Coronavirus & Food ‘Fraud’, with Urdu Poetry to Make Sense of It 

Coronavirus & Cooking: What would Urdu poets say about the lockdown-induced shortage of meat & other food items?

5 min read
Coronavirus lockdown means more cooking with less ingredients. 

Jokes about bada and chhota have always been intrinsic to meat-eating cultures across much of the Indian sub-continent. Just as the divide between the ashraf (the plural of sharif or well-born) and, their polar opposite, the ajlaaf was once sharp and clear so were the demographics of those who ate bada (beef) and chhota (mutton or lamb). The ashraf only ever had mutton (even chicken was considered beyond the pale unless of course it was desi murghi) and the rest of the hoi-polloi made do with the more affordable bada which occupied the lowest rung of meat-eating India.

While most road-side eateries and kababis used bada for their skewered delights, some of the more uppity ones in small provincial towns were known to hang placards proclaiming ‘Allah Qasam Chhote ka Hai’ (I swear to God, it’s the chhota) in plain sight thus assuring their clients of the superiority of their meat!

For fear of being lynched let me hasten to add, bada has always meant beef or buffalo meat—now better known as buff, its new-age moniker—and NOT cow's meat. In my living memory, I don't know of any eateries serving cow meat anywhere in India.


Beef and Bluff Beyond Class, Caste & Communalism

It is another matter, though, that according to an unspoken tradition certain dishes have always tasted better with buff rather than mutton or lamb. And while few among the ashraf would deign to admit it, the truth is that a nihari or a kabab or even a biryani is actually more flavourful and more robust with bada rather than chhota! But no more!

Beef bans, the fear of lynching and having to prove the origins of the meat in your fridge, by DNA tests if necessary, have pushed up the prices of buffalo meat making it not merely more expensive—even more than chicken—but also harder to find.

This has led to a calling of b(l)uff! And never more so than during this period of pandemic-induced home isolation, quarantine and extended lockdown.

You would have heard of the old adage of mutton dressed as lamb but have you heard of katthal (jackfruit) masquerading as beef and making an appearance in biryanis, kababs and istoos (the stews or khare masale ka gosht perfected by khansamas of yore)?

Hyderabadi Biryani)
Hyderabadi Biryani)
(Photo: Zomato/Pride Kitchen’s Hyderabadi Biriyani)

Culinary Camouflage at Its Best

Such are the exigencies of the times that camouflage is the order of the day and clever and effective camouflage at that. Not to be confused with the anaemic lauki or arbi that tries to pass off as the real McCoy in Lauki ke Kofte or Arbi ke 'Fish' Cutlet and fools no one in the process, the katthal is rather a natural quick-change artiste.

Don't believe me? Lightly fry up some slices of katthal just enough to block the leaking sap and give a nice goldenish colour. Next, boil in just enough water to soak along with chana dal (an excellent binder) and generous amounts of black pepper, cinnamon, big and small cardamon, cloves, whole red chillies and salt. Use a pressure cooker for best results.

Once cool and dry, mix in a blender. Add finely chopped onion, green chillies, ginger and coriander, make into kabab-sized patties and shallow fry. Voila!

Easy Recipe: Vegetarian’s Kebabs and Milk-Maida Paratha.
Easy Recipe: Vegetarian’s Kebabs and Milk-Maida Paratha.
(Photo: The Quint\Kamran Akhter)

Coronavirus Induced ‘Mindful Eating’ Won’t Get Points from Poets

To truly understand what this unknown poet was referring to, serve these katthal kababs on some leaves plucked from your garden and rue the havoc COVID-19 coronavirus has wrought in our kitchens:

Maikhaana-e-hasti ka jab daur kharaab aayaa
Kullarh mein sharaab aai patte pe kabaab aayaa

When the bad days came in the tavern of Life
Wine came in a clay pot and the kababs on a leaf

The katthal, that most faithful mimic of meat, gives even better results in the istoo as it requires large amounts of onions and khara masala (everything is either whole or roughly cut in chunky pieces). Here again, fry katthal pieces till slightly golden and set aside. In a heavy-bottom pan, heat oil, add whole garam masalas, roughly-chopped onion, ginger, garlic and broken red chillies. Add the katthal and generous tablespoons of whipped curd. Pressure cook. Enjoy your lockdown-induced mindful eating with these words by Hussain Meer Kashmiri:

Kya ḳhabar thi inqalab asmaan ho jaaega
Qorma qaliya nasiib-e-ahmaqan ho jaaega

Little did we know the Revolution would flee to the skies
qormas and qaliyas destined only for the idiots

Finding Food, Finding Religion in Food

Colocosia or arbi, also known as ghuiniyaan, can approximate the flavour of a fish curry when cooked in mustard oil tempered with methi seeds and a generous dollop of whipped yoghurt. How this camouflage doesn’t always work is evident from this verse by Shauq Bahraichi:

Rahzan libaas-e-rahbari mein na chhup saka
Aalu ne laakh chaha pe ghuiyāñ na ho sakā

The highway robber could not hide in the guise of a guide
Despite all efforts the potato couldn’t turn into colocasia

With the prolonged lockdown and shortages of fruits and vegetables and the disappearance of meat from our kitchens (absolute in the early days and partial recently), this culinary masquerade has become not so much a gastronomic whimsy but a necessity.

One is reminded of Saghar Khayyami, the Urdu poet from Delhi who wrote, possibly in another context but nonetheless truer than ever before for us today in our pandemic-inflicted times:

Eik mahina ho gaya hai band hai hum par mutton
Daawaton mein khaa rahein hain bhindiyan ahl-e sukhan
Khaa ke ghuinnyaan kya dikhlaein shairi ka baankpan
Ho gaye palak ka patta nazuki se gulbadan
Nafraton ki jang mein dekho to kya kya kho gaya
Sabziyan Hindu huiin bakra Musalmaan ho gaya

It has been a month since I have eaten mutton
The connoisseurs are eating ladies’ fingers at feasts
What feats of poetry can we show after eating colocasia
The slender damsels have all turned into leaves of spinach
Look what all we have lost in this war of hatred
Vegetables have become Hindu and the goat Musalman


A Poet’s Prayer: Meat For Him, Daal for Others

With meat (especially halal meat from old-fashioned butcheries and not the packaged, cold-chain versions from online vendors or high-end charcouteries) still proving to be elusive, let us conclude with this heartfelt prayer by Dilawar Figar:

Ya rab mire nasiib mein akl-e-halaal ho
Khaane ko qorma ho khilaane ko daal ho

Dear Lord, let there be halal food for me
qorma to eat, and daal to feed others

(Dr Rakhshanda Jalil is a writer, translator and literary historian. She writes on literature, culture and society. She runs Hindustani Awaaz, an organisation devoted to the popularisation of Urdu literature. She tweets at @RakhshandaJalil. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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