Lately, I’ve been on a journey – through Europe – with British baker Dan Lepard. I’ve been reading his book, The Handmade Loaf, written after a tour of European countries and meetings with local bakers. I’ve been trying to bake bread, thinking of my father, now long departed. I’m reminded of him, especially when reading about the traditional baking techniques of Russia and Ukraine; for he spent a year and a half in those countries in two visits and often talked about the long lines for buying bread at stores there. My father got exposed to Western food traditions and developed a taste for them. Back home, he would revel in soups and breads, which are considered “videshi,” or foreign, in India. (In any case, they are not considered native in origin.) I’ve inherited my father’s streak, and built upon it – consciously or subliminally – so it has become a deep interest. So much so that, being an Asian Indian, I am often asked, “Do you cook anything Indian?” The answer is: sometimes.
I ventured farther into Western territory during my bread baking odyssey. While secure in my Mumbai kitchen, I struggled to replicate Lepard’s creations. I dreamed of baguettes and made natural leaven by growing yeast cells in a jar over a week according to Lepard’s instructions. I wanted to explore European breads (as opposed to flatbreads), which to me represented the heart of the Western food tradition.
Yet, during my self-learning experience (with Lepard’s apparition by my side), I stumbled upon something Indian – a pancake common throughout India. Chickpea pancake, called besan ka chilla in India, is a traditional bread made in Turin, a region in Italy. The name of the place took on a mythical image when I read about it in Lepard’s book. Besan ka chilla in Turin!
Well, not quite. Farinata is the word. But they are the same thing – essentially. Recipes for both dishes basically involve making a batter of chickpea flour and water (equal parts) and frying spoonfuls in a pan. The only difference is in serving – while the farinata is cut into wedges and served with a dip or spread (something like a tapenade), the besan ka chilla is served whole.
The differences between the West and the East are minor, similarities stronger – both in technique and ingredient. All food is one, as one human civilization, in spite of differences. Let’s examine the basic ones.
When I lived in America, I worked in cafeteria kitchens as a food preparation assistant and cook. Thanks to my avid interest in cooking, I watched chefs prepare food. One basic technique I saw – apart from roasting and baking – was sautéing a piece of boneless meat or poultry and pouring a sauce over it after taking out the meat and putting it on a plate. The main ingredient, say a chicken breast, is cooked the same way in several dishes, and only the sauce changes. The French are famous for their classic sauces. So, it seems that the Western method does depend on sauces that are poured over a main ingredient.
Indian – and some other Asian – dishes, on the other hand, rely on the curry style, which essentially is braising. The New Food Lover’s Companion, by Sharon Tyler Herbst, defines braising as “a cooking method by which food is first browned in fat, then cooked, tightly covered, in a small amount of liquid at low heat for a lengthy period of time.” While growing up in the heart of India, I saw my mother cook lunch and dinner every day mostly by this method. Her style deviated from the definition only marginally to save time – she would sometimes reduce the liquid by stewing on high heat. Cooking methods in other parts of Asia may depart from this basic technique slightly. The Chinese and Southeast Asian cooking styles are based on the stir-fry method, but involve a type of quick braising when a sauce is poured over the stir-fried ingredients in a wok and bubbled for a few minutes.
As for ingredients, the main difference between India and the West is that in the West there is a greater focus on meat, poultry, fish, and other seafood than on vegetables and grains. In India, on the other hand, there is a substantial portion of the population that does not touch anything non-vegetarian.
Yet, for all these differences of technique and ingredient, you’ll be amazed at how one region of the world connects with another, thousands of miles away, in a remote corner of a country even the people of that nation are unfamiliar with.
Take, for instance, macher paturi from Bengal, a state in India. I come from Bengal, so I know. “Macher” means “of fish”; “paturi” is a dish wrapped in a leaf. Macher paturi is a delicacy in Bengal, where fish is a favorite food. In macher paturi, a piece of fish is smothered in mustard paste, mustard oil, and green chili, and wrapped in a banana leaf – well, part of a banana leaf because it grows huge on trees – and then the parcel steamed. How similar this is to brie parcels with almonds, a dish I discovered in a book, Best-ever Grills, published by a company based in the United Kingdom! In this dish, brie chunks are wrapped with chives and ground almonds in a vine leaf, and the parcel is grilled. In India, another dish is almost the same – patrani machchi, which is a Parsi dish. (Parsis, mostly settled in Mumbai, are descendants of Iranis.) Here you see two identical dishes from two disparate regions of India.
The concept of the leaf wrapper fascinated me. I looked up my well-worn copy of The New Food Lover’s Companion, and found that grape leaves “are often used by Greek and Middle Eastern cooks to wrap foods for cooking, as with dolmas.” My mind snapped into attention at the last word of that definition. Dolma. It’s a word from my childhood memory – my mother often made potoler dolma, a popular dish in Bengal. I looked up the food lover’s dictionary again. Sure enough, the word meant “something stuffed.” Potoler dolma was nothing but pointed gourd stuffed with spiced and sautéed potato, fish, or mutton (goat meat). “Dolma” is an Arabic word and the wrapper is usually vine leaves in Middle Eastern and Greek cuisines, but the “casing” can be squash, eggplant, sweet peppers, cabbage leaves, quinces, and apples – and, if I may add, potol, or pointed gourd. The difference lies only in the method of cooking.
