When it comes to that much needed balmy hug on a rainy day, few do it as gracefully as a bowl of velvety-delicious shorba.
By Madhulika Dash; Picture credit LMNOQ Kolkata
Three years ago, when LMNOQ co-owners began working with their comfort food menu’s Indian segment, a good shorba was on their must-be list. Question was which one? Once an alien concept that travelled to the shores as part of the trade (and invasion) route, shorba now occupies centerstage when it comes to the Indian Dastarkhwan. Ever state, every region today has a shorba recipe that is unique not just to its community but the food history as well. Think of it, the shorba once known as this gelatinous, heavily spiced trotter soup, today has as many variants as there are produces to go along with it. The list, fascinatingly, doesn’t end there: beyond the dedicated shorbas, there are versions that use a medley of lentils and fresh produce, fresh produce, and meat and a selected few that even uses fruits and coconut. Thus, earning a cult status akin to the curry. In fact, Chef Pradeep Khosla’s deems it to be a rich format curry technique that can be adopted to not just any culinary styles but food pairings too.
Clearly, the confusion of the LMNOQ owners was justified. After all, how do you compare paya shorba with murg yakhani shorba to tamatar ka shorba to one that uses guchchi. Aside of being evolved versions of the Iranian chorba that became shorba in India, these had different ways of making it and had their own unique features, taste, texture, and functionality as well.
While the paya shorba came with the dual ancestry of arriving with the invaders and getting Indianised during the making of Shahjahanabad where by the orders of Emperor Shah Jahan, it was served to the workers as a wellness soup during winters. Likewise, for Tamatar Ka Shorba that was prepared as this light snack, and to enjoy the freshness of tomatoes. Then there is the Murg Yakhani Shorba, which, says Chef Akshraj Jodha, Executive Chef ITC Grand Bharat, “brought together the different facets of the shorba. One, its role of food that heals. For ages, shorbas were designed more as an antidote rather than a gourmet treat. That perhaps explains why although most early iteration of shorba began as this gelatinous stock, by the time they were finished had good mélange of spices, herbs, meat and produce that could aid in its purpose. Two, was the use of murg or chicken. While it is true that India introduced the world to the charms of the white meat, here the chicken was used more for its medicinal benefits. And the first Murg Shorba was more likely a confluence of the two schools of thoughts in one delicious bowl of goodness.”
What aided Murg Shorba immense popularity in India, continues Chef Jodha, “was the existence of a huge array of chicken dishes that were cued to wellness and the use of spice. That know how coupled with trade and the culture influences resulted in shorba becoming a popular variant which depending on the region could serve as a meal, a soup, an appetizer or simply an antidote like the Aab Gosht that often was used as a palate rejuvenator on patients.”
Another aspect that also helped the acceptance of Murg Shorba was the existence of Rasam – an ancient dish that not just played the dual role of food that healed and a beloved treat, but also was similar in its making technique to shorba. Much like the Persian peer, Rasam too was based on one ingredient that whose virtues as a dish and an ingredient was thoughtfully evolved with the use of spices that aided in the wellness concept. Both dishes were fine examples of the kind of flavourplay that slow cooking could achieve and had similar roleplay on the plate. And coincidentally, Rasam too had a murg variation.
However, where shorba scored was with the royal day patronage. Adds Chef Jodha, “while shorba remained a dish that was largely designed for the army and later for the commoners as this wholesome, nourishing treat, it had enough charm to make it to from the soldiers’ quarters and hunting lodges to the royal tables thanks to the balmy taste, calming effect and the culinary ingenuity of the khansamas who played with the layering technique to create gourmet versions of what once a frugal meal of sustenance.”
One fine example of how shorba progressed and conquered palates is the Kishtwar Zafran Murg Shorba of LMNOQ. Said to have evolved around the Dogra kings’ era, this shorba was designed for the royal table, and was an easy step up from the traditional style of making meat curries that used curd in the making. Thus, giving the shorba its rich, velvety mouthfeel. There is a good chance that the shorba, given the popularity of goat in the mountains, may have started as a gosht shorba before it was adopted to the much leaner, and easy to digest chicken. What however defined it as one of the ritzy offerings from the Himalayas was the use of saffron, which gave the shorba its unique palate character.
In fact, it was one of the few shorbas that could have started the tradition of the adding saffron to up not just the taste but health quotient too. A culinary trick that came to its full bloom during the era of the Nizams, Nawabs, and the Begums under whose patronage the humble shorba transformed into the piece de resistance of a meal – much on par, ends Chef Jodha, “of the English soup.”
No wonder, the shorba takes a prime spot in the LMNOQ menu.