Gatta is the gram flour-based treat that laid the foundation to one of the most vibrant food cultures of India.
Of all the native dumplings that the Indian ledger boasts of, gatta or the gram flour dumpling is perhaps the most recognised and loved. In fact, it is one of the few dishes that not only rivals its meat-based peers in popularity on the traditional table — gatta, says culinary custodian Akshraj Jodha, Executive Chef, ITC Grand Bharat, “is not only an integral part of every table, festivals and special occasions included, it has also travelled across the length and breadth of the country inspiring creations like the Sindhi Aani and the lip-smacking, aromatic Kayastha dish called Taka Paisa, apart from the cornucopia of variants on its home turf.”
Courtesy its simple preparation — a basic recipe for gatta needs buttermilk/curd, salt, turmeric, chillies and garlic paste — or its invincible quality both as a travel snack and RTE food, gatta, continues Chef Jodha, “boiled and lightly fried in oil occupies the same place as wadiyan in the kitchen. The besan-based dumpling became the first import to any place Mewaris and Mawaris went, whether warriors, traders or tribal people.”
Such was the importance of this functional meal, which as per old documents, finds its genesis around the early years of Bappa Rawal’s reign in Rajasthan, that anyone who knew how to make gatta could find easy employment with any caravan, serai or even in homes. In fact, for Chef Prasad Metrani, Director of Culinary, Raffles Udaipur, it was one of the first things he took an instant liking to, not only for that brilliant taste and ability to pair with any dish much like potato elsewhere, but also its malleability. The thing about Rajasthani gatta, says Chef Metrani, “is that it isn’t just a fine specimen of our ancestor’s culinary ingenuity but a crash course in understanding the different ways spices, fermentation techniques and size can be played to create a multi-purpose product.”
Take, for instance, he continues, “the size of the gatta itself. Areas like Jodhpur that are primarily arid have a ‘mota’ size and are robust with their spicing compared to those that are closer to greener pastures where local produce is assembled as well to create the flavour foreplay. In fact, the tastemaking process doesn’t stop at the use of spices. Whether the gatta will be only boiled, sliced, and added to the curry or pulao or boiled, fried, and then made into a curry or added to a khichdi also depends on the region it is being made in. So, while the mota gatta from Marwar, especially Jodhpur, has more masala and is often fried before being used in a yoghurt-onion based gravy, the ones on the Mewari side use more fresh herbs in their version which is boiled before being used in a pulao or curry.”
Of course, adds Chef Jodha, “there are versions that are specific to a certain region’s palate too. Like the one from Bikaner uses fenugreek, both fresh and seeds, depending on the availability, while the one in Jodhpur occasionally has channa ka patta added for sourness and which works well during the summer. Likewise, in case of the gravy, which remains the more popular rendition of sampling the oldest member of Rajasthani cuisine, while most places use the quintessential yoghurt-onion and mirch-based gravy, in Jaipur one finds the use of khoya too. In fact, Jaipur, which thanks to its proximity to green pastures, remains home to not only the different versions of ‘patla gatta’ but also the dishes they were meant to be a part of. Jaipur’s Ram Khichdi, one of the festive specials, and Govind Gatta are two prolific examples of the different styles of gatta that make up the segment today.”
Fascinatingly, for Chef Metrani, his first introduction to this tribal meal was in Rajasthan where he had a wide range of dishes that had gatta either playing the hero of the dish or in a special appearance. In fact, recalls the culinary advocate, “I learnt to make gatta, which I still do today, from a friend’s family in Jodhpur, which many believe is the original version.”
Those initial years of researching on gatta, which soon turned into a chef’s favourite, he adds, “gave me an insight into not only the different gattas that evolved over a period of time and travelled to the Mughal and later other royal houses, including Sailana, but also into the nuances of how certain changes in spice and girth could make all the difference to the experience of a gatta, which even today works best with besan that has been coarsely ground along with hand-pounded masala.”
That know-how, continues Chef Metrani, “is the fine line that separates a delicious gatta from a not-so-good one, and essentially defines the curry or pulao that is made using it.” A fine example of this is Chef Metrani’s version of Jodhpuri Kabuli Pulao. A typical Sunday special, this traditional version of pulao is made by adding rice to a gatta curry, where the gatta and the gravy both play a defining role in creating the different layers of taste and bite. Said to be one of the favourites of the Marwari court back in the day, it is one of the dishes to have travelled to different royal kitchens thanks to wedding alliances as well as the Rajasthani Kayastha community who joined these courts, especially the Mughal one.
In fact, according to the old guides of Fatehpur Sikri, gatta was an integral part of the kitchen ledger and was made almost every other day thanks to the many Hindu (read: Rajasthani princess) wives and Hindus who made up the court. Such was the fascination for the versatile dumpling that by the time Shah Jahan came to the throne, gatta was an essential part of the diplomatic table as well. The reason for this, says the Akheraj Deolia scion, “was the palate-pleasing taste. Besan, which easily dates back to the Gupta period, was a well understood and widely loved ingredient across the ancient kingdom of Gujarat which then extended all the way till the borders of Sindh. So, it was given that when the Guhila Rajput clan established its dera in modern-day Mewar under the aegis of Bappa Rawal, they found the flour not just a way to sustain themselves in the arid land, but also to create a resemblance of plenty.”
While history, continues Chef Jodha, “is unclear as to when and how gatta originated, its popularity as an omnipresent delicacy goes to the people themselves. As a functional food, gatta through history evolved from a meal of sustenance at a commoner’s house to the centre of some delightful dishes on the royal table, including the Govind Gatta and Gatta Ka Achar. In fact, it is a tradition to serve fried gatta as chakhna with drinks as part of the celebratory feast. Such was the fondness for gatta that it remained an instant meal for those on the road or posted on the outskirts of the city and eventually became the palate point on which many alcohols were curated and then paired with.”
It is this obsession with gatta, say the chefs, “along with its ability to adapt to newer palates without losing its essence that makes it such an impressive culinary masterpiece and one of the few dishes that became the foundation stone of modern Rajasthani cuisine.”
But what really is the benchmark of a good gatta? While for Chef Jodha, “it is staying true to the traditional recipe and a bit of intuitiveness that comes through practice and restraint”, for Chef Metrani, “it is the lightness. Even if it looks denser to other popular formats of dumplings in India, a well-made gatta is often about airiness, marked by these little holes that emerge on the surface when you are frying the dumpling.”
And, of course, the final bite and taste — which is as vibrant as the culture itself.