A few years ago, I embarked on a personal quest to piece together what had become a fractured relationship with my mother tongue—Garhwali. Having lived across the country (courtesy my father’s 10-odd army postings), my native language was lost to me not just linguistically, but culturally as well. It was a cut that was deepened when a UNESCO list of disappearing languages across the world put Garhwali in the ‘vulnerable’ category. And so, my first instinct to regain this piece of identity was through food. Tor Kulat (a thick lentil preparation), Mandua ki Roti (chappati made of finger millet), or the creamy, sumptuous Gahat (horse gram)—I devoured Garhwali food to understand not just my roots, but also my history and identity.
Which brings us here. Nothing takes forward a cultural conversation better than food. It’s, as the late chef Anthony Bourdain had once said, everything we are: “It’s an extension of nationalist feeling, ethnic feeling, your personal history, your province, your region, your tribe, your grandma. It’s inseparable from those from the get-go.” And so, we reached out to people from across the country to tell us about that one dish—a staple, a street food, or a specialty—that acts as windows to their personal stories while being inclusive of larger conversations on history, migration and, of course, nostalgia.
Kancha Posto, Kolkata
I’ve completed 10 years of living in Kolkata, and in the midst of numerous ‘Bangal’ (originating from Bangladesh) and ‘Ghoti’ (originating from present day West Bengal) courses, a staple in my kitchen is kancha posto (raw poppy seeds). I think it was when the colonisers brutalised agricultural lands in Bengal and forced farmers to harvest poppy that the ingenious farmer’s wife used the dried waste product to make posto. Kancha posto with sautéed onions, a pinch of turmeric, minimal salt and green chillies is my go-to comfort food at home. I pair it with rice or quinoa and that bowl of food is gold.
— Kallol Datta, designer
Sindhi Curry, Sindh
My ma insists we spend Sundays lazily, and part of that lazing is savouring a big meal of Sindhi curry after sleeping in and then going right back to sleep until sunset. A heavy curry made of chickpea flour, tamarind and your favourite vegetables, the dish is prepared with steamed rice and fried papad. Typically reserved only for festivals—because cooking it is a rather lengthy affair—Sindhi curry is a weekly tradition for us. Growing up in Kolkata with no real familiarity with Sindh or Pakistan, I think it’s ma’s way of acquainting us with our roots: her way of giving us a sense of identity and belonging in a state that isn’t really ours—almost like letting us in on a secret.
—Chandni Doulatramani, writer
Mutton Kalia, Kashmir
The dish comes up more than you think in every Kashmiri household, from fixing upset stomachs to just a heartwarming weekend dinner. Mutton kalia brings a brief moment of Kashmir to your plate with tender pieces of mutton cooked to melt in your mouth. Often eaten with rice, it promises a rich gravy owing to generous amounts of fennel powder, black and green cardamoms—the recurring spices in most Kashmiri food. Next time you plan to eat Kashmiri and the spices scare you, try this delicacy to experience a taste bud explosion, without the grief.
— Zitin Bhan, advertising professional
Jadoh and Dohkhleh, Meghalaya
Jadoh and Dohkhleh are the most popular dishes in the regions of Khasi and Jaintia Hills. These are primarily two different dishes but you really cannot separate the two! In Khasi, ja means rice and doh means meat; dohkhleh translates literally to pork mix. The rice is cooked in flavoured pork broth and the pork is cut into small pieces, and finely mixed with chopped onions, ginger and chillies—no oil too! The Khasi and Pnar community of Meghalaya love rice and meat but don’t usually prefer spicy food. Hence, this dish not only tastes delicious but also works for their simple taste buds.
— Radiancy Nongtdu, food blogger
Aush (Ash), Parsi, Mumbai
There would always be a buzz around us kids when mom would set out to do a fancy dish for us, and all souls would be arrested whenever we’d know it was Aush! Aush—known as the poor man’s meal—is a crowded broth that finds its origins in Afghanistan, and has been adapted to suit regional tastes. Ours is the Persian variety (we’re originally the Irani Cafe type). It’s a great warmer upper in the cold weather, is full of beans, leafy greens, lentils, spices, plenty of pepper, and ma would deviate from the authentic and add lots of chunks of drippy mutton, with a delicious overpowering green mint lemon chutney to adjust the spice level on the side. All polished off with crunchy chunks of broon pao (soft bread that is also called Mumbai pao outside Mumbai)—fondue style. Heart warming and divine.
