Shorba for the soul

Shorba is a testament to India’s openness to external culinary influences, and how we assimilate them effortlessly and make them our own. We recount how shorba — a love-it-hate-it curative dish — transformed into a delicacy that launched the proverbial thousand ships (read: variants).
Shorba is the ultimate comfort food and the antidote to many ills.
Shorba is the ultimate comfort food and the antidote to many ills.

As a standalone dish, shorba may not garner the same consideration as a rich mutton curry. But start working on a menu that represents one of the glorious culinary periods in the history of India, and shorba takes on an undeniable presence. For good reason too. Says seasoned chef Pradeep Khosla, “It isn’t just because the number of variants this antidote-to-treat dish has managed to spew in its existence since the early part of the 12th century, but also for its functional palpability.”

Much like its older brethren, the Armenian khash, which is said to be the muse for the Arabic chorba, shorba too, continues Chef Khosla, is a dish designed to treat and heal, and can be tweaked as per taste and functionality. It can be the starter, a main course, palate cleanser, and even the appetiser much like soup. It is, in fact, a dish that truly fits the ‘curry’ definition.

While this versatility has given this 6th-century, broth-based dish its unique status in the royal cuisine of modern history, it has also made shorba a fascinating subject of experiment. Take Haoma chef and co-owner Chef Deepanker Khosla’s representation of the Guchchi Shorba, where he has deconstructed the different elements of the Kashmiri favourite to create a main course, thus highlighting the brilliance of shorba as a dish.

The dish that fits all

But that ability of shorba to fit in as any part of the meal, especially as this bone-and-soul warming breakfast during winters, points out culinary researcher Quddus Abdul, “helped it not only take a footing in India but also become an indispensable part of the cuisine, conquering palates and plates across borders.”

Nihari is a thicker and gelatinous form of shorba.
Nihari is a thicker and gelatinous form of shorba.

Take the Hyderabadi Lukanon Ka Shorba for instance. This version, says Quddus, “is inspired by the way nihari is made in Delhi and Lucknow and follows the same technique of making too. But what separates the Hyderabadi variant from its richer, winter peer is that unlike the Lucknow Paya Shorba or nihari, Lukanon is a lighter, tangier version made from the joint bones and hence has a light, stew-like mouthfeel rather than a gelatinous one. Thus, it can be had both as a soup as well as a meal with roti or naan.”

Shorba comes in many varieties, like this paya shorba (left); and the kishtwar zafraan murgh shorba (latter pic courtesy: lmnoq kolkata).
Shorba comes in many varieties, like this paya shorba (left); and the Kishtwar Zafraan Murgh Shorba (latter pic courtesy: LMNOQ Kolkata).

Likewise is the case with Kishtwar Zafraan Murgh Shorba from Upper Jammu, which is a fragrant, hearty soup that can be enjoyed as it is or like a stew thanks to its thicker consistency. Or take the Gaduwa Shurva from Uttarakhand. Made of lamb trotters, it plays the dual role of being a hearty breakfast when paired with bread or rice, or a soul-warming soup otherwise. One of the qualities that made Attukal Paya, which is an interesting take on the Aqdam Aldan Allah am — the trotter soup that is said to have helped Emperor Abul Aziz of Arabia recover and came to Indian shores first with the Arab merchants — such a popular treat. Revved up with cashew nut, Madras onion, spices like pepper, poppy seeds, and cardamom, it was one of the earliest cases of shorba’s fascinating transformation from a cure to a palate lure.

Shorba’s mercurial rise

What aided shorba’s mercurial expansion was the existence of a similar antidote-cum-treat called rasam. Curated on the wellness principle of the Samhitas, rasam by the time shorba came to Indian shores and made its walk towards the mainland, had already aced the art of using slow cooking, the right format of seasoning and understanding of food to create a drink that could cure all.

Chef selvaraj putting the final touches to a shorba.
Chef Selvaraj putting the final touches to a shorba.

Shorba, fascinatingly, says Chef Selvaraj, Sous Chef, Malabar Café, Grand Hyatt Kochi Bolgatty, “worked on the same principle. Much like rasam, where one starts with the principal ingredient to create this wonderful broth before using spices to enhance its characteristics and taste, in the earlier versions of shorba — which were mostly meat based — the richness and the chunk of nutrients came from the meat parts used, which usually were the head, trotters and parts that couldn’t be turned into any other dish.”

To this, continues Chef Selvaraj, “lemon or vinegar was added to break down the collagen and connective tissue resulting in a flavourful mix, which is seasoned and spiced to taste, and to effect the function it was designed for.”

That ‘functionality’ back in the time meant two things: first, as a soldiers’ sustenance and second as an antidote. Either of which, says Chef Abhishek Gupta, Executive Chef, The Leela Ambience, “was done through a careful process of the right spicing and seasoning, which turned any plain yakhni into a life-enriching, delicious shorba.”

Fascinatingly, says Chef Gupta, “when it comes to shorba that is the benchmark even today. After all, something as banal as when to add salt in the shorba or temper it can make all the difference.”

Shorba is versatile, like this kala channa shorba (image courtesy: prankster); and (right) a guchchi shorba about to be poured.
Shorba is versatile, like this kala channa shorba (Image courtesy: Prankster); and (right) a guchchi shorba about to be poured.

This could also explain why when the trotter broth or shorba was expanded on, the clever khansamas of the time went for perfecting the technique rather than just create more versions of khash, which as paya, says Chef Gupta, “remained one of the favourites because of the sheer feel of satiation and the taste”. But it didn’t stop the clever khansamas of that time — and the chefs of today — from experimenting with the technique to create some of the more fascinating dishes like the Nadru Shorba of Kashmir and the Nargil Shorba, made of coconut flesh, of the Gandhara tribe, to name a couple.  

Breaking the mould

A shining example of how this meat-specific treat transformed in India, says Chef Shadab Ahmed Qureshi, Chef de Cuisine, Jyran, Sofitel BKC, “is the Shorba-e-Shahjahani. Created way after the famous Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan passed away, this shorba brought together the great Mughal’s two favourites of his last few years: chickpeas and meat. It is said that the imprisoned king would often ask for shorbas for his main meals and during the day when he felt low. It was his singular pleasure source, and it did help the king live through the eight years locked in the fort.” 

What makes Shorba-e-Shahjahani so wonderful, says Chef Shadab, “is that it follows the basic idea of creating it, which is to satiate the diners and also build their immunity and strength. It also gives an insight into what made shorba conquer India: here was a technique that could help extract goodness and put it into a delicious one-pot meal.”

It is this tapestry of functionality, texture and taste, with the added flair of presentation, that makes shorba exciting even today.

Madhulika dash
Known for her columns on food anthropology, Chefs’ Retreat and wellness-based experiential tables, Madhulika Dash has also been on the food panel of Masterchef India Season 4, a guest lecturer at IHM, and is currently part of the Odisha government’s culinary council.

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