Rajesh Mathur HAPPINESS Blog: Mathur cuisine is still alive and well.
The Mathur Kayasthas of Delhi have been in the city since pre-Mughal times. A talented community, who always set great store by education, Mathurs worked in the Mughal courts as munshis and scribes keeping revenue records and taking care of correspondence. Court mores and etiquette thus influenced their culture, language and cuisine.
Among our ancestors were financial advisors, lawyers, connoisseurs of art and music, and there were poets. One subject on which all Mathurs, poets or otherwise, wax lyrical is that of food! I have heard paeans on the delicacy of a shammi kabab or the robustness of a korma.
In the glorious days when no one had heard of cholesterol, our cuisine was definitely non-vegetarian with emphasis on mutton. There were everyday dishes such as mutton and potato curry, korma, keema-matar or kofta; the more elaborate ones included parsindas which could be cooked in various ways — either dry or in a rich gravy or stuffed with masala and nuts.
Sunday lunch in most Mathur households was pulao and kofta with occasionally bhunva kaleji or bheja. (pulao by definition is rice cooked in rich mutton stock along with meat and spices and is distinct from biryani where the rice is separately cooked and then combined with either cooked or raw meat. Rice cooked with vegetables is called “tahiri”).
I remember having a fair amount of game as people would go on shikaar and share the partridge, quail, wild boar and sometimes venison. Of course there were vegetarians, but we often dress up our vegetarian items to look like meat. We have dal-ka-keema and dal-ki-kaleji made with soaked, ground lentils, kele-keparsinde, and kofta made with a variety of vegetables.
Holiday breakfast would often be bervin (a pitthi stuffed poori) with potatoes and a saunf chutney, or nagauri (a crisp semolina poori) with kofta, and halva with both. “Gazak daaru” or snacks to accompany drinks included shammi kabab, bhunva kaleji, bhuvna murg and masala chops.
Every household had quantities of homemade besan-ke-laddu and mathhri made with sooji which were part of “naashta”, a term for both breakfast and tea. This could be supplemented with shop bought kachori, samosa, and mithai like piste-ki-lauz, badaam-ki-lauz, khurchan, imarti, halva sohan and the wickedly rich, dark habshi halva. Desserts included various types of kheer, delicate phirni, kulfi and seasonal halvas. Daulat-ki-chaat, a divine frothy confection of milk foam can only be made in winter.
Certain items were associated with specific festivals; sankrant which falls in January had til-ke-laddu, the monsoon festivals of teej and rakhi had andarse-ki-goli (sweet ground rice balls coated in sesame and fried), and sugared vermicelli; On Holi, there were green chickpea laddus, sweetened khoya and nut filled gujiyas and large savoury besan papris. The latter two were also made on Diwali. As the festival of Janamashtmi celebrates birth, sugared nuts and lotus seeds usually given to new mothers are made.
Another tradition was the great family picnic — a day long extravaganza involving the entire extended family, several servants, and the wherewithal for cooking packed like sardines into cars and disgorged at the chosen location. I remember Humayun’s tomb, Qutub Minar, Surajkund and, of course, the family orchard. The meat and pulao were cooked at the venue, usually by the men. Many Mathur men were excellent cooks and would come into their own at these picnics which will, sadly, only remain in memory — the joint family has broken up, the family orchards have gone and one would never be permitted to cook in public places.
The food packed in a tiffin-carrier was generally keema-matar, sookhe alu and pooris along with some pickle. The Raj influence on our food was evident in the porridge, bacon and egg breakfast and the roast meats and chops that were often on the dinner menu. The innovative Indian cooks learned to tenderize goat meat using Indian spices and produced “angrezi khana” with a decidedly Indian flavour. They produced delicious cakes and puddings using a simple bake pan on a coal fire.
Although a way of life has passed, we still make our great dishes at festive occasions and one can get most of the traditional sweets and snacks in the ‘Shaher”. Many enterprising young women have started taking orders for bespoke dishes and recipes have been recorded and passed on. Mathur cuisine is truly alive and well.