Which came first – the chicken or the egg? And no, I’m not asking this with reference to the bird flu scare. It’s the first question I asked Chef Arun Tyagi, Corporate Chef of the MBD group of hotels when I visited a festival of breads that featured 100 different varieties. On the other hand, the salans and vegetable bhujias were deliberately kept low key. So, which came first: meat and vegetables or breads?
According to Tyagi, the obvious answer is breads. The clue lies in agriculture itself: grain was cultivated for a far longer time than vegetables. “All curries are eaten with staples, but all staples are not necessarily eaten with accompaniments,” he opines. Which is why today’s fad diets are turning traditional wisdom on its head. By eating only meat and vegetables, we are doing the diametric opposite of our forefathers, who ate only breads, with few, if any accompaniments.
Tyagi already knew about sixty or so breads and getting another forty was child’s play. The whole point about them is the classification. Do you go according to grain used? It’s rice in most of the southern states and wheat (including refined flour) in the north, but that doesn’t take into account bajra in Rajasthan, mandwa in Garhwal, besan in Punjab, Rajasthan and Gujarat, and jowar in Rajasthan, UP and Maharashtra.
Neither can you generalize about Muslim versus the rest, inspite of the fact that Muslim breads tend to be leavened. If sour curd used to be the traditional raising agent that has now been overtaken by yeast, how do you explain pathiri? A Moplah bread, it’s made out of wheat in South India, the bastion of the rice-based accompaniment, and it’s flat, so it manages to break two rules. On the other hand, idlis and sannas are not generally linked with one community or another, but they do have a leavening agent.
Tyagi feels strongly that breads evolved from the grain that was grown locally, together with the way the cuisine of a particular community evolved. Thus, conditions in UP are conducive for growing wheat, and any group of people who eat kebabs regularly had to have a bread that would not compete with the taste of the kebab, yet would have a consistency that was user-friendly. That’s how the roomali roti was born, which is why it doesn’t have a leavening agent.
On the other hand, the interestingly named Gauzban actually looks like a cow’s tongue, so it’s a fair bet that it did not come from the cow-belt. With chironji and pistachio powder, it’s reasonable to suppose that its provenance is the Persian courtiers of the Mughal court.
The other outstanding bread that Chef Tyagi had on the festival menu was the mandwa roti, made with the lentil-like grain that was coarsely pounded, the better to reveal its down-to-earth appeal. Biting into one was like consuming a piece of history: you could sense that it was an ingredient that had found its way to your plate unchanged from the dawn of civilization. The festival has changed the way I look at the humble grain.