By Raghavan Iyer
My childhood days in Mumbai (formerly Bombay) were filled with the tastes of a traditional south Indian kitchen—roasted chiles, popped mustard seeds, fresh coconut, lacy-crisp crepes and pillow-soft rice-lentil cakes. So when at the age of eight I was taken to a north Indian restaurant in Mumbai I was confused by the flavors. Foods like aloo gobhi (potatoes and cauliflower), palak paneer (spinach and homemade cheese) and subzi biryani (layered vegetable-rice casserole) were brought to the table flavored with assertive ginger, onion and garlic, and spiced with subtle cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, peppercorns, bay leaves and cumin. My confusion gave way to curiosity and eventually approval as the saucy offerings and stir-fries kindled an awakening in me unlike any other food.
Ten years later I found myself on a journey across north India with my sister Lalitha, a physician, to the Taj Mahal. I was excited to visit the incomparable historical monument, but I was equally thrilled about visiting the land whose flavors were so unforgettable to me.
As we headed into Haryana, known as the breadbasket of Northern India, we left behind the cacophony of city life. We rolled on quiet rural highways that snaked through fields of mustard greens bursting with button-yellow flowers. Northern India is a vast region that includes Kashmir, Uttaranchal, Punjab and Bihar, encompassing the acrid desert climate of Rajasthan and the lush landscape of Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. The northern border is marked by the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas that water the prized basmati rice in Kashmir. With such varied geography, these northern states produce a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, ranging from mustard, turnip and spinach greens to cauliflower, okra, potatoes, eggplant, chickpeas, apples, water chestnuts, lotus root and bottle gourd squash. The followers of Hinduism, Islam and Sikhism who populate this region permit poultry, mutton and lamb as part of their diet. Meat, however, is served in small portions, and is never the focal point of a meal. Instead fresh vegetables, legumes, breads, yogurt, rice and other grains vie for prominence at mealtime, making Northern Indian cuisine inherently healthy.
As we drove along, the fragrance wafting from simmering pots of legumes with turmeric awoke my hunger. We stopped at a dhaba, a roadside truck-stop restaurant common throughout the state of Haryana. For a snack we had a plateful of garlic-kissed, pureed mustard greens dotted with home-churned white butter and griddle-cooked, flaky corn bread. I quenched my thirst and soothed the pungency of cayenne chiles that accompanied my greens with a tall glass of frothy, sweet-salty buttermilk lassi. My sister, always nutritionally vigilant, nodded her approval of the antioxidant-rich greens and the buttermilk drink full of protein.
Drawing closer to Agra, I couldn’t help but notice the influence of the Moghuls—emperors who came from Kabul, Afghanistan—in the area’s architecture, arts, religion and especially the food. At the hotel that night the biryani, a typical regional dish of layered rice and vegetables or meat perfumed with spices, brought home the Moghuls’ penchant for all things opulent—sweet golden raisins, roasted almonds, regal saffron and fragrant basmati rice—all served under a crispy dome of wheat bread dough that sealed in the haunting, spicy aromas.
Until they were brought down by the British Raj, the Moghuls wielded tremendous power over much of this region, except Rajasthan, which is mostly desert. Moghul specialties like rich nut purees used in curries, succulent cuts of mutton and chicken swathed in cream marinades and flatbreads called naans are still popular in Northern Indian cuisine. This Moghlai style of cooking influenced the Indian restaurants in Europe and the U.S., although here it is common to find clarified butter used more heavily than it is in the healthy, authentic dishes of the homeland.
After two days of traveling, we arrived in the hotel near the Taj Mahal. We woke in the dark and just before dawn, approached the entryway to the crown palace, Moghul emperor Shah Jahan’s testimony of love for his wife Mumtaz. It was still shrouded in darkness, its marble glistening in the dark. Magically the sun appeared and shed its choicest rays on the dome, bathing it in yellow-gold—every angle of the monument a quiet statement of flawlessness and grandeur.
My photos will always bring me back to that magical sunrise. Better yet, the recipes I brought home—dishes like lively, saucy split peas and chile-spiked potatoes with soothing buttermilk—let me recreate the unforgettable flavors, texture and colors of North India’s cuisine.
Cookbook author and culinary educator Raghavan Iyer is a native of Mumbai, India, and now lives in Minneapolis.