round pieces to ensure that the leaves stick together. It is then shallow fried and dropped into a delicious onion based gravy. This dish tastes best with rice. It is a wonderful melange of flavours in the mouth—the succulent leaves, the fragrant dal and the curry which expertly balances the dish.
The dukhatta (rice flour dumpling) is a mouth-watering breakfast or snack item. The main ingredients are rice flour and urad dal (mixed with a small portion of chana dal). The dal mix is soaked overnight and ground into a paste. A roti is made of the rice flour and small round shapes are cut out of it using a steel glass as a cutter. A chutney made of coriander leaves and green chilly is placed in the centre of each of these round shapes. A small portion of the Dal paste (into which spices have been mixed) is also placed in the centre. And then a flower shape is created with deft hands. These rice atta flowers are then steamed in a pan, with a small amount of oil and a sprinkling of water. The first bite of this wonderful dish may taste slightly bland but the spicy chutney kicks in soon after.
The main ingredient in rikocha is gram flour. A thick paste of gram flour has to be continuously mixed in a pan to ensure that no lumps are left. Once the paste is sufficiently thick, it is left to cool for some time. Then, small bite-size squares are cut out of this. Subsequently, a curry tempered with fenugreek seeds is cooked and the cut squares are put in the gravy. This dish also tastes best with rice.
As you may have noticed, lentils are the base of two of these three dishes. This is probably because my ancestors moved from Rajasthan to this region several centuries back. In Rajasthan, vegetables were often scarce so a lot of dishes were made of lentils. I presume that some of these recipes were passed on through the ages. However, this cooking tradition is now on the verge of extinction.
A few years down the line, no one may even remember these recipes. And that would really be heart breaking!
With more people migrating to the city from the village, the joint family system is disintegrating. In joint families, women shared household responsibilities. However, in a nuclear set-up, the burden of work falls on one individual so naturally there is less inclination to prepare these elaborate dishes. These dishes require a very high degree of precision too which comes with practice.
Food is an integral part of our culture and just like architecture or history, needs to be preserved. In the world of gastronomy, I can best be described as an amateur cook and food lover. However, I also have great respect for talented cooks. I have always been in awe of these "magicians in the kitchen", as I call them.
This food was part of my childhood and the taste has immense nostalgic value to me. A few years down the line, no one may even remember these recipes. And that would really be heart breaking! I am making a small attempt at my end to document these recipes and hope one day to try my hand at cooking them.