As I wrote the blog on Haleem yesterday, an interesting revelation struck me. All the dishes that we so relish today have had very humble provincial beginnings, evolving as societies grew. As an example, Haleem started off as a street-snack in Yemen for people breaking their Ramzan fast. It was not elitist, for sure. Over the years, Haleem traveled to India, Turkey and other parts of Central Asia, evolving in different culinary styles, in each of the cultures, where the dish was adopted.
The Biryani too had similar humble beginnings. To feed the marauding Muslim troops who ransacked much of Central and Southern Asia in the 11th century, the army cooks concocted a no-brainer - meat and rice cooked together in large pots over hours, alongwith with local spices. That surely did make many a hearty meal for the outlaws. Today, the humble dish has evolved in myriad ways, finding its way into both gourmet restaurants and streetcarts, to be relished by people from all classes.
Today there are over a dozen kinds of Biryanis available all over India - the most famous being the Hyderabadi Biryani. There are other varieties too like the Awadhi Biryani, Malabar Biryani, Calcutta Biryani besides lesser known variants that had evolved in Sindh, Kutch, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. From India, Indian diaspora and Muslim migrants have carried the Biryani with them to places like Myanmar, Thailand, Philippines, Singapore and Mauritius.
Another stream of this delectable rice-meat concoction traveled from Central Asia to the then Persia, Arabia and Turkey. In today's Saudi Arabia, there is a rice-meat dish called Kabsa which closely resembles the Biryani. The Saudis use camel meat, lamb or beef for their Kabsa.
It is also probable that from Turkey and Arabia the dish traveled into the Maghreb or North Africa from where the Moors took the concept to Spain where the Paella evolved. I sometimes wonder whether the Italians were similarly inspired by the Paella to come up with a cheesy cousin, the Risotto?
All these ideas are so enticing, exciting and mouthwatering!
The theme that remains central here is that all that becomes fanciful and worthy of being a gourmet concept, did have plebeian and rustic beginnings.
In undivided Punjab, rustic food made from seasonal vegetables and grain that fed the peasantry have become popular allover India. Palak paneer, makki di roti, sarson da saag, gajar ka halwa are good examples of this.
Evolution of food is probably dictated, also, by economic conditions. In the middle ages when Europe was ridiculously and wretchedly poor. As affordability of food and meat was a big issue, several cured meat preparations evolved. The not-so-desired parts of the pig, for instance went into blood sausage, head cheese, lardo, terrines, pâtés, galantines and other mouthwatering stuff. I recently saw a an episode of From Spain With Love on Fox Traveler where a family feast centered around one whole pig - every part, every organ - little or big was cured, preserved, processed or cooked and finally consumed.
All that stuff has become gourmet now!
In Scotland, the Haggis has become a part of the cultural folklore. Wikipedia tells me that Haggis is made of sheep's heart, liver and lungs, minced with onion, oatmeal, spices, and salt, mixed with stock, and traditionally encased in the animal's stomach and simmered for approximately three hours. The Wikipedia page also talks of the origins of haggis -- When a Chieftain or Laird required an animal to be slaughtered for meat (whether sheep or cattle) the workmen were allowed to keep the offal as their share. Food writer and chef of Bizarre Foods fame, Andrew Zimmern, has said that Haggis was "born of necessity, as a way to utilize the least expensive cuts of meat and the innards as well!"
Years ago, I saw the first episode of the first season of Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations titled "France: Why the French Don't Suck". Rightly so, the series was kicked off in the gastronomical Mecca, Paris. Anthony visited a small local eatery and a rich, deliciously heartwarming stew that was once food for the poor in the middle ages - it was made of discarded meat organs simmered away to glory. But today it is a treasured delicacy today.
Another place that keeps the legacy of past alive in Paris is the world's biggest food market, Marché d'Intérêt National de Rungis where one can buy meats that were once a necessity but today, well, are at a premium - stuff like game, rabbit, pig trotters, pig heads, brains, hearts, wild boar (reminded of Obelix the Gaul), various birds and varieties of sea-food. It is quite a lot of gore and blood and certainly Rungis is not for the fainthearted. But it is on my radar, whenever I visit Paris - I am told there are organised tours of the market at Rungis, which I would certainly participate in.
I have come to believe food evolves, grows and travels alongwith growth of civilizations, their migrations and their intermingling. It's those innovations, fusions and evolutions that keep foodies like me yearning for more, more and yet some more!
I don't want Nirvana, I want to be reborn over and over again to partake great food, as it evolves!