Punjabi Curries : A Primer
Punjab( Punj: five, aab: river), the bread basket of India, is blessed with a fertile, lush land and abundant water. So it is no wonder that the Punjabi cuisine uses fresh vegetables, fresh herbs, and dairy products extensively. Punjabi cuisine is one of the richest Indian cuisines. It is also the most widely available Indian cuisine across the world. It is so popular that Indian cuisine means Punjabi cuisine to most foreigners. In fact, it actually might be the most widely available Indian cuisine in India, due to the enormous number of Punjabi dhabas ( road side eateries) dotting all highways. The dhabas were initially setup to cater to the long distance truck drivers, a profession still dominated by hardy and hard working Punjabis.
Various Muslim dynasties have ruled Punjab for over a 1000 years and have had a large impact on Punjabi cuisine. The extensive use of dairy products, slow cooking techniques and the use of Tandoor were all learnt from Moguls.
Punjabi dishes range from the most simple to the elaborately fancy. The simple Makki ki roti ( corn flatbread ), Sarson Ka Saag ( Mustard green curry ) and Dahi ka lassi ( Yogurt drink), none of which use exotic spices or complicated cooking techniques, is a typical rustic Punjabi meal. Here, even slicing onions is considered too fancy. The plain, raw onions, which accompany the roti, are not sliced, but are just crushed with a fist. In contrast, Punjab also boasts of a huge array of delicious stuffed parathas, and many elaborate curries suffixed or prefixed with Makhani ( buttery) or Malai ( cream) or paneer ( cottage cheese). These rich curries use a range of spices, ghee, butter and other dairy products extensively. Every meal, elaborate or fancy, is washed down with copious amounts of buttermilk or lassi.
In contrast to most other Indian cuisines, where skinned and split pulses are preferred, Punjabi cuisine emphasizes the use of whole, unhusked pulses. The famous Maa Ki Daal, Chole and Rajma are cooked from whole Urad dal, Chick peas and Red kidney beans.
Being the breadbasket of India, the staple cereal is wheat. However, rice is also grown here and is cooked on special occasions. Unlike other states, Rice is never served plain, but is always seasoned with fried onions or cumin. Rice is usually paired with Rajma or Karhi. Rice cooked in sugarcane juice is served on festive occasions.
A typical Punjabi breakfast would be plain or stuffed parathas, pickles and buttermilk. The lunch / dinner would have Rotis made from wheat or corn, Sarson ka saag / dal and lassi.
The curry base : See Column 1
Lentils, pulses, spinach, vegetables, milk, yogurt, onion- tomato are all used as curry bases across the state. A selection of popular curries is listed below:
The Punjabi Raita is very similar to a regular North Indian raita, and uses most salad vegetables. Boiled potatoes and other boiled vegetables are also used.
The Onion – tomato base is used to cook up a range of masalas like the Paneer butter masala.
Yogurt- gramflour is used to cook up a range of kadhis. Pakodis / wadis are the goodies of choice in Kadhis.
Lots of onions are used to cookup a dopiaza, a typical moghul curry.
Milk with nut paste becomes the base for the Korma, another moghul curry.
Imli chutney is one of the few Punjabi dishes which use tamarind as a base. (Chole is another).
Mustard greens are gently cooked to a velvety puree to create the signature dish of Punjab , Sarson Ka saag.
Whole, unskinned urad dal is the base for another signature dish, Maa ki daal.
Mixed dals cooked together forms the base for Panchratni dal.
Dried whole pulses (chickpeas and red kidney beans) go into making the Chole and Rajma.
Flavouring : See column 2
The usual North Indian flavourings of cumin, garam masala, turmeric, coriander, ginger, chili, kalonji, are all used in Punjabi cuisine. Freshly crushed whole spices are extensively used. Cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, bayleaf, cloves, fennel are occasionally used. Mustard oil / Coconut oil / sesame oil / Asafetida / curry leaves are almost never used.
Traditionally, a curry base is often paired with a particular flavouring. For example, a Korma (Column 1 , row 4) is usually flavoured by bay leaves, cardamom and cloves ( Column 2, row 3). This is because a Korma is a Mogul curry and so uses typical Mogul flavourings. However, a Korma can be paired with any of the flavourings listed in column 2 as long as it does not contradict the spirit of the dish. For example, the Korma is a rich, royal curry and so flavouring it with just cumin is usually not done. Instead, flavouring with expensive spices is the norm. In contrast, a dal is a simple, rustic curry and so is not elaborately flavoured. Just a pinch of fried cumin serves the purpose. Once you understand the spirit of the cuisine, you can boldly experiment with different flavourings. Flavouring a Korma with saffron / vanilla / truffles etc, though not common, is perfectly acceptable as it goes with the spirit of Korma.
Goodies : See Column 3
Due to the abundance of fresh vegetables, dry vegetables are not commonly used in Punjabi curries. Traditional curries use select pairings of a curry base and goodies. For example, Karhi is usually paired with pakodi or wadi. Similarly, a dal / chole / rajma usually do not have added vegetables. But feel free to use your favourite goodies in all the curries above. They might not be traditional, but they’ll very likely be delicious. You need not limit yourselves to the goodies listed in column 3. Like any mature cuisine, Punjabi cuisine is flexible and can support a wide variety of flavouring techniques / goodies. So a wide variety of locally available vegetables / mushrooms / other edibles can be safely used. A tofu butter masala is certainly not traditional, but I’ve no doubt it would taste great.
What makes a curry a Punjabi Curry ?
1. Heavy use of dairy products - - ghee / butter / cream / yogurt / paneer ..
2. Use of butter/ghee as a cooking medium.
3. Use of nut paste & cream as thickeners.
4. Use of unhusked, whole pulses.