There is a never a dull moment in the Baniya kitchen. “Baniyas believe in eating local and seasonal, but they will go to any lengths to get the best produce, they want to pick out the choicest fruit, the freshest peas and the greenest leaves. The hallmark of a Baniya kitchen is that food is never an ordinary affair,” says Gunjan Goela, author and food consultant. She’s just completed a book on the cuisine of the Baniyas of Delhi. “We had large joint families, and food was central to how we lived—cousins, uncles, aunts all lived and ate together, the women of the household took charge of cooking and supervising; sweets, pickles and papads were made in large batches; and the men were involved in ensuring the kitchens were stocked with the best produce,” she recalls.
We’re in Delhi shooting the Baniya thali in Goela’s stately home for the #thalisofindia episode on the cuisines of the different communities of Delhi. The Rajasik thali Goela has curated is by far the prettiest we’ve seen—sans onions and garlic but rich with flavours of spices and herbs. Everyday items are given a festive flourish by adding desi ghee, dry fruits, saffron, Kashmiri morel mushrooms and khoya (meva) to them. If it’s a special occasion, there is a lot of frying. “For a festival, even if we’re cooking potatoes, they’re fried, never boiled. Traditionally, the Baniyas don’t buy sweets—we don’t’ trust the quality of the food that is sold in the bazaars. We prefer buying the choicest ingredients, and employing cooks to prepare it at home, so only the best is served to the family and friends.”
And so you see this special touch on all items on the thali. Be it the humble raita, or a robust kofta, puffy puris, or dry and gravy dishes. A proud Mithai ki Tastari (a serving of sweets) with at least 5 to 7 kinds of rich sweets, accompanies the thali. Goela has placed two kinds of pooris—Bedmi and Ajwaini—one is a textured with coarse lentils and flour, and the other is spiked with carrom seeds for a shot of flavor and to aid digestion. There is Kachori and samosa—snacks that are a must on a lunch thali; Dahi aloo and Dum aloo; Saunth ki tikki—a biscuit like preparation with the sharp taste of dry ginger and Adrak ka Lachcha or shavings of ginger that are both a palate cleanser and digestive along with Mooli ka Kas (grated radish). A few tongue-tickling varieties of pickle like Aam ki Launji and items like Paneer and Mooli ke Kofte and Ghuti Gobhi a home-style cabbage preparation made by tossing and mashing the vegetable in a wok. All these combine well with pooris and chapatti. The Muttar Makhana Khoya is a Baniya speciality where green peas are cooked with popped lotus seeds. This every day item is made richer with khoya, befitting a special guest or a visiting son-in-law. Guests are also served Javae, hand-rolled wheat sevaiya cooked in condensed milk, pista and other nuts. “The Baniyas are traditionally a rich community and spend generously on food and weddings. Our weddings are grand, not with expensive props but solid gold and diamond jewellery, because these items are investments. An elaborate menu is a must too, because when it comes to food, we never cut corners.”
Right in the centre of the thali is a pretty puloa with a large, delicately layered mushroom sitting on top of a bed of fragrant rice. The Guchi pulao, says Goela, is a Baniya favourite, and it’s not just reserved for sons-in-law and special guests, but often cooked for leisurely Sunday meals. The mushrooms—Kashmiri Morels—are rare and thus steeply priced, good quality Guchi costs as high as Rs 40,000/kg.
We’re polishing off the thali, dipping our fingers into the rich flavours, listening to the tales of ingredients and techniques and the chatter around food. And we must say, it is just the beginning of a delicious journey.
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