Nickeled & Dimed

Penny for your thoughts?

We are accepting articles on our new email:

The Good Migration: Food During the Partition Period

By: Vishwa Thakkar

Abstract: The partition of India was a horrific incident that caused mass violence and bloodshed.
Communities that had lived together for hundreds of years took up arms against each other.
Millions of people were forced to migrate and leave their livelihoods behind due to an
unanticipated and reckless move from the Britishers. But with this migration of people also
came the migration of food. Be it the tandoori cuisine or the culture of evening snacks, Indian
food was heavily influenced by its immigrants’ cuisines. Popular dishes like Butter Chicken
and Dal Makhani are all the inventions of the refugees of the partition. Punjabis, Sindhis and
Banglas all brought unique flavours that integrated into the Indian palette and now hold
significant value.

The British were compelled to leave India in the August of 1947 after 300 years of relentless extraction and exploitation to suit their interests. However, this was not the type of departure that the freedom fighters had anticipated. The Britishers decided to divide India along religious lines to prevent greater carnage while also creating a compliant new buffer state against the Soviet Union. So, in the end, a rushed effort was undertaken to demarcate Pakistani State, a new state formed of two Muslim-majority provinces separated by 2000 kilometres from a Hindu-majority India. However, the carelessness of the move resulted in groups that had coexisted for millennia fighting one another in a catastrophic outbreak of sectarian bloodshed, with Hindus and Sikhs on one side and Muslims on the other. This mutual genocide was as unexpected as it was unprecedented. Massacres, burning, force conversions, mass abductions, and horrific sexual abuse were common in Punjab and Bengal, two regions on India’s borders with West and East Pakistan, respectively. Seventy-five thousand women were raped, and many of them were deformed or mutilated as a result. In fact, by the end of 1948, it is estimated that more than fifteen million people had been
uprooted, and between one and two million were dead. 

The Partition is considered to be one of the bloodiest chapters in Indian history. The wounds of widespread horror at the time are still deep and irreversible among millions of people today. However, there were some unintended positive results in the middle of this pandemonium. One example is the rise of ‘Dhabas,’ which are now the lifeline of truckers. Nobody can picture a highway without these modest, casual eateries along its sides. However, modern Punjab’s distinct dhaba culture arose from the displaced peoples of Punjab, who abandoned their homes on both sides of the border during India’s Partition. They became famous because they provided traditional Punjabi comfort foods such as rotis, parathas, dal, and subzi. The food was fresh, the service was swift, and there were no leftovers due to refrigeration issues. The Grand Trunk Road provided excellent ground for their growth. The Sher-e-Punjab chain, which featured mainstays like ma di dal, tandoori chicken, and tandoori roti, was a pioneer back in the day. The dhabas were also instrumental in popularising Punjabi cuisine all across India. 

And it is not just the dhabas. There are several other examples related to food which have now formed an integral part of Indian cuisine, for example, the tandoor. The tandoor is a clay oven of Central Asian origin and is still used to make bread there. That was also the tandoor’s original application in Punjab. Sanjha chulha tradition in Punjabi villages was centered on a shared tandoor, around which women congregated not just to make fresh bread but also to communicate life details. Hindu immigrants from Punjab brought their clay ovens to Delhi, the big metropolis. Their fortitude, toughness, and tenacity were obviously unable to compete with the culturally sophisticated but effete Dilliwallah. As businesses changed ownership, Delhi’s food became firmly and predominantly tandoori, whereas, earlier, it was home to Mughlai cuisine with dishes like shabdegh (turnips with meat), pulao, and more.

And the person who is particularly famous for popularising this tandoori cuisine is Kundan Lal Gujral. Kundan Lal Gujral was a young man from undivided India in the 1920s who worked at Mokhe da Dhaba in Peshawar. When the owner’s health deteriorated, he sold the business to Gujral, who renamed it Moti Mahal. But Moti Mahal closed soon before Partition. When Gujral came to Delhi, he ran into his erstwhile accomplices, Kundan Lal Jaggi and Thakur Das Mago. With their help, he rebuilt Moti Mahal in Daryaganj in 1947. The eatery drew a constant stream of regulars, including Suchha Singh, a manager at Firestone Tyres. He arrived late one night, just as the food was about to run out, and asked the cook to improvise. Gujral scraped the remaining dal with rajma and butter and the renowned Dal Makhani was born! On the other day, a gentleman walked in and requested tandoori chicken, but it was extremely dry, so the kitchen created a tomato, cream, and butter curry into which the tandoori chicken was dipped, and that led to the origin of Butter Chicken! Gujral was bestowed with the IATO Hall of Fame Award in 1990 for introducing tandoori cuisine to the world. And today, Moti Mahal has gone on to become so popular that it is present in every major city across India, and the brand is also starting to make itself an international presence. 

