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Breaking bread: eating with a Kayasth family in Delhi

India's Kayasth people sit outside the caste system, their culture and cuisine crossing religious and class divides. In Delhi, the Chandra family throws plenty of its own andaz — personal style — into the mix.

photographs by Matt Parker
Published 3 Apr 2019, 13:01 BST, Updated 14 Jul 2021, 12:43 BST
The Chandra's vegetable vendor checks his stock, while a driver reads the paper and a guard ...

The Chandra's vegetable vendor checks his stock, while a driver reads the paper and a guard looks on.

Photograph by Matt Parker

"Shall we also do a sookhi urad dal?" Manu asks. Assent is murmured.

"With bathua ka raita," he continues, referring to the ubiquitous yoghurt side dish, made in this incarnation with the mineral-rich leaf of the bathua plant, cultivated widely across northern India while treated as a weed in other parts of the globe.

"What if you do some innovation?" Manu's mother, Kumi, chimes in. She's eager for her middle son to try something new, but it's more than parental pride: Manu Chandra is one of India's most celebrated young chef-restaurateurs, an alumnus of the Culinary Institute of America, with four restaurant brands under his belt.

"I could do something," he replies, nonchalantly. Luckily, the vegetable vendor is right in front of the Chandra home, his cycle-cart parked in the shade of the garden that fills the middle of the teardrop-shaped street.

"Did you call him here?" I ask, imagining the sabzi wala pedalling over in sweater and scarf when his phone began to ring.

"Not at all," Anil Chandra cuts in, chuckling somewhere beneath his great white beard. "This is his home now. He's like family — we use him so much he parks his cart outside and leaves it here for safekeeping at night."

Manu may be the star of the family, but his father is the heart. Also known as Anil dada or Chandra-ji, he's a retired businessman; half-sage, half-scholar, a magnetic presence, bearish and owlish at once. "He'd do well in the godman [guru] business," Kumi jokes later. Now she rises from the table to move the men along. "Come on, get going, you have to buy the mutton."

It might seem a curious thing: a Hindu family on the hunt for mutton, especially when the centrepiece (one of them, at least) is an elaborately prepared kebab, a dish normally associated with Muslim cooking, and certainly not in line with Hindu mores.

But then the Chandras are Kayasth, a community of scribes who sit outside the traditional caste system. According to legend, they were created from the body of Brahma, to assist Yama (the god of death) in recording the deeds of departed souls. In more reliable history, however, Kayasths emerged out of the syncretic Ganga-Jamuni culture of medieval Indo-Islamic rule, as a literate class of secular record keepers created by Mughal rulers to help them govern the lands. Their ranks cut across religious and geographical lines, eventually leading to a fusion of courtly Muslim life and local Hindu practice.

"The only thing we ever ate was the shoulder," says Anil as we pay a visit to the small butcher's shop in South Block Market, in the shadow of Parliament. "It's what's called the 'dast' cut."

As we talk, the master butcher works his cleaver over a hardwood block, hacking the dast, setting aside half for our mutton curry. The rest he slices with a knife that's deftly lodged between his toes, cutting it into pinkish white chunks to be minced for the family's signature mutthi kebabs.

"The shoulder is the least fibrous part," Anil tells me. "Our mince is really fine, you don't need to chew it; it should just melt in your mouth." Earlier, Kumi aired one of Chandra-ji's theories behind this requisite softness: his family, back in the northern Indian city of Lucknow, indulged in so much paan (the mildly psychoactive areca nut wrapped in betel leaf) that they ground their teeth down and could only manage to eat soft things.

It's a nice story, but suspiciously familiar, too, since common legend holds how the kakori kebab of Awadhi cuisine was invented for similar reasons at the behest of the Nawab of Kakori, a king so toothless he required the sort of meat one chews with gums alone.

Nowhere is this fusion more apparent than in their cuisine, a delicious hybrid where Mughal-style meat gravies share the table with sacred Hindu fried flatbreads. It's a juxtaposition unimaginable to so many households on the subcontinent, my own included. For us, meat was forbidden on holy days, and poori aloo was the thing. But for the Chandras, holy days weren't the same without mutton.

Slow and attentive

Back in the kitchen, the men are getting down to some serious cooking. Kumi enters, trying to entice me with a beer, or a glass of gin, maybe? "Why not?" she laughs. "That's part of our culture, too."

And it's true — a relaxed attitude to alcohol has long been the Kayasth way. It comes, in part, from the community's talent for adaptation. With the collapse of the Mughal Empire and the arrival of the British, Kayasths discovered — among other things — the pleasures of whisky with their evening kebabs.

Anil is at the counter, calling for spices: coriander seed, cumin, nutmeg, black and green cardamom, cinnamon, clove, bay leaf, black pepper. He parcels them out on his plate, getting what feels to be right for the garam masala, the spice blend.

"I always do andaz," Anil says — andaz loosely translating as personal style or interpretation. In the Chandra family, the garam masala is ground fresh for every meal. "It's amazing how many people just make large jars of it," Manu says, shaking his head in disbelief.

Next, Anil turns his attention to the mince for the kebabs, governing the spoonfuls of chilli, salt, curd and chickpea flour to be sprinkled, drizzling vegetable oil from its canister, before passing the mixture to Vivek, the family's helper, and his muscular forearms. "This is the major surgical operation," Anil says. "You keep kneading until you're exhausted. This fellow has become very good at it."

