Do you remember the weddings of 30 years ago? The shamiana, the halwai, the gana-bajana? The family politics, the old biddies exchanging gossip in whispers — the racing-against-time to me et muhurats? Always, the wedding ceremony itself was set for an unearthly 2 in the morning; always, always, it was January or February; and everybody froze to a kulfi — except the bridal couple in front of the fire or an old gramps in thermals or the priest. I’m talking of weddings in the North, because that’s what I saw — maybe the South shows more restraint. My poor kids have no idea what fun those Punjabi weddings used to be — they are so “designed” now, so standardised.
I remember cousins’ weddings. We young girls would get silk lengths well in time to have them stitched and sequined for the Big Day. Additional help would be hired for the kitchen and, three or four days before the wedding itself, a halwai would set up his manufactory in the backyard.
When the “functions” started, so did the Grease Party. The first events would be the mehndi and choora. These were completely women’s affairs including the menus: pakoras, chaat, tea and “soft” drinks. Mothers were too busy to look after chitterlings, so much carbonated drink was imbibed by us. As the years passed, this mid-afternoon activity slipped to the evening, and a few men from the immediate family started making an appearance. Greeted with catcalls and much teasing, they would be co-opted into the singing and dancing. But with them came the other kind of spirits. Innuendo-laden songs became more meaningful and I suspect that Cuba became very Libré among the ladies. And with the appearance of the men came the Chicken Tikka.
Today, to talk of chicken tikka at North Indian weddings is such a cliché. Now it’s sushi and salmon rolls, batter-fried tofu and roast duck with asparagus. Back then, most guests, unless they were baratis of the groom’s party, didn’t stay for dinner, respecting the tradition of not increasing the burden on the bride’s family. So as a casual guest, not one of the extended family who had travelled to attend festivities, you could expect to be served only two things at the “Reception of Barat”: salted cashews and those little nuggets of sweetened paneer, chhena-murki. Occasionally platters of green cardamoms were passed around. Dinner would be alu-poori, vegetable pulao, chicken curry, the special khoya and makhana curry, and what to me is the signature dish of those dinners, the accompaniment to dahi badas: the improbably pink, impossibly sweet tamarind chutney with sliced bananas. Ooh — it was vile — but how much space it occupies in my memory. Dessert would be gajar ka halwa sprinkled with chunks of khoya. I’m sure there were many variations, and many more dishes on the menu, but I remember these. And the innumerable cups of thrilling “espresso”, smelling faintly of instant coffee, frothed up noisily by machine’s steam-making apparatus. I loved the sprinkling of drinking chocolate powder on top and always asked for more of it.
Now there’s another kind of wedding with much display of wealth. But to comment would be unfair because didn’t families always do their best to give their daughters a splendid wedding? And, in any case, tastes differ.
The décor. I have been to a wedding where I was told that a planeload of flowers had just been flown in from Thailand. There were 165 desserts and three tables of digestifs: paan, supari and chooran, which was probably all to the good, after the wicked spread at dinner which had “live” pasta stations, dals tempered to order by a white-toqued chef and served in a silver katori, a zillion kinds of kababs, miniature rotis straight out of the tandoor, a sea of salads — with the mandatory imported cheeses and charcuterie, the staggering array of desserts including the “traditional”: the cutest, thinnest, coin-sized jalebis, and the “exotic”: fruit (imported, puh-lease!) flambéed before your popping-out eyes… You get the drift and you’re not impressed.
Because now you’re familiar with the next stage. The setting is one’s own garden or farmhouse — five-star hotels are out — the décor is unique, because the marquée wasn’t hired from some tent-wala, however posh; it was made to order as per the bride’s wishes. It complemented her outfit, or maybe it didn’t but just looked sophisticated, all black-and-gold, with chandeliers and napery to match. And the caterer: but that term is a mistake. At a recent wedding, a fellow guest, parent of a nubile girl, asked a waiter who the caterer was (he was brilliant) and the response was: Caterer? Why do you want know? Sir is an artist, who only deals with celebrities, not people like… And the food was verily Festival of India. Each dish had a tiny card announcing its name and provenance. Appams and stew from Kerala, Tunde’s kabab from Lucknow, biryani from Hyderabad, biryani from Lucknow, alu-poori from Benares, fish tikkas from Amritsar, chingdi malai from Bengal, etcetera, etcetera. The food was divine — the service was “authentic”: the biryani was in shining brass handis on smouldering coal angeethis built into the garden, the appams steamed in cheena chattis. The gilawat ke kabab off a gigantic tawa truly melted in the mouth, the parathas were crisp and flaky. But how much could one eat? I was delighted to meet a 20-year-old nephew who was doing the dinner justice. So I settled for merely the best: Amritsari kulchas, the like of which I have never had before. They were hot, golden-brown-crisp and filled to bursting. Supposed to be laden with white butter and accompanied by chutney and some chana-type curry, these needed nothing because the shell was pastry, brittle and flaky. So yes, a wedding caterer can be an artist, and may the tribe prosper — their cooking is inspired and they have the confidence to stick with one cuisine, abjuring the temptations of Thai curries and Mediterranean antipasti.
The author is a Delhi-based food writer. She is with the ASER Centre.