“It takes a rough sea to make a great captain” goes a naval saying. Like the Chettinad cuisine arising out of the arid region of Tamilnadu, Rajasthani cuisine proves that even a harsh desert is no deterrent to building a great cuisine. It is a marvel that so much has been created out of so little. Rajasthan labored under multiple handicaps - lack of fuel, water, fresh vegetables or herbs.
Lack of fuel meant that food once cooked needed to be eaten for several days without reheating. And remember, food gets spoiled very fast in the desert heat. This led to the development of the Bati – baked wheat balls, which are made to last. They store well, do not need a curry, but are eaten dipped in ghee. Batis proved to be the ideal travel food for Rajasthan’s Rajput warriors and Marwari traders.
Lack of water meant that most curries used minimum water and were cooked with yogurt / buttermilk / ghee made from Camel milk. Lack of fresh vegetables meant dried lentils, dried vegetables and scrawny desert beans (sangri, ker ) were liberally used. In regions lacking even these, gramflour dumplings (Gatta, Pitode), papad, and even the roti came to be used as vegetable substitutes. Hardy cereals like bajra (millet) and corn which could thrive on harsh land became the staple cereals. Notwithstanding the rigors of nature, the cuisine was further tested by religious restrictions of Jains which forbade the use of onion, garlic, root vegetables or most leafy greens. So the pillars of most cuisines – Onion, garlic, tomato, fresh vegetables & fresh herbs were knocked off. But the Rajasthani cuisine not only stood, it thrived. Onion – garlic was replaced by asafetida, tomatoes by mango powder, fresh vegetables by dried vegetables and fresh herbs by dry herbs.
The ancient Arawalli hills split the state from north to south. The contrast between regions on either side could not be starker. The west of the hills, comprising nearly half of the state, is the land of Death – The barren, arid and inhospitable Thar desert. The colourful and historically significant Jodhpur, Jaisalmer and Bikaner all lie in this hostile land dotted with stunted trees and sparse vegetation. In contrast, the east has large lakes, forests and lush land. However, it is the arid west, which has given birth to the famous Rajasthani desert cuisine.
A typical Rajasthani meal consists of bati (baked dough balls) and dal ( lentils) served with a variety of pickles. A variety of flatbreads made from wheat, millet and corn are also eaten with curries and chutneys.
The curry base : See Column 1
Pulses, yogurt, and gramflour, are used as a curry base across the state. A selection of popular curries is listed below:
The Rajasthani raita is similar to a regular raita, but mostly uses Boondi ( fried gram flour droplets) instead of fresh vegetables.
Chutneys made from fresh turmeric, garlic, red chilies, coriander and mint are popular across the state.
Khatta, the Rajasthani kadi is made from yogurt – gramflour.
Mathira is a uniquely Rajasthani curry made from watermelon – one of the few fruits grown in this arid land.
Ker Sangri is another unique curry made from dried desert vegetables.
The staple, the Dal is usually cooked with a souring agent – mango powder / tamarind.
Dried chickpeas are used to cook the Rajasthani Chole, again using a souring agent.
A mix of five dried vegetables are used to cook up the Panchkoota and a mix of five lentils go into the Panchmela dal.
Unlike the Saag of North India made from leafy greens, the Rajasthani saag is made with gramflour dumplings ( gatte : gram flour discs or pitode : gram flour diamonds) cooked with spiced yogurt.
Flavouring : See column 2.
Most North Indian spices are used in Rajasthani cuisine. These include cumin, dhania, fennel, fenugreek, onion seeds (kalonji), carom seeds (ajwain), dried ginger, kasuri methi (dried fenugreek leaves), cinnamon (dalchini) & cardamom (elaichi). Southern spices like mustard seeds, asafetida (hing) & turmeric powder, which are not common in most north Indian cuisines are also used.
Column 2 lists different ways in which these spices combine. It is a myth that certain curries are flavoured in certain ways. The combinations do not normally vary much within a region. But when you move across regions, you’ll see the curry being flavoured with various combinations of all the commonly used spices.
Goodies : See Column 3
It is the almost total lack of fresh vegetables that is a hallmark of Rajasthani cuisine. Instead, Gatta, Pitode, Papad, or other dry vegetables / pulses are traditionally used. Traditional curries use select pairings of a base and goodies. For example, Rajasthani dals do not usually use any vegetables. A raita is paired with Boondi and Saag with Gatta. However feel free to use your favourite goodies with any of the bases. If you want to use Mushroom or paneer with any of the curry bases, go right ahead. They might not be traditional, but will most likely be delicious.
What makes Rajasthani Curries unique?
- Extensive use of buttermilk, yogurt and gramflour.
- Use of mustard & asafetida unlike other north Indian curries.
- Use of mustard oil / ghee as a cooking medium.
- Use of ghee as a dipping sauce.
- Avoidance of onion / garlic.
- Use of watermelon juice as a cury base.
- Use of gramflour dumplings & papad as vegetable substitutes.
- Heavy use of dried vegetables.