How Partition Has Shaped The Food In Punjab

Punjabi cuisine today is a mélange of Indo-Mughal-Persian-Afghani nuances. With the fleeing Punjabis from the North West Frontier region came the tandoor, and a whole new landscape of barbequed fare for the rest of India
Punjabi cuisine today is a mélange of Indo-Mughal-Persian-Afghani nuances
Punjabi cuisine today is a mélange of Indo-Mughal-Persian-Afghani nuancesShutterstock

Javed Akhtar's immortal lyric "Panchee, dariya, pawan ke jhonke…koi sarhad inhe na koi rokay" (The birds, the river, the wafting breezes... no borders can stop them) could well be true of the culinary culture of divided Punjab. In 1947 after the partition of British India, the Punjab province was divided between India and Pakistan — a tragic decision that led to the creation of a new country. Yet, no matter what politicians in their wisdom may do, Punjab's culinary heritage is eternally rooted in the vast swathes of its lands fed by the five rivers, from which the name of this region — (Persian-panj/five, ab/waters) — was inspired.

With its strategic position on the legendary Silk Route of yesteryears, it was quite natural that those qafilas (groaning under their loads of textiles, spices, indigo, sugar, rice, and unimaginable luxuries) to the markets of Bukhara, Ishfahan, and beyond the Caucasus Mountains), also carried away with them tales of this wondrous "land of milk and honey"... this legendary symbol of the riches of the Indian Subcontinent. While undivided Punjab's Lahore, Amritsar, Ludhiana, and Karnal were transformed into thriving textile production hubs, the agrarian community of Punjab's fertile soil was producing bountiful harvests of wheat, barley, millet, maize, paddy, sugarcane, greens... and plentiful milk (along with ghee and curd), which are the staples of the state's culinary predilections from the days of Punjab's pastoral Aryans in Vedic times.

Winds From The Northwest

With the fleeing Punjabis from the North-West Frontier region came the tandoor
With the fleeing Punjabis from the North-West Frontier region came the tandoorShutterstock

Punjab was at the forefront of the green revolution, and though it may have been India's pride, it was also the envy of its neighbours — judging from the number of invasions it bore the brunt of over the centuries. One of the most vivid narratives of these waves of foreign ingress was written into Punjab's culinary traditions. Punjabi cuisine today is a mélange of Indo-Mughal-Persian-Afghani nuances. With the fleeing Punjabis from the North-West Frontier region came the tandoor, and a whole new landscape of barbecued fare for the rest of India.

The Punjabi bhatthi (oven) was made of bricks or mud and clay and topped with a sheet of metal. An opening was fed with wood and grass to light the fire. The tandoor was found in the courtyard in many Punjabi homes as tandoori fare rose in popularity post-Partition.

With the cross-cultural winds from the North-West Frontier arrived the simple but robust flavors of a nomadic people. Tandoori meats, fish, slow-cooked mutton barrah, and mutton tikka — Peshwari cuisine with its Afghani influences and the minimal use of spices was the great legacy of undivided Punjab and became integral to the repertoire of India's Punjabi cookhouse, along with Sarson ka saag, Makki di Roti, Maash Dal (lentils), Parathas, and Aam ka Achar. These cross-cultural influences were reflected in the embracing of fresh and dried fruits and a wide range of exotic nuts, from Afghanistan and Central Asia — pine nuts (chilgoza), pistachios, almonds, apricots, khubani, sarda, musk melons, and the like.

"Back in the day," says posh Delhi's society hostess Kanwal Chaudhry, "The food was very simply cooked, but the focus was on its freshness and purity. No dessert was served... at best, some crushed gur (jaggery) was served after the main meal. It was a symbol of honour when a special guest was served kheer or a pinni with almonds (crushed and heated) served with warm milk. Almonds were very much an upper-crust statement."

