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Vegetarian cuisines of India: The food of the Sheherwali Jains from Murshidabad



There are gleaming silver thalis, ornate bric-abrac, a silken table cloth and an elaborate service. But the star is still the food. I am at Royal Vega at the newly launched ITC Royal Bengal in Kolkata, sampling one of the most fascinating vegetarian cuisines of the country: the food of the Sheherwali Jains from Murshidabad.

Chef Varun Mohan, who heads the Royal Vega kitchen, serves some unusual dishes. Barbati (yardlong beans) cooked in a thin Marwari kadhi. Plantain simmered in a rich, cashew-nut gravy, reminiscent of Mughlai food. Kheer made of unripe mangoes. A semolina parantha flattened into shape by dexterous hands and boondi scented with Murshidabad’s famous rose water, similar to Marwari boondi sprinkled with an expensive distillate of Pushkar roses.

As one goes through the meal, it is apparent that this no-onion-no-garlic vegetarian cuisine is a mix of several traditions. The Bengali influence is clear in the use of local vegetables and panch phoran spicing. The influence of the nawabs of Murshidabad comes through in cashew-nut gravies and perfumery. The Marwari influence is evident in the kadhi-like concoctions and the finesse of breads. After all, Oswal Jain families migrated from Marwar in the early 18th century to Murshidabad to trade in rich muslins and silks. They carried with them their dietary restrictions and memories of food, and fashioned a distinct micro cuisine that is seeing a revival today.

Vegetarian cuisines of India: The food of the Sheherwali Jains from Murshidabad

Mohan, one of the finest chefs in the country, with a deep understanding of nuances required to cook vegetarian food, learnt the dishes from the Sheherwali families, as they are called. He has been presenting these at various dinners and the dishes are now part of a tasting menu at Royal Vega. “The food is distinct because of the different influences and unusual dishes such as the kheer made of green mangoes, which are grated, boiled to squeeze out the tartness and then cooked in milk,” he says.

Atul Bhalla, ITC’s area manager for East, points out that this cuisine has been getting a lot of attention at various high-profile dinners. “Each time we do it, whether in the thali format or as a la carte, it is a great success,” says Bhalla. This experiment of giving a posh plating to a hyperlocal vegetarian cuisine could be a turning point.

Beyond Paneer

On most restaurant menus, vegetarian options are limited to four types of aloo dishes, three types of paneer and a few mock kebabs. For a country with highly evolved vegetarian dining traditions, this is a terrible state of affairs. Most restaurants have traditionally been reluctant to serve “homely” vegetarian dishes, reasoning that customers prefer “restaurant food” focused on meats, heavy gravies and overt spicing. However, with the focus firmly on regional cuisines these days and diners more willing to experiment, it is time for many of India’s vegetarian cuisines to go gourmet.

Food and nutrition consultant Sangeeta Khanna has been trying to present Banaras’s distinct vegetarian legacy through food festivals with dishes such as nimona (made with fresh green peas), chura mattar, chokha (mashes made with vegetables such as brinjal, potatoes and parwal).

Vegetarian cuisines of India: The food of the Sheherwali Jains from Murshidabad

“The city had many migrants from Maharashtra, Gujarat, Bihar — Brahmins who came to live in palaces built by different royals and to worship on their behalf. The food shows their influence,” says Khanna. The depth of the cuisine can also be seen in the mithais — not just versions of popular confections like maliyyo (with cream) or the clove-scented lavang lata but also seasonal delicacies such as gujiyas and barfis made of green gram and even yam laddoos made on Diwali.

A big problem in bringing many of these foods to a wider audience is the difficulty in separating them from their cultural context. For instance, “you cannot take the Gosains who cook Vrindavan’s fantastic chappan bhog (56 vegetarian delicacies offered as prasad) out of the cultural and religious context,” says Samrat Banerjee, who manages the restaurant Rooh in Delhi and is a follower of the Bhakti movement of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (the 16th century mystic instrumental in the revival of Vrindavan).

Bengali Gosains and Goswamis have been running the temples of Vrindavan, and their cooking is a mix of Bengali and western UP influences. The chappan bhog, Banerjee says, follows the Bengali style of first eating bitters (fried bitter gourd or neem leaves), followed by fried kachoris, then sours eaten with dal and rice, and finally sweets. “To understand this, you need to study the larger context of Vrindavan,” says Banerjee.
Vegetarian cuisines of India: The food of the Sheherwali Jains from Murshidabad

There are other “homely” cuisines of communities that have never come out of homes. The vegetarian cuisine of Punjabi Khatris can break all the stereotypes one may have about Punjabi food. Dishes display finesse and restraint. Mild spices and seasonal ingredients are transformed into sophisticated flavours, including an amazing pickling tradition where summer gourds and veggies like kachalu and brinjal are preserved in mustard oil. Sun-dried dumplings wadi) are cooked with whole spices to make aromatic pulaos. Moong dal dumplings are simmered in a lightly sour tamarind gravy and even the baigan ka bharta is not as we know it. “We don’t use tomatoes and onions in everything. That just ruins dishes,” says Namrata Khanna, a foodie who works with the FSSAI and is from a Khatri family.

These are elaborate and intensive culinary traditions almost on the verge of disappearance as we confront only generic Indian cooking in restaurants. Vegetarian food in India has always been more nuanced than restaurant-created food that relies on bold spicing to mask flavours. It is time we showcased it.

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