By Vatsala Mamgain Dec. 06, 2016
In the good old days of the Indian shaadi, it was only the maharaj that was oversized. And as kids, we were hooked like crack heads to the food that he conjured.
There is obviously something to be said for the socialist era-type starvation. The way this deprivation played out for my siblings and me was that we grew up loving weddings. With no interest in dressing up and less than no interest in the bride and groom, what had us hooked like crack heads was the food. Oh Lordy God, the food.
In the days leading up to a wedding, when the halwai or maharaj would arrive with his army of helpers to be stationed near the boundary wall, he would typically be met with all of us kids hanging around like gargoyles, dripping drool. Within minutes of his arrival, there would be many huge pots and pans glistening black on the outside, placed atop expertly constructed open fires, boiling and sizzling with all nature of amazing things.
First on their agenda would be the mithai boxes that would be given to everyone when they left. Those were the dark, primitive days when Lindt and Indian weddings hadn’t yet become BFFs and at least part of the mithai presents given to all guests had to be home-made by the halwai. Nothing milk based, since those had a limited shelf life – but laddus and barfis made with besan or atta or suji cooked in ghee until they melted gloopily in your mouth, made even more divine with added raisins and nuts.
There was also a whole array of deep-fried goodies both sweet and savoury – balushahi, shakkarpara, namakpara etc, which the halwais would fry up in those blackened woks. The balushahis were my favourite, made with flour and ghee and kneaded with yoghurt into rough dough balls and then deep fried and dunked in sugar syrup to provide a crispy thin sugar coating. No Dunkin Donuts or Krispy Kreme offering has ever come close to a simple balushahi in terms of flaky sugary fried dough perfection and the sprinkles atop them are a poor approximation of the slivered almonds that balushahis typically have.
After sampling the gift boxes and giving them our whole-hearted approval, we would wait with bated breath for the food. The standard North Indian wedding home-type food – puri and kachoris with a layer of dal inside them, aloo smashed by hand and dropped into a tomato gravy piquant with green chillies and dhania patta, kaddu tart with imli and sweetened with gur, dahi wada with imli chutney that had been cooked for hours with dried ginger powder and sweetened with sultanas and gur, kheer that tasted of heaven with plump raisins and slivered almonds – would be wiped out with an efficiency that is totally missing in the more discerning, less cosmically hungry kids of today.
But what we would typically wait for was the Pahari fare – Pahari paalak, cut fine and wilted over a slow fire until it reached its creamy perfection, baby potatoes smashed and cooked with yoghurt and thickened with rice flour, Pahari urad dal (which is a completely different animal to the dal from the plains that produces the artist known as Bukhara dal), fragrant with a tadka of just heeng and curry patta, seasonal vegetables, urad dal pakoras, donut shaped with a hole in the centre and a smattering of brown sesame seeds, an array of chutneys, a whole table full of halwas and kheers – all of it cooked in those giant vats over a roaring fire that added a dimension of flavour never achievable from a home stove.
The maharajs were sniffily vegetarian and acted like the mere mention of meat would ritually pollute them. Despite this piety, clearly some of them weren’t averse to having a drink (or three) now and again. This one time, I remember one of them making the polite request that some rum be provided to rub on his aching head as a Tiger Balm substitute. Even though this treatment protocol was totally unfamiliar to my parents, the request was happily acceded to, because my father felt some solidarity with a fellow rum drinker. The rum disappeared at a fast clip, absorbed by an obviously raging head. My father wanted to enquire tenderly of the maharaj what the prescribed course of treatment for the resultant hangover would be, whether the next day would need whiskey balm, but was stopped in his tracks by the quality of the food that day which was inspired.
Rasgullas, gulab jamuns, cham chams, barfis, different types of halwa, kheer, rabdi, jalebis, ice cream, kulfi – whatever there was, was efficiently and gleefully scarfed down, sometimes multiple times over by us all.
So, though most meals were vegetarian, they were sometimes supplemented by family members pressed into service to supply the carnivorous bits. Home-style Pahari mutton curries were sometimes put on the table for the family, but the showstopper was always served at the pre- wedding feast. Kachmouli – a whole goat smoked on a spit using specially aromatic leaves and twigs, the tender smoky meat then being tossed with mustard oil and salt and turmeric – was the apogee of the wedding feast with the actual wedding food being sort of a relaxed climax. I can’t see the kachmouli winning friends and influencing kids today. But in the pre-Domino’s, pre-Mcdonald’s-Pleistocene era wasteland that was our youth, we were rendered helpless with lust before its pleasures.
The main wedding feast would always be vegetarian and would begin with un-rationed cold drinks coming first. There were a few selfish individuals with no sense of civic duty who provided Rooh Afza and orange squash rather than Thums Up and Limca, and we rained curses on these benighted hosts. But the food was always more than enough to make up for any gaps in the beverage department. Nestled between the kachoris, puris, aloo, dahi wadas, and a dizzying array of vegetables that were always on the menu, were the seasonal morels (locally called guchchi), that had been brought down from the pahad, and would be cooked as part of a pulao or chucked into a kala-chana gravy. They were amazingly flavourful and yummy and the news that there was guchchi on the menu would spread like wildfire among the gathered guests and people would begin to swim through rivers of drool to get to them ASAP. They were eye-poppingly expensive even then, but they were prized not because of the social status they bestowed upon the hosts, but because of how incredibly delicious and flavourful and inaccessible they generally were. As kids we liked them, but I can’t say we moaned and weeped with excitement upon encountering them like the adults seemed to do.
For dessert, the Paharis always had a five-mithai rule. This was something we glommed on to early in our wedding-attending careers and became adept at eating just enough of the main course to leave room to really do justice to all five desserts on offer. Rasgullas, gulab jamuns, cham chams, barfis, different types of halwa, kheer, rabdi, jalebis, ice cream, kulfi – whatever there was, was efficiently and gleefully scarfed down, sometimes multiple times over by us all. And then, to end it all, there would always be meetha paan, which was a real treat and cappuccino served in a tiny mug from a coffee machine that hissed and steamed officiously. This coffee was inexplicably called “expresso”. Not espresso but expresso, so even today at many airports around the world, when you ask for an espresso, the barista seeing an Indian face often clarifies, small black strong coffee, yes?
Today, of course, weddings have changed completely and the food served at weddings has been utterly transformed too. Now, it is mandated by law to have a khao suey counter, street-food counter, chocolate fountain, and some cyclists who juggle and serve cutting chai as part of the whole wedding food circus; you don’t get a wedding licence without producing the booking receipts of at least these acts. But when I see the levels of excitement around the food, I can only describe them in the technical term known to professional food enthusiasts as lukewarm. Especially compared to the giddying rapturous reaction we used to have when faced with wedding food back in the Stone Age.
Don’t ask me how it happened. Somehow, we as a people have become so fearless in the face of cosmic famine that we can actually be blasé when encountering such culinary largesse. When people talk of how this country hasn’t progressed much in the past 30 years, I want to shake them and say, that’s absolutely not true. Look at the evidence – in my own lifetime, I have battled a salivary tsunami and engaged in mortal hand-to-hand combat with my own flesh and blood to be the first to attack aloo puri at a wedding, and now people routinely yawn at a whole gushing geyser of chocolate.
If that’s not progress, then please tell me what is.