— Rayomand Noble, filmmaker
Lai Haak, Assam
I’ve chosen one of the season’s favourite which is Pork Lai Haak. Lai haak means mustard greens but unlike the Sarson ki Saag of the north, this one is broad-leaved (as long as our hands) and packs more pungency. When cooked with pork, it’s like a marriage-made-in-heaven. It’s cooked in the entire Northeast. Some make it plain, boiled or cooked in little bit of mustard oil or steamed, but the combination is rock-solid. Sometimes, we add fermented bamboo shoot or bhut jolokia (ghost chili peppers) to make it extra spicy. Interestingly, it’s cooked in everyone’s homes and community feasts too, but nobody gets tired of this dish.
— Gitika Saikia, chef
Whenever someone talks about Awadhi food, they always seem to go on about kebabs and biryani. But often, the not-so-humble Lucknowi sheermal (flatbread) is forgotten. The sheermal from Lucknow is soft yet flaky—an amalgamation of flour, saffron, almond and cashew paste, ghee and lots of love. Unlike its Delhi namesake, the Lucknowi sheermal doesn’t overwhelm you with sweetness. It brings back memories of every child who grew up here eating nihari (slow-cooked meat stew) on a cold winter morning or galawati (minced mutton) kebabs at weddings.
— Kritika Santram, educationist
Say what you will about the harmful effects of maida, but there’s no food that the average Malayali loves more than the parotta. Many tasty eats vie for the coveted spot of Kochi’s favourite food—Kerala’s very own boiled tapioca, karimeen pollichathu (marinated pearl spot fish), and a glass of toddy are all contenders. But the parotta takes the top spot simply by virtue of its ubiquity and popularity. The humble south Indian parotta can be consumed with everything from vegetable korma to chicken curry, but the king of parotta combinations is beef fry. The combo brings together the mild-flavoured flatbread with spicy beef fried in coconut oil and mixed with coconut chunks and curry leaves. Chop up the parotta and mix it with chicken, eggs and spices, and you get a variant termed kothu parotta. And if you’re really worried about health, why not try the modern wheat flour version?
—Nidhi Surendranath, writer
Sana Hua Nimbu, Kumaon, Uttarakhand
To me, the Kumaon food is nothing but “soul food”. We have the best appetiser ever invented: the Sana Hua Nimbu made from the juiciest citrus produce of the hills, big bright yellow lemons. Lightly flavoured with a sweet tinge, it almost tastes like sweet lime juice when you spin it with its rind for a good old nimbu paani. On a chilly winter day, women of the household gather outdoors to eat Sana Hua Nimbu: rich in vitamin C and warm for the body, it’s a concoction of peeled lemon chunks, jaggery, a paste of marijuana seeds, mint and green chilies, all whipped up with curd. All you have to do is slurp as the sweetness of jaggery balances the tangy lemon chunks in the mouth. It is delicious.
— Jahnavi Prasada, author and conservationist
Naal Badi, Garhwal, Uttarakhand
If I have to name a food that, for me, is the symbol of Uttarakhand, the most delicious is the Naal Baadi. It’s also one of my earliest food memories—my grandmother busy presiding over the annual Naal Badi-making session in our courtyard, bustling with women from the village. It almost felt like a festival. Different duties were assigned to different groups: one cleaned the hollow stem of the taro plant, while another tied the stems to a sutli (jute string), and another coated the stem with a fluffy batter of spiced urad dal. After a day of baking in the sun, it was chopped into small pieces and left to dry for a few more days. When it was completely dry, it was stored in tin cans, ready to be cooked and eaten. It’s usually prepared as a jhol (stew) with potatoes, and eaten with rice. It’s a food that is a collective effort of love, ingrained with the food memories of my people.
— Abha Godiyal Kakar, chef
Traditional Thali, Goa
Goan food to me is an explosion of two distinct flavours, spicy and sour. The intensity, density and impact varies on the dilution of other ingredients which sometimes tone down and at other times, heighten either one or both of the above mentioned flavours. The beauty about Goan cuisine is its variety in terms of the Hindu way of preparation and Portuguese influence on food in Christian homes. Add to it the variation that happens as you move from north Goa towards south. Certain ingredients are very unique and so many people claim to taste them from the first time in their lives. One of them is kokum or sola, which is used to make the curries sour and also adds a wonderful reddish orange colour. The second is Telphal pods, which has a unique flavour and is largely added to mackerel curry.
— Sampriya Bhandare, designer
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