Sheltered by its snow-clad mountain barriers, Chamba is one of the most beautiful regions of Himachal Pradesh. Chamba has also had the rare good fortune to escape the successive waves of Muhammadan invasion, which swept away all monuments of old Indian civilization on the plains. The neighbouring state of Kashmir was once a centre of Sanskrit learning, until one day the barbaric invaders raped this beautiful land and destroyed everything.
In Kashmir, the temples of Lalitaditya and his successors were ruthlessly destroyed by Sikander Buthshikan and only a few fragments of inscriptions have remained. On the other hand, Chamba remained an island of Hindu sanity protected by the Dauladhars. It is strongly believed in Himachal that the sacred mountains of Dauladhars will always protect Hinduism till eternity. As a result, in Chamba, the brazen idols of Meru Verman who was a contemporary of the destroyed Kashmiri Hindu rulers, still stand in their full glory at the ancient shrines of carved cedar wood.
It is also a tribute to the Dauladhars, that the food culture of this region has remained largely untouched by Islamic cuisine. It is indeed a pleasure to savour Himachali cuisine which has more-or-less remained intact since almost the Vedic era! The momos, the parathas or the mutton curry-rice that is served in the Dhabas or eateries of Himachal Pradesh (especially in and around the usual tourist destinations) doesn’t represent Himachali food culture, not for one bit.
Authentic Himachali cuisine is difficult to prepare and invariably takes almost 12 hours most of the times! The original innovators of Pahari cuisine; especially in Kangra and Chamba valleys; were a group of Brahmin cooks known as ‘Botis’. For many centuries these Botis have maintained the secrecy of their recipe and have passed them on from one generation to the other by word of mouth. Even today, every village in this region has a Boti of its own, who cook these authentic dishes as a Dham on festivals and community functions. As a tradition, every Boti is given a bagful of wheat for his services.
The story of Madra
It is fascinating to note that the kings of Chamba traced their origins to Kusha, the son of lord Ram; in fact legend has it that Raja Maru, the descendant of Kusha, left Ayodhya at a young age and conquered the mountains after a long Tapasya in the Himalayas. This is how the Suryavanshi Rajput rajas came to rule Chamba valley.
Legend has it that one of the great grandsons of Raja Maru, a king only known as Jaisthambh, was so enamoured by the Kashmiri cuisine that he sent for some of the best Khansamas from Kashmir to recreate those Kashmiri dishes in the local Chamba tradition. The dictate of the Raja was to innovate a dish that would include the fruits of the entire spectrum of harvest of the region. Such a dish was to be offered to the local goddess as a gift for Her kindness.
In that era, local harvest included 3 major items: A variety of spices, Rajmah (red kidney beans) and milk. The amalgamation of Chamba and Kashmir and a combination of the entire local harvest led to the creation of Madra. Over the years, the popularity of this recipe grew tremendously in this state; so much so that it became a technique of cooking and Madra has today transformed itself into a suffix for anything cooked in curd!
It is said that brides of Chamba brought this recipe to Kangra and here it underwent a transformation (due to local unavailability of rajmah) to create the now famous Kangri Madra which has Kabuli Channa instead of Rajmah as an ingredient. In fact, the Rajmah Madra is said to have travelled all over Himachal in the years since then and almost every district now has their own special brand of Madra that is presented at weddings and other special occasions by cooks who guard their recipes fiercely.
Over the years, the basic concept of a Madra has remained intact despite its variations in different regions of Himachal Pradesh. Unlike other techniques of cooking in curd, where curd is used to lend mellowness to flavour, Madra is spicy and is usually cooked in liberal amounts of ghee/oil. Its unique taste is such that there are no overwhelming flavors of onions or tomatoes used in this dish and it is possible to taste each and every unique flavor of the few choice ingredients that make up the dish. The reason why onion, tomato or garlic does not overwhelm the taste buds is because they are used sparingly as these were not grown abundantly in this region in earlier times.
Now let us try a simple recipe of a Kangri Madra;
Kabuli Channa (Garbanzo beans)– 1 cup (soaked overnight and then boiled)
Ghee – 1 cup
Curd – 4 cups (beaten)
Cloves – 3
Black Cardamom (BadiElaichi) – 3
Green cardamom – 2
Bay leaf – 1
Cinnamon – 1 medium stick
Aniseed – 1 teaspoonful
Turmeric powder – 1 teaspoonful
Dry fruits – Cashew nuts – 7 to 8 whole nuts
Raisin – 3 to 4
Salt – to taste
How to cook:
Add Ghee to a thick bottom pan and let it warm
Add the whole spices to the ghee and let them roast for 3-4 minutes.
Add the curd and keep stirring briskly and continuously so that it does not curdle.
The curd is cooked when you begin to see specks of oil separating in the corners of your pan.
Add the boiled Kabuli Channa and the turmeric, dry fruits and salt, still stirring continuously and cook for another 10 minutes or so.
One step that some add is putting a smoking piece of coal on the cooked Kabuli channa and covering it for about 15 seconds to impart a smoky flavor to the Madra.
Madra is best enjoyed with plain white rice.
Epilogue: Madra, as a gift from Himachal to Ayodhya
As the descendants of Ram ruled Chamba and played a crucial role in the invention of Madra, the dish itself paid back in kind, to the origins of her inventor’s forefathers. On June 9th 1989, BJP’s national executive met in the town of Palampur and passed the now famous resolution of building the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya. At that point of time in history nobody had given much importance to the Palampur resolution, but it went on to change India’s history and took BJP to national prominence. On that day, a group of special botis (Brahman cooks) from Kangra had cooked a sumptuous Dham for all the office bearers of BJP. The Pièce de résistance of that dinner was Madra!