It all started with the khinni ....
A meandering conversation with my sisters on a family chat led to a poignant lament about forgotten fruits and vegetables. Some whose taste we remembered well and clearly, and some that were simply words for us but we had heard older relatives describe these native or regional species that either had a short shelf life or a peculiar taste liked only by some. Some that are still available, such as the jamun and ber, are unrecognisable in their hybrid plumpness and complete lack of taste.
So here’s our ode to native fruits lost to the genie of hybridisation and market economics and, in the case of the ganderi and fresh sugarcane juice or the humble singhara that grew in ditches, new ideas of health and hygiene .... let’s see if you can recollect the taste and texture of any of these?
Where Have These Food Items Gone?
Khinni (small, pale, elongated grape shaped fruit with a slightly sour after taste),
falsa (tart purple berries that could be eaten with masala or turned into a sherbet),
shahtoot (mulberry fruit too fragile to be transferred and usually eaten straight from the trees),
kamrakh (star fruit) and jharberi ke ber (small tart orange-red berries usually sold in combination with the kamrakh outside schools),
ganderi (sugarcane stalks stripped and cut in bite sized pieces stacked on slabs of ice with rose petals scattered on top by the vendors),
loquat (that arrived for a few days in the peak of summer),
bael (wood apple that most considered fit only to be consumed as a sherbet to beat the blistering loo winds and since it was known for its thirst-quenching properties was once often made during Ramzan till it was replaced with the ready-mixed Roohafza as the thirst-quencher of choice for most fasting folk)
The chakotara (pomelo) we can still find in its fancy avatars and then there is kakronda (the plump pinkish-red berries that confectioners have been tricking us and passing off as cherries for decades).
Among the veggies there were the desi tamatar (pale orange and much smaller than the gigantic hybrid varieties now available) and reserved only for salads or the occasional tamatar gosht; the desi gajar (bright orangey carrots usually brought from the hills unlike the cold storage ones); lasonde (glue berries that I remember my grandmother pickling in vinegar), the famous kachanar ki kali (buds that were transformed into a delicately spiced dish), and phoot (that seemed unable to make up its mind whether it was a cucumber or a melon).
Of course, the list is endless with countless regional variations of forgotten or lost foods.
Urdu Poetry on Foods Famous and Forgotten
Since my frame of reference in this series is Urdu poetry, alas there will be much that I will miss from a country as gastronomically rich and as culinarily diverse as ours but hopefully, this will serve to revive memories of once-dearly-beloved-now-forgotten foods for some and the discoveries of new delights that will make up for the lapses.
Perhaps no other Urdu poet has written as much on food as Nazir Akbarabadi, the people’s poet par excellence from Agra. There is, of course his ballad on roti, called appropriately enough 'Rotinama', but there are also poems entitled ‘Agre Ki Kakdi’, ‘Tarbuz’ (Watermelon’), ‘Kharbuze’ (‘Melons’), ‘Santara’ (‘Orange’), ‘Narangi’ (‘Chinese Orange’), ‘Jalebiyan’ . Here he is talking of the quliya with its thin, watery curry once the beloved pairing with the mild pulao now overshadowed by the flamboyant biryani-qorma:
'Nazīr' yaar ki hum ne jo kal ziyafat ki
Pakāyā qarz mañgā kar pulav aur quliya
I arranged a banquet for my beloved, ‘Nazir’
And took a loan to cook a pulao and quliya
Majeed Lahori speaks of bhune teetar (roasted partridge) now reduced to a distant memory:
Murġhiyan kofte machhli bhune teetar ande
Kis ke ghar jaega sailab-e-ġhiza mere baad
Chickens, kofte, fish, roasted partridge, eggs
Whose house will this flood of foods be sent to after me
In her nazm, 'Woh kaisi aurten thiin', Asna Badr asks:
Jo sil par surkh mirchein piis kar saalan pakaatii thiin
Sahar se shaam tak masruuf lekin muskuraatii thiin
Grinding red chillies on a mortar they would cook a curry
Busy from dawn till dusk, they would be busy but always smiling
Changing Foods in Changing Times
Perhaps nothing illustrates the way food, and by extension our eating habits have changed over the years than this sher by Irfan Khalid:
Kaagaz kii paleton mein khaane kaa taqaaza hai
Haalaat ke shaane pe culture kaa janaaza hai
Food is expected to be eaten from paper plates
The bier of culture is carried on the shoulder of circumstances
However, in an India where dress has become associated with religion, how can food be left behind? The case of a Lok Sabha member seeking the ban of a retailer on grounds of promoting ‘Abrahamisation’ is too well known to bear repeating; what it has generated in its backwash will take months to process.
There is, for instance, a recent post demanding a posh, high-end online portal to explain if it was showing an “ad for Eid”. Why? Because the two elegantly-dressed models are wearing green.
It generated much humour among netizens: if green is ‘M’, saffron is surely ‘H’.
Poetry on Communalisation of Food
As for food, the netizens hazarded many guesses based on half-baked historical knowledge: samosa, jalebi, gulab jamun are ‘M’ but kheer/payasam is ‘H’ while cake is ‘C’. The droller ones maintained surely palak is ‘H’ whereas a pumpkin cannot be anything but ‘H’. As for flowers, roses are ‘M’ while ‘lotuses’ are ‘H’, and so on and so forth.
Perhaps Saghar Khayyami knew what was waiting in the wings of a New India when he wrote:
Nafraton ki jang mein dekho to kya kya ho gaya
Sabziyan Hindu huin bakra Musalman ho gaya
See what all has happened in this war of hatreds
Vegetables have become Hindu while the goat has become Muslim
But there is hope if the actor Ashutosh Rana (also a fine poet) can ask:
Shiv ki Ganga bhi pani hai
Aab-e zamzam bhi pani hai
Mulla bhi piye pandit bhi
Pani ka mazhab kya hoga?
Shiv’s ganga is water
Aab-e zamazam is water
The mulla drinks it so does the pandit
What will be the religion of water?
(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.)