What do north Indians eat?

This is a rant that was building up in my head for a while now. A few months ago I had read an article which – if I had to put it in a sentence – un-generalized Gujarati food for north Indians who think that Gujaratis add sugar to every dish. That’s partly true but it’s not just north Indians who think this way. I have met a number of Maharashtrians and south Indians who share the same thought. In fact, Indians generalize almost every cuisine and culture. Generalizing is our favourite sport.

Anyhow, getting back to this article. While the writer ’saved’ Gujarati food from this brutal generalization, he went ahead and generalized north Indian food. Actually, bashing it to an extent. There are a number of things that irked me. First, what do you categorize as north Indian food? From Uttar Pradesh to Punjab and even Kashmir, all the states are considered north India. The food of one state is vastly different from another. Second, we’re not all butter chicken eating and naan chomping people who don’t know about any dal beyond the kali dal or don’t cook rice that’s anything less than basmati.

So, this is the post where I un-generalize the food from UP. People usually know Uttar Pradesh’s food as the kebabs and biryanis of Lucknow or Awadhi cuisine as it’s famously known. But, that’s only a part of the kind of food we make and eat. The varied casts have their own recipes and methods. For eg the Khatris of UP (the cast to which I belong to) are broadly vegetarians and don’t use too much onion and garlic in their food. I’ve grown up eating bhindi cooked in ajwain and jeera and lightly boiled kathal (jackfruit) fried in besan. The parwal at my home was always cooked with potatoes in turmeric, red chilli powder, amchoor and dhaniya powder. The vegetable is cooked till its sides are curled and it’s as crispy as a chip. We eat nenua (torai) cooked with sliced radishes (it adds a lovely flavour to the otherwise bland subzi). Baingan (small variety) is cooked with potatoes and tomatoes in a tempering of methi seeds, ginger and whole garlic. These are just the mainstream vegetables. We cook a number of off-beat ones too. My grandmother used to make lotus stem in curd gravy and I faintly remember eating amiya (raw mango) subzi made by my great grandmother. My mother cooks turnip with carrot, beetroot, spinach and tomatoes which is a lovely blend of subzi and soup. Heck, we also use raw papaya to make a nice curry.

And yes, we know our dals beyond the buttery and creamy black dal. We cook arhar dal on a regular basis which is tempered with jeera and hing in desi ghee. There’s also a technique to make perfect dal, mix dhuli masoor (the orange one) to arhar in 1:4 ratio and you’ll get that perfect consistency which is neither watery nor goopy thick. We also make chana dal with lauki and plain kali masoor with tadka of garlic. We have mixed dal too – arhar, masoor, moong, chana – fried with onions and tomatoes. Our besan ki kadhi with soft besan pakodas – trickled in from Punjabi cuisine – is famous across the country. Our khichdis are incomplete without aloo chokha (potato mash), dahi, pickle and onion on the side. In fact, our food has a healthy dose of accompaniments, be it bathue ka raita or pudine ki chutney. We pickle almost every vegetable and fruit and you’ll find our kitchens stocked with variety of mango, lime, radish, carrot, cauliflower, garlic, ginger, green chilli, red chilli, jackfruit, monkey jack, and gooseberry pickles.

We don’t usually cook basmati at home. There’s a range of short grained, fragrant rice like shakkar chini and kala namak available in the market which are similar to Kolkata’s gobindobhog in both texture and taste. This rice also goes in making tehri – a variant of pulav with cauliflower, potato, onions and green peas. You’ll find it loaded with carrots in winter. There’s another dish made of rice and dal called phale which is specific to UP. Rice is soaked, ground into a thin paste, cooked to form dough like consistency, rolled into thick disks, stuffed with urad or chana dal paste and boiled in water. These rice rolls are eaten with hot ghee or spicy garlic chutney.

Then there’s Kayasth community known for its non-vegetarian food but also has some brilliant vegetarian dishes. Their stuffed tomato subzi for instance where the centre part of the tomato is scooped out and stuffed with mashed potatoes. These are then cooked in a gravy made with that scooped out pulp. They make masoor ke shaami kebab – I tried them at a pop-up recently – a brilliant take on mutton shaami. And, who hasn’t heard of kathal ki biryani.

Head towards Merath, Varanasi or Allahabad and you’ll get kachori thali in every street complete with urad dal kachoris, aloo ki subzi, kaddoo ki subzi, lauki ka raita and imli ki chutney. The rustic litti-chokha – brinjal roasted on cow-dung cakes and mashed with potatoes, tomatoes, sliced onions, chillies, mustard oil, lime juice and salt eaten with sattu stuffed dough balls – is poor man’s food and is slowly gaining popularity as a main-stream dish. Matar ka nimona – a curry made with green peas is one of the main dishes in eastern UP.

There’s a lot to the food of UP and I haven’t even scratched the surface here. The breakfast dishes and sweets need a separate post.

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