Thursday, September 28, 2006

Vikram's thoughts on Balti cuisine (since we're still talking food!)

Balti cuisine comes from Baltistan, a region of northern Kashmir spanning both Indian and Pakistani territory. It uses similar spices and ingredients as other northern Indian cuisines, such as Punjabi, Mughlai, and Tandoori. There is often a base of garlic, ginger, and onion. The spices include coriander and cumin, but northern Indian cuisine makes frequent use of some fragrant spices, like star anise, cardamom, clove, and saffron. Since Baltistan lies near the Silk Route, it’s easy to see why it would use spices originating in China and Persia. South Indian food also is fragrant, but emphasizes plants that grow better in the south, such as mustard, black pepper, asafetida, and kari leaf (which some say is the source of the Indo-British word, curry—more about that in a moment).

While Balti cuisine employs similar flavors as other Indian and Central Asian cuisines, it is distinct in its method and its unique fusion of influences from the surrounding cultures of Persia, China, Kashmir, Tibet, and Afghanistan. By what I believe is a coincidence, it is cooked in a wok-like vessel sometimes called a Khadai (another speculated source of the word curry) but also known as a Balti. Balti is a term which in Hindi means “bucket” but which is used by many cultures in the Himalayan regions to refer to that wok-like cast-iron or steel vessel. The techniques resemble Chinese wok-cooking, involving fast stir-fries of pre-cut ingredients, though there are also slow-cooked dishes. In this it resembles its next-door neighbor, Tibet, which also fuses Indian and Chinese influences in cuisine and other respects. In fact, Baltistan was sometimes called “Little Tibet.” It may be that the term Balti, for the pot, came from the Balti people’s use of this particular pot in their cooking—thus, a Balti pot.

While most Balti dishes are drier, some do have sauces similar to Indian food. Traditionally, pieces of naan or other flatbread are used to scoop up food directly from the pot, while it is still sizzling from the fast, high-heat cooking. One can speculate that this would be a good method in a cold, mountainous terrain. The concave pot concentrates the heat, same as a wok does, allowing fast cooking without using a lot of wood. Then, rather than let it get cold by serving onto plates, it is eaten piping hot from a shared pot. Mountain peoples often use such techniques (think fondue). Traditionally, lamb, goat, or prawns were the main ingredient. Now, outside Baltistan, chicken and other ingredients are popular. The fragrant spices are also a high-altitude feature—in the thin air, the more you can stimulate the nose, the richer the experience. Thus, any meal from anywhere along the silk route will include things like basmati rice, star anise, and even camphor. Hold your face over the plate (or sizzling Balti pot) and inhale to get the fullness of the cook’s message.

One place that loves Balti is Birmingham, England. The UK is currently experiencing a new surge of interest in Indian food other than the typical curries they are used to, especially in London. Balti, Goan, and South Indian foods are becoming more popular alternatives. Before and after Indian Independence, a large number of Bangladeshi and Kashmiri Muslims emigrated to the UK, leading to the ubiquitous curry houses which receive a lot of patrons after pubs close at 11. In fact, many of those who started “curry houses” back in the mid-20th century were not cooks, but they managed to fake it and learn quickly, serving a mishmash that was not exactly authentic to any region, but was popular. In some cases, they adapted to British tastes. For example, the most popular take-out food in Britain is chicken tikka masala—chicken in a cream and tomato sauce. This dish was invented in the UK, much as chop suey was invented in San Francisco. Another Indo-British invention: Worcestershire sauce, brought to Britain by an officer whose Indian cook concocted a tamarind sauce that sahib loved.

Curry, in fact, is a term used mostly by non-Indians to describe a huge range of cuisines. In my native language, Tamil, the word kari means cooked vegetable. I believe that’s the root of the word. But now you find a certain blend of spices, usually including coriander, cumin, turmeric, and chili powder, used with regional variations as a base for Jamaican jerk chicken and curries from SE Asia, Japan, Zanzibar, Fiji, and the Caribbean. In the UK, curry sauce is an alternative to ketchup and mayonnaise to put on French fries. Because of that feedback from the British and the world, the word curry is now used by Indians themselves for all sorts of dishes besides Tamil cooked vegetables. To show how global it is, the chili pepper was brought to India by Portuguese traders in the 1600s from Central and South America. Before that, the heat in Indian cuisine came from the black peppercorn. So the heat in the curry, it turns out, is American.

On a serious note: as I write this, Pres. Bush and Pres. Musharraf of Pakistan are giving a press conference on C-SPAN. Part of Baltistan is the region of Kargil, over which India and Pakistan fought a war a few years ago after Al-Qaeda backed militants attacked Indian territory. It was the latest in a series of battles over Kashmir since 1947 and the region still suffers from unrest and terrorism. Many of the ethnic cuisines you find around the world may well be served to you by people escaping a difficult situation in their home countries, whether Cuban, Jamaican, or even Chinese a century ago. In Paris, I often eat at a Tunisian restaurant, Le Jasmin de Sousse, that used many of the same spices I grew up with. After I finished my tajine, the owner, Mustafa, poured me a glass of boukha, a strong fig liquor brewed in Islamic, supposedly teatotalling Tunisia, and talked for a long time about the oppressive dictatorship (which had replaced the oppressive French colonial government of his childhood), which he escaped to come to Paris, cook French cuisine for 25 years, put his four beautiful daughters through college, then open a restaurant where he could serve the food of his home. If you ever eat Balti or another cuisine from a faraway land, which delights you with its exotic spices, see if you don’t detect as well the secret ingredient: love, and a longing for home and peace.


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