One type of dish that admits of no difference of either ingredient or method is pilaf (or pulav), paella, and the kind. Is biryani any different? I don’t think so. Essentially, the Spanish paella, Middle Eastern pilav, the Indian biryani or the Chinese (or Southeast Asian) fried rice is the same: rice cooked with vegetables, meat, seafood, or poultry. A version of paella involves both stovetop cooking (to partially cook the dish) and baking – a concept similar to the technique of cooking biryani. While the traditional method of cooking biryani involves finishing the dish on “dum” – a system of providing heat that simulates baking – modern home cooks use the electric oven to almost equal effect. (Why, paella and biryani both even use saffron, the most expensive spice in the world.)
And what about kedgeree? It is very similar to khichdi, a common Indian dish of rice and lentils, “Anglicized in the 18th century when the English added flaked smoked fish, hard-boiled eggs, and a rich cream sauce,” according to Herbst’s book. How similar also it is to biryani – made Bengali style – where boiled eggs add sparkle to chicken or mutton! The only difference between the Indian and European versions is the meal at which kedgeree is served: it is served as breakfast in England, while it is served as lunch or dinner in India.
Rice is truly ecumenical. Rice pudding is eaten as dessert in the European tradition, as well as in Indian cuisine. While an oven is used to bake it in the European method, a stovetop is used in India. In Bengal, it is called payesh, a special dish served on birthdays. Mothers prepare it for their children.
More examples go to show the universality of food preparation. How about fritters, pancakes, and crepes – and turnovers and rissoles; fish cakes and croquettes? The Indian pakora and kola bora, or banana fritter, and the American (or Western, if you will) pineapple and apple fritters belong to the same family. Take a piece of fruit, vegetable, or meat, dip it in a batter of flour and deep fry. The result is delicious for gastronomes, sinful for diet-watchers.
Healthier are pancakes – if you skip the butter – for they are pan- or griddle-fried, not deep-fried. I have already mentioned besan ka chilla, a pancake. Another is malpua, a pancake flavored with whole aniseed and dropped into a sugar syrup – it may be too sweet for Western tastes, but it is essentially an eggless pancake. And how closely related they are to the North American pancake and the Russian blini.
Talking of crepes, if the Indian dosa is not one, then what is it? Crepe is also famous in Europe, isn’t it? Whether crepe is served as snack or dinner or whether it is savory or sweet – I remember eating a crepe as a dessert, drizzled with chocolate sauce – does not matter.
Let’s turn to turnovers. The Indian samosa, now perhaps known the world over, is a triangular turnover. It is savory. My mother once made a semi-circular, sweet turnover, crimped on the edge, and filled with a stuffing of grated coconut and khoya (dried whole milk). And the Indian kabab is the same as rissole – or meatball.
My mother, hailing from Bengal, made macher chop, or fish cakes, very often when my siblings and I were young. She loved making chop of various kinds with fish, mutton, and vegetable fillings. Never having stepped out of the country or read cookbooks, little did she know that what she was making was close to croquettes. Whether she would have found the videshi word flattering I cannot tell.
More similarities abound. Talking of fritters, people in Bengal eat pumpkin-flower fritters. Yellow flowers are dipped in a batter of chickpea flour, spiced – with poppy seeds and chili powder – and deep-fried. When I wrote about the dish – usually an appetizer or side dish – in my blog, Cooking in Calcutta (http://cookingincalcutta.blogspot.com), a reader from Italy posted a comment educating me: “Flowers from all types of pumpkin-like plants can be fried and eaten (courgettes, pumpkins, marrows, all belong to the same family). In the south of Italy, we traditionally fry courgettes (zucchini) flowers in a flour-and-egg batter.”
More interesting, he had followed my recipe with pumpkin flowers, and found no difference between the two.
“I will try with a chickpea flour batter (and no eggs). It will probably be lighter and tastier,” he added.
Let me end the list of affinities with a couple of things that many Indians eat last at lunch or dinner – chutney (which is a close cousin of relish) and raita. I relish tomato, strawberry, and pineapple chutneys! Raita is nothing but a yogurt-based preparation similar to some Greek-style dips, including tzatziki. Now, that is Greek to me.
Would you still say the East and West the twain shall never meet? They do, of course.
They do meet in spite of differences. I remember vaguely reading somewhere, a long time ago, that people living in countries near the equator are spice- and chili-lovers. Does that mean nations far away from the great dividing line prefer mild food – the genteel flavors of cream and butter versus the strong smells of asafetida and garlic? The differences get fuzzy. Isn’t garlic used heavily in French and Italian cooking, too?
The great historical affinities of people all over the world for the same kinds of foods – ingredients and techniques – are too numerous to miss. Dissimilarities are few.
Baking isn’t a traditionally popular technique in Indian cuisine. True, but not wholly. What about the now-famous tandoori dishes of North India? Tandoor is a clay oven, flatbreads called tandoori roti and naan among the preparations that emerge from it.
I eat flatbreads every day – roti or chapatti. I eat roti, made with whole-wheat flour, and dream of a perfect loaf of bread from the heart of Europe as seen through the eyes of baker Lepard. I’ll slog through his recipes in the warm Mumbai kitchen until I get the crumb and texture of each just right.
For the world is one; whether it is a flatbread or a well-risen loaf doesn’t really matter. For all the world’s a platter and food is a great warm circle for humankind that satisfies an elemental and universal need.
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About the author: Angshuman Das is a freelance food writer and blogger based in Mumbai, India. His food writing has appeared in InMamasKitchen.com and The Hindustan Times. In an earlier avatar, he worked as a journalist at newspapers in the United States and India. He has a Master of Mass Communications degree from the University of South Carolina. While a student there, he worked as a part-time cook and food prep assistant at campus cafeterias. He returned to his native India after spending several years in America.