From the kitchens of Punjab

LIVING IN THE KITCHEN

With no intricate marinades or exotic sauces, Punjabi food uses full bodied spices, cooked in ghee and served with a liberal amount of butter or cream, says Radhika D Shyam.

The very name ‘Punjab’ conjures up in our minds pictures of golden wheat fields, fragrance of mustard harvests in the air and dhabas that serve makai di roti, sarson ka saag, hot parathas straight from the tandoors, delicious, soft paneer dishes, chana baturas and cold, sweet, thick lassi served in large, steel tumblers. So much so, that the ‘North Indian’ food that is served all over the country is nothing but Punjabi food.
This land of plenty has a cuisine that caters to the basic need of the people. Hardly subtle in flavour, there are no intricate marinades or exotic sauces, but full bodied spices cooked in doles of ghee and served with liberal amounts of butter or cream.

Within the state itself, there are differences in flavours and style.  People around Amritsar prefer well-fried stuffed parathas and milk sweets; in the Malwa region bajra (ground maize) khichdi is a common delicacy. There are of course certain dishes which are common to Punjab in general –  mah ki dal, sarson ka saag and makai ki roti and meat curry like roghan josh. The food is suitable for those who burn up a lot of calories while working in the fields and tilling their small acres of land. The main, basic masala in a Punjabi dish consists of onion, garlic, ginger and a lot of tomatoes fried in pure ghee.

For those with a sweet tooth, ‘gajjarela’ or carrot halwa and sweets common to the North in general like kaaju barfi, kaaju katli, jalebis, and halwas made of wheat flour, white pumpkin or rawa, are common here. Sweet dishes unique to this region are pinni  and chhena paneer that is made out of paneer and sugar.

Punjabis are robust people with appetites to match. Their tandoori cooking has gained popularity all over the world. Huge earthenware ovens are half buried in the ground and heated with a coal fire lit below it. Marinated meat, chicken, fish, paneer, rotis and naans of many varieties are cooked in this novel oven.

Influence

External influences on their cuisine cannot be over ruled, the gravy component of Punjabi cuisine originally came from the Mughals. This influence has made Punjab a home for mouthwatering starters like tandoori tikkas and kababs — both vegetarian and non-vegetarian.

Over the years, rotis have been modified to add more variety to dish out rumali roti, kulchas – stuffed and plain, and the laccha parathas – all cooked in the tandoor. The custom of cooking in community ovens or huge tandoors by a big group of people collectively prevails in rural areas even today. It is called ‘saanjha choolha’. The tandoor, is more than just a versatile kitchen equipment — it is a social institution. In rural Punjab, the community tandoor, is a meeting place, just like the village well, for the women folk, who bring kneaded atta (dough) and sometimes marinated meats to have them cooked while socialising and chatting. Until a few years ago, this phenomenon existed in urban neighbourhoods too. Besides roghan ghosht, mutton pattialashahi reigns supreme.

To please the vegetarian palate are popular dishes like rajma (kidney beans), aloo mattar, the all time favourite — channa-batura, varieties of channa – including the famous pindi channa — a dry, spicy dish and, different types of paneer — both dry and with gravy, like kadai paneer, paneer makhani etc.  Potato is the vegetable used very generously in most Punjabi vegetarian fare. Besides alu-mutter, there is Amritsari alu, alu-chhole, alu-gobi, alu-palak and potato in raithas too. The dals are a special inclusion of Punjabi cooking. Made of whole pulses like black gram, green gram and Bengal gram — they are simmered on a slow fire for hours till they turn creamy and are then flavoured with spices and rounded off with malai (cream) for that rich taste. 

Spices

In the food of this region, coriander, cumin, cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, black pepper, red chili powder, turmeric and mustard are regularly used. In fact, one of their main crops is mustard or sarson – its leaves are used for the ‘saag’, its seeds are used for tempering and also for making mustard oil, which is used extensively in their cuisine. In Punjabi homes, the combination of makkei ki roti and sarson ka saag is almost a ritual more than just a delicacy — simply because of the time it takes to be prepared.  These vitamin rich dishes require a lot of time to cook. Almost all the dishes are cooked on a slow fire to coax out the real taste and natural juice.

Besides these two main dishes, sweet rice with jaggery and ghee, along with radish and onion is the special, festive meal that is made on their main festivals like Lori, Baisakhi, Basanth Panchami and Diwali. Guru Poornima is marked by the ‘prasad’ that is offered to Guru Nanak in the form of ‘kara-prashad’ — a halwa that is made of rava (semolina).

A new daughter-in-law of the house is first fed ‘khichdi’, in the hope that she too will mingle to be inseparable from the family, much like the dal, rice, ghee and salt that go into the making of ‘khichdi.’ Such is their passion for food!

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