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2000s Archive

Up on the Roof

Originally Published April 2007
The scent wafts from markets and street stalls, from rooftops and the restaurants at five-star hotels. Delhi is a city that’s deliciously obsessed with kebabs.

In Delhi, in January 2006, I went to the Jama Masjid mosque, at the time of the Muslim festival of Eid-uz-Zuha. The minarets were lit a wizard green, the marble domes glowed unearthly in the night. Women in black burkas sped by, feet patterned orange with henna. Elegant bathed bearded men in starched white, looking as if they came from another age of grandeur, accompanied elegant bathed bearded goats in rickshaws, driving their animals to slaughter. For this is the festival that celebrates both the day the Koran was completed and the triumph of Ibrahim’s faith—the occasion when he offered his son as a sacrifice to God and found a ram to slaughter in place of the boy. Goats lose their lives out of proportion on this day. And people eat—monumentally, inordinately, passionately. On this day, indulging in food is an act of faith.

Pilgrims filled restaurants and stalls that looked chaotic but were anchored by the glowering eyes and staunch personalities of the owners, the perfect aesthetic harmony of their sitting with wide-girthed ease amid wide-girthed pots. Life moves quickly here, and you cannot linger in the communal crossroads of a thousand narratives racing past, disappearing into crooked side streets, into hidden -courtyards—you’re propelled into your own story.

I turned into the lane that goes to Karim’s. The Mughlai food of Delhi is famous around the mosque, and the family that runs Karim’s traces its lineage to the arrival in India of the first Mughal emperor, Babur. The pride in food here is of the kind that knows it needs no frills. The tables are plain, the room is plain, the food is cooked in the courtyard. But, whirling wonderful life—the rotis fly through the air as in a juggling act. The waiters run by in fast-forward. One has the feeling of a great river, of the momentum of thousands of meals served to hundreds of thousands over the ages. “By the grace of Allah,” says the menu, and “Good food makes good mood.”

The food is the burra kebab of marinated meat cooked in a tandoor; the seekh kebab of minced meat on a skewer; the sheermal roti, slightly sweet and flavored with saffron; meat curries of paya (feet) and brains—the kind of food that makes men men. Yet the fragrance is of the sweeter spices: mace, nutmeg, allspice, cinnamon, fennel, cloves, and cardamom, as well as rose water and kewra, screw pine essence.

Central to the Mughal cuisine of India is the kebab. The burra here scandalizes the taste buds with the contrast between an uncivilized heft of meat and bone, and the utter civility of flesh that is so tender it causes a small star of embarrassment in the back of one’s mind as one leaps to gnaw quick-quicker, so that this kebab can only be considered in retrospect.

Most of the Islamic Old Delhi of my parents’ generation departed for Pakistan in 1947—12 million were exiled. Overnight, a particular Delhi society, honed to fineness over the centuries, to a mingling of Hindu and Muslim, was gone. It was a society that prided itself on courtly refinement, on a sensitive and precious language, on manners as an art form, on a perfumed and extravagant cuisine. The old havelis, ornate homes carved to fretworks of lace and shadow, were left to decay; the patrons of the arts left; the courtesans and their songs departed. Between my parents’ youth and my own, Delhi was flooded with Hindu and Sikh refugees who built a society that turned its back on the past, for the only option in those days was to grasp at the future with everything you had.

I grew up in this unromantic, austere city, in a time of a curbed kebab. At home we made a lovely yet homespun shammi of minced mutton and lentils cooked and ground together with cloves and nutmeg, browned on a flat griddle over the stove. Sometimes we went to our neighborhood market of Defence Colony for other simple incarnations of the kebab, seekh and little chunks of boti kebab, skewered and grilled. Life moved slowly, anchored to family. It seemed as if nothing would change, and then, in the 1990s, India opened its doors to the free market, and it all came tumbling in: computers and cellphones, restaurants named Diva and Ploof, French brandy snifters, American tourists, obesity and anorexia, London town houses being constructed in the desert dust, restaurant guides unveiled in five-star hotels by Bollywood beauties in see-through saris.

Rising high on the mood of excess—buoyed by the appetite of a middle class gobbling up everything it had been kept from in earlier days, when ancient barriers of class and caste kept food hostage within communities—is the kebab.

Each week ardent journalists anoint new Kings of Kebabs, and like a secular version of a Hindu deity, the kebab is sprouting a thousand heads. There are famous hole-in-the-wall places, each showcasing reviews from the Sunday papers, each with pictures of celebrity patrons, each regarding the others with jealousy, hurt, and unbending pride: “We never speak to them!” said the men at Khan Chacha of Salim Kebab Corner, the shop at the other end of the same lane.

“What did you eat there?” Salim asked me.

“The mutton seekh.”

“Put a seekh on the grill,” he ordered his cook.

“No, I’ll try the fish kebab.”

“No, you’ll eat the mutton.”

He watched me carefully as I ate the kebab, hot and salty, flecked with coriander, ground with garlic and ginger, covered in mint chutney—the most vibrant thing in the muffled night.

“Once people eat here,” he said, “they’ll never go back to Khan Chacha!”

