Monday, April 04, 2011

Food for the soul: Ugadi / Padva Special

Presenting Sumana Khan (swallow the "n", I say and no bollywood connections here, she says).  I got to know her at work and became her fan on reading Scent of a Man on our organization's intranet. Since then Sumana has been fun to interact with she is someone very opinionated in her writings yet have also seen her as a quite observant person at the dinner table celebrating an annual event we both worked together on. I also remember the day when I had organized a Tarot reading event at work and Sumana wanted my advice on when she would be able to make the first sale of her innovation! I had to tell her it was just a game!! Since then lot has happened so here's presenting this multi-faceted