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Winds of taste from the sandy desert

The ethnic group of people from the princely Marwar region of Rajasthan is called Marwari. Though the term is used to refer to all the people from Rajasthan or those having roots in Rajasthan, the term specifically refers to the bania or trading community of Rajasthan.
You might wonder why instead of writing about food in my column I have shifted my attention towards anthropology. Worry not, this detour will only lead us to the destined land of tastes and slurrrps. As you might have figured by now, today we are going to discuss Rajasthani cuisine, which has been spread far and wide by the travelling business community, the Marwaris.
Dal baati churma is the most common name amongst the dishes ladled out of this desert region that you might already be aware of. Let us take a look at what else is on offer.

The Marwari traders used to travel far and wide on the Ganga-Yamuna trade route for business. Not much of their food was influenced by their travels though the people of this community, with their astute sense for profit-making, have been at the forefront contributing to the development of the country.
The people of the Marwari community generally consume vegetarian food which is prepared with generous helpings of desi ghee. The food of these desert people has been characterised by jowar or bajra, which is used to make rotis and khichuris, and by an effusive use of chilli and asafoetida to impart strong flavours. The lack of leafy vegetables ensured a pronounced use of lentils, pulses and legumes in Rajasthani food. The cuisine relies heavily on dry mango powder or amchoor to substitute the taste of tomatoes which do not grow in abundance in the desert area. Amla has traditionally been in use to make delicious preserves and pickles as the tree is commonly found in this region. Amlana, a delicious cool drink to fight the desert heat, is made of tamarind and infused with the goodness of black salt, pepper and cardamom. This is a drink fit for kings.

Amongst fruit, mangoes are considered to have a cooling effect on our systems. Hence the aam ka panna or kairi ka paani, a drink made of raw mango pulp and spiked with jeera powder and black salt in great quantities, is a favoured drink to fight the intense heat of the desert. The mango pulp when simmered with the fennel flower and seeds yields a pickle that is a must in the Marwari household as an important accompaniment for afternoon meals.
The arid conditions do not favour a lot of vegetation and hence not many dairy animals can be reared around the desert. yet the ingenious people of Rajasthan devised various ways to include the wealth of vitamins and minerals of dairy produce in their diets. The camels yield thick, creamy milk which can spoil because of the heat and so it is curdled and used to produce amazing dishes like the gatte ki kadhi that is known far and wide. The chaas made of curd is served in every household and can be sweetened or salted to suit the taste of the consumer. Curd is also used to prepare dahi shorba — a frothy yoghurt-based soup, often served at the beginning of a meal. The use of curd and buttermilk in gravies not only acted to improve the flavours but also substituted the need of water.

It is always amazing to see how human beings have striven to make hostile circumstances work in their favour. Rajasthani cuisine is one such example of ingenuity and working with the resources available.

(This post appeared as a column in The New Indian Express on Feb 15, 2012. You can read it here as well.)


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