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There is no one correct way of making rajma

We have so few food controversies in India that it always intrigues me when people disagree violently over a dish, especially if the dish happens to be something as familiar as Rajma Masala is to Punjabis and other North Indians.

Oddly enough, it was thanks to The New York Times that the controversy erupted. And yes it was about Rajma Masala.


Tejal Rao writes for The Times from California and I am a fan of her work because a) she knows her food b) she writes very well and c) she writes about India and Indian food with empathy and an understanding of the greater social issues that bedevil India.


   Around a month ago, she wrote about rajma, a bean that most Americans are not familiar with (though they know most of its cousins). Part of the article dealt with the difficulty with finding Rajma in America.


   Not to worry, she suggested. Though rajma should be made with a specific kind of bean, you could make the dish with any other kind of bean too: pinto, cannellini or even chickpeas. While rajma was usually made with fresh tomatoes over a stove top and finished with a glug of cream, she had found workarounds for people who had American-style kitchens and limited access to Indian ingredients. She suggested alternative ingredients that were more easily available in the US. So, the chopped tomatoes could be replaced with canned tomatoes. Instead of a stove top, you could use oven-baking. (“The sauce thickens and mellows. The edges caramelise….”)


   The recipe included with the article seemed interesting. But there was one bit that caused the controversy. Just before the dish went into the oven, she said, “drizzle the top with cream or scatter with cheese”. When the dish was ready, she said, you could “serve with hot rice, buttered toast or flour tortillas.”


   It should have been clear to anyone reading the article that she was not pretending to be Sardar Fauja Singh, sitting in his little dhaba on the road to Amritsar and telling you how his family had always made rajma masala. This was a modern take on rajma, which played around with the dish while preserving its essential flavour and character.


   Not everyone saw it that way. There was a mini-Twitter storm from Indians (mainly NRIs I am guessing) who were outraged that her recipe called for mozzarella cheese if you didn’t want to use cream.


   I don’t usually get involved in recipe storms but I did tweet to say that the recipe seemed interesting to me. It is hard to make rajma differently and I thought she had done a fine job of re-inventing the dish without sacrificing its character.


  Did it really matter if you made it with cannellini beans? Why was it so wrong to make it in an oven? And if you were going to put cream anyway, as so many dhaba owners do, did it matter if you experimented with mozzarella?


   The only convincing response I got was from the respected political scientist Tanvi Madan who made the point that it was called ‘Punjabi-style’ Rajma by The Times and of course, it wasn’t.


   It was a fair point but if you looked at the recipe, it was titled “Baked Rajma” (Punjabi-style Red Beans with Cream). My guess that the ‘Punjabi-style” was a reference to the beans being used. Americans are not used to rajma and needed to be told that these were Punjabi-style beans. I doubt if the intention was to claim that the recipe itself was Punjabi style. (I have never met or spoken to Tejal Rao so this is guesswork.)


   But the controversy reminded me how protective we are of our recipes. In the world of Indian cooking, there is only one way to make a dish. In the case of rajma, we were acting like there was only one way to cook a particular ingredient.


   For me, that attitude has always been one of the things that has held Indian cooking back. French cooking is a collection of techniques (and in the old days, sauces) but chefs are encouraged to be adventurous and creative. A simple roast chicken is a classic. But I can’t see anyone criticising a chef for trying to make his or her chicken with cheese.


"So when Indian chefs make fun of ‘confusion’ and talk about not deviating from traditional recipes, they are chasing a chimera."

   In India, on the other hand, if you play around with say, a tandoori chicken marinade, chefs will look at you with disdain.


   That’s because Indian cooking is a collection of recipes. No deviation from them is encouraged. And innovative chefs are treated with suspicion. Their food is described as ‘fusion’ or, by older chefs, as ‘confusion’.


   Sometimes, the purists make sense. I remember going to the first Chef’s Conference in the 1990s (in Mumbai). A chef who had found success in Australia came back to lecture his Indian colleagues. His food was very light, he said. When he made a rogan josh, he first removed all the fat from the gravy before serving the dish to health conscious Australians.


   Manjit Gill, one of India’s top chefs stood up from the audience and said that while he imagined that the dish was probably delicious, could it really be called a Rogan Josh? The rogan in the name referred to the fat that rose to the top and gave the gravy its flavour. If you removed the rogan, it wasn’t a rogan josh but a mutton curry of some description.


  The chef took it badly. (“Just because you have gray hair it doesn’t mean you know everything, Mr Gill,” he sneered.) But I was on Manjit’s side. There is always a balance between tweaking a classic and altering it completely. You can’t remove the wine from Coq au Vin and still call it a Coq au Vin.


   But on balance, I think Manjit will also agree that our chefs need to be encouraged to go beyond the recipes they were taught at Catering College.


   Besides, many of the most famous dishes of Indian restaurant cuisine do not come from traditional recipes. They were created within the last 100 years or so. It is hard to find a pre-20th Century reference to the Kakori kebab for instance. Tandoori Chicken was created in Peshawar in the 1930s by an innovative cook who thought he could use the tandoor for more than just cooking bread. Butter Chicken was invented in Delhi in the 1950s. There is no traditional recipe for either dish. Chefs continue to experiment with new ingredients. (The Butter Chicken you get in Delhi now is very different from the dish Moti Mahal created in the 1950s.) There can be no traditional recipe for black dal. No Punjabi ever put tomatoes in it till the 1950s when Moti Mahal started doing it. That recipe was overhauled by Bukhara in 1978.


   So when Indian chefs make fun of ‘confusion’ and talk about not deviating from traditional recipes, they are chasing a chimera. For most great Indian dishes, there is no such thing as a traditional recipe. Every advance in Indian cooking – from the bacon kulcha invented in New York by Floyd Cardoz in 1999 to the lamb shank rogan josh, created by Vineet Bhatia in London in the 1990s – has come from chefs who have thrown away their old recipe books and tried to innovate or, at the very least, to tweak old dishes.


   You can go back in time as much you like and you will find that so called authentic Indian cuisine is no such thing. Let’s take rajma, which every Punjabi regards as his or her birthright. There is no mention at all of rajma masala in our texts till about a 100 years ago.


   As the food historian KT Achaya points out, the rajma bean came from South America. (Most beans: pinto, kidney, rajma etc. descended from the same South America bean.) Achaya thinks the French brought the bean to India (they had started using it in cassoulet and pretended that it was an ancient French ingredient) and the British planted early varieties of rajma in Punjab.


   It’s the same with makki ki roti. The British taught Punjabis to cultivate corn (which also had a South American origin).


   So, how ancient and traditional can recipes for these dishes be when the ingredients themselves were only introduced by white colonialists?


   Yes, a Punjabi grandmother probably has a nice recipe for rajma but it is a safe assumption that her grandmother had never seen a rajma bean in her life. And besides, which is the authentic rajma recipe? The home-style rajma, which is largely dairy-free or the dhaba version, which needs butter, cream etc.?


   That’s why I have no time for recipe-fascists. Cooks should be able to draw inspiration from anything and anybody: a childhood memory, a dish from another cuisine, a particular ingredient or even an idea that just came to them.


   There is no one correct way of making rajma. And we hold no copyright on any one recipe for a South American bean brought to India by the French and the British, which is cooked differently all over our country.


   The more recipes, the merrier.



Posted On: 27 May 2020 02:30 PM
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