Being a chef, I am familiar with viscosity and the temperature that hot oil generates to give food the richness, the crunch and a contrast of texture that is otherwise not possible.
However, to explore frying and its evolution in the Indian context, during my recent travel, I spoke to eminent food historian Dr Pushpesh Pant, and he put things quite in perspective.
Fried food allows cooking at up to 190°C. With oven not being a common medium of cooking in India, and water being a source of health insecurity, frying was the only medium to preserve food for a longer time. ‘Safri’ food or cuisine of the traveller still is pickled delicacies like achaari gosht and fried food like mathris and their kin.
Also, Indian festivals and weddings are celebrated over many days, and slow travels to towns and villages in old India meant that eventually the celebration food would take some time to arrive before being consumed. Hence, the high temperature fryer fare was the chosen expression of celebrations in the country.
It is unfair to completely negate the relevance of fried food across all food cultures in general and our food culture in particular. This method of cooking has been obsessively targeted as a sole reason for ill health in India, leaving out key details like the quality of fat and the temperature of frying. Being a food tourist, the queues I see at fried food stalls are heartwarming.
Standing in one such queue for The Great Indian Rasoi in Kolkata on College Street, and craving for hot tea and Tele bhaja, I struck a conversation with the owner Kesto, who is the fourth generation descendant of Laxmi Narayan Shaw, the founder, after whom the shop is named.
Kesto showed me pictures of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose eating at the shop, passionately speaking about how the modern fat food cannot replace the neighborhood addas, while I enjoyed my raisins-stuffed soy chop and piyaji.
Keshto proudly told me that they have been serving free Tele Bhaja to north Kolkata on January 23 (Netaji’s birthday) ever since 1942 when LN Shaw went door to door distributing Bhaja.
Sit in your living room window with hot tea and pakoras, eat less but eat for sure, because sometimes, nothing beats good fried food.