And these Punjabi dishes have become so essential that it forms a part of almost every
restaurant menu in India. In fact, Camillia Panjabi, who was in charge of conceptualising
several restaurants at the Taj hotel chain in the 1980s and 1990s, writes in her book, 50 Great
Curries of India, “Attempts to introduce regional Indian dishes in menus always met with
customer resistance, in the sense that customers continued to order the Punjabi dishes on the
menu. In India, the majority who eat out as part of their lifestyle are Punjabis… Since they
form the backbone of the clientele of almost every Indian restaurant in the country, restaurant
owners are extremely wary of directing the menu away from Punjabi favourites.” 

But it is not just the Punjabi food that made its mark on Indian cuisine. The Sindhis too were
brought in their unique culture of ‘evening snacking.’ Earlier, the snacks vocabulary was
somewhat limited to things like bhel puri –– a traditional mix of puffed rice with sauces,
spices, onions, and tomatoes. But as the Sindhi immigrants from Karachi made their way to
the Indian territory, dishes like dal pakwaan and sai bhaji came to be. And as a result, chaat
culture became an essential part of street food, especially in cities like Mumbai. 

And topic about evening snacks is bound to remain incomplete if we don’t talk about
samosas. The Partition aided the popularity of samosas in various respects. It was
inexpensive, simple to set up a small business, and a meal in and of itself when combined
with chhole. Seth Girdhari Lal Munjal arrived in Delhi in 1947 and opened a samose-chhole
store on Panchkuian Road. Despite the fact that he dubbed it Frontier Samosa Shop, it
became known as ‘Panchkuian Road wale samose’. Tilak Raj Munjal, his son, developed the
company and introduced new flavours like as dried fruit, dal, gobi, paneer, and even a
Samburger (samosa in a bun)!

Returning to the Sindhis, the papad is a mainstay in their cuisine. These fundamentallycrispy, spicy flatbreads resemble other South and North Indian forms of the papadam/papad, but the Sindhi papad has its own distinct flavour profile. After Partition, the Hindu Sindhis,
who migrated to India, also brought with them their special ‘ papad .’

As a result, it is reasonable to argue that the partition introduced a variety of different flavours from the north. However, we frequently overlook the separation in the east and focus the majority of our narrative on the divide in the north-west. The division of East and West Bengal was equally violent and horrifying. People migrated in large numbers there as well. And, with people came their food. Food is an important part of East Bengali identity, expressing longing for the desh. East Bengali immigrants and indigenous West Bengalis, known as “Bangals” and “Ghotis,” have diverse culinary methods that have been the subject of repeated debate in parlours, books, and newspapers. The hilsa became a cause of contention. As East Bengal migrants brought their own “more sophisticated” method of cooking (as it is popularly regarded), there was a longing for the quality of ilish from the Padma river (in East Bengal, then known as East Pakistan), which is said to be superior to Ganga fish. 

But this jovial rivalry over cooking skills replaced the once fierce competition between the two communities over jobs. Chitrita Banerji’s The Hour of the Goddess nicely illustrates these squabbles, adding, “The Ghoti trademark was the discernible sweet undertaste in the complex vegetable preparations that Bengal is famed for. To most Bangals, however, it was anathema. Ghotis, they said, were sissies, sweetening dishes that were meant to be hot, spicy, and salty. If you want a sweet taste, why not eat dessert? In return, the Ghotis would sneer at the Bangals predilection for chillies and rich, oily sauces that deadened the palate and left no
room for subtle tastes.” 

And Kolkata’s food firms have quickly realised that nostalgia generates its own market. For three weeks in 2019, 6 Ballygunge Place, a well-known restaurant in the city, staged a Bangladeshi Fish Festival. Most of the items on the menu were named after places in
Bangladesh, such as Sylheti Shorshe Ilish (Sylhet Mustard Hilsa), Chattogrami Chingri
(Chattogram Prawn), Mymonsinghi Magur (Mymensingh Catfish), and Pabnai Puti Bhaja
(Pabna Fried Barb), emphasising the country’s various culinary methods.

So, while the partition was definitely a tragedy because it forced millions of people to flee,
leaving their livelihoods and loved ones behind, it also introduced various flavours to the
Indian populace that were previously unknown and have now become a part of our everyday
life. Thus, food migration was the “good migration” during the division. 

Vishwa Thakkar is a second-year student at O.P Jindal Global University pursuing
Honours in Economics

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: