Bengali-Islamic fusion food debuts in Delhi (Eating Out With IANS)

February 16th, 2011 - 10:45 am ICT by IANS  

By Madhusree Chatterjee
New Delhi, Feb 16 (IANS) Have you ever heard of the traditional Bengali mixed vegetable stew, called shukto, tweaked to suit the old Islamic palate? Try it out with a dash of nuts, raisins and dry fruits at an elite eatery in the capital which has just incorporated Murshidabad cuisine in its menu.Murshidabadi cuisine from West Bengal is a lighter version of the richly flavoured Mughal cuisine, popularly known as the Mughlai food cooked in northern India. A blend of Bengali and Islamic food, it was a runaway success at a festival in Suryaa Hotel, drawing packed houses for 15 days.

The cuisine is now part of the hotel’s special “made-to-order” menu.

“With growing health consciousness, Murshidabad food can edge Mughal cuisine to the sidelines of the mainstream Indian menu if promoted vigorously in metropolitan cities,” Syed Mustaque Murshid, a descendant of the 1,000-year-old Syed clan of Murshidabad and chef de cuisine of Suryaa Hotel, told IANS.

He was the first among a long line of Murshidabad’s Syed men - traditionally religious preachers, scholars and royal power brokers by profession - to have taken up cooking for livelihood.

Chef Syed shares his name with the erstwhile nawab of Bengal, Murshid Quli Khan, the founding father of the commercial hub of Murshidabad along the bank of the Bhagirathi river in the 18th century during the reign of Mughal emperor Aurangzeb.

History cites that it was during Murshid Quli Khan’s rule that the local chefs of the town honed the cuisine to a distinct fusion genre.

Murshidabadi cuisine draws from the light traditional food of West Bengal that is sweet in texture, the eclectic breads and stringy meats of the Islamic Syed community of preachers, the spicy Mughal food of the erstwhile “shahi” Delhi and the rugged northwestern frontier food, the chef said.

“But the version of the cuisine that we have created at the Suryaa is a curious combination of spices, innovation, north Indian concepts, traditional recipes and royal influences from my maternal home which has inhabited Murshidabad for the last 23 generations,” Syed said.

The most popular dish on Syed’s Murshidabadi menu is the traditional Bengali shukto, a light vegetable bitter stew cooked in a gravy of milk and clarified butter, and flavoured with a five-spice blend of fenugreek, fennel, white mustard, a pinch of asafoetida and bay leaves, the chef said.

“But in Murshidabad, we add dry nuts, cashews and raisins to a local variation of shukto to make it spicy and compatible with the Muslim palate,” he said.

Tikiya, a Bengali-Muslim variety of the minced lamb kebab made popular by the nawabs and royal khansamahs, or cooks of Avadh, also has a large following.

“We knead the lamb mince with gram (matar) lentil paste into circular cakes that are shallow fried in a wok with homemade clarified butter. It is lighter than the kebab,” Syed said.

The improvisations trace their origin to exciting historical anecdotes.

“The local Bengali cuisine could not be served to the erstwhile royal Mughal guests from Delhi. Mughal envoys from the courts of Akbar, Jahangir and Aurangzeb between the 15th and 17th century AD frequented Murshidabad to take stock of the revenue collection. They had to be treated to spicy food.

“A popular lore cites that the fusion cuisine dates back to the time when emperor Salim or Jahangir married Noor Jahan, the wife of Sher Ali Quli Khan Istaju, a Muslim governor from the region,” chef Syed said.

The spirit of the confluence of the two cultures, Hindu and Islamic, comes across in traditional local delicacies.

“We have a variety of kormas (spicy curries) - a very north Indian Muslim food that is traditionally meat-based. But the most sought-after kormas in Murshidabad are vegetarian - the aloo korma, and yam korma, spicy dishes of potatoes of yam cooked in tamarind and flavoured with brown onion paste, cashewnuts and saffron,” Syed said.

The breads are of the Syed origin. “The Syed Islamic preachers carried them to Bengal in the eighth century AD as fodder along the way,” the chef said.

As a result, the traditional khamiri bread rolled with white flour cooked in boiling water lasts for more than three days.

Another Murshidabad combination that has travelled across the country is dhuki and duck - a dish of steamed idli-like rice bread and curried duck. “It is usually eaten before the namaz (Muslim prayer) during winter,” the chef said.

According to Devraj Halder, the executive assistant manager, food and beverage, Suryaa Hotel, “a Murshidabadi meal for one costs Rs.1,250 with tax”.

(Madhusree Chatterjee can be contacted at madhu.c@ians.in)

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