While the kneading is in full swing, Manu explains the importance of emulsification to the kebab mix, and as he starts on the mutton curry, talks about the Maillard reaction — what happens to amino acids and sugars when food is browned — and the way it comes into play when 'bhunoeing' the onions.

Ah, bhunoeing… that impossible-to-translate technique, the slow and attentive shallow frying of spices and ingredients, especially onions, in order to extract the maximum flavour from them. It's a technique Kayasth cooking would be unthinkable without.

And, when bhunoeing, patience is key. Manu chides Vivek for trying to introduce the mutton to the onions too early. But Manu moves with speed, juggling the pots and pans and chopping boards with great energy. He mentions how he's just upgraded his parents' kitchen, bringing in a new stove to replace burners so old the flames resembled candles. "It would have taken forever to cook a lunch like this," Manu says. In the background Anil grumbles about how it would have been better that way.

In moments like this I see the generational divide between father and son — Manu with his scientific precision, Anil with his andaz and candle flames — yet they share an innate understanding of what needs to be done, as well as a disbelief that, elsewhere, fresh spices aren't ground for every single meal.

This shared attitude comes from one source, it turns out. Her name is Shashi, Anil's mother, Manu's grandmother. The family — including Anil's brother, Akhil, his sister, Lekha, and their spouses — reminisce about this remarkable woman. Cigarettes are lit, beer is poured, and in the laughter there's a scrambling to unfurl memories.

"No one was a master like her."

"Her rotis were something else."

"Everything was made on the slow fire," Anil chips in. "She'd brown the onion with very little ghee, maybe a few cardamoms, and then when it was done, she'd fry the meat again on a slow fire. I've never been able to reproduce that."

She was wonderfully liberal, too, a liberalism borne out of literacy, education, an appreciation for culture and the arts. It's a kind of chicken and egg: that Kayasth food broke all kinds of rules seemed to feed back into their daily life.

"Kayasth as a community were very broad-minded," Anil says. "They ate meat that had been shunned by most high-caste Hindus, and they had no taboo of eating food 'contaminated' by the touch of Muslims." While more acceptable in the past, some people do still hold these views today.

Back in the kitchen, the mutton pieces merge with the bhunoed onions, the mutthi kebabs are lowered into the spiced poaching liquid in their perfectly emulsified balls, and the aromas filter through from the kitchen to the yard. More guests arrive: a family friend, Kuldeep, then food writer Anoothi Vishal, author of an invaluable book on Kayasth cuisine.

"So what's the most important thing in a Kayasth family?"

Akhil laughs — it's easy. "We talk food, we dream food, we eat food. The basic conversation revolves around food. After dinner it'll be 'what's tomorrow's meal?'"

A charming snobbishness pervades this obsession. Despite moving from Lucknow in the mid-1960s, aged 19, Anil talks about Delhi like he's just arrived and dismisses the meat you get here with amusing alacrity — it's too fibrous, too grainy.

Akhil agrees. "The meat is cooked in such a lousy manner. Even in the best places of Old Delhi it might taste good but sometimes you get a sharp bit of bone."

And yet, the family is incredibly inclusive, embracing difference. Kumi is Punjabi-Tamil, and actually a vegetarian. Sangeeta, Akhil's wife, comes from a Lucknow Brahmin background.

"When these two ladies came into the household," Akhil jokes, "they couldn't even boil water." But they fell in love with the culture of the cuisine and become adept at producing it — Sangeeta so much so that Manu calls her to the kitchen to confer over his long-promised 'innovation'. The buthua ka raita has been abandoned, the bathua leaves now fried off with spices and pureed, spread in a baking dish as a cushion for hard-boiled eggs, topped with bhuna masala and cheese, briefly oven-baked. But is it authentically Kayasth?

"I have a very radical idea about authenticity," says Manu. "It doesn't exist."

"That's exactly it," Kumi adds. "Kayasth food is innovative, it keeps picking up from everywhere."

"By the time the Ganges comes to the plain," Anil elaborates poetically, "some of the mightiest rivers have merged with it, and lost their identities."

Several hours — and beers — down, lunch is finally served. It almost feels like an afterthought, at least until the first glorious mouthful. The mutthi kebabs are a revelation, the mutton curry intoxicating. Manu's egg invention is a comforting distillation of Kayasth cooking, the bhuna masala a pure treat. And there's more: Sangeeta has brought lotus stem yakhni pulao (an aromatic pilaf) and takey paise (fried chickpea flour dumplings); Lekha has made shami kebabs, the standard Kayasth companion to whisky.

Dishes are passed around and above us, in a ficus tree the Chandras planted 20 years ago, a small monkey jumps from branch to branch, eyeing the table. Our friendly neighbourhood vegetable vendor, alert to the chaos, tries to frighten it off with a slingshot. We laugh and sometimes we talk, but mostly we eat. And later, with plates emptied, we move inside and talk a little longer. Outside, the Delhi winter evening is encroaching. I drink more tea, then say my goodbyes.

It's only later that I truly begin to appreciate the meal. I keep on thinking about that mutton, afforded so much time and care, teased into exquisite form using techniques that might have come from a Mughal king. I laud the delicacy of its preparation, the beauty of the dast cut. And I realise, the next day, snootily requesting only mutton shoulder from my mother's butcher, turning my nose up at a hurried and coarse Punjabi kofta made by a family friend, that — after just one meal — I've truly embraced the Kayasth way.

Learn how to make Anil's mutton curry

Published in Issue 1 of National Geographic Traveller Food

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