From pandemic migration to royal fancy, from an experiment with Chinese tea plants to accidentally aged coffee, discover the interesting history behind these 9 GI-tagged foods of India
Called the Champagne of Teas, Darjeeling Tea was the first product to get the Geographical Indication (GI) tag in India, in October 2004. Known for its unique aroma and taste, the tea takes its name from Darjeeling, the eponymous town and region, where the first bushes were planted in the early 1800s as an experiment with the Chinese variety. According to the Tea Board of India only the tea grown at an elevation ranging from 600 to 2000 metres above sea level, in 87 identified gardens (in Darjeeling and Kalimpong districts of West Bengal), qualify as Darjeeling Tea. Only about 10 million kilogram of Darjeeling tea is produced every year. Some of the estates are now offering tea tourism, which includes a stay, visit to garden and factory, tea tasting and other interesting activities.
This light yellow, fried, crispy ‘sev’, made from gramflour and various spices, has an interesting history. When Moghul emperors passing through the Malwa region (now in Madhya Pradesh) could not get wheat to prepare the ‘seviyan’ (vermicelli), they asked the local Bhil tribe to prepare it from gram flour. It is this ‘Bhildi Sev’ that is said to be the predecessor of Ratlam Sev, which was first produced commercially in the early 1900s. Ratlami Sev got its GI tag in 2015.
A popular meat dish, ‘haleem’ is prepared during Ramzan across India, and eaten after the breaking of the day long fast. One of the most popular versions of ‘haleem’ is to be tasted in Hyderabad (though the pandemic crisis has affected the preparations this year). It is said that the taste and aroma of Hyderabad Haleem is due to the careful cooking of the ingredients (wheat, meat and Ghee with spices and other material) at a low temperature/heat for 12 hours, a skill that has been acquired over the generations by cooks of the Deccan region. Using firewood (for the traditional way of cooking) for heating the copper vessels, constructing the earthen furnaces (‘bhatti) to maintain the temperature, periodic stirring of the ingredients and mashing them to arrive at the homogenous mixture – all add to the speciality of the dish. Hyderabad Haleem got its GI registration in 2010.
Did you know migration during a bygone pandemic led to the invention of the Dharwad Peda? To escape the spread of plague in the late 18th/early 19th century, a Thakur family from Unnao in Uttar Pradesh migrated to Dharwad (now in Karnataka). To earn a living, Ram Ratan Singh Thakur started making ‘pedha’ (a milk-based sweet, also known as ‘peda’). It was his grandson who consolidated the business. Soon people were flocking to buy the ‘Line Bazar Pedha (referring to it after the shop’s location). Since then, the same family has been making these sweets, also known as Thakur Peda or Babusingh Thakur Pedha, with the secret recipe being passed from one generation to another. However, to maintain the quality, they make it in small batches. So an early visit to the shop is recommended. Dharwad Pedha received the GI tag in 2007.
Kovilpatti Kadalai Mittai
Made from peanuts, the sweet ‘chikki’ is a popular snack in India. But you have to visit Kovilpatti town in Tamil Nadu for its special ‘kadalai mittai’. According to local producers, it is the water of the Thamirabarani River added to the specially sourced groundnuts and organic jaggery that give the sweet its unique taste. The sweet coated with a transparent film of syrup and topped with bits of coloured coconut, got its GI tag in April this year.
Mihidana and Sitabhog
Often pronounced as a pair, these two special sweets from Bardhaman (also Burdwan, and now divided into two districts) in West Bengal are little known beyond the state. Mihidana (‘mihi’ meaning ‘fine’ and ‘dana’ meaning ‘grain’ or ‘granular’) is easily identified by its yellow colour. The paste made by mixing powdered rice (Gobindobhog or Kaminibhog) flour and Bengal gram flour with a hint of saffron is passed through a sieve into hot ghee; the granular mass is then dipped in sugar syrup and drained. Sitabhog which is white in colour and looks like tiny strands of vermicelli, is made of Gobindobhog rice flour, chhana (cottage cheese) and sugar and ghee, while tiny Gulab Jamun like globules are added to the finished product along with garnishings. It is said that both the sweets were prepared by the local sweet makers under instruction from the Maharaja of Burdwan who wanted to offer something special to his British guests. Both got their separate GI tags in 2017.
Tucked between the Buddhist attractions of Rajgir and Nalanda in Bihar is the town of Silao. Archaeological findings prove that it is an ancient settlement. But there is no record when Silao started making the sweet called ‘khaja’ for which it is famous. JD Beglar who visited the region sometime in 1872-73, spoke of local people dating it back to the times of the legendary king Vikramaditya. Others say, Gautam Buddha, while travelling to or from Rajgir stopped here and was offered the sweet he liked it and urged his disciples to eat it too, which made the sweet popular. Whatever be its origin, this yellow crunchy sweet (looks like a square filo pastry) made of wheat, sugar or jaggery, and other things, is a must try if you are travelling to Rajgir or Nalanda. Silao Khaja got its GI tag in 2018.
If it is Palkova (‘pal’ meaning milk and ‘kova’ meaning khowa), it has to be from Sirivilliputtur in Tamil Nadu. It was Srivilliputtur Co-operative Milk Producers' Society, which began making this special variety of sweet to use the surplus milk. Only cow’s milk is used to make Palkova. The milk is reduced by slow boiling on wood fire and sugar is added to it. The final product is yellow to brown in colour, semi-solid in nature with a smooth texture, and is sold by weight, packed in butter paper. So next time you are in Madurai, make the 80 km drive to Sirivilliputtur, and you will not be disappointed if you have a sweet tooth. Sirivilliputtur Palkova got its GI tag in 2019.
Monsooned Malabar Coffee
What was an accident of nature turned profitable for coffee exporters from the Malabar region of India during the British period. The coffee cherry (unwashed coffee) underwent a change (due to the moisture and humidity in the ship’s hold) during the long sea journey between Malabar and Europe which gave an aged flavour to the brew. But as transportation time got shorter, the coffee remained intact, and the resulting brew was not to the liking of the consumers. So the exporters decided to ‘age’ the coffee by leaving them in warehouses during the monsoon season. The tradition continues even today, which involves various stages. Both the Monsooned Malabar Arabica Coffee and the Monsooned Malabar Robusta Coffee got their own separate GI tags in 2008.