Cooking techniques are as fascinating as the cuisine and culture, whether in India or abroad. While some techniques are indigenous and have developed through socio-geographical impact over the years, some have been acquired from multi-cultural influences. In India, traditional cooking methods not only focus on preparing a piquant dish by enhancing its flavours but are also linked with retaining food nutrition. Traditionally, chefs in royal households would experiment widely with food. While unique spice mixes were one of the major tools of their trade, the others were interesting methods of preparing a dish. From slow cooking, grilling, tempering, smoking, roasting, steaming – the methods were varied and unique to certain dishes. Here are a few of these traditional cooking methods that have been revived and are practised extensively.
It’s said that the last ruler of the kingdom of Awadh, Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, had once observed some Persian traders ‘dum’ cooking their food. Needless to say, this technique of cooking food in steam, was soon adapted by Lucknow and perfected by way of optimising the shape of the vessel used for cooking. Dum, which allegedly means “breathing” in Persian, basically lets the food cook in its own steam without letting any of it escape. A thick strip of dough is used to seal the vessel, restricting the steam. It works on the science of rotation, i.e, hot air needs to circulate inside a vessel, quite like convection cooking. To make this circulation evenly cook the food – mostly the meat and rice dish biryani – burning coals were placed both above and below the vessel to allow even cooking. This is how it is believed that while the concept is borrowed, the technique was perfected in Lucknow. And because of this even circulation of hot air, the flavour and aroma of ‘dum-cooked’ food remains a class apart even today.
The concept of tempering in Asian terminology is different from the western concept; the latter referring more to balancing or stabilising an ingredient or a set of ingredients, especially in the confectionery field. The Asian version, however, is the practice of cooking spices in hot fat to further improve the flavour of a dish. Techniques and combinations play an important part. Each savoury dish from across the country typically uses a different set of ingredients that need to be added at specific times, in a particular order and ratio and cooked for just the right amount of time before the main ingredients are added. Or the tempering itself is added to the cooked dish. Some dishes begin with a tadka, while for some, it is the finishing touch. Most of the Gujarati farsaans (snacks) are excellent cases in point. After all, who isn’t drawn to that final dash of mustard seeds, slit green chilies, curry leaves and grated coconut on dhoklas or khandvis? My stint with Munir Ustad, a popular kebab maker from Lucknow, instilled in me the importance of ‘tahseer’, a concept that was ingrained in the Lucknow cooks of yore. It’s about balancing the ingredients and neutralising the property of one with the property of another. The same tahseer is an important aspect of tempering in Indian cuisine. For instance, cumin seeds, cinnamon and asafoetida aid digestion, mustard seeds are excellent for heart health and relieve muscular pain. In fact, the very addition of fat as the cooking agent is to enhance both the flavours and the nutritional benefits of the spices.
Slow/ clay Cooking
The long slow cooking, especially in clay cookware, is inherent to our cuisine and allows little to go wrong. Whether it is the sarson ka saag and urad dal that is cooked in the “taudis” of Punjab, the fish curries cooked in the “kundlems” of the local dhabas (Khanawats) of Goa (some of them still remain in Bicholim taluka) or the Malwan fish curry and the Syrian Christian fish curry, which tastes superb the next day as it absorbs the aroma of the chatti in which its cooked – the flavours of food slow-cooked in a clay utensil is unique. In this method, food is cooked on relatively low heat for a longer period of time. It slows down the nutrition loss of food items, which happens during cooking.
The technique of dhungar or quick and cold smoking of kebabs, involves a nearly burnt out piece of coal or ‘bujha koyla’ (to avoid a fire) being placed in a bowl and cold ghee (clarified butter) is drizzled over it. Some spices are also added to further enhance the aroma. This bowl is then placed over marinated meat (these days even cottage cheese and vegetables are used) and closed with a high lid to allow the smokiness to be absorbed by the dish evenly. Dhungar is indeed a very intriguing technique of refining the aromatic spectrum of a dish. The world-famous Galavat ke kebab, for example, would not be as famous without the subtle smokiness of cloves and desi ghee imparted to the fine mince during its resting. The burrani raita and the murgh Awadhi korma are the other two dishes that are significantly heightened in taste post this unique treatment. The affinity of the smoky flavour with yoghurt is no secret in the Mewar region of Rajasthan where they make an exquisitely balanced smoked chhaas. Our relationship with food is an extension of our relationship with life and aspects around us. As with life, so with cooking. It is important to be in a state of “being”. Simply put, to give food its time to cook; to let it be. Traditional Indian cooking techniques have a fascinating scientific aspect associated with them. It is hardly surprising, then, to see people now going back to roots, both in terms of cooking and dishes being prepared.