When a Hindu from Karnataka and a Muslim from Uttar Pradesh choose to spend their lives together, what do they cook at home? Journalist Seema Chishti’s book is an ode to her parents’ 42-year-old partnership, the mish-mash of North and South at home, and her mother’s diverse culinary traditions.
In the India of today, social and communal fault lines have become starker than ever before. Inter-faith marriages, once seen as the hallmark of a plural society, are now increasingly used to further a divisive political narrative. In Sumitra and Anees, journalist Seema Chishti, herself the product of an inter-faith marriage, tells the story of her parents: Sumitra, a Hindu from Mysore in Karnataka, and Anees, a Muslim from Deoria in Uttar Pradesh.
Read this excerpt from the section on family recipes:
My parents were both first-generation migrants to Delhi representing a very important slice of Indian urban life as they set up home in the late 1960s. Sumitra, a working mother, like many of her time, did find herself being in-charge of the kitchen, spending time there, growing a few herbs and ingredients in pots, the curry leaf and mint.
Ingredients, too, were different then—the whole turmeric as a root was used more as there was no turmeric powder easily available, coconut milk had to be pressed and extracted from fresh coconuts, and the texture of the masala, hand-ground, was different from what the blender yielded. Pre-mixed batter for idli/dosa was unthinkable and being mindful of fermentation time was routine.
It is not without reason that a very important part of Anees, Sumitra and India’s story is told through the food they ate and fed those around them. Home-made meals were when friends and family came together and looked in wonder at the mishmash of north and south, the ‘Hindu’ and the ‘Muslim’, as a bit of India was always brewing in their small home.
That is why, this recipe book is an important facet of their story and embodies the Ganga-Jamuni or the tale of confluence that marked the old India, which is fast being demonized today.
More generally speaking, food history is serious history and sometimes the best way to tell a larger story. Like the ingredients that make it, food crossed cultural boundaries centuries before the word ‘globalization’ entered our lexicon. Take the example of the samosa. One account of its origin traces it to Central Asia. The crisp triangular patty did not come to India with conquerors, but traders.
According to the leading food historian K.T. Achaya, in about 1300 CE, the poet Amir Khusrau, describing the food of the Muslim aristocracy in Delhi, wrote of ‘the samosa prepared from meat, ghee and onion’. About fifty years later, according to Achaya, the famous scholar and explorer Ibn Battuta calls it samusak,describing it as ‘minced meat cooked with almonds, walnuts, pistachios, onions and spices placed inside a thin envelope of wheat and deep fried in ghee’. Over the passage of time, the snack adapted to vegetarian tastes in the subcontinent.
Culinary histories often used the term ‘indigenization’ to describe the samosa’s journey in its adopted land. But the word reveals less than it hides. Potato, the pièce de résistance of the Indian samosa, finds mention in food histories of the subcontinent only in the late seventeenth century. Similarly, chaat, another much-loved snack of the country, also traces its origin to the Mughal courts in the seventeenth century. It acquired its favourite ingredient much later.
Like several cultural artefacts, the food that we eat is a potpourri of influences. Of course, like histories of the origins of communities or social groups, narratives about the origins of food have contested versions.
In the same way that who one marries or talks to or where one lives could be a criminal act (because of new laws on so-called ‘forced conversions’ and restrictions on renting homes to certain communities), food has also become a bitterly contested terrain. What one eats or does not eat is picked at as a differentiator. That is at the heart of new laws around cattle, beef consumption, halal food or mid-day meals too, where politics decides whether eggs will be served to malnourished children.
What this politics of food has tried to erase is a consciousness and knowledge of common roots, exchange of ideas and cross-fertilization that made modern food choices possible. Travellers from distant lands brought new ingredients, seeds, vegetables and fruits. These enabled new ways of eating and cooking, with constant borrowing and lending of dishes, ways of cooking, spices or marinating foods nourishing the process.
The samosa may not be as home-grown as we like to believe, or the tandoori chicken for that matter. At the same time, things targeted for being ‘foreign’—like Mughlai cuisine sometimes is—are indigenous, having travelled in another form and then having been perfected in the shape and taste we know today, right here—in India, in Mughal times. Both of these are as Indian as they can be.
Food, if anything, must remind us of how much we reside in the world outside and how much of the world outside resides in us. Deep, inside our gut.
This is an excerpt from Sumitra and Anees: Tales and Recipes From A Khichdi Family published in 2022 (HarperCollins).