How Indian cuisine became an atlas of flavours: A memory of Deepavali feasts
Published on: Sunday, October 23, 2022
By: Kenny Mah, Malay Mail
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Chicken biryani is a must-have every Deepavali, said one friend. – Pictures by CK Lim
Chicken biryani is a must-have every Deepavali.

Or at least this is what my friend told me at his family’s Deepavali open house one year. I noted this down carefully, for knowledge is a beautiful thing.

That is, until his older brother walked by and remarked that: No, it’s mutton biryani that’s the true must-have.

As they continued to argue, I realised that food is a most personal thing. Each has their own preference but surely the siblings can agree their mother’s cooking is top-notch, whether the biryani featured chicken or mutton?

(She made both versions, dear readers, wise to her son’s grousing otherwise.)

If food is a memory, then every Deepaval feast I’ve had the good fortune of joining is a most delicious one.

Not that I’m an expert on Indian cuisine by any means. In case you haven’t noticed, I’m not of Indian descent. I’m Cantonese on my father’s side, my mother is Hokkien and I’m one-eight Peranakan thanks to my Malaccan grandmother.

Yet I’d like to imagine that my Indian friends have adopted me as one of their own. They certainly feed me like a family member, filling me up with deeply spiced mutton varuval, fish curry cooked with fresh green sour mangoes, soft chapati topped with ghee and decadent crab biryani. Bottomless tins of irresistible murukku.

Of course, the draw of Indian cuisine isn’t limited to Deepavali feasts and holy celebrations.

Sometimes it’s when we meet people from other countries, where we might not share anything in common besides a decent command of English and an addiction to social media, that we learn the power of the food we love.

I remember years ago when I visited Auckland for the first time and we met our friend Blake (he of the Air Force and rugby teams; neither organisation we had even the remotest familiarity with). He suggested dinner at his favourite Indian restaurant by the pier.

The char on a piece of 'naan' imparts so much smoky flavour.

Blake ordered butter chicken; we had tandoori fish and palak paneer. Everyone clamoured for more naan: cheese for him, butter garlic for us. The char on every piece of the flatbread imparted so much smoky flavour; in sharing this taste, we too shared a connection.

A love of good food. We understood each other now.

From sophisticated to simple: Masala marinated lamb rack (left); 'prata' and 'dhal' (right).

Indian cuisine can range from the most sophisticated to the simple and humble. An impressive masala marinated lamb rack at a fine dining establishment is surely equalled by a more modest piece or two of prata, served with a small saucer of dhal.

What matters is that in savouring these amazing dishes, we are transported back to centuries of cultural and geographic influences – the flavours of the entire Indian subcontinent waiting for us to discover them, one after another, endlessly.

An atlas of flavours: from the spicy rasam and sweet payasam of southern India to the crunchy and spicy rings of chakodi, a Telugu snack. There are sungtache dangar, tamarind-infused prawn cutlets from Goa; keema matar, peas and minced meat, of the Mughals; breakfast staples such as idli and dosaappam and puttu.

Food is memory, a delicious one for sure, but educational too.

I remember dinner one year at another friend’s house. Originally from Hyderabad, she was cooking up a storm for a party of less than a dozen; by the time she served the last dish, there was enough food on the table for twice the number.

'Pakoras' are vegetable fritters fried in a mildly spicy batter.

There were pakoras, vegetable fritters fried in a mildly spicy batter and served with a spicy coriander and mint chutney. Channa chaat, a salad of freshly boiled chickpeas, tomatoes, potatoes, onions and green chillies brightened up with a squeeze of lime.

And of course, her beloved Hyderabadi biryani where the rice, marinated meat and saffron were all sealed with a wet dough before cooking. Accompanied by mirchi ka salan, a sour and spicy green chilli curry, and raita, a yoghurt dip, every spoonful felt like divinity.

Some of the spices that perfume Indian cuisine.

She regaled us with some of her not-so-secret spices that perfume her dishes, from cinnamon and star anise to cloves and cumin seeds. Some were less known to me, such as amchoor or dried mango powder, which imparted a honeyed fragrance and sour notes to her dishes.

Generosity and abundance. The spirit of unassuming hospitality and the well-earned pride when every guest swears they couldn’t eat another bite.

Time to bring out the containers; everyone must bring some leftovers home, to continue feasting even when they have left.

No need to cook for the next few days, she announced, just heat this up. Good for the next few days, yes, but I bet you’d finish all of this in no time at all! In fact, why not have some more?

We couldn’t refuse, of course; it would have been rude. But when she asked us which dish we’d like to bring home the most, I wasn’t coy about it.

'Kaddu ki kheer', a Hyderabadi dessert made from white pumpkin, ghee, cardamom powder, almonds and saffron.

Her kaddu ki kheer is a Hyderabadi dessert made from grated white pumpkin (kaddu), ghee, cardamom powder and saffron. A healthy scattering of almonds added richness to this sweet pudding. Served warm or chilled, it tasted heavenly either way.

Please, can I have some more?

More? You must have all of it!

And so it was that we brought some of our host’s sweet and giving nature back with us. We invited her redoubtable gifts of cooking and sense of taste into our own kitchen.

The education that I spoke of wasn’t learning the myriad spices that my friend used or the recipes of each dish. What we learned was the richness of heart and the magnanimity of soul.

As we scooped up some of the rich dessert the next day, savouring every mouthful, we too wished the same sweetness of life to our fellow beings.

Happy Deepaval, each and everyone of you. May your days and years be filled with light and happiness too.

For more slice-of-life stories, visit lifeforbeginners.com.

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