Haryanvi thali: Not just ‘dhaba’ fare
The vegetarian and dairy-focused cuisine of Haryana is now finding takers beyond the state
In the posh landscaped greenery of The Gateway Resort Damdama Lake Gurgaon, spread over 20 acres that overlook the gently rolling hills of Aravalli in Gurugram, I do not expect the kind of food placed before me. It is not fancy. It is not uber chic. I am, instead, sampling a no-fuss, rustic Haryanvi Thali, a brass plate crowded with matching bowls, at Buzz, the resort’s all-day diner.
It is a hot day and the chaas (buttermilk) spiced with roasted cumin that accompanies the meal in a tall brass tumbler does its work to cool me down. And I dive straight into a satisfyingly tangy Damdama Macchi (fish cooked in onions and tomato with hand-ground spices), a helping of Palwal Chicken (a densely spiced preparation from Palwal village), a robustly tempered Pethe Ki Sabzi (yellow pumpkin curry) and a light, delicately prepared Kadhi Pakora (Bengal gram dumplings mixed with spinach and onions simmered in tempered yogurt), and the even earthier, garlic-infused Palak Aloo stir-fry. The bajra (pearl millet) wholewheat roti is perfectly fluffy to lap up the fare and everything about the meal feels nicely balanced, moderate on chilli and memorable.
But truth be told, Haryanvi food culture is not high on star power. It isn’t typically fine-dining material. So are diners interested in sampling Haryanvi cuisine? Rakesh Kant, executive chef at the resort, says, “It is not a celebrity cuisine like Hyderabadi and Lucknawi are. You won’t find grand dishes like nihari or roganjosh. So we do let diners know it is available and they can try it. Foreigners are particularly keen." To keep the flavours authentic, a home cook, Mukesh Devi, who lives nearby, has been roped in to help the kitchen staff put the thali together.
Everyone knows Haryana as an agricultural state, for foodgrains such as wheat, barley, pearl millet, maize and rice, for producing high-quality dairy (nearly three times the national average per capita per day availability of milk). Stellar sportsmanship, particularly in the field of wrestling and boxing, has come from the state over the last decade. These sports stars, both women and men, have been bred on a largely vegetarian diet heavy in dairy and grains.
In her book The Penguin Food Guide To India, culinary expert Charmaine O’Brien notes: “Before the Ganga gained supremacy as India’s premier sacred river, the Saraswati, which flowed through what is now modern Haryana, was worshipped in the Rig Veda as the ‘best of all rivers’ and was said to ‘pour milk and ghee’. What the latter statement implies is that the Saraswati watered a region of arable plains on which crops could be abundantly produced and a good number of cattle reared for milk."
Given that Haryana was part of Punjab until 1966, the food habits of the two states are the same in many ways. “There is heavy influence from two neighbouring states and common dishes—Punjab (kadhi, rajma, mixed dal), and Rajasthan (ker sangri, kachri)," notes restaurateur Zorawar Kalra. Other Haryanvi fare on top of his mind are green choliya (green chickpeas), bathua yogurt, and the one nearly everyone identifies Haryana with: bajre ki roti smeared with home-made ghee. Though grown since pre-historic times, bajra is making a comeback in urban centres in the healthy food segment for its high-fibre content and digestive benefits.
I ask chef Sanjeev Kapoor, who was born in Ambala, on the border of Haryana, about what he finds most striking about the state’s culinary landscape. “We owned a restaurant in Panchkula," he reminisces, observing: “If lassi is a passion in Punjab, in Haryana it is an even bigger passion. It’s a state where such fine varieties of basmati grow, yet rice is something you would have only on Sunday, or as part of a celebration. I would associate the state with high-quality dairy products and unrefined sugar like bura and shakkar, used in sweets like panjiri and pinni."
He refers to the once-trendy dhaba culture of Haryana, popular among even the well-heeled, particularly the ever-popular stuffed parathas of Murthal such as those at Amrik Sukhdev Dhaba or Gulshan Vaishno Dhaba. And the countless kiosks along the highways featuring the giant pickle brand Pachranga. But it takes time for a food culture to find a distinct personality, he believes. “In terms of calling a dish ‘Haryanvi’, and its uniqueness, the lines are blurred, because Haryana is not a very old state, and the associations are still strong with the original state (Punjab). So it is difficult to position it (Haryanvi cuisine) like that. The people of that place have to take ownership, to create space in popular imagination, to tell a story, and to give something for people to look forward to and remember."
This is happening, albeit slowly, primarily due to two reasons. One, there is a swelling crowd in the National Capital Region looking for weekend getaways bordering Gurugram in Haryana. This is coinciding with the trend of highlighting local food and ingredients. So, many farm stays and resorts in the region have begun to offer “authentic regional food", like The Gateway Resort. The Roseate, a boutique resort that sits on the border of Delhi and Gurugram, likes to promote the “farm-to-table" concept, sourcing vegetables from its own organic farm to put together some typical Haryanvi dishes. Executive pastry chef Anand Panwar, whose maternal home is in Jhojhu Kalan, a village in Haryana’s Bhiwani district, mines some of his own childhood favourites made by his grandmother. The regional dishes he offers at the resort’s restaurant, Kiyan, for the chef’s table highlight the farm-to-table concept and champion seasonal produce.
“History is repeating itself. We are remaking films and songs. And now food. When you serve food from where you belong, it carries emotion in it. We offer our guests local dishes like sangri ki sabzi (beans), kachri ki chutney (wild cucumber), green choliya, bajre ki khichdi. We also have a Haryanvi thali. Guests want to know the story behind it. I always quote my uncle, who would tell me as a child, ‘This khichdi is what will make you stronger.’"
If a daily village meal in Haryana translates to a simple thali of fresh rotis, paired with a leafy stir-fry (saag in dishes such as gajar methi or aloo palak), condiments are equally important: chaas, chutney, pickles, ghee bura and/or churma (wheat crushed and cooked with ghee and sugar). Chutneys are made from a variety of fruit and vegetables: mango, banana, guava, pomegranate, green peas, bathua, mint, coriander, kachri. Chutneys are flavoured with red chilli, garlic, salt and, at times, curd.
Much of the typical fare in the state is tailored to suit the hard-working farmer and hot climate. “A great recipe for the summer is tomato sabzi which is consumed as a sweet, cold soup. Those who work in the fields may drink it several times a day to prevent heat strokes. It is made in a way that keeps it fresh the whole day," says Panwar. As O’Brien asserts in her book, fresh seasonal vegetables are vital to the daily Haryanvi diet. “Haryanvi dishes are seasoned with combinations of ginger, garlic, red chilli powder, fresh green chillies, black pepper and cumin seeds," she writes. Meetha chawal, made with basmati rice and tossed in cardamom, ghee and sugar, makes a delicious dessert to end a meal with, and is best had warm. “Festival food would also typically comprise pinni and malpua, which are desserts shared among north Indian communities," says Kalra. Panwar counts gulgula (lightly sweetened mini doughnuts made of wholewheat flour) fried in ghee and dipped in sugar syrup, as one of his favourite traditional sweets, typically made during Holi or the monsoon, or to impress a visiting son-in-law.
The Haryana food story, it appears, is one that is still unfolding, one dish at a time.