The time has come, the Walrus said,
to talk of many things,
of ships and shoes and sealing wax,
of cabbages and kings…
and so I start my blog with lines from my all-time favourite book, Alice in Wonderland. About food, as a point of beginning, but hoping that it will take a life of its own and occasionally stray into other things.
I have been in the kitchen a lot this past week, baking and everything. Most of the recipes have been new-found ones from favourite blogs. But cookies cannot a lunch make. Usually. With the monsoon season in fullish swing, ’tis the season for limited choices, unless you don’t have teens in the family, and everybody agrees that gourds are heaven-sent.
So it fell on the ubiquitous aloo to deliver. That is one vegetable that even the most reluctant cook can do well, and in a jiffy. And in this hot and humid weather, you want to be in and out of the kitchen fast.
And this dish transports me to Pooh, a remote area in the Himachal mountains, where we visited my cousins when my son was not quite one year old. The dish had one spice that I had never before used with potatoes, and it totally transforms them. I don’t really know to which region the dish belongs because it was a masala given to my aunt by a friend in their Border Roads community that has people from all over the country…but she knew the ingredient that made it different.
Once I had used up the keep-sake masala from my aunt, I tried to put it together again. Since I knew the secret ingredient, it wasn’t difficult. And it has been a favourite since.
1 onion, chopped
2 t dhania (coriander) powder
1 1/2 t methi daana (fenugreek seeds) – ah! the secret ingredient
1 t zeera (cumin), dry roasted and powdered
1/2 t cumin seeds
1/2 t heeng (asafoetida)
1/2 t haldi (turmeric) powder
red chilli (cayenne pepper) and salt, to taste
hara dhania (cilantro)
2 t oil
If time is really of essence to you, then a pressure cooker is a must. It takes longer to peel and cube the potatoes than to cook this dish. No time consuming bhunno…and low fat too!
So, peel and cube potatoes (1/2″ dice). Heat oil in your pan/ pressure cooker. Add cumin, and then the heeng.
A word of caution here for those using this aromatic for the first time. I think of heeng as the Indian equivalent of the Thai fish sauce. I’ll tell you why. If you are going to decide on whether to make this ingredient optional by smelling it, you are probably going to say – thanks, but no, thanks. But we all know what fish sauce is to Thai food.
Also, heeng, the (super) aromatic resin of a tree, is available in different ‘strengths’. In Central and South India, it is mixed with flour, many times its weight, to make it possible to be used in quantities that can be measured in teaspoons and the like. You should never do that with the North Indian heeng, which is sold in small tins (such as the Bandhini heeng). Just a speck of this (the size of really coarse sand) would give you the impact of half a teaspoon of the other stuff. Better to store it wrapped in cling film and then in an airtight container, like I do, so that the entire larder doesn’t, well, stink. There, I said so myself.
Going back to the recipe:
After the heeng, add the onions. Stir them around a bit till they fry up but are not browned. Now add the powdered methi, dhania powder, turmeric, and the cayenne pepper. As soon as you smell the roasting spices (a minute or so), add the potatoes. Stir around for a minute, add the salt, chopped cilantro, and the roasted cumin powder. Stir. Now add a 3/4th cup of water. Close the lid of the cooker, and pressure cook for 4-5 min. Turn heat off, and let the pressure subside. This helps to loosen the caramelised bits from the bottom. Open the cooker, mix with a good turn of the wrist and turn onto the serving dish.
Watch the cooking time. There is not much liquid in there so you need to take care that the spices and the onions caramelise but do not burn. I find the pressure cooker does a great job here as opposed to pan cooking with the lid. But timing is everything between – fluffy browned potatoes coated with caramelised onion and masalas – and pakki rasoi! So err on the side of caution – the timing will also depend on the size of the cooker, intensity of the stove, quantity (if you are decreasing or increasing the amounts) – I turn heat to medium once the pressure is attained.
Garnish with cilantro and serve with roti or paranthas, or stuff between bread slices for a grilled sandwich.
I am sure the addition of tomatoes while cooking, or a twist of lemon juice would be a nice variation. Enjoy.
This is my entry to Anthony’s 29th Curry Mela.