The Punjabi bhatthi (oven) was made of bricks or mud and clay and topped with a sheet of metal
The Punjabi bhatthi (oven) was made of bricks or mud and clay and topped with a sheet of metalShutterstock

While traditional Punjabi cooking is pretty straightforward (no fancy marinations et al), recipes are rife with the largesse of milk, curd, butter, and cream in the cooking of fresh vegetables and meats. Punjabis today are known for having one of the richest cuisines in India, having embraced everything from the spare offerings of the NWFP cuisine to the recipes of exotic Mughlai cuisine culled from the imperial kitchens of the Mughals — largely characterized by the use of yogurt, fried onions, nuts, and saffron — in particular, the preparations of rich poultry and mutton dishes. Today, Punjab's ubiquitous "tandoori chicken" knows no borders as it continues to conquer the world.

Celebrity gastronome, author, and ambassador of Indian cuisine Jiggs Kalra, in his book "Classic Cooking of Punjab," co-authored with friend Pushpesh Pant, tells us, "No Punjabi has ever treated the 'two square meals' as a daily chore. His ancestors considered eating as a sacred ritual."

The regional offerings of pre-Partition Punjab are still sacrosanct in the annals of Punjab's culinary traditions. Peshawar was inspired by the culinary traditions of Afghanistan. That really should not come as a surprise considering this is Pathan country and the township, surrounded by deep orchards of stone fruits such as peaches and apricots, apart from pomegranates and apples, handled much of the trade that passed through it which included saffron from Kashmir, spices from Hyderabad, and sugar, salt, tea, and hing from Delhi.

Rawalpindi, adjoining the Kashmir Valley and Afghanistan, imbibed the influences of both the robust fare of the North-West Frontier and Kashmiri cooking. Its access to the best produce of the Punjab heightened its epicurean adventures. Baluchistan, of which vast swathes fell under British Rule, was neighbors with the NWFP, Persia, Sind, and Punjab. Basic and robust fare dominated the frontier table, including game birds, unleavened flatbreads made of barley and wheat, cheeses, vegetables — and rice and fish in the coastal area. Amritsar, surrounded by swathes of ber, mango, and jamun groves, produced wheat, gram, maize, barley, sugar cane, pulses, rice, and cotton. The legendary "milk" is courtesy of their use of bovines in agricultural pursuits and dairy farms.

Dependable Dhabas

Punjab's iconic dhaba culture evolved out of the need for survival for the displaced peoples of Punjab, who fled their homes on both sides of the border with the Partition of India. The fare they offered to people was basic Punjabi comfort food—rotis, parathas, dal, subzi. The food was fresh, the turnover quick, and there were no leftovers because of the problems of refrigeration. So you sold what you cooked, and that was it. These dhabas became the lifeline of truckers, and the Grand Trunk Road was the fertile ground upon which they flourished. A leading light back in the day was the Sher-e-Punjab chain which served up ma di dal, tandoori chicken, and tandoori roti as staples. The dhabas were also pivotal in bringing Punjabi culinary traditions to the rest of the country as fleeing Punjabis spread across the country with the aftermath of Partition.

The dhaba culture of Amritsar has paens sung to it for its fabulous array of culinary experiences from kukkad (chicken) to stuffed kulchas to lassi peda mar key.

Fleeing Hindu Sindhis from across the border brought with them their special "papad." Mahashian Di Hatti (MDH) spice baron, Mahashay Dharmpal, having got fed up running a tonga to survive in Delhi on leaving Punjab, ended up reviving the old family business of ground spices under the banner of Mahashian Di Hatti of Sialkot "Deggi Mirch Wale."

The iconic Punjabi butter chicken was a contribution of Peshwari restaurateur Kundan Lal Gujral who opened Moti Mahal in Daryaganj, when he fled to Delhi during partition. At first, he would serve chicken roasted in the tandoor he had brought with him. But with the rising demand for curries, he took leftover chicken and cooked it in a rich sauce of butter, curd, tomatoes— thus began the saga of the Punjabi butter chicken and "makhni gravy" and its entry into Delhi's curry culture.

With Anubhav at Delhi Food Walks you can trawl the lanes of Chandni Chowk (Shajehanbad) which once dominated by Muslim, Kayasth and Baniya food ways, also reflected the changing culinary culture with the arrival of the refugees from Western Punjab with its predilection for poultry, maize, wheat, greens and dairy products.

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