"I am sharing these recipes as an effort to preserve my ‘Dehli’ that is fading away," says Sadia Dehlvi in the ‘Gratitude’ pages of her 2017 cookbook Jasmine and Jinns: Memories and Recipes of My Delhi. For Sadia, an eminent historian and conservationist of the heritage and culture of Delhi, her home, the purpose was clear but the journey was arduous. As an author of several books that explore the city’s spiritual subtext, visceral in its centuries-old monuments, narrow, claustrophobic alleys and crumbling institutions, Sadia is not alien to the research and leg work involved in documenting history. But the hard work required of her to write this cookbook, her first, was a different beast altogether.
From cajoling her elderly aunts to part with their cooking secrets to ensuring each recipe has an ingredient list that was as accurate as it could be, Jasmine and Jinns is equal parts cookbook, history lesson and autobiography.
Sadia talks to Friday about writing this delicious cauldron of aromatic history, and exclusively shares seven of her favourite recipes.
Tell us more about Jasmine and Jinns.
Since the book is about memories and recipes, both require some research and work. The childhood memories have stayed with me, and I recorded many conversations with my parents and other family elders on their memories of life in Delhi, so that was easy to write. It was the recipes that took the most effort, even though most of the dishes are cooked in our homes regularly. When we cook, we do so by andaaz, a sense of proportion, and so to give measures in terms of teaspoons and tablespoons seemed difficult. So I made every dish, measuring the ingredients as I went along to the exact degree to ensure I was happy with the recipe and its outcome.
How did the title of the book come about?
Jasmine is the overpowering fragrance of my childhood. Chameli, raat ki raani and motia [flowers belonging to the jasmine family] so typify Delhi summers. Chameli was my grandmother’s favourite flower and we had jasmine shrubs all over the gardens in our sprawling home, Shama Kothi. I would help my mother pluck these flowers and then they would be sprinkled on the wooden cots on the terrace, where we all slept during the sweltering summer months. The fragrance of these flowers, and the ghost [or jinn in hindi] stories that our elders told my cousins and me when we were growing up, I guess inspired the title of this book. Also, I believe it makes an intriguing title! It seems to have worked.
Often, love for a place lies in the nostalgia – its people, culture, heritage. Its present state is what we normally rue. Do you agree?
Life is made up of memories. The place where one grows up always remains special, and childhood influences stay with you forever. As one who grew up in Delhi in a culturally rich environment, it has shaped the person I am today. I feel truly blessed to have my ancestors live here for almost four centuries.
Delhi is truly an international city today, and like all major cities of the world has undergone changes. Of course, I miss the Delhi of my childhood, which was a sleepy little town and not so chaotic. Now it’s bursting at the seams, but I still love my city. While pollution, crime and other negative aspects have increased and need to be addressed, we have to be grateful for modernisation. People from all parts of the country and abroad live here. I think it adds to the richness and diversity of the capital city.
So no regrets that Delhi is no longer the city that you grew up loving?
None at all. I think the diverse influences on Delhi have made it what it is today. It has always welcomed outsiders. This mingling of cultures came to be known as ganga jamuna tehzeeb, or composite culture, as it is called in English. For instance, most of Delhi’s stunning monuments are a result of Indo-Persian architecture. This confluence of cultures enriched our music, food, literature and other traditions.
Do you think Delhi of yore has been ghettoised in to the back alleys of old Delhi, imaginations of historians like you and in a handful of institutions that are fast becoming relics themselves?
I agree we are losing our physical and cultural heritage, because we are not making enough efforts to preserve and promote it. For instance, apart from a few popular monuments such as the Qutub Minar and Humayun’s tomb, most of the 1,000-odd protected monuments in Delhi are not cared for and are in ruins. However, there is a renewed interest in Delhi’s heritage with the youngsters. There are heritage walks in the city that are now happening all the time. I often lead heritage walks in Mehrauli, Nizamuddin dargah and in the old city. The old walled city once called Shahjahanabad, is such a treasure-trove of food, history and culture, but we are not able to showcase it really well. The area is too congested and polluted. I hope someday the authorities work towards finding ways to clean and beautify the old city.
If you were given the chance to resuscitate the city’s food culture, what steps would you take?
Delhi has innumerable stunning monuments, most of which are closed to the public at sunset. Ideally, these monuments and their surrounding spaces should be used to host cultural events, as in many western countries. To promote Delhi’s food culture, we could create food streets in various parts of the city. Many commercial areas in Delhi have little or no traffic at night and parking lots are empty. Special permissions could be given to put up food stalls after office hours. This could be done in the old city as well, where stalls do come up at night, but it is not very organised. The government could help restore some of the crumbling havelis (mansions) and help create ways of showcasing food, music, and other Delhi traditions in them. Lahore is an example. The authorities there have created wonderful food streets in the old city.
Speaking of food, do you ever experiment with it, or are you a purist?
I am a purist when it comes to food. If it’s Italian, it should be good pure Italian, if it’s continental, it should be pure continental and if its Delhi cuisine it should look and taste like Delhi cuisine. Fusion food is quite popular and many chefs manage interesting dishes, but I guess food is always a matter of personal choices. Some like to experiment with fusion and some don’t.
Having said that I enjoy cooking cuisines other than Indian. For example, I rustle up pretty good pasta, which I learnt how to make in Italy. I manage pretty well with Chinese food too. In winter, I enjoy making soups, salads and continental food.
Which one of these is comfort food for you?
Everything that is part of the Dilli dastarkhwaan, Delhi’s lavish food spread. From biryani and pulaos to salans, keema, dhals and kebabs, the list is very long. All the recipes that I have given in my book are part of comfort food. Most of them form part of our day-to-day cooking and one does not need some exotic spices to make them. It’s our regular food.
Did you wonder how many people would be interested in the book, considering many rely on the internet for recipes?
I never worry about the results of my books. I just write what I feel should be written and what I enjoy writing. I thought it was necessary to write about a culture that is fading away. I am sure people will try, and enjoy, the recipes, because they are a distillate of Delhi’s authentic traditional cuisine. I think people are appreciating the book and I am humbled by the response.
What about influence of social media on our eating habits? We choose what to eat via review websites and Instagram.
I believe social media has in many ways rekindled peoples interest in food and in trying out various cuisines. Aesthetics is important, like we say, pehle aankh khaati hai – the eye feasts on the food first. But of course, it cannot just be about presentations. Food has to both look right and taste right.
Do you have a favourite recipe from the cookbook?
Aloo salan is one of my favourites. The others are kachri keema, karela keema, yakhni pulao, goolar bharta, kofta, chuqandar gosht, nihari and shabdegh. I strongly recommend these.