Food, essential for existence and survival. What we eat and how we eat are secondary. The ever-growing ‘chant’ to go vegetarian as if the non-vegetarians are doing something morally wrong and must be punished, but it is in common knowledge that in the beginning we ate simply ate food, vegetables or meat, to endure on this planet and enjoy and sleep happily in their caves.
The ‘hunter-gatherer’ life has stayed with us since the day of our existence. We first plucked fruits/vegetables from the ground and hunted animals. Eventually, we moved towards becoming more civilized then we were before, and started growing our food, taming animals for food and pleasure and so life began as we know it now. However, in the coming ages, ‘hunter-gatherer’ way of living became a pleasure activity and/or to woe the partner or someone important. From the popular Mareecha Kand of Ramayana (when Lord Rama in his exile period went hunting the deer upon the demand of Sita) to the alleged case of the popular actor, Salman Khan killing Chinakara in Rajasthan. While they might not have killed the deer for meat but there were surely people, royals, British and others hunted animals for food and thus giving birth to ‘game meat’.
In the world where we are shifting to veganism, I met two different individuals in two different cities, Jaisalmer and Bhopal. They talked about the popular game meats of their region, Laal Maas and Filfora, where the former is still popular and relevant but the later is almost lost and can only be found in either the home kitchen or at Jehan Numa Palace in Bhopal.
Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan are two of my favorite states. Both the bordering states are full of scenic rustic beauty along with the vibrant history, the scrumptious indigenous cuisine and the variety of delicacies when it comes to food. In both these princely states, warriors and hunters have had a rich heritage of hunting and meat-eating. Hunting was amongst the favorite hobbies of the royalty who’d go in the woods to hunt a good catch. The animal that they hunted was popularly called as the game meat or ‘shikaar’ was then prepared and relished by all, sometimes in the palace and sometimes in the lap of nature.
In the 16th century, the region of the Malwa Plateau was a trade hub and worked as a bridge between Deccan and Delhi. The food in Madhya Pradesh is a mixture of Mughals, Rajput, Uttar Pradesh, and Magadh.
‘Shikar’ word finds its mention in the Urdu and Persian dictionary which means to hunt. Typically, this tradition was considered a ‘man thing’. Men would go, hunt the animal, cook and finish the food in the jungle or they’ll bring the meat home for the whole family. The heads and the skin of bigger animals like horse, lion, tiger and a few others were preserved and kept in the house as decorative pieces.
Filfora from Madhya Pradesh
Bhopal ke tahzeeb Dilli/Lucknow se koi kam hai kya said Vikram, my friend who is a design student in Delhi. He grew up in Bhopal in a family of Hindu father from the city and Muslim mother from Delhi. He celebrates Eid and Diwali with the same enthusiasm and excitement. His food naturally also stands on the border where the needle keeps on ticking back and forth for weeks between only vegetarian to only non -vegetarian. His love for Old Delhi was unparalleled every time he craved for meat which he often gorges on when in Old Bhopal. He and I will often find ourselves narrating and showcasing the love for our respective cities.
Bhopal is the only ‘riyasat’ (princely state) ruled by the four generations of Begums for almost 157 years.
Recently, I was going to Bhopal for some work visit but mostly to document Bhopali cuisine and unheard dishes. I reach out to Vikram and told him what all I have done in Bhopal, where all I have been to, but then he told me to find Filfora in his city and come back to him with stories. He was not helping in giving information about this dish apart from the names. I took this challenge and landed in Bhopal. The city welcomed me with heavy rain and it continued to rain for the two whole days that I spent there but that did not stop me from grabbing the Bhopali version of Poha (spicy and slightly sweet) with crispy sev and jalebi. To finish my breakfast I gulped down two different and popular kinds of Bhopali tea, Sulemani Chai and Golden Chai (only milk tea)
I was on the banks of bada talab (upper lake) which meant I had the most beautiful view but when I reach my hotel, Ivy Suites, I realized it is not just the view but the whole experience was breathtaking. It was ‘royal’. Bhopal cuisine is not just influenced by the bordering states but mostly has distinct flavors from Moghul and Afghan. People can get confused with the flavours of Delhi but they’d be far from being right. I’d say Bhopali cuisine is bhopali cuisine, not Delhi, not Rampur, not Lucknow, not Hyderabad either but Bhopali. The dish like Bhopali Mutton Rezala is green in color because of coriander paste in the dish which changes the flavor completely. The Bhopalis like their dal khada with some bite and usage of vegetables in the traditional non-vegetarian dishes like keema maithi and shaljam gosht.
The other dishes like Bhopali Ghost Pulao is which looks like biryani but distinct because it isn’t spiced heavy or rich with ghee. I explored, enjoyed these commonly available dishes but my end goal was to find ‘filfora’. As I was exploring the dish, I stumbled upon filfora the restaurant near Kohefiza. My happiness turned in to disappointment after learning that they don’t have the dish but it is just the name.
Disappointed I was sitting on the breakfast table and trying to find some connection and the general information when the owner, Pramod Sharma reached out to me and we started talking about Bhopal, culture, and food. Eventually, he turned out to be the person with the complete information on the dish that I was hunting.
Filfora is a game meat preparation which as per Mr. Sharma means ‘to be quick’. He told me how the hunters used to go out to get the catch and prepare the dish with the most spices and ingredients, khadi lal mirch, pyaaz, and namak. The animal first gets thinly sliced, hand-hammered, flatten, and later cooked on the hot stone cooked on the spot in its juices and fat. Once the dish is ready, they’ll start the picnic and breathe in the woods. I asked where I can get the dish, he nicely said he cooks the best filfora in town however; he needs time to prepare which neither of us had. He suggested trying the dish at one of the restaurants of Jehan Numa Palace, a palace that speaks the story of century-old history and showcases the beautiful Bhopal culture.
I picked up my bag and walked down to the palace to grab my lunch and get a whiff of history. I reached there on time, parked myself near a window to enjoy the lush green view of the palace. My curiosity and enthusiasm made me speak with the chef and while I tried to impress him with my culinary knowledge and respect for the older chefs and food tradition, he gave me few insights into the traditional food of Bhopal specifically filfora, the dish which pulled me to this magnificent place. Chef admitted that they don’t serve the authentic dish anymore because the locals don’t appreciate the simplicity of this dish and hence what he served me was on a little spicy side with tomato, onion, chilies, peppers and few other spices, and oh boy, it was delicious. The meat just melted in the mouth and tasted heavenly when paired with lachcha paratha. In the history of filfora, he mentioned the hunters/royals hunting the animal, leaving it to marinate while they hunt the next animal which was a little different from Mr. Sharma’s story. But I concluded this dish as game meat.
While we were having a rich discussion around the food, my table got flooded with the other delicacy of the state and the restaurant, Chicken Rezzala, and Pista Baked Yogurt and Gulabi Firni. This had to be one of the best experience of dining with an experienced chef.
The tradition of hunting animals isn’t there anymore but a few old chefs are still keeping the technique and flavors alive. Dishes like filfora, khada khargosh, Laal maas from Rajasthan remind us of the common connection between the way game meat used to get cooked around the country irrespective of religion or region.