Dal-Baati-Churma and the Republic: Food-Wise With Chef Akshraj Jodha

By Madhulika Dash

Republic. A word that is easily defined on paper than in action. For the longest time, I believed this. The truth, however,  is we all live by the ethos of republic throughout our lives. We are habitually creatures of selection and tend to follow people who we consider have a better view of a certain situation. That is the sole reason we choose leaders, who we believe will be able to create an environment that is conducive to our well being and prosperity. It was the also the reason that for a major part of our history, kings were chosen. It is our practice of being republic that we even have followed people, trends and styles – and made it an integral part of our lives.

And the one place republic manifests itself clearly is the kitchen. A place that since ages has created legacy. 

In fact, as a chef who has spent a good part of two decades cooking and manning some of the finest culinary spaces in the country and recreating or archiving culinary legacy, it has been one of my most amazing insight. As chefs we are not elected people, but when you step into the restaurant and send the order to us, it is within that short period that you elect us to give you a finer moment. Fascinatingly this republican cycle has another turn when you enjoy our meal and thank us for the wonderful experience. In that instant, you have, unknowingly, established us as the chef who not only cooks a great meal – but can be bequeathed with the responsibility of making your day memorable. 

A step up to this power is when a Chef is called the best in his profession. That accolade isn’t just a recognition of his talent but also of his philosophy – and his ability to lead. And by “lead” I not only mean effecting a trend, but also have this influence on what kind of food we eat and how. S/he has the power to revive things, make a certain food culture popular and decide partly what will constitute your perception of eating (and dining) well. The cinch is that he doesn’t do this alone, but through the constant support of the diners who, time and again, put their faith in him. 

An excellent example is of dal-baati-churma. It's considered to be an iconic dish – a symbol of the strength and zeal of humans, and their ability to live through some of the most difficult situations. But dal- baati-churma was never the real dish intended. The real dish, as many from my turf, would say was created to put together a balanced meal that had all the nutrients and yet didn’t take time to make. 

Even today, in every traditional home, a single chulah is used to make the dish where the dal cooks in the vessel, while the baati bakes near the embers (giving it that necessary charcoal to cleanse the body) and on top are a collection of chillies, which provides the necessary spice and vitamins. The dish got popular in Rajasthan for three reasons: easy availability and it was slow to digest, which allowed people to utilise the day doing more pertinent work. In fact, baati’s longevity became a deciding factor in its wider acceptability. It was one of the things that soldiers carried on field – and while at war it was what sustained them. The fact that most followed a vegetarian diet through the year – meat eating was occasional – along with the above factors catapulted it to a state’s dish.

But was it only the denizen nomination that catapulted dal-baati to the culinary high it is today. If you look closely, it is the conscious decision of presenting it in every meal by both commoners and royalty that gives this dish the ability to lead the culinary ledger. In fact, how beautifully does the idea of republic works was with the birth of Dal-Baati-Churma, which wasn’t how the dish was intended to be initially – but has been nominated as the way the dish is presented to the world. 

The addition of Churma was in fact an act of being Republic. The addition of a sweet actually completes the meal and also gives it a feast-like feeling. So it could be well be a chef's interpretation to floor an English guest with the charms of flavours, but the acceptance came from the people – especially those knew how the dish was, originally.