• Chefs & Recipes

    Looking back in time- Ancient Pulaos

  • –  Avantika Bhuyan

    It was while reading Feasts and Fasts: A History of Food in India, a seminal book by Colleen Taylor Sen, that I came across a mention of Qanoon-e-Islam, or The Customs of the Moosulmans of India.

    Published in London in 1832 and written by Ja’far Sharif, this fascinating book chronicles the rich food customs of the Indian muslims. What took me by surprise was this exhaustive list of 25 varieties of pulaos, listed by Sen that were prevalent at the time and were mentioned by Sharif. These included: the babune flavoured with chamomile; korma; mittha or the sweet rice made with rice, sugar, butter, spices and aniseed; the shashranga – a drier version of the mittha; tarl with rice, meat, turmeric and butter; soya; macchi; imli; dumpukht; zarda; koku with fried eggs; dogostha or two meats; mutanhan with meat, rice, butter and sometimes pineapple and nuts; haleem; lambni with cream, nuts, crystallised sugar and butter; jaman or made with jamun fruit; titar; bater; kofta; and khari chakoli with meat, vermicelli and green lentils.

    Epicureans across the country have always been struggling to find a definition for the pulao, given that its origins are still shrouded in mystery. The Oxford Companion to Food defines it as a middle-eastern method of cooking rice so that every grain remains separate. According to Sen’s book, the descriptions of the basic technique appear in the 13th century Arab cookbooks, though the word ‘pulao’ was not used. The dish, with the actual word ‘pulao’ ascribed to it, might have been created in the early 16th century in the Safavid court of Persia. Over time, pulaos began to acquire lyrical names such as “gulazar, nur, koku and chambeli. Chefs sought to transform their pulaos into works of art. In one pulao, half of each grain of rice was coloured fiery red like a ruby and the other half was white and sparkled like a crystal, so that they together resembled seeds of a pomegranate,” writes Sen.

    In culinary history, the pulaos have always served second fiddle to the biryanis, with the latter being feted and celebrated over centuries at royal courts, and later within fine dining spaces. However, pulaos have been quietly representing the rich tapestry of India’s community cooking. If one looks closely, you will see these historic rice preparations reflect personal memories, regional flavours, influences of past invaders and colonisers, customisation by families, and more.

    It is while ruminating over all of this, that I decide to go on a pulao trail, looking at dishes from across the country which have been passed down through generations. The first on my list is the berry pulao, made popular by Boman Kohinoor of the iconic Britannia and Co, Mumbai. “This pulao can be traced back to Persia,” says Anahita Dhondy, chef manager, SodaBottleOpenerWala. For most diners, a meal at her restaurants is incomplete without a serving of the berry pulao. “Originally the rice was cooked in vegetable or chicken stock with mild spices. After this saffron, berries and a sprinkling of rose water was added to complete the dish,” she says. One can also savour this aromatic pulao at the Royal Vega, ITC Grand Chola, where it goes by its original name of zerasht pulao. There are many other pulaos and rice preparations that form a part of the Parsi culinary repertoire, which are mentioned in Vividh Vani, one of the earliest Parsi cookbooks written in the 1800s. “I have a copy of this book. Written in Gujarati, it contains a rice section and an egg section. All the pots and pans required for cooking are mentioned in great detail. The book was meant to be given to a newly-married girl or to someone who didn’t have much knowledge of cooking,” says Dhondy. It contains mentions of the mutton and chicken pulao, which are still cooked in Parsi kitchens.

    While the berry pulao is not cooked at homes often – it’s more of a celebratory dish – the one dish which is cooked regularly in the Parsi household kitchen is the yakhni pulao. Versions of this pulao can be found from the Balkans to the subcontinent and has been cooked in Hyderabad and Delhi for centuries. Its origins can once again be traced to Persia is known for its nuanced, layered flavour. Sadia Dehlvi, in her new book Jasmine & Jinns, writes: “Personally, I prefer the yakhni pulao to the biryani as it is more nuanced…. Yakhni pulao is ideally had with arq-e-nana chutney, which is sweet. In summer, it is accompanied with simple raita. Yakhni literally means broth or stock. Since the rice is cooked in meat stock, it is called yakhni pulao.”

    Each pulao dish is like a bubbling cauldron of nostalgia, containing whiffs of all those who have touched it in the past – be it invaders, conquerors who added flavours from their homes to the cooking pot or, on a more personal level, apas, ammas, nanis and other family members who nurtured and nourished these recipes, adding their own flourishes to the dish. One such dish is the potli mutton pulao, cooked by Rushina Munshaw-Ghildiyal, author, consultant and founder of the APB Cook Studio, Mumbai. “My in-laws are from Garhwal and this dish was taught to me by my husband’s nani. I don’t know if this is cooked across Garwhal, it seems to be more like a family recipe,” says Ghildiyal. The cooking method of this dish is extremely interesting as the spices are cooked inside a little potli along with mutton. “The rice is cooked in the same liquid and the mutton is served on the side,” she says.

