I have always enjoyed reading History as a subject in the school. A few weeks back, I had the fortune of dining with Durban’s best known short story writer, Dr. D. A. Padayachee and well known poet / activist Danny Naicker. Dr. Padayachee took us to Jewel of India which is a part of the exclusive Elangeni Sun at the Durban beach front. We had the pleasure of having Rogan Josh with all its subtle flavours and I have often wondered about it since then. The history of the ultimate delicacy Rogan Josh is as interesting as the dish itself. Curiosity about its origins led me to learn a little more. Many years back, I had been served Rogan Josh by my Kashmiri friends in Gwalior. Its rich aroma prepared by Aunty Katju still gives the sense of olfactory fulfilment. After that I have had the pleasure of enjoying Rogan Josh prepared in different varieties in different countries.
Rogan Josh according to Wikipedia comes from two words, Rogan in Persian means clarified butter and Josh means hot and passionate. It is therefore lamb meat cooked in clarified butter. The history of modern Kashmiri cuisine can be traced back to the fifteenth century invasion of India by Timur, and the migration of 1700 skilled woodcarvers, weavers, architects, calligraphers and cooks from Samarkand to the valley of Kashmir. The descendants of these cooks, the Wazas, are the master chefs of Kashmir. The Mughals who brought the best of cuisine and arts with them are the originators of this delectable recipe. To escape the heat of Delhi and Central India, the Mughals went frequently to Kashmir which was once considered as the ‘Switzerland of the East’. They took the recipe with them. Kashmir with a Hindu king and an Islamic population welcomed the Mughals, their art, literature and food. The Rogan Josh with a few modifications came to be known later as ‘Kashmiri Rogan Josh’. It may possibly be also known earlier as Rogan Gosht. Gosht means mutton. An Anglicised version may have been the Rogan Josh.
The Kashmiri Pandits use asafoetida (hing) and fennel seeds instead of garlic and onions. Rogan Josh was a favourite of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi being Kashmiris too. Amitav Ghosh in his best selling novel ‘The Imam and the Indian’ mentions about Rogan Josh. No matter how many people there were, Shahid was never so distracted as to lose track of the progress of the evening’s meal. From time to time he would interrupt himself to shout directions to whoever was in the kitchen: ‘yes, now add the dahi now’. Even when his eyesight was failing, he could tell from the smell alone exactly which stage the rogan josh had reached. And when things went exactly as they should, he would sniff the air and cry out loud: ‘Ah! Khana ka kya mehak hai!’ Ghosh has connected countries, cultures, people, migration and diaspora from his personal experiences.
Delhi is the melting pot of all cultures. Food has been tried, tested and modified in this pot for long. One can drink a Lahori Almond Milk shake and have sumptuous Lahori Parathas here without even going to Lahore, Pakistan. Old Delhi has been my favourite, food, poetry and music still resides every corner, every crevice of this fabulous place. The streets next to Jama Masjid are the home to a variety of Khandani families owning restaurants going back to the Mughal era. Rogan Josh prepared by different families, its recipe remains a family secret.
Madhur Jaffrey, the diva of Indian cookery belongs to this place. It is with great interest that I read her autobiographical account in her book ‘Climbing the Mango Trees’. She writes about ‘Parathe Wali Gulley’ in Old Delhi where I frequently had Parathas ( Desi Ghee Walle Parathe) with vegetables and green chillies at all times of the day.
Our journey took us through the Lane of Fried Breads ( Parathe Vali Gulley) where I always urged my mother to stop for a quick Paratha ( fried puffy bread) stuffed with fenugreek greens. There were two or three open – fronted shops, all with shallow karhais (woks) set up almost on the street, right where passers – by could be easily enticed. Inside the karhais bobbing in a lake of hot ghee (clarified butter), were three or four big, puffed up parathas.
Regarding regional cuisines, Madhur Jaffrey writes:
What made these dishes special was the hand that put these ingredients together and the order and timing it chose to use. The hand had a different rhythm, a different energy to my mother’s and to our own Hindu cooks from Himalayan villages. It produced a Muslim result. That was the peculiarity of India’s cuisines. There are dozens of traits, habits and traditions that could be used to define regional foods. But such definitions were never entirely satisfactory as there also hovered over each dish an air of indefinable religious sensibility that could be seen and tasted but eluded pinpointing. This stamp was present even if the dishes had the same names but were prepared by families of differing religions, even though these families might have lived in the same city for centuries.
It is for this reason the same Rogan Josh tastes differently even after the same recipe is followed by different people. Madhur Jaffrey takes us on a memory lane to such exotic eateries like Moti Mahal, Ghantewallah and the Jama Masjid kabab corners and even to places like Kashmiri Gate, Daryaganj and Bengali Market which till today remains a paradise for Lajabab food, the best in Delhi.