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What Dehradun Ate



When the evening descended across the Valley it was that blessed time when the smoke from humble homes and some better off ones all rose in one direction: towards the darkening sky that anticipated a rendezvous with the stars. The warm fires that set free the smoke to travel upwards were however not one in the Valley’s social hierarchy. Yes, indeed, the Doon Valley was sparsely populated in the days gone by and the villages lay some distance apart, separated often by stretches of forests that had their presence even in the town. The Doon of yesteryears was a happy home to several social groups quite distinct from each other in at least what cooked on their kitchen hearths.

With some hindsight and the benefit of local oral traditions, we are in luck to know what our ancestors and the predecessor residents of the Doon Valley ate and drank. In the distant past, there was no homogeneity in the Valley’s population. Despite the challenges of traveling and the remoteness of Dehradun, the district became over a period home to the Banjaras, Kalals, Kambojs, Garhwalis, Mahras, migrant social groups from the Plains, Brahmins, Rajputs, Gujars, Udasi fakirs, Garhwalis, Gorkhas and, lastly, the motley Europeans like the English, Scots, Welsh and the Irish.

Besides this diversity, there was the effect of diversity in terrain of the district. The southern extreme of the valley was tropical with high humidity levels for much of the year that made the region malaria infested. The central part of the valley was more of a plateau and healthier to support habitation and settled existence. The upper end of the valley reaching up to the temperate climes of Mussoorie and Landour offered distinct living conditions. Also, the western portion of the hill tracts known as JaunsarBawur was another cultural and ethnic component of the district. All in all, the Doon Valley offered anthropologists a fitting case study of cultural and food habits of its population.

The earlier of the settled parts of the valley was the area around the Dera (later the Darbar) of Guru Ram Rai, the eldest son of the sixth Sikh Guru. He chose this place in 1676 to settle down to pursue his spiritual practice and provide guidance to his growing following. His leading masands (missionary agents) were men from Punjab who settled and set up their establishments around the Darbar of Guru Ram Rai. Their food habits were those of the urban elite, having lived in Delhi for over a decade before making Dehradun their home. Wheat, pulses, vegetables, milk products were preferred in abundance due to tradition as well the availability of good fodder and pasturage in the surrounding area. Also a langar (communal kitchen) was operated as per the custom in Sikh establishments. It was a prominent feature and food was thus prepared for inmates of the Darbar and also for visiting pilgrims and anyone needing succour.

While in and around the Darbar of Ram Rai and the emerging market in the vicinity the people followed the dietary preferences that had influence of more urbanised tastes, the outlying villages had somewhat different fare prepared in their simpler kitchens. Fine rice, wheat and pulses were rare as these were not grown locally and came to be introduced later by the efforts of the Darbar’s establishment once it started farming its vast land holding. In the more humble homes, janghora (barnyard millet), mandua (finger millet) tuar (a coarse pulse) formed the staple of the people. In Garhwali homes, additionally, Kafuli, Chainsoo were served and, when entertaining a guest, Keshar Halwa and Janghora Kheer were prepared. The common people, however, had access to a range of products that the surrounding forests and streams offered. Jungle fowl, rabbits, deer, wild boar and ghural were often included in menus of the people due to ease in obtaining a cheap supply. Often the householders hunted these in nearby forests and, not infrequently, in their own fields under crop. Thus, deer and wild boars visiting the fields were easy prey with enough justification as these were regarded as vermin due to their sheer numbers. Mutton was much used to prepare “shikar bhat”, a popular delicacy enjoyed with rice.

In the decades following the occupation of the Doon Valley by the Gorkhas after they defeated Raja Pradyuman Shah in 1804, they settled in the Valley in large numbers. They chose outlying pockets of the Valley such as Garhi, Nimbuwala, Birpur, Dakra, Khattapani, Kameri, Lachhiwala and other such places. They had a particular liking for streams and proximity to forests. They were largely vegetarians and popularised dishes like staple “dal bhat tarkari” a combination of rice, pulses and green vegetables. But they also had a taste for fish and meat on occasions. Thus their kitchens at times prepared “bhuni bhutwa” (roasted dry mutton). “Machha ka jhol” was another favourite made with freshly caught fish eaten with rice. Two other dainties of the Dehradun Gorkhas was “seli roti” and “fini roti”, both of which were fried breads. Easy access to rivers or streams allowed the Gorkhas to include “khole sag” (water cress) in their regular repertoire of food. They also included as staple a range of “chutneys” to indulge their palate.

Once Jaunsar and Bawur were annexed to the Doon Valley in the second decade of the nineteenth century, the region enriched the culinary landscape of the district. Here, the staple of the people were maize, mandua and janghora, which made a wholesome bread called ‘Khop Roti’ enjoyed with fresh yogurt. A distinctive food habit of the Jaunsaris was on account of their deep knowledge of wild mushrooms that were aplenty in Jaunsar and consumed with relish. A mushroom called “Maida” was reputed to increase lactation in young mothers. Winter months were occasions to enjoy locally made beer using certain roots, barley meal cooked with sawak and china and fermented for about ten days. Goat meat was also consumed during the cold season. Apricots and walnuts were in abundance and the region also produced good potatoes and rajma (kidney beans) much to the delight of the cantonment at Chakrata and Kailana.

The next major influence on the culinary tradition of the Valley was that which came in the wake of the British. The British followed chronologically on the heels of the Gorkhas whom they displaced as the ruling elite across much of Himachal, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar and further east, too. The European tastes thus found their way into the Valley with the increased presence of the English, Scots Welsh and the Irish. While the Irish soda bread and sourdough bread along with Irish stews kept their home country tradition alive, the Scottish soldiers relished their staple Hotch Potch, a watery stew that had vegetables and meat but with a touch of Indian spices. While the spices were irresistible they were, however, made less pungent by adding yogurt or coconut. Wines, sherry, pale ale and other beers were also a regular feature of their dining culture. The coming of the railways popularised the Railway Chicken Curry, Railway Mutton Curry, Bread Pudding and Caramel Custard which the Indian khansamas insisted on calling “Custel Brun”! Dak Bungalows and Forest Rest Houses much used by the British spawned a variety of chicken dishes that became integral to Anglo Indian cuisine, embellishing the diversity of Indian culinary landscape.

When independence of the country sent back the colonials, they forgot to take along their much loved Mullingtawny soup, Kedgeree, Masala Omelette, Brandy-Pawnee and other such comfort food.

(Pradeep Singh is an historian and author of the “Suswa Saga: A Family Narrative of Eastern Dehradun” and “Sals of the Valley: A Memorial to Dehradun”)