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The enduring appeal of pit cooking

Rubbed with flowers, topped with mango leaves or lined with a lattice of cinnamon sticksthe age-old technique of pit cooking offers many sophisticated variations and is now drawing in a new generation of patrons

Pit cooking is a traditional technique used in various parts of the country. Photo: Alamy
Pit cooking is a traditional technique used in various parts of the country. Photo: Alamy

One of chef Amninder Sandhu’s most treasured possessions at the chic Mumbai restaurant Arth is a sandpit—designed to her specifications. It is a tandoor-like contraption lined with fire stones for insulation, and filled with sand. In her gas-free kitchen, the sandpit is used to cook everything from whole fish and goat leg to a free-range bird, even a whole goat, with incredible results.

Fundamentally, slow-cooking meat underground is a primitive, outdoor skill vital to the nomadic, tribal lifestyle. At its simplest, a pit is dug in the ground, lined with stones, and a fire is lit inside it. Once the flames die down, leaving smouldering embers, the meat—seasoned and wrapped in leaves—goes in. The pit is then covered with leaves, wild bush, stones, etc., and the meat allowed to cook over several hours. The final outcome is deliciously smoky, falling-off-the-bone meat.

In Rajasthan and some parts of the Rann, nomadic desert tribes were known to simply leave food items (meat, vegetables or even chunks of wheat dough) buried in the searing desert sand, as they went about their day’s routine. Over several hours, the food would be cooked in the trapped heat.

This method was particularly suited to travellers. In B.J. Maneckshaw’s Parsi Food And Customs, she writes about a unique khichdi that travellers would make, also mentioned in Vividh Vani, an early 20th century tome on Parsi cooking. Rice and dal, slightly crushed and seasoned with turmeric and salt, would be tied in two wet handkerchiefs and buried in the sand, not too deep, with a fire lit on the sand.

A royal statement

In times gone by, some of the finest pit masters in the country would perhaps be found among the hunting entourage of the royals of Rajasthan. Typically, royal hunting parties would be treated to game meat (from the day’s hunt) cooked in a pit dug in the sand, locally called a khad. These were extravagant affairs and under royal patronage, khad cooking evolved into a lifestyle statement.

One of the most iconic khad-cooked dishes is the khad khargosh—wild rabbit stuffed with spices, wrapped in layers of dough followed by muslin, caked in clay, cooked in a khad. After the ban on hunting, wild animals were replaced by chicken. Goat leg was suitable too. So, we have dishes like the khad kokada from the royal family of Mewar, which is chicken wrapped in khakhra leaves cooked in a pit, or the more general khad murg or khad ka pind.

However, you can still sample farmed rabbits cooked in a sandpit at Nazaara, the alfresco restaurant at the luxurious Alila Fort Bishangarh in Jaipur that opened its doors last year. Here, chef Ranveer Brar has curated a menu that includes robust curries sealed in pots as well as spiced-laced chicken, quail or farmed rabbit roasted to perfection—all cooked in a custom-designed pit filled with sand.

“In culinary terms, this style of cooking under pressure in a pit not only helps achieve a fantastic texture, it is also best suited for heavy Indian marinades, since it allows them to sit organically," says Brar. The pit cooking experience also has the charm of “gradual unravelling". “It enables a conversation with the food, and that is what makes it so special," says Brar.

Chooza on Coal Smoker at the Arth restaurant, Mumbai. Photo courtesy: Instagram@arthrestaurantandlounge

From the cookbooks

The royals of Rajasthan were not the only elite patrons of pit cooking. The Ni’matnāma, the late 15th century book of recipes of the sultans of Malwa, Ghiyath Shah and his son Nasir Shah, mentions a few dishes baked in underground pits.

A particularly interesting recipe recommends that the walls of the pit be first rubbed with flowers, lined with clay, and a fire made with sticks lit inside. The meat is spiced and wrapped in banana leaves, and fire stones heated. Once the pit is hot, it is cleared and heated stones are laid on the floor of the pit. The banana leaves go next, followed by the parcelled meat. It is covered with alternate layers of banana leaves and heated stones. The final layer of leaves is topped with more flowers (think aromatic infusion) and the pit sealed. Finally, a small fire is lit on the sealed pit and the meat left to cook overnight.

More recently, in his book Cooking Delights Of The Maharaja, Digvijaya Singh, the erstwhile maharaja of Sailana, has archived yet another pit-cooked gem. A whole chicken, slathered with a spicy marinade, and stuffed with minced meat, is placed in a pot lined with a latticed framework of cinnamon sticks at the bottom. The pot is then sealed with a thick paste of black-bean flour, placed in a round pit along with smouldering cow-dung cakes, and allowed to cook for 2 hours.

Instances of pit cooking have also been cited in classical Ayurveda works. Colleen Taylor Sen, in her book Feasts And Fasts: A History Of Food In India, writes about a dish, mentioned in the Ksemakutuhalam (a 16th century treatise on Ayurvedic dietetics), made with minced meat flavoured with vesavara (a spice blend popular at the time), wrapped in leaves and white flour or orange peel, covered with clay and cooked in a pit. The method, Taylor Sen writes, was called putapaka.

Pits around the country

In Lucknow, the art of cooking food sealed in earthen pots placed in pits was referred to as zamin doz—a style that many believe came from Persia and evolved into the dum pukht. One of the most iconic zamin doz dishes is perhaps the mahi zamin doz. Traditionally, fish, perhaps from the Gomti, would be stuffed with spices, sealed in clay pots (originally made in the shape of a fish) and cooked in covered pits, topped with a fire made with cow-dung cakes.

“The dish would be slow-cooked for hours, so even the bones of the fish would melt away," says Brar. But what made zamin doz all the more special was perhaps the touch of Lucknawi nazaakat. “Sometimes, for instance, mushairas (an informal symposium of poets) would liven up an evening of zamin doz cooking," he says.

In the Andamans, the ancient Jarawa tribe still uses pit ovens called aalaav to cook pig and jackfruit.

“In Goa, both fish and mussels would be cooked over hot coals laid in a pit dug in the sand, and wet burlap thrown over it. The burlap contains the steam and cooks the fish," says chef Michael Swamy, also an independent consultant and writer. Swamy has had his share of cooking seafood in sandpits, but he can make an equally good pit-roasted goat leg stuffed with shikaar masala.

Another recipe, perhaps born in the deserts of Sindh, is the wadi ji machhi. “The fish is stuffed with muddled onions, green chillies, ginger-garlic and fresh coriander, wrapped in rotis and cooked covered in sand," says blogger Alka Keswani of Sindhi Rasoi.

A good example of a vegetarian dish cooked in a pit is the undhiyu: a seasonal/festive dish made with a medley of winter vegetables and deep-fried besan (chickpea flour) dumplings. This Gujarati favourite was traditionally cooked in clay pots, placed upended in pits dug in the ground, under a fire built with dried leaves.

“Parsis make a meaty version of the undhiyu, also cooked in clay pots sealed with local bush in a pit. We call it umbhadiyu," says Kurush F. Dalal, an archaeologist and expert on Parsi food. “Originally, the pit would be covered with a huge pile of mango leaves, ideally three days old, to make a fire, which must be kept alive for a few hours for the meat to cook slowly," says Dalal.

Arth recently opened its doors in Pune, and there too the kitchen boasts of a sand pit. Sandhu wants to try slow-roasting corn-on-the-cob in it—specifically rainbow heirloom ones sourced from an Ooty farm. But that’s not all she plans to do. “There’s a whole world of flavours and technique inside a pit," she says. We can’t wait for her to get started.

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