By: Eesha Randhawa
Our story starts in a region especially close to my heart, as this is a province from which my parents came. Punjab was split into two during the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. This was as much an ideological partition as a geographical one, and as borders were redrawn, the region’s culture was fighting to emerge more whole than the country it lost to.
For this edition, we will focus on the Indian province of Punjab.
Indian food has been insulted many times, called “too spicy,” “gross,” or the taunt that many Indian schoolchildren in the west remember, “You smell like curry!”. However, what our racist counterparts do not know is that India is so impossibly large that no two regions will share the same culture. In fact, north to south, east to west, “Indian” will never fully encompass the true identities of those from this subcontinent. Punjabi food is influenced heavily by northernmost Kashmir and its very own colorful and jovial culture. You will often find that food from Punjab marks a special occasion or festival. Be warned, even within the province of Punjab, culture may be subject to change or variation.
History of Punjabi Food
The food of Punjab is unique in India due to its heavily agricultural influence. The farming practices and food can be traced back to the early Harappan civilization, which also consisted of subsistence farming. In Punjab, freshness is key, Punjabi hospitality has always been grounded on serving everything to the highest quality.
The method of cooking is also unique to Punjab, where a tandoor (brick or clay oven) can be used to cook grain rotis (also called chapattis, Punjabi flatbread). Basmati rice, long and aromatic rice grown in Punjab, is a staple of Punjabi food and an integral part of many meals. The use of grain grown specifically in Punjab has lead to this region being aptly named, “India’s Bread Basket.” We will explore more history as we take a bite into each course that highlights Punjabi menus!
Punjabi breakfast consists of many different varieties, the most common types are stuffed flatbreads, or paranthas which might be found stuffed with potatoes (aloo ka parantha), daikon radish (mooli ka parantha), fenugreek leaves (methi ke parantha), lentils (dal ka parantha) and many other varieties. The bread will almost always be accompanied by dhai, or yogurt. Yogurt is cultured and fermented at home for many Punjabis, with the weather suitable for bacterial growth. The consumption of yogurt is an ancient practice in India. Ayurveda, the oldest medical practice of history, revered yogurt for its health benefits and the lifestyle it promoted. To top off the bread you might find some heavy cream butter or ghee, another derivative of yogurt or milk (keep in mind Punjab’s farming practices). A mockery of Punjabi food historically calls out the carbs and saturated fats. However, a farmer’s day consisted of work and very little downtime. A good breakfast could precede a lunch or dinner by anywhere near 8 to 10 hours depending on the work the day could bring.
Lunch is dominated by light curries and rotis, as well as sweets and delectables available.
Simple rotis are made on brick ovens or mud stoves, and they carry the smells of the grain they are harvested from. Roti can be paired with many curries one such staple is dhal. Dhal can be any lentil cooked in a curry with a specific thadka or stir fried aromatics and spices. Spices such as turmeric, mustard seeds, cumin and many others are harvested and grown in the regions it is consumed in. Dhal itself consists of several varieties, including kidney beans (rajma) or chickpeas (chole).
Sometimes, on a day of celebration, rotis won’t be cooked on a stove, but instead fried in hot oil, making poori or bhuture in other regions. These are enjoyed with bleached or pale chole and eaten with, of course, dhai!
On days where farming can really get someone down, Punjabis prepare a special drink, lassi, or buttermilk. Lassi is dhai mixed with or without sugar and ice, a refreshing break in a day of hard work. Another drink enjoyed in Punjab is ruhavsa or a rose milk drink. The roses of Punjab have their own special scent, one my mother wishes she could smell here in America, one so distinctly sweet, it’s mouthwatering. The aura and taste of Punjabi roses is clearly displayed in this drink, where rose petals are boiled in hot water and then used to make a paste which can be mixed in milk, water, or even lassi. Another drink Punjabis can’t live without is rhao, sugar cane juice. This is sold by vendors on a hot day and made by juicing long stocks of sugar cane. The mere mention of this drink makes my father’s mouth water as he remembers his childhood of stealing sips of this delicacy on the way to school. Finally we have, cha (mostly pronounced chah, not chai, in Punjab). This is made from the tea grown uniquely in each region within Punjab. No two villages will serve the same cha, but it will always carry the same feelings of home. Black tea is grown in Punjab and Kashmir and sold around the nation, every step of its creation is ingrained into the culture and spirit of Punjab.
Punjabi dinners are no less than feasts. These meals can consist of tandoori roti, or naan. Naan can be paired with a goat or lamb curry, and as a vegetarian option, can be served with something like saag, a mustard and spinach dish. There are no bounds to what a dinner can consist of, however, cows are not cooked for consumption in India. Cows are sacred for the milk they provide and their significance to the Hindu religion. Pork is rarely consumed, due to pigs hardly being raised in Punjab. Other dinner staples include Samosas which are fried grain pockets stuffed with peas and potatoes, and sometimes chicken.
Punjabi sweets are among the greatest I have ever had (bias fully acknowledged). They each have their own process of creation and tabling. One of the most common Punjabi sweets, available all around this region of India, are ladoos. Ladoos are a mixture of graham flour and sugar. The sugar is made into a syrup after the graham flour is roasted. This is then rolled into a ball, and covered in coconut shavings or other toppings. The villages of Punjab are often found to be especially fond of their ladoos, as the production of them is expensive and the nearest vendors could be many kilometers away. Next, we have Barfi and Gulab Jamun. I mention these in tandem as they are made from the same boiled milk substance, khoia. Khoia is essentially condensed milk, home made. It is boiled and stirred to the extent to which one can whip it, and then molded and sweetened to the makers wishes. For Gulab jamun, khoia is mixed further with flour and fried. When slightly warmed, the rolled balls are put in chashni, a sugar syrup.
In conclusion, the food of a country is a force to be reckoned with. Food is a catalyst for culture and one should never trivialize it simply because they are unfamiliar with it. Food sanctity is undeniable, it is a reflection of the history, science, and values of the land it adheres to. Do not allow yourself to disrespect food, especially since in nations such as India, food is sacred and showing anger or disrespect to it is basically showing disrespect to a life force. Don’t stand to be a fool! Enjoy your cultural dishes!
Hope you enjoyed this taste into the Colorful Continental.
Recently, The Bachelor aired an episode in which the bright and w(hite)onderful girls went abroad to the illustrious island nation of Singapore, which is known for many attributes, including its fashion, architecture, and globalization; and they had a taste of the culturally significant food of the region. Without even tasting it, without even allowing themselves a chance to actually consume it, the group resorted to insulting the food and the culture and ignoring the work and ingredients that they were served. They went to a foreign country, another nation with another culture, and insulted their food.
So this is a newsflash for those of you who think your pies and mac n’ cheese and rising rates of heart disease are the gold standard for cuisine. Food is culture, and going into a country for the aesthetic but insulting the food is idiotic. It’s time for the west to learn, as far as food goes, it’s in the minority and it can stand to learn a thing or two from its neighbors to the east, although we all know when the west tries to learn something from any country with a different culture, they can’t help but imperialize it along the way.
That’s why we at the team of Overachiever Magazine welcome you to our new series, “The Colorful Continental.” During this series, you will have a chance to learn about foods around Asia, a continent that is diverse in cuisine and culture, but is often mocked and belittled, even though it is consumed by over half of the world’s population.