How 2 sisters are reviving cuisine of Bannuwal Hindus who migrated from Pakistan after Partition

How 2 sisters are reviving cuisine of Bannuwal Hindus who migrated from Pakistan after Partition

How 2 sisters are reviving cuisine of Bannuwal Hindus who migrated from Pakistan after Partition

When 11-year-old Kailash wanted to have chicken curry, one of his favourite dishes, his mother would make a broth of onion, garlic and black pepper, boiling it with pieces of leftover rotis (Indian flat bread). Then she would tell Jagdish to close his eyes and eat the broth, imagining that he was having chicken curry.

This was the year 1947 and the Radcliffe Line had divided the country into two parts – India and Pakistan.  Kailash’s family was stationed in a refugee camp in Amritsar after leaving Bannu in north western Pakistan, which was their home for many generations.

The broth his mother made was named andhi kukdi, meaning blind chicken, and it is today an integral part of Bannuwal cuisine – the food that Hindu migrants from Bannu are trying to preserve for posterity.

Bannu is in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, about 400 km from capital Islamabad. “Bannu food habits have been simple because Bannu is an arid region. Chicken and mutton were cooked by men of the house while women neither ate nor touched non-vegetarian food,” recollects 86-year-old Jagdish Chandra Bhatia, one of the Bannuwals (as the community from Bannu is addressed), who came to India post-Partition.

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Preserving a slice of history

Today, Jagdish’s maternal granddaughters – Ridhu and Vanshika Bhatia – are trying to revive the Bannuwal cuisine, which is not only a slice of history but also an example of how food habits evolve with circumstances.

Ridhu and Vanshika are documenting Bannu food, their family recipes and even recording videos of elders in the family giving instructions around cooking. Members of their extended families are now participating in the Bannu Revival Project by sharing folk songs, recipes and traditions.

The duo has introduced Bannu food recipes in their restaurant, Together at 12th, at Le Meridien, Gurgaon. Vanshika trained in culinary arts from Le Cordon Bleu in London in 2012 and manages the kitchen while Ridhu handles the backend.

Andhi Kukdi, meaning blind chicken, does not contain chicken. Pic: Bannu Revival Project

“When I was working in various restaurants, I would see chefs from Kolkata, Chennai and other places discuss their culinary heritage. I am from Kanpur, born and brought up there. But I felt there was not much about Kanpur food that I could share though my entire family was so much into food. And that’s when I decided to explore my own ghar ka khana (home food),” she says.

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Bannuwal cuisine is a reflection of the socio-economic life of people in the pre-Partition Bannu district, where 90 percent of the population was Muslim.

However, the British had built a walled city in Bannu with 10 gates and a fort in the cantonment area called Dilip Singh Fort. “Within this walled Bannu city, nearly 90 percent of the population was Hindu,” recalls Jagdish, who retired as Deputy Accountant General in Allahabad nearly 26 years ago.

People were simple and so were their food habits. There was not a strong tradition of preparing breakfast at home. “The breakfast would mostly be on the way to work or school and not at home. Vendors would sell boiled chickpeas, layered with boiled lentils and topped with mango pickle and lemon. These were known as burke wale chhole since spices were sprinkled on top. Later, it became home food and is mostly served with paratha (layered flatbread),” says Vanshika.

How Bannu cuisine evolved

In many ways, Bannu cuisine has kept pace with the changing times. 

The factors that impacted the cuisine were the aridity of the region, limited availability of ingredients within the walled city, leading to a culture of minimising food wastage, and the trauma of Partition, which hurt the financial status of many Bannu families.

The result is dishes like tukkad, made with leftover roti. “Nothing is ever wasted in Bannu households. Leftover rotis are added to a tempering of onion, ginger, green chilli and tomato and eaten with curd or ghee,” she adds.

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Ridhu Bhatia (left) and Vanshika Bhatia are documenting Bannu food and culture. Pic: Bannu Revival Project

Most of the food items revolve around wheat and other flours, including the sweet dishes like doodhi ka halwa made using semolina and refined wheat flour (not to be confused with bottle gourd as doodhi is called in Marathi). Muth are whole wheat flour ladoos with nuts and ghee, pooda – the Bannuwali version of malpua, and masala gur is made using gram flour, ghee and nuts.

“Bannu was always under threat of attack from kabalis or local tribes who lived on the nearby hills. So it became part of the culture to make food items using readily available dry ingredients,” says Ridhu.

“The Bannu city gates were opened only on Fridays when sellers from outside would come to sell goods, including ironware, herbs and other items. The girls’ school would remain closed on this day as safety was a big concern when outsiders entered the city. Even boys had a half-day at school on Fridays,” recollects Jagdish.

