Pune: Last week, Umesh Vinayak Kulkarni, a dear friend of mine, invited me to house to taste the “kanji” he had made. Umesh, apart from being one of the most prolific and talented filmmakers in India, is also a fine gastronome.
“Kanji” is a spicy and tangy carrot drink of North India, normally made with dark purple or black carrots and water, in earthen or stoneware during the festival of Holi. It is a quintessential summer drink.
Umesh’s “kanji” was almost perfect and full of deliciousness. The addition of ground mustard during the fermentation process had brought the sharp flavours. However, he had made it with locally sourced orange carrots instead of the purple or black carrots from the northern parts of India. Even though one rarely comes across these varieties in Poona, the city produced purple and black carrots a few centuries ago. The orange carrots which have flooded the markets in recent years were first cultivated in the region by the British in the nineteenth century.
Carrots appear to have been first introduced into India from Persia and Afghanistan. British horticulturists in India were not sure about carrots, turnips, and radishes being indigenous in the Deccan – though they were cultivated all over it, but had not been found wild. Dr John Fryer, who travelled to India in the seventeenth century, mentions “good quality” carrots from Deccan in his travelogue. The carrot had found a place in the kitchens of Mughal emperors. Gulbadan Begum, Humayun’s sister, was known for her “halwa-I zardak” (carrot halwa). But even though the carrot was cultivated in India for ages and was largely used in the kitchens of emperors and kings, it came to be recognised as an article of diet by the larger population only in the nineteenth century.
Many Brahmins from Poona and Konkan objected to eating carrots, presumably as looking too much like beef. Some other sects of the Hindus did not eat onions, garlic, carrots, or masur pulse. In Europe and some parts of India, carrots were considered cattle food. The opinion prevailed among several “sardars” from Poona that giving horses a daily small allowance of carrots improved the gloss of the coat. The Marathi newspaper “Kesari” reported in September 1894 that carrots were given to milch cows in Kolhapur and urged the milkmen from Poona to do the same to improve the quality of milk.
The fortune of the root vegetable changed in the early nineteenth century when its medicinal benefits began to be discussed. Europeans believed that carrots were “specific” for their complexion. Carrot soup maigre, i.e. without meat stock, was well known in France as an excellent food for clearing the complexion. It was supposed to be eaten with brown bread.
One of the methods of making the common carrot soup was to boil some “highly coloured” carrots quite tender in water slightly salted, then to pound or mash them to a smooth paste, and to mix with them boiling gravy soup or strong beef broth in the proportion of two quarts to a pound and a half of the prepared carrots; then to pass the whole through a strainer, to season it with salt and red chilli pepper, to heat it in a clean stewpan, and to serve it immediately.
The two kinds of carrots in general cultivation, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, all over Deccan were purple and yellow. George Marshall Woodrow, the acclaimed botanist living in Poona, wrote that the Poona carrot was a root of good flavour but small and much uncultivated looking. Europeans living in the Bombay Presidency were not very fond of the carrots cultivated in the region. The “Poona carrots”, which were purple or deep brown, were not “red enough” for them. They imparted a brown or “dark” colour to the gravy and carrots did not produce a “bright coloured” soup. If one wanted a bright complexion, the carrot soup had to be of the right colour, they believed.
Hence, red or orange carrots were often procured from the gardens of Shimla or Calcutta. Cooks were instructed to use only the red outsides of the carrots so that the colour of the soup would be very bright. Recipes from nineteenth-century cookbooks often instruct the readers to use “highly flavoured red or orange carrots” that were gently stewed in butter without browning.
The introduction of orange carrots in Deccan happened due to the distaste of the Europeans towards the local cultivars which they did not find aesthetic enough and after the vegetable was considered as a good “famine food”. European carrot seed of two varieties – white and yellow – was distributed in and around Poona for experimental cultivation in the late 1870s to overcome the shortage of food. The seed was part of that obtained through an English firm for distribution in the North-West Provinces during the famine. It was imported in large quantities under the belief that the crop would yield early a heavy weight of food in a famine year.
The agriculture department was not very enthusiastic about the experiment because the success in India of exotic seeds was always doubtful, and cultivators in Poona had at hand many garden crops which could be grown without any risk and which on average produced a great yield of food per acre as a heavy crop of carrots.
The result, as anticipated, was more or less a failure except in a few favoured localities. However, the department decided to try cultivating the Dutch Horn variety of the carrot in Poona. A story suggests that in the seventeenth century, Dutch growers cultivated orange carrots as a tribute to William of Orange who led the struggle for Dutch independence. Although there is no documented proof to back the story, the orange cultivar quickly dominated other varieties and a thousand years of yellow and white carrot history was wiped out in Europe. The Long Orange Dutch carrot is the forebear of the Dutch Horn carrot abundant nowadays.
The Dutch Horn variety of carrots commended itself well in Poona. Soon enough, it had replaced the local purple cultivar. Europeans in Poona used the orange carrot to make soups and stews. After coming to the subcontinent, they had seen the natives consuming homemade fermented drinks. These were prepared using a blend of fermented vegetables (radish, carrot, and cucumber) and fruit pulps (mango, apricot, and pear). It was believed that consumption of these fermented drinks cooled the body and was beneficial for physical health. They had the unique ability to ease digestive discomfort. Fermented carrot juice became popular in many European households in Poona.
In the last century, the red-coloured “Pusa rudhira” cultivar largely replaced the orange carrot. The markets in Pune sell both red and orange carrots these days.
Next year, Umesh and I plan to procure purple carrots from the north and check which variety makes a better “kanji”.
Chinmay Damle is a research scientist and food enthusiast. He writes here on Pune’s food culture. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org