The History Of The Banjara Kebab And It’s Nomadic Roots

Sometimes it’s easy to look at a menu and forget that every dish before you has a story to tell. Food is a cultural marker of civilisation, and more often than not, if you look more closely at what’s on your plate, there’s a slice of history to be explored. For food content creator Pranav Joshi (@floydiancookery) these untapped stories have become the focus of October. Putting his own spin on the Inktober challenge, Joshi has been making a new dish every day in accordance with the Inktober prompts and never fails to include some tasty morsels of information along with the delicious food itself. 

For Day 11’s prompt ‘Wander’, he unravelled the history of the Banjara Kebab, one of India’s most loved meat dishes and drew a line through history connecting the kebab to Banjara Hills, one of the wealthiest neighbourhoods in the country and to famed comedian Charlie Chaplin. 

To understand the history of the Banjara Kebab, you need to travel all the way back in time to the Indus River civilization. This civilisation holds the distinction of being the world's oldest and was once inhabited by several nomadic tribes. Among these, the Banjara tribe belonged to the Indo-Aryan race and spoke a language akin to Sanskrit and Hindi. The Banjara people, due to their nomadic lifestyle and limited literacy, have left a somewhat enigmatic historical trail. Historians have differing opinions regarding their origin and the extent of their settlements, both within and beyond the borders of India.

Video Credits: Ashus Delicacies/YouTube

Legend has it that the Banjara claim descent from two brothers named Mota and Mola, who tended to the cows of Lord Sri Krishna. Mota's lineage gave rise to modern groups like the Marwaris, Mathura Banjaras, and Labhanas. In contrast, Mola, who had no children, once dazzled a princely court with his gymnastic skills while accompanied by his wife Radha, known for her beauty and grace. In gratitude, the prince granted them three infant boys from diverse castes, and their descendants collectively became known as Charan Banjaras.

The early history and dispersion of the Banjara people remain somewhat speculative. They are believed to have left their northern Indian homeland, starting as early as the 5th century AD, but significant migrations occurred during the 11th century amidst the Mughal invasions of North India and Northwest India. They were taken as captives and served various roles, such as musicians, horse breeders, labourers, and food suppliers. Their journey took them across Iran, into Asia Minor, and ultimately to Byzantine Europe in the 14th century through Greece. After a roughly 100-year pause in Greece, they reached Russia, Scandinavia, the British Isles, and Spain in the early 16th century. The Banjara people entered Europe through the Balkans, with a substantial concentration in Romania and Hungary.

Joshi then goes on to cite Charlie Chaplin’s Romani blood which effectively ties the comedy legend to this unique Indian dish. The Romani Gypsy and Indian Banjara share numerous similarities, comprising language, attire, lifestyle, and culinary preferences. Genetic scientists have analysed the genomes of 13 different Romani groups in Europe, confirming their North-West Indian origin.

The traditional Banjara cuisine included Daliya (a mixed cereal dish), Bati (a type of bread), Saloi (made from goat, sheep, or pork blood and intestines), and Ghuggari (boiled cowpea, red gram, and land gram, among others), with occasional use of rice. 'Patali baati' was made from high-quality wheat, bazra, or ragi, typically consumed with chicken curry or boiled green leaves. They were fond of non-vegetarian food, with the exception of beef. Banjara dogs were renowned for their hunting prowess in capturing wild animals. Although the modern-day Banjara Kebab bears their name, there’s little evidence to show that the dish has any hallmarks of traditional Banjara cuisine.

The Banjara name was put to use again in 1927 when Mehdi Nawaz Jung, the Secretary to the Executive Council of the last Nizam, Osman Ali Khan bought a tract of land in Hyderabad and proceeded to build it into one of the wealthiest neighbourhoods in the country, Banjara Hills. He chose the name as a nod to the area’s original occupants although more often than not, their history is overlooked.

This extensive history from the nomadic Banjara, all the way to Banjara Hills and Charlie Chaplin is just a snippet of how rich the identity of almost every dish can be. If you only look closely, there are rich tapestries of tales to be found on every plate.