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Rich tradition of cooking offal
During a recent visit to Ling's Pavilion, one of Mumbai's most popular Chinese restaurants, one item, that had so far somehow escaped attention, leapt out from among the regulation chow mein and pot rice - fish maws. For those unfamiliar with the anatomy of the fish, that's the swim bladder, an organ that keeps our finned friends buoyant. Feeling squeamish? It might delight hardened meat eaters and sicken more delicate constitutions to know that Ling's has some more adventurous items off the menu. One of my most memorable meals in the city was a debauched lunch at Ling's at which we ate our way through the gamut of offal from oxtail and pork skin to tripe and pig ears in aspic.
It is now increasingly rare for restaurants to serve offal, much less advertise them on their menus. They are widely available in Muslim enclaves such as Mumbai's Mohammed Ali Road (where the entire city indulges in a gloriously carnivorous orgy every Ramzan) and Nizamuddin in Delhi and cooked with diminishing frequency in homes. That's tragic, as almost every community has a deliciously rich tradition of cooking offal that's falling off the map.
When I was kid, murighanta was regularly made at home. Now this is a nasty smelling Bengali dish of fish heads in daal and vegetables. Family members would, in vulgar bliss, chew and gnaw at fish bones as I tried not to gag. But it's now rarely cooked. My mum, a Parsi from Navsari, was practically weaned on a diet that sounds grisly in an age of white meat supremacy - khurchan (a mash up of organs) and (the truly vile sounding ) daal ma chuzdo (daal with fat from the goat's stomach). Though she admits the high fat content of such items now puts her off. Now when the occasional brain cutlet is made at home, I feel the thrill of eating adventurously. Somewhere down the line, we became more sanitary in our eating habits.
"The modern generation is a boneless generation, " says Kurush Dalal, who has the singular distinction of being a caterer of Parsi food and an archaeologist. "They don't want to be able to recognise the meat they're eating. " (Now if he was a butcher, he'd have the distinction of excavating two kinds of sites -- ancient habitations and animal carcases. ) He often gets orders for chicken liver and gizzard from people of an older generation, people for whom his food evokes the nostalgia of childhood - the euphonious aleti paleti (a mixture of liver, kidneys, lungs, spleen, heart and testicles), masoor ma jeeb (tongue in masoor daal) and chaura ma khariya (trotters in black-eyed peas).
Offal is cooked less at home because a lot of it takes time to prepare, he says. Hearts need to be boiled separately as they are tough and lungs have an "unmistakably spongy feel and typically offaly smell" that has to be got rid off, Dalal explains in a manner that's either matter of fact or cheekily deadpan.
At Ling's, it's not locals who order fish maws, but Chinese visitors, says the restaurant's co-owner Baba Ling. "You have to slowly fry it for five-six hours till it bloats, " Ling explains. "The next day you have to soak it in water. Then you stew it with pork and chicken. "
That people are annoyingly health conscious to the point of being cowards is another factor that works against offal. If you haven't eaten a liver masala, cooked till it's the right degree of chewy, or had a hearty paya soup or roast tongue sandwiched between the buttery folds of pao, then you haven't lived.
"The result is that children are not so exposed to it, " says cookbook writer and former IAS officer Pratibha Karan. "They are not easy to take a fancy to. If you grow up eating them, it's different. " Karan has written the popular cookbook A Princely Legacy: Hyderabadi Cuisine. She speaks passionately of Hyderabadi specialities like nihari, a slow-cooked gravy of goat heads, tongue and trotters;diwani handi, a mash-up of offal and leaves like ambada, chukka, kulfa and maat;and chakna, a popular dish of offal cooked in a sauce of roasted gram flour. Ironically, Karan, a Punjabi, is a strict vegetarian. So she has never tasted her own cooking. Yet she has a surprisingly egalitarian attitude to food. She says she took an interest in cooking after marrying Vijay Karan, a former commissioner of police in Delhi, who belongs to the Hyderabadi aristocracy.
In my last column, I'd written about attempting a reunion with my Bengali roots by learning how to cook. Perhaps, after mastering the staples, I should learn to handle what Anthony Bourdain calls the nasty bits. Even if it means gazing into the glassy stares of fish heads.
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