What’s Eid Ul Adha’s special treat? No, it’s not the kebabs!

By Madhulika Dash

What is your favourite Eid Ul Adha or as popularly known as Bakra Eid’s food? If you throw this question to an open house, chances are that the answer is likely to oscillate between rogan josh to kebabs and biryanis, with haleems, shorbas, bheja fry making an honorable, but fleeting mention. Are they wrong? Not really.

The entire fanfare is actually a part of the Bakri Eid celebration, which at food wise, is a festival that not only celebrates sharing but also innovation of food. The qurbani in fact was one of the key reasons that so many dishes were invented, innovated, discovered and adopted. One such thing is the Pasthun specialty called the Namkeen Gosht. Reputed for its tongue-clicking, eye winking chatpattaness (for the lack of a befitting word) and tender meat, it is one of the few dishes that today can only, and only, be made during Bakri Eid. What makes it limited edition? Interestingly it is not its origin – Namkeen Gosht is a shepherd’s dish readily found in the mountain area of Peshwar – but the meat and the cooking style. Made with just four ingredients – salt, pepper, ginger and animal fat, the dish when done right almost takes a good half of the day. And often needs a season hand to cook.

It was in fact the very first dish introduced in Akbar’s court when Eid Ul Adha became a part of the court celebration. It continued to be a fixture of the feast table till the Last Moghul. Many historians believe that the reason for Namkeen Gosht rise in fame was of course its rustic flavours, which appealed to the battle hardy palate of the Mughal emperors. Another explanation to its rise is of course the dish itself, which took a huge turn when it was cooked with more tender meat due to the fact that the goat sacrificed during Bakri Eid has to be between one to one and half year.

In spite of its rise in fame and delightful flavours Namkeen Gosht remained on the same level as another interesting dish of equally humble origin Paaya. Legend has it that the first paya was made as an antidote to save a village from the clutches of plague. Another story credits the army to come up with a brilliant dish. It was a norm to use every part of an animal that was killed for supper, including the totters. Of course, over time, people discovered that totters did more than just create a nourishing soup, paired with interesting choices of spice, it can very well be a dish served on any table: be it for the game or celebration. There was one dish however on the Bakri Eid table, which of course left them all behind when it came to special. And that was the kaleji (liver) – the pathe and foie gras of the ancient to medieval world. Liver rise as a delicacy around the world was owning to its scarcity.

There was only a small bowl of liver that slaughtering a goat or a ram could get you. And hence, as tradition demanded then, went to those who could afford it. In short, the king and queen followed by nobility. There are stories abound how the Romans, Byzantines and even the Turks loved their liver – and would order it often to just uplight their mood. Indian royalty were no different. While it is said that Shah Jahan and Mariam were big fans of liver dishes, some of which came to India from the Persian court, when it came to creating dishes, much of the credit does go to the Nurjahan and its team of chefs, who tried presenting this common favourite in every possible manner – including the keema-kaleji, our Indian version of the pate, bhuna kaleji and of course the now popular street food, gurda kaleji fry.

But crediting Mughals or even the Gazhnavis to have introduced the love for liver in India, especially among the affluent will be a wrong. Liver dishes existed since the time of the Mauryan Empire, where the liver dishes were made both Indian as well as Roman style, thanks to ChandraGupta Maurya’s wife, Helena. It was also a delicacy that adorned the festive tables of Rajasthan, especially that of House of Mewar, who introduced the world to the joys of delicacies like the fast-disappearing kaleji ka raita. Kaleji in fact was served as a starter to the guests during hunting expedition, and was the first dish that even the British took liking to and made it a part of their repertoire.

A “Club” story goes that back in the 17th century, a British officer was so impressed with the bhuna kaleji that he ordered the erstwhile khansama, now a cook at the Gymkhana, to redo it for his liking. This was how the famous Army dish, spiced liver on a stick was born. So how did kaleji reach to the common people? It was courtesy Bakri Eid, and its ritual of sharing the meat. This ensured that even the poor could get a taste of this beautiful piece of meat and in good quantity. It was and still is customary for those who can sacrifice a goat or ram on the occasion to share the best meat cuts and parts with the poor, and hence in spirit giving away something that is dear to them foodwise. Thanks to this tradition along with the abundance of liver during the time ensured newer recipes became a part of liver’s legendary list of dishes, many of them today have their origin in humble homes. Of course the fact that in many royal houses it is a culture to distribute the cooked liver as greeting added to kaleji emerging as one of the most loved dish during Bakri Eid.

Such was the popularity of kaleji that one of the travelers to Bahadur Shah Zafar’s court during the festival had noted, “Even though there are many delicacies, the affection with which the kaleji is served and accepted clearly shows that the dish it’s worth the weight in gold.”

No wonder, kaleji remains the only constant and a special treat across all feast tables during Eid Ul Adah. After all, it’s the only time when it’s available in good quantity (and quality) and with such interesting varieties.