Revisiting the kitchens of childhood
Every Sunday, we went to my grandparents’ house in Rajendra Nagar for dinner. First the house was a red-brick one with a courtyard in Old Rajendra...
The experience of food can mean different things for different people. But it’s the one thing that instantly brings people together – as a family, as friends, even as strangers who quite unexpectedly get to share a table. It opens up silences and creates shared moments
Every Sunday, we went to my grandparents’ house in Rajendra Nagar for dinner. First the house was a red-brick one with a courtyard in Old Rajendra Nagar; later, a bigger plot in New Rajendra Nagar. In both neighbourhoods, there was a flourishing neighbourhood dhaba called Bittu’s or Pappu’s, which served chicken curry, mutton curry, rotis, black ma-ki-dal, gobi-aloo and a ‘mixed vegetable’ preparation that changed from day to day.
The rotis were my job, my father’s and mine. We would walk down with my cousin to the dhaba and order the rotis for dinner. If it was very cold, as a great indulgence, we would drive down and wait inside my parents’ Maruti. But I liked to stand, sweaty, right next to the tandoor to watch the roti man at work.
If I stood on tiptoe, I could see the red flame inside the tandoor and the air pockets rising in the rotis, which flaked and cracked when touched. The roti man had three assistants, each ganglier than the last, who would lay out huge sheets of wholewheat dough, and cut and roll them into balls.
They would then dust them with dry flour, flatten them, whirl them once or twice around in their floured hands, and hand them over to the artiste. He would lower the dough to the inner wall of the tandoor, which was covered in iron mounds on the inside, where the dry heat would blister and cook the bread.
He always knew when the rotis were ready to be fished out with his hooked iron rod; if you ordered enough rotis, they would give you a plastic bag of raw red onions and some of the dal fry—‘dal fly’ as my father referred to it—free.
The neighbours would be out for their dinners, too: the officious lady from a few streets down who ran everyone’s lives, the local beat cops, my grandmother’s Arya Samaj cronies, and the next block’s Balraj Kohli uncle who, every Sunday, treated himself to a fiery meat curry and one chilled bottle of beer.
Men came to eat under the naked bulbs suspended from the rafters; women came to pick up food to take home. As they waited, people would fall into backslapping, into handshaking, into gossip.Rajendra Nagar was one of Delhi’s Partition refugee colonies, hurriedly created after 1947 to accommodate the millions of displaced people pouring into independent India.
In Delhi, these neighbourhoods were named after Hindu Congress leaders: Rajendra Nagar, Patel Nagar, Tilak Nagar and Lajpat Nagar. Over time, the accents of its inhabitants mellowed ‘Rajendra Nagar’ down to the more rounded, affectionate ‘Rajinder Nagar’, just as Connaught Place became ‘Knaat Place’, and residential colonies all across South Delhi became ‘c’lonies’.
Rajinder Nagar was, without doubt, a Punjabi c’lony. Punjabi villages and towns had always had common tandoors for baking bread; women would prepare the dough at home and then take it to the communal oven to cook. So tandoors sprang up in Rajinder Nagar too.
In the afternoons or early evenings, my grandmother would make atta at home and take it to the tandoorwala who sat down the street, relying on the households of the neighbouring lanes for business. He had no counter, no tables and chairs, no awning—just five bricks and a clay oven.
The Rajinder Nagar house didn’t originally belong to my dada and dadi. My paternal grandfather was from Pind Dadan Khan, in the arduous Potohar Plateau region of West Punjab, and his family had moved to Rawalpindi and he to Lahore.
My grandmother’s family, though, originally from Fatehgarh Churian in East Punjab, had lived in a village that fell across the new border, now in Pakistan. They came in 1947, like many other Partition refugees, on the trains from West Punjab carrying whatever they could salvage.
My grandmother’s brother wangled a job exchange as a government clerk in Delhi, and this came with a flat in Panchkuian Road, to the west of the city then. For a few months, seventy people squeezed into its three rooms, waiting to find work and somewhere to go.
My grandfather, who’d lived in university accommodation in Lahore, wasn’t eligible for any kind of house allotment. Still, in 1947, they counted themselves lucky. He was a teacher and he managed to find work, first in Rohtak, then in Ajmer, then in Dehradun.
Others languished in refugee camps for years. ‘Don’t be silly,’ Professor Aziz, my grandfather’s colleague at Government College, Lahore had told him. ‘In a little while you can have a permanent position here. I don’t know why you’re going off to God-knows-where. All this will pass.’ Most people were of the same mind. No one thought the border was about to become impermeable.
Not understanding the danger they were in, his sister Channo Devi and her husband refused to leave Murree, where they owned a curio shop; eventually, in September 1947 they were sent to an army-run refugee camp in Rawalpindi, and in October, lifted out to India on a DC3 Dakota flight.
Legend has it that Channo tried to persuade the soldiers to allow her to bring her prized tandoor with her on the plane. The Partition refugees scraped a living out of small patri shops, hardware stores, taxis and phatphatiyas. Some people, like those of my family, became teachers, medical orderlies or joined the army; they became dry cleaners or restaurateurs, or opened textbook shops and ice-cream factories.
Others set up eateries. Some of these were restaurants like Moti Mahal and Chonas, but more often, they were dhabas. With low overheads and slim profit margins, the dhaba owners didn’t have a lot of utensils. They concentrated on their tandoors: rotis toasted to a crackle, and whole chickens skewered and grilled in their red depths.
There would be an assortment of pickles, and ‘mukka wala pyaaz’, a whole onion unmercifully smashed with a closed fist to release its flavours. Sometimes there were chicken tikkas, or seekh kebabs, or tawa-fried meat, like keema or kaleji.
The remains of the fire were used to slow-cook whole black gram or sabut urad dal overnight, which gave the black lentils, the famous ‘ma-ki-dal’, its distinct, creamy, broken-down flavour in time for the next day (the swirls of cream that you see in restaurants turn it into ‘dal makhani’, but these were not part of the original recipe).
A recognisable dhaba repertoire bloomed along the arterial roads of the new colonies, along the highways of the new India, and anywhere anyone could set up five bricks and an oven and sweat their way to a loyal clientele.
‘Today, when Dilliwalas are a minority in their own city, it saddens me to see butter chicken, dal makhani and other roadside fares take over as delicacies,’ wrote a peevish Sadia Dehlvi in a newspaper article in 2010. Butter chicken, the most famous issue of this era, is a restaurant dish, invented, so the probably apocryphal story has it, by Kundan Lal Gujral, the owner of Moti Mahal restaurant, in order to rescue some dried-out tandoori chicken.
Punjabi ma-ki-dal is real dhaba fare, born out of necessity and enterprise. But both are products of the pragmatism and drive that, in the 1890s, led groups of Punjabi labourers to migrate to Canada, Kenya and California to better their lives (several of the Punjabis in California married their fellow agricultural labourers, who were Mexican—an unexpected but obviously rajma-based coming together of hearts). These same qualities helped the new arrivals thrive in post-Independence Delhi.
By Naintara Maya Oberoi, as published in the book ‘Chillies and Porridge: Writing Food’ edited by Mita Kapur