Beetroot: King of the food world

By: Madhulika Dash

Beetroot or Chukundar may have made an impressionable comeback thanks to chefs and restaurants that began experimenting with this earthy tuber recently, Made In Punjab's beetroot Tikki and the Beet Heart Salad by Chef Vikas Seth being two of the finest examples, but did you know that beetroot was once considered to be the Kitchen King – and anything that had the reddish root was considered fit for royalty.

Wine and sugar made from beetroot, for many centuries, remained the celebratory food offered during big occasions – including Christmas. Many anthropologists in fact believe that the red liquid in chalices often seen in ancient pictures including the ones shown at the big dinner that Cleopatra threw for Anthony and used her 200-year- old Reserve may in actuality be beetroot juice mixed with grape juice that gave it such a blood red colour. The Elizabethans enjoyed their beets – a natural sweetner then – in tarts and stews.

Click here for the recipe of Royal Beetroot Tikki

An undisputable aphrodisiac, beets were Ancient Roman poison of love, and their frescos were used to decorate the brothel walls in Pompeii. It is said that often after a war when kings (and soldiers) would return, the grand feast would always have special preparation of beets were made – including one where the beet will be thinly sliced and soaked in its own reduction before being served before they took on the family life once again.

Beets as a matter of fact were held in such high esteem – perhaps because they began as a miraculous medicinal pill for building immunity to treating depression and heart healthy – that Romans and Greeks developed techniques to grow this predominantly winter vegetable throughout the year – and in doing developed new varieties of beets that were known as much for their colour (white to yellow to candy cane) and different taste. Our very own Charak Samita advised its use for treating anemia and detox of the gut.

Yet curiously, it was the blood red or candy pink variety – the first iteration that was grown extensively in ancient world – that became world famous. A good reason for this could be purely its rich colour – and its ability to lend that hue to anything that the beet was paired with. Like the Chukandar Gosht or Chukundar Pachadi or even the heart shaped salad that used beets to give it that interesting pink colour. Even the red velvet cake got its colour – at least back in the time – by using beet juice that was reduced to one fourth of its volume (a technique that was used by Andreas Sigismund Marggraf, a chemist from Berlin, who discovered a way to produce sucrose from beets and then his student, Franz Achard, who perfected this method for extracting sugar, leading him to the ruse if rise of beet beer, tobacco and molasses, among other products between 1747 and 1752).

Interestingly though for India, beets were used more than just flavourings – it was used also to make the food richer. In fact, in Himachal Pradesh and areas around where beet (among other tubers) grew through the year, it was used to make the food healthy, and immunity building. The chukundar gosht was one such example. Since it was also sweet, it was also had as a treat and would often form the lunch pack for the herders, travelers as well soldiers. The first aram garh (rest houses) that was established by the Mauryan Kings are said to serve beetroot juice as refreshment to travelers. Often beets were pickled with other fruits and vegetables because it added the required sweetness. A key essential in most of the pahari cuisine, it was beet’s ability to travel as a naturally packaged food – good quality beet doesn't need too much of cooking – that the tuber made its way to most of the states, and royal kitchens.

However, beet's rise to the top in India came with Emperor Shah Jahan, who is today regarded by many as the real game changer. It was under his reign that Indian cuisine – especially North India - really developed to what we know of it today, especially that of Kashmir, Agra and Shahjahanabad. It was under his aegis that Brahmin chefs from Himachal Pradesh, Kashmiri Hindu chefs and those from UP and other places were invited in court to create – develop – dishes. It is said that it was Shah Jahan standing instruction to have his meal table showcase seven different colours, aside the necessary pakwans on the table. This is when chukunder was put to test, and thus developed recipes that held the fascination of the royal beings for long.

The one dish that stood the test of time, aside the chukunder halwa, was the tikki. It is said that with beetroot, khansamas could design a patty that replicated the Peacock Throne. Beets like in Rome also became a prized possession of the harem, where often dishes were culled out –especially the raita – to appeal to the eye of the Emperor on his visit. Nur Jahan, it is said, used the rich colour of beetroot and its earthy taste to such design that she could convince Jahangir to all her demands. Beets were also high on the list of the hakims who supervised the royal food – that was designed keeping in mind the kings schedule – and the red colour tuber fit perfectly not only as a aphrodisiac and libido builder (a reason that king could have 100 or more wives and keep all happy) but also add to immunity and help them live better.

The guides of Fatehpur Sikri often reiterate stories of how beet along with rose water had become the key ingredients for queens to win a place close to their Emperor – and in doing so retain the lavish life. This could have been the reason that some of the old recipes of the beetroot kebab and gosht are so lavish as the Beetroot Kebab at Made In Punjab – and tastes better the meat (another reason that beet gained so much popularity).