Punjab, the land of milk and butter, is also India’s wheat-bowl. Punjab has always been proud of its tall and strong puttars (sons). These brave sons (and daughters) of the soil have grown up on a diet rich with milk, butter, and other dairy products.
Punjab derives its name from its geography – punj: five (from Hindi/Sanskrit: panch – pronounced punch), and aab: Persian/Urdu for water – the land of the five rivers. The rivers Jehlum, Chenab, Ravi, Beas, and Sutlej used to flow through undivided Punjab. All these five rivers are the tributaries of the mighty Indus river, or river Sindhu, its Vedic name. It is from this river that Indians get their name: Sindhu → Hindu or Hindi (it didn’t stand for a religion, but for the people of Hind or Hindustan).
After Partition, the western part of Punjab with the rivers Jehlum and Chenab became part of Pakistan. We didn’t entirely lose the two rivers though – Rivers Jehlum and Chenab originate in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir before flowing into Pakistan.
The fertile plains combined with the hot and dry climate provide ideal conditions for Punjab to produce the bulk of Indian wheat. Wheat is the main staple of Punjab, appearing in all its avtars of paranthas – plain and stuffed, poories, and phulkas and chapaties. Punjab is the birthplace of the parantha that is now familiar to people allover the world.
With cheap energy (subsidized diesel) unsustainable use of groundwater is making it possible to grow rice in low rainfall regions. Near Punjab rice cultivation was limited to the Terai region in the foothills of the Himalayas, where water table is high and not much else can be grown.
Though it is rare for a Punjabi to yearn for rice, there are a few Punjabi dishes that are best served with rice: kadhi-chawal, and rajma-chawal come to mind immediately. Kadhi is best made with sour buttermilk. In the traditional method for making butter, a little dahi (yoghurt) is added to malai (the cream that collects on top after milk has been boiled) to sour it and keep it from spoiling. To this fresh cream is added daily till you are ready to turn it into butter, depending on how small or large a batch you prefer. This would be once in two weeks for us – in the days when we used to buy whole milk. This is then churned to yield cultured butter (which is experiencing a revival of sorts in the West!) and chhanchh or buttermilk. This buttermilk imparts a unique flavour to the kadhi. Using sour yoghurt is only second best.
The consistency of Punjabi kadhi is between the Maharashtrian kadhi and pithla (here and here), and the reason for some early disdain in my Maharashtrian family (the Kashmiris, with their long association with Punjabis, have always loved it ). But I was not going to give up on my kardhi that easily (though I was okay with becoming a vegetarian, by default, for the first five years of my married life) – so I would let them interpret it how they would and served it on a nearly regular basis. Last week I, finally, had them eating out of my hands. (Yeah, it took that long – and TH still won’t have it with rice!) Too thick. Too yellow. That’s what they used to say.
My recipe has evolved over many years as I picked up different things from friends and books. These days you will not find me making plain pakoras, no ma’m. Instead I make onion-potato ones. I was introduced to this version by my Haryanvi friend, Poonam, when I visited her during my last Thanksgiving in the US. I loved the addition of these veggies to the pakoras – gave them some texture while still keeping them soft. The tadka too has changed over the years to the present one which is inspired by one suggested by Madhur Jaffery in A Taste of India. She essentially uses the paanch phoran, but I prefer to leave out the fennel seeds for the kadhi.
To Richa’s (As Dear As Salt) Punjabi Party, RCI: Punjabi Cuisine, I bring the finger licking kadhi. The tadka is entirely optional – but I dare you, after looking at these pictures! RCI, (featuring different regional cuisines of India) is the brainchild of Lakshmi (Veggie Cuisine).
For the pakoras
3/4 C sour buttermilk (or 3/4 C sour yoghurt)
1 C+ besan (chickpea/gram flour)
1 medium onion, chopped
1 small potato, peeled and chopped into small dice (optional)
½ t red chilli powder
½ t turmeric
¼ t baking soda
peanut oil for frying
For the kadhi
3 C sour buttermilk
2 C water
1 C besan
1 ½ t turmeric
½ t cayenne (or to taste)
1 T peanut oil
1 t cumin seeds
¾ t mustard seeds
½ t kalonji (nigella) seeds
½ t methi seeds
1/4 t mild hing
4-5 whole red chillies
For the final tadka (tempering)
1 t ghee
1 t cumin seeds
¾ t (or to taste) Kashmiri mirch or regular red chilli powder
- To make the pakoras, gradually add buttermilk (or yoghurt, plus water as needed) to the besan to make a thick smooth batter. Add turmeric, red chilli powder, chopped onion and potatoes, and mix. Heat the oil in a karahi till just below smoking. You can test by putting a drop of the batter into the hot oil – it should sizzle and rise to the top but not get browned right away. Add the baking soda, and mix well. Drop batter by spoonfuls (I use a teaspoon) in batches to make small pakoras, not more than ¾ inches across. Fry till medium brown, and drain on a paper towel.
- Do not add salt to the pakora batter for two reasons. One, it supposedly keeps them from sucking up too much oil. Two, and more important, it ensures that you will have pakoras for the kadhi. Like cake, you cannot eat your pakoras and have them too !
- Baking soda makes the pakoras light and soft. If you want a lower sodium version, and wish to avoid baking soda, beat the batter till light, and then add the chopped onions and potatoes. Fry similarly in hot oil, and soak in a bowl of water immediately. Tip the pakoras with this water into the kadhi.
- Mix the other cup of besan with the remaining buttermilk (or sour yoghurt). Add water to thin. If you see any lumps, just let the mixture stand for a few minutes and then stir again; the lumps will dissolve.
- Retain just 1 tablespoon of oil in the karahi. To the hot oil add the following, in order: cumin, mustard, nigella, and methi seeds, hing, and the whole red chillies. Stir and add the turmeric and red chilli powder. Give the besan-buttermilk mix a good stir and pour into the karahi. Turn the heat to medium, add salt, and stir. The kadhi will begin to thicken. Add more water if needed; the consistency should be that of very thick creamy soup.
- Bring the kadhi to a boil, add the pakoras, and stir. Turn the heat down to a simmer. Cover and cook for 20 minutes to half hour, stirring occasionally to keep it from sticking to the bottom. Traditionally, the kardhi would bubble away on the very low heat of an angeethi for hours, thickening gradually. But it is not an implement that could survive the fast pace of city life. In the villages they might still use it on occasion.
- Transfer the kadhi to the serving bowl. For the final flourish, just before serving, heat a teaspoon of ghee. To it add cumin and red chilli powder, and pour it over the kadhi.
- Serve hot with rice. It is good on its own too. I usually polish off a katori or two before it makes it to the table.