There are cooks who claim to make 300 kebabs. Modern inventions in the three colors of the national flag for hotel food festivals. Chicken kebabs filled with oranges and mint, and mutton kebabs filled with eggs. Kebabs proffered on silver salvers by white-gloved waiters in private clubs. Kebabs beaten to silk, or half beaten to silk and half with a bit of texture you come across in the middle of the wobble. Vegetarian kebabs made of corn and squash, paneer cheese, melon seeds, and raw mango. There’s the tabak maas of Kashmir, made with tender lamb ribs. Hearty chapli kebabs from the North-West Frontier, flat, laden with chiles and sometimes a scrambled egg mixed in. Shammis that they say were made perfectly in the court of Palanpur. Afghan chicken on the bone and minced-chicken reshmi kebabs. The grand shikampuri, made with roasted nuts and sometimes coconut or a sliver of boiled egg in the center. The dahi kebab from Kishengarh, in Rajasthan, made with yogurt, chickpea flour, and saffron. Mythical-sounding kebabs: The nehari kebab, they say, should be eaten after the rains, seasoned with mustard oil buried for nine months in earthenware; the pathar kebab of ground meat cooked on a hot stone, the minerals of which are supposed to impart flavor; a kebab baked and covered with silver leaf.

Food historians search the archives of courts renowned for their cuisine, resurrecting recipes of the dastarkhwans, formal banquets of the royals. They’re tracing the lineage of kebabs that have been nurtured to complexity with a mingling of the Indian with Turkish, Persian, and Afghan influences.

The pathar and shikampuri come from the southern kebab center of Hyderabad—the Hyderabadi royals were famous for their mad idea of luxury. Experts claim to have revived the dorra kebab from the Salar Jang archives in Hyderabad, and the Radisson Hotel in Noida has actually patented the recipe. Thirty-two rare spices render it soft as marrow, perfume it, bind it. The kebab is steamed over low coals in silk that has been smoked with sandalwood. The silk must not burn, the kebab should be revealed by a single pull of a thread, as a nautch girl might have been revealed in a debauched time.

From the legendary northern kebab center of Awadh, the old princely state whose capital is Lucknow, comes the galawati (round) and the kakori (long), infuriating, beckoning kebabs, with a mere shadow of texture that arouses a desire to cling to the ephemeral even as your being is filled with spice so potent you’ll walk all day in glory. The kakori was invented in the village of Kakori when the nawab (provincial governor) lost his teeth. It is made from the meat of the upper portion of the hind leg of the lamb, and is ground anew with each addition of the spices (some say 30 spices while others say 60—all vow secrecy). The kakori is half spice and half meat—almost bitter in flavor, redolent of cardamom, hot with black pepper; the spices are supposed to act as a digestive. The galawati kebab, which is marinated in green papaya to soften it before the meat is ground, is ideally made with no egg to bind it—an indication of skill and purity of flavor.

So the Indian kebab in its extreme—massaged, perfumed, pompous, romantic—a pampered aristocrat, is a different creature from the Greek or the Turkish, from the Middle Eastern kebab that seems, to scornful Indians, not to have progressed since medieval times, when Turkic soldiers skewered meat with their swords and roasted their dinner in the fire.

The chef at Bukhara, the restaurant that showcases North-West Frontier kebabs that are cooked on an open fire or in a tandoor, told me that the Indian kebab is Persian in origin, and comes from “kam aab,” meaning “less water.” Here, for vast sums of money, you can, like Bill Clinton, who inspired the Clinton kebab platter, sample the peshawari kebab of marinated lamb in vinegar, black cumin, and yogurt; or a kastoori kebab of minced chicken in a cozy casing of chickpea flour coated with egg and crisped in the tandoor.

Up on the roof of his home, our dear family friend Akhilesh Mithal, a historian whose expertise is the Hindu-Islamic culture of Delhi, reported that the kebab’s linguistic roots lie in Dari and Pashto, making the kebab Afghan in origin. “Just like Rumi,” said Mr. Mithal of the great Sufi poet. “Now they say ‘uncivilized country, uncivilized country’—they forget what Afghanistan was.”

Talk of kebabs should always go with poetry, for in the havelis of times past, kebab sherab (alcohol) and poetry together moved audiences to tears at mehfils, literary and musical evenings often held outdoors on summer nights.

Mr. Mithal dabbed jasmine perfume on our wrists (the gift of fragrance, an old-fashioned courtesy), wore a grand Kashmiri hat, and recited with zest: “When I am served a browned quail, / What life enters my half dead spirit, / I’m resurrected like the son of Maryam.”

Lovely rooftop life of Delhi. In our own house, we climb up for moments of civility in the marine light of dusk, sniff the different dinners cooking up and down the street. Why is it comforting to know who is eating what? But of course it is.

On the kebab grill, Sanjeeb, our cook, makes chicken and fish tikkas. He makes romali rotis that look like crumpled hankies. Our grill is an endearing metal cart on wheels with a drawer for the coals; clay, straw, and cow dung plastered all around it to make it partly a grill and partly a tandoor. My father invented it himself, consulting Sanjeeb and the family workman.

It is here, on rooftop evenings, that kebabs have their dearest incarnation, the one that refers to home, and proffers a brief antidote to a world that has fissured in many ways for us, with the leaving of so many in the family to America, with things changing so fast and chaotically in a city whose culture was already eroded in my parents’ time.

When the sun sets behind the ruined seam of the mosque wall, we listen to a recording of Abida Parveen, the Sufi singer. The music, meditative, digestive, echoes the seamless kebab. This is how we soothe the rifts, reconcile past with present—art can perform this feat. For on such an evening, we, the kebabs, and the music are one. And the modern city grinding on below. And a lost time of Mughal kings, of food that smelled of roses, of Persian poetry, sentiments of pink and sugar, of Sufi mystics singing with an urgency that has not lost its pertinence for this culture over the centuries.

“Break the mosque, break the temple, but do not break a heart,” Abida Parveen sings, “Do not break a heart, for that is where God resides.”