Not everything we like to eat was once a carefully planned recipe.
Legend says that back in 1938 when Ruth Graves Wakefield had guests over at her place, she decided to make her prodigal chocolate cookies. Only halfway through the process did she realize that she had run out of baker’s chocolate, which meant that her chocolate cookies wouldn’t have turned out that ‘chocolatey’ after all. It would have been a shame if the famous owner of The Toll House Inn, specialized in homemade cooking, had served bland cookies to her guests.
To cover up the catastrophic choco-deficiency, Ruth decided to chop up Nestle’s semi-sweet chocolate bars and sprinkle the pieces on her cookies, in the hope that they’d melt in the oven. Alas, she was disappointed; but not for long, because the chocolate pieces that did not melt led to the creation of what we call today “chocolate chip cookies”- a recipe that revolutionized the very idea of cookies, and modern-day baking has never been the same since.
People don’t like accidents. Things that happen accidentally are never in our control. The inherent need to take charge of whatever is happening to us – where we are, what we wear, who we meet, and what we eat-has been a human trait for centuries. But I like to believe that some accidents can generate good results. Certainly unexpected, but still positive. It’s like the invention of the Penicillin or the safety pin, both unintended but highly useful discoveries among a hundred other such things. The same theory applies to a plethora of food items, including the interesting origin story of the sandwich.
The story goes that during the eighteenth century, Lord Montagu, who was the fourth Earl of Sandwich (an English town), was obsessed with gambling. In fact, he was so into it that once he ordered his valet to bring him meat stuffed between two slices of bread. This way, he wouldn’t need to use any utensils or get his hands dirty due to the grease. He could focus on his gambling game while also not having to smudge his cards or get out of his seat to clean up. Needless to say, his brilliant idea of a hassle-free way to save his gambling time turned out to be a blessing for food cultures across the world.
Let’s come a bit closer to home now. I can safely say that at least ninety percent of the Indian population would list our country’s cuisine among the top three things India holds pride over. The diversity in our Indian cuisine ranges beyond our imagination with time and space. But a lot of the amazing dishes and delicacies that India is popular for were not planned recipes. This is where I shall talk about the famous Butter Chicken, a dish that has been responsible for ‘converting’ many sworn vegetarians into meat-lovers.
So the story of Butter Chicken has to do with the Partition of 1947 when Kundan Lal Gujral and Kundan Lal Jaggi fled from Peshawar in Pakistan to Delhi’s Daryaganj, where they set up the landmark Moti Mahal restaurant. There are many narratives revolving around the origin of this rich, creamy dish. The most popular one is about how a customer found their Tandoori Chicken to be dry and asked for a gravy along with it. Speculations remain about whether it’s Gujral or Jaggi, but it is believed that either of the two Kundan Lals whipped up a gravy from tomatoes, cream, butter, and a few spices to dip the chicken in, and the dish eventually became the popular Butter Chicken or “Murgh Makhni”.
Another narrative goes on to talk about how the Kundan Lals had refrigeration issues with the leftover chicken and decided to preserve it in a gravy, which then gave rise to the current Butter Chicken recipe. Either way, Moti Mahal became hugely popular and revolutionized Indian middle-class dining, as more people began flocking into these restaurants for their affordable yet tasty food instead of having home-cooked regulars. With different recipes of Butter Chicken being developed across the world, it’s hardly a shocker that its origins lie in accidental foundations with vast potential.
Speaking of potential, tea is something I’ve always found broad scope in. Crudely put, you can practically pour boiling water in anything and call it tea. Making as well as drinking tea is arguably an art not everyone can master. In fact, the very invention of tea was due to a serendipitous occurrence around five thousand years ago when the Chinese emperor found tea leaves fallen into his cup of boiled water. Ever since then, different kinds of leaves and flowers have been incorporated into tea, the idea of it spreading across cultures swiftly. Milk tea is the most common form of tea that we consume here in India, and although its origins broadly date back to the tenth century, Tibetan ritual of mixing Yak milk butter with tea, adding milk to tea is generally attributed to the English. The popular belief goes that they didn’t do it with the intention of improving the taste of the tea but as a way to preserve the teacups. Around the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, tea used to be served in china cups that tended to break when you poured a really hot liquid into it. To neutralize the temperature of the tea and prevent the teacups from breaking, slightly warmed milk was added to the tea. This became a handy way of taking care of the cups and at the same time a fresh kind of beverage. It is likely that the Indian variant of milk tea (and not black tea) has been influenced by British imperialist ventures.
Accidental discoveries in food have a sweetness of their own- sometimes in the literal sense too. But one factor about accidental discoveries that people often tend to overlook is that several people must have come across the same idea simultaneously. Ruth Wakefield might not have been the only person to have come across chocolate chip cookies. But Ruth had the resources and the potential to develop and market her discovery first, which made her popular. This could apply to the countless other food items that were fortuitous incidents rather than planned recipes. Nonetheless, the ones that did catch people’s attention stay on even today, with several of them acquiring their own different versions across times and geographies.
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I’m Geetanjali. I binge-watch stuff when I’m free and think about what to binge-watch when I’m not. Occasionally I write, else you can find me wandering around, looking for my lost brain cells
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Editors: Ritika and Anushri