    Cookbook author and consultant Bridget White Kumar too has vivid memories of pulaos being cooked by her grandmother, while growing up in the Kolar Gold Fields in Karnataka, which was home to a strong Anglo-Indian community. Today, she keeps these dishes alive by hosting pop-ups and festivals around the rich Anglo-Indian culinary repertoire. One of the oldest pulaos cooked in her home today is the mutton one, which is nearly 200 years old. “Cooking the lamb pilaf was quite a procedure. The onions had to be thinly sliced and the green chillies and coriander leaves chopped very finely. Even the tomatoes were first blanched and skin removed, then chopped into bits and strained through a sieve,” she says. “The ayah would manually grind all the masalas on a grinding stone. In those days, everything was made from scratch. My grandma would then prepare this dish over a wood fired oven, cooking on low heat for at least two hours.” The resulting dish would be so rich and delicious that Kumar and all her cousins would wolf it down in a matter of minutes. It is not just this treasure trove of recipes that have been passed on to Kumar, but precious words of wisdom as well. For instance, her mother used to say, that one should wash the rice seven times with clean water before cooking the pulao, so as to eliminate the strong smell of raw rice from the dish.

    “We also have a tomato pilaf, which has been coming down through generations. It is light-flavoured and cooked on dum, using the freshest of tomatoes, which are ground and juiced,” says Kumar. “Then there are saffron coconut rice and the kedgeree, which is like a lentil pilaf.” She sends me a set of recipes mentioned in the faded pages of an old recipe book, The Indian Cookery Book, owned by her mother, which mentions a really unique lobster or fish “pellow”, made using hilsa or bhetki fish, and eight to ten large long-legged lobsters with roe or coral, cooked in an aromatic seasoning of onions, sliced ginger, peppercorns, bay leaves, unroasted coriander seeds, and salt.

    If the Kolar Gold Fields is redolent with flavours of Anglo-Indian repast, the Goan pulaos bear fragrances of the Delhi Sultanate, conquerors from Karnataka and the Portuguese as well. “The Portuguese, for instance, brought in the arroz, or rice cooked in stock. It is not fully dry and can be seen made in a lot of upmarket homes, even today. There’s arroz de pato, made with duck, and another one made with seafood,” says author and food writer, Odette Mascarenhas. She also mentions the robust sausage pulao, which is made across Goa. In south Goa, sausage with skin is cooked with rice. “The only time you take out the skin is while eating it. In north Goa, however, it is cooked without the skin. The rice is extremely yellow, because of the oil that oozes out of the sausage,” she says.

    Over years, home chefs have come up with their own variations of the iconic pulaos. For instance, Upasana Shukla Maheshwari, who hosted a pop-up dedicated to the lost recipes of Kannauj, makes a vegetarian version of Awadh’s famous moti pulao. According to Sen, the apogee of the pulao maker’s art was the moti pulao made by beating silver and gold foil into the yolk of an egg. The mixture was stuffed into the gullet of chicken, which was lightly cooked. When the skin was cut with knife, shining pearls appeared, they were mixed with the meat and the whole was mixed into rice. However, since Maheshwari’s family is vegetarian, her nani adapated this recipe and introduced veg motis into the pulao. “These vegetarian motis were made of mashed paneer, cashews and a bit of mashed potato. These were then deep fried. Though the outer covering was golden, the insides were white. Fighting over them is one of my greatest childhood memories,” she says.

    Chefs too have their own version of these age-old recipes. Manjit Gill, corporate chef, ITC Hotels, for instance, has made extensive study of these traditional dishes. “We don’t get recipes but stories. We derive the recipe from these stories, and cook them in our own style,” says Gill. These pulaos are fit into the menu, to suit the seasonality of produce and the occasion. “Our menus change every month. Each time the chef has to plate these differently according to the ingredients available. Some of the pulaos such as the gucchi pulao are our USP,” he says.

    Hotels and chefs have, of course, been working hard to revive these ancient recipes. For instance, The Oberoi Group launched Rivaayat – The Indian Culinary Conclave with an objective to revive traditional Indian cuisine in modern times. The culinary experts included restaurateur and food critic Osama Jalali, Dr Izzat Hussain, chef and caterer Mumtaz Khan and Chef Sweety Singh. It is during one of the many editions that a team of chefs revived the Shahi Pulao, which along with Afghani, yakhni and peas pulao, is a popular dish in the Pakistani pulao repertoire.

    Who says that the pulaos need to be savoury, they can be sweet as well. One of the most unique of these is gud pulao, cooked by Konkani Muslims, an ethnic clan native to the Konkan belt of Maharashtra, hailing from its Raigad, Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg districts. According to Saher Khanzada, better known in Mumbai’s culinary circles as the Bombay Glutton and owner of a food blog with the same name, the gud pulao, even though a rice preparation with a sweet profile, is not a dessert but a main course dish. “It is relished with a dry bedagi chilly chutney and roasted urad dal papads. Its recipe also entails the use of spices such as while green cardamom, cinnamon and cloves, and also onions and coconut milk,” says Khanzada, who is a strong proponent of the Konkani Muslim cuisine.

    Bridget White Kumar

    She is a renowned author of culinary books and connoisseur of Anglo Indian cuisine. She has also been hosting pop-ups and food festivals around the country.

    Anahita Dhondy

    She is the chef-manager at  SodaBottleOpenerWala. Hailing from a Parsi family in Delhi, she is one of the few women chefs in the country.

    Avantika Bhuyan is a freelance journalist, who has been writing on food, art and culture for more than a decade now. She has, in the past, worked with prominent news dailies and magazines such as The Indian Express, Open and The Business Standard. When not scouring for stories, you can find her curled up with a book or simply daydreaming of journeys ahead.