Sunday, August 22, 2010

Ganetic Plains & the Punjab

The great northern plains stretch south from the Pindari mountain ranges to encompass the Punjab, Haryana, Uttaranchal and Madhya Pradesh. This is the densely populated heartland where much of the history of India unfolded. The Harappa civilization flourished 5,000 years ago on the Ravi River in the Punjab. Kingdoms of the Vedic and Gupta ages saw great advances in music, art, culture and religion. After waves of Muslim invasions, the Moghul Empire dominated the region. This Empire collapsed as independent kingdoms arose, and finally the British Raj claimed India as the crown jewel of their empire. The Punjab, or “land of five rivers”, just below Kashmir shares a western border with Pakistan—the region was split between the two countries during partition after Independence in 1947 and later divided into the Indian states of Punjab and Haryana. This is the breadbasket of India where wheat is the main crop and bread a staple although basmati rice is grown in the foothills of the Himalayas near Dehra Dun. The special flavor of Punjabi food comes from the tandoor—clay ovens with vents set in pits in the ground and fueled with charcoal at the bottom. Fat drips on the hot coals, creating smoke which is trapped in the bulbous oven with a narrow neck. Meats or vegetables are lanced on skewers and lowered down into the inferno for a quick blast, sealing in the juices. Every village has a communal oven where women bring kneaded dough and marinated meats to have them cooked while they gossip. Most Punjabis are farmers or involved in agriculture at some level. The food is simple and robust, based on what is in season. Many Punjabis consider a hot roti with a gob of melting butter and bowl of dal to be a meal, washed down with frothed buttermilk. Chilies, green mango powder, kalonji  (small black seeds with a herbaceous-oregano flavor), and fenugreek seeds are common spices. Most dishes begin with onions and garlic-ginger paste, often with tomatoes added to thicken the cooking sauce. Milk is plentiful and used in many forms—made into fresh cheese, milky sweets, yogurt, butter and ghee.  Mustard oil is used for cooking and pickling and mustard greens are a favorite vegetable, cooked in earthenware pots with green chilies, ginger and garlic.

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