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Space travel puts spotlight on India's best-loved dishes

Astronauts to feast on biryani and khichdi when they launch next year

A selection of biryanis from Veg Gulati restaurant. (Photo courtesy of Veg Gulati restaurant)

Indian astronauts onboard Gaganyaan, the country's first manned mission to orbit the Earth in 2022, will not only get a taste of the final frontier, but also lip-smacking Indian specialties like biryani and khichdi.

While earlier, freeze-dried foods in tubes and pastes once formed the bulk of nutrition for astronauts, space explorers can now partake of a smorgasbord of culinary delights thanks to modern technology. American astronauts for example have been consuming pineapple cake, peaches, chocolate pudding and brownies on their galactic missions. Their Japanese counterparts have tucked into such signature dishes as ramen and rice with ume (pickled plums).

Shenzhou 11, China's sixth crewed space mission, which blasted off in 2016, had over 100 types of foods and beverages including spiced beef and shredded pork in garlic sauce, canned apples, flatfish, spicy tofu, chicken sausages and lemon tea.

Now, Indian foodies are over the moon that two of their most beloved one-pot meals -- biryani and khichdi -- will go where no South Asian food has gone before. Khichdi -- a delicious jumble of rice, dal, ghee and spices -- is regarded as the ultimate comfort food, with its appeal cutting across the social spectrum from kings to commoners. The rice-based umami-rich dish comes in over 50 regional varieties, with well-known arguments over which one is best often getting vociferous.

Woven into India's sociocultural tapestry, khichdi transcends being just a food item. It is offered at temples as sacred food, or prasad. Women break their fasts by eating sago khichdi. Practitioners of traditional Indian medicine recommend it as a digestion booster. Food historians note that Mughal Emperor Jahangir loved a khichdi made with pistachios and raisins called "lazeezan" (the delicious). Another Mughal emperor, Aurangzeb, pioneered the Alamgiri Khichdi featuring fish and boiled eggs.

Veg Gulati restaurant in Delhi. (Photo courtesy of Veg Gulati restaurant)

The cooks of the king of Oudh made khichdi from slivered almonds and pistachios made to resemble rice and lentils. Khichdi also entered the Guinness Book of World Records in 2018 after 918 kilograms of it were rustled up by some leading Indian chefs at a global event.

Like the khichdi, biryani enjoys cult status in India. The word biryani originates from the Persian "birian" (fried before cooking), or "birinj," meaning rice. While some credit Mongolian conqueror Timur for introducing biryani to India in 1398, others believe it was the legacy of Arab traders.

Jhanvi Saxena of Indian Alchemy. (Photo courtesy of Jhanvi Saxena)

According to Jhanvi Celly Saxena, owner of the award-winning restaurant Indian Alchemy in Gurugram near Delhi, orders for biryani surged during the recent pandemic lockdowns. "Biryani is a big favorite with our customers because it's comforting, nourishing and delicious. It hits the spot especially during stressful times," she says.

Saxena offers six types of biryanis including her top seller Hyderabadi Gosht Biryani pioneered by the Nizam rulers of the southern Indian city of Hyderabad. The labor-intensive, multilayered confection features ghee, caramelized onions, fragrant basmati rice, garlic, ginger and curds. It is further spiced with freshly hand-pounded masala made from 20 spices including cardamom, clove, nutmeg, bay leaves and cinnamon. This is clearly not fast food.

"The rice and meat are set in layers with spices varying from a few to two dozen," explains Saxena. "Traditionally, long-grain brown rice was used; now scented basmati rice is preferred. In south India, local rice varieties like kaima or sanna are used, while meats vary from goat, sheep, poultry, beef to seafood."

Vegetarian biryani is also popular, evident from the serpentine queues outside the Veg Gulati restaurant in Delhi. Co-owner Piyush Gulati, whose grandfather launched the Gulati chain in 1959, explains that what imparts a unique flavor to their biryani is the container in which it is served.

"We pack our biryanis in customized clay containers that seal the dish's aroma for hours. Fragrance heightens biryani's appeal and that's why they are often scented with rosewater, attar, kewra water and saffron," he explains. The restaurant also serves jackfruit, soya chop, mixed vegetables and mushroom biryani.

Home chef Aditi Sabharwal makes biryani in her kitchen. (Photo courtesy of Aditi Sabharwal)

Aditi Sabharwal Choudhary, who runs a popular catering service called Aditi's Kitchen, in Noida, Uttar Pradesh, says she loves making the green-hued "military biryani." Redolent with mint and curry leaves, it originated from the military canteens of south India and uses the exclusive samba rice for its preparation. "Only a few cooks can make it because it is a labor of love. The dish is prepared in a copper vessel over hot charcoal and served in a dome-shaped container called a donne crafted from dried palm leaves," she said.

Although the biryani and khichdi will be dished out in zero gravity crockery to the astronauts, there's no doubt it will guarantee them an out-of-this-world gastronomic experience.

Neeta Lal is a Delhi-based writer.

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