The women of the Bannu households did not touch meat as they were the ones responsible for fasting and prayers to keep the family together. 

“Men would cook and eat meat mostly for dinner. They would then wash the utensils themselves. Women would next morning put ash from the chulha (earthen oven) in these utensils and wash again. That’s why you will find that in most Bannu houses men and women are equally good cooks,” says Jagdish.

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Partition changed food habits

Vanshika and Ridhu’s paternal great grandfather settled in Kanpur after partition. They rebuilt their life in the city famous for its textile and leather industries. “They set up a tyre repair shop. And hunted quail and partridges for meat,” she says.

Chhole burkewale, a street food in Bannu that is now part of the cuisine. Pic: Bannu Revival Project

While meat eating by men was common in Bannu households before Partition, it became difficult to afford it later on. That’s when vegetables, which were not available in plenty in Bannu but were almost a staple in Kanpur, assumed a bigger role in the cuisine.

To increase the volume of non-veg dishes, vegetables like tinda (Indian squash) and arbi (colocasia root) were added to meat.

“Now we can afford meat but chicken tinda has become part of our Bannuwali cuisine – the Partition cuisine,” points out Vanshika.

So when the sisters introduced chicken tinda at their restaurant in Meridien, the customers were surprised as they had never eaten something like it before. “People loved it for its uniqueness, simplicity and flavor,” she adds.

Similarly the tradition of eating chicken painda has undergone a change. Painda in Bannu language means sitting together and eating. “Traditionally, this chicken was made using tamarind and tomatoes and was served in a thali where people sat together to eat,” she points out. While the recipe of chicken painda remains the same, it is no longer served in the thali.

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Things have changed as members of the Bannuwal community are now spread across north India and united as Bannu Biradari (community). They are mostly in Kanpur, Faridabad, Dehradun, Bareilly, Lucknow, Vrindavan, Rampur and Haridwar.

Everyone is free to choose what they want to eat though Ridhu says women of the older generation still refrain from eating meat, including her 79-year-old paternal grandmother Kamla Bhatia, who is helping the sisters in their project.

Like most women of her generation, Ridhu and Vanshika’s grandmother also has her own repertoire of recipes for pickles and preserves , also an important part of Bannu cuisine. “Drying peels, preserving them with sugar and pickling vegetables were common. After making lemon squash, the peels were used to make a less tangy lemon pickle to avoid wasting the peels,” Ridhu points out.

Bannu Railway Station, which was the terminal station in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, in 1913. Pic: Pinterest

One of the favourite recipes of the sisters is mann, an evening snack. It is a very thick roti, flavoured with salt and ajwain (carom seeds) and slow cooked on the girdle to make it almost dry. “You can eat it like that or with pickles. For the sweeter version, just make a plain mann and blend it with sugar and cardamom. This is called churi and is mostly had with milk,” she says.

The stories of Bannu and its inhabitants are endless just as the variety of the cuisine on offer. And by documenting Bannu, Ridhu and Vanshika will help future generations know about the food and culture of this historic city on the other side of the border.

(Rashmi Pratap is a Mumbai-based journalist specialising in financial, business and socio-economic reporting)

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24 thoughts on “How 2 sisters are reviving cuisine of Bannuwal Hindus who migrated from Pakistan after Partition

    • Ravi Bhatia says:

      Thanks a ton Asmat.
      I am a Baniwal, my father also migrated during partition. Our house was near Lucky darwaza, close to khajji school.

      Any vdos ,pics will be highly appreciated.

      • Akram bannuwal says:

        I can full fill ur wish
        I am from bannu and InshAllah i will take pic at lucky gate and will send u guys
        Lots of love

    • B R Virmani Male says:

      I was born in Bannu. Started pre primary education there with urdu language in S.D. SCHOOL. My father was a well-known Doctor there. Dr Ishar Dass and sons.our clinic was in Chhoti Chowk where Dussehra celebration used to take place. I do miss Bannu food especially Mallpude and Dodhi halwa and Missi Roti. I wish I could visit the place of my birth. Now I stay in Hyderabad and do enjoy Hyderabadi Biryani. But Bannu was Bannu, no comparison.

  1. Anil Kr Bhatia says:

    Very nice discription and I got recollected my childhood of faridabd and have enjoyed all these dishes and still like it.
    Pls mention for Dahi Pilli ( Curd Tadka) and Kale Chhole di kutti.
    Anil Bharia. Sarita vihar. New Delhu

    • Amir Zad Khan says:

      Hi.. M living in heart of Bannu city near Muhallah Bhatia adjuscent to Kachery gate, established in 1923.. Anyone wanna know more or interested in his native home or house, can WhatsApp me at +92-333-555-3124 or can join my page” The Sons of Bannu دے بنوں زامن”

    • Vinay says:

      Am Dehrawala Bhatia Vinay, heard many stories from our parents of Dera Ismail khan, Bannu Bhatias and non-veg eating is first as being pure veg without usage of onion, garlic in our daily lives. Where from Kanpur – green park!!

    • B R Virmani Male says:

      I was born in Bannu. Started pre primary education there with urdu language in S.D. SCHOOL. My father was a well-known Doctor there. Dr Ishar Dass and sons.our clinic was in Chhoti Chowk where Dussehra celebration used to take place. I do miss Bannu food especially Mallpude and Dodhi halwa and Missi Roti. I wish I could visit the place of my birth. Now I stay in Hyderabad and do enjoy Hyderabadi Biryani. But Bannu was Bannu, no comparison.

  2. B R Virmani Male says:

    I was born in Bannu. My father was a well-known Doctor there Dr. Ishar Dass & sons . Our clinic was at Chhoti Chowk where Dussehra celebration used to take place. I do miss Bannu Malpudas ,Dhodi halwa & missi roti. Now stay in Hyderabad and enjoy biryani but nothing to beat Bannu. Bannu was Bannu, no comparison.

    • Amir Zad Khan says:

      Yes.. As per my baba.. his clinic was in Daas chowk n was most famous doctor.. All our family elders were treated by him.. M living in Bannu City

  3. Balraj Virmani says:

    Thanks a lot for information about Bannu and my father Dr. Ishar Das clinic. Is it possible to see a photograph of area where his clinic was?What is there now? I have some very fond memories of Bannu as a child . It was then very nice and clean place. Hope now also it is a nice town.Do give my regards to all your elders. BALRAJ VIRMANI

    • Amir Zad Khan says:

      Bala Raj Ji… Please join our group Bannu de kahani buxugan de zubani… By Gurmeet Singh Giroti… You find each n everything regarding history with pics n vdo…

    • Irfan khan says:

      I read the whole article and comments and share it with my mom . she told me some stories about the Hindu community of Bannu

  4. Ravi Shanker Bhatia Advocate says:

    My late father Sh Bhim Sain Bhatia, Advocate and referred Sh Jagdish Bhatia,the paternal grandfather of the cuisine introducers we’re respectively married to first cousins.So a very strong family connection exists.Referring to the well written article where in ‘painda’ is referred to,I would like to point out a Bannu Wal saying ‘painda sarvya ghareh lamb’ which loosely translated means that while it’s an opportunity to eat be in the forefront,but when there is fight like situation be resistant,which in no means that Bannuwals were cowards,in fact they were the valiant types.

  5. Ramesh chander Bhatia says:

    I was born in Bannu in August 1941.i do remember there used to be a large water Tanki and there were lots of fruit sellers around that spot. I remember the Galies and used to watch the Palkies in the evening..
    i wish i could go back and see the same house which i still remember . Too bad i don’t nt remember in which Gali our was.
    Thanks to all of you for sharing the lovely memories which bring tears in my eye.
    I sm very found of cooking and the food name’s which are mentioned in this article are all familiar to me and love them.

  6. Manish Bhatia says:

    Dhodi Halwa and Muths are still made on Diwali Dushera by my mother, my great Grand father was working in MES Late Sh. Mukand lal Bhatia, my grand father was teacher there Late Sh. Krishan Lal Bhatia. Now we are in Delhi. Our best loved food is Mann and Pasindey (meat). Thanks. would love to connect and share memories and mementos

  7. Renu Dhamija says:

    Loved to read about Bannu…my Grandparents migrated from Bannu.My father used to tell me about the water tank in Bannu.
    The dodhi ka halwa …mann..choori..I grew up in Delhi enjoying all tbese dishes.
    Also chungan(somethingike cactus) were made by my grandmother…mallpua was made at home in a flat kadhai..
    I thought no one would know how mann is made…O uzed to keep it in my hostel almirah to eat at all odd mann does not lasts 3 to4 weeks at room temp in Delhi.

  8. Chandra Terway says:

    I was born in Bannu and very proud be Bannuwali.I was 3 years old when we came to Faridabad in parents were blessed with 10 children but now only two daughters are living including myself.My mother Radha Bai Sharma was an excellent cook and very energetic but my Father became very depressed after leaving every thing behind and especially lost 3 children.He passed away in 1963.When I used to ask questions about our house and detail of Bannu,my Mother will start
    Crying .I got some information from my eldest brother,we lived near Pratty Darwaza in Bannu.My all Sisters and Brothers loved music and were excellent sings but there were no opportunity for ordinary people still my passion stayed with me.I did write lots of Bannu songs and have one Bhawan on utube.I would like to visit my birth place Bannu if God wishes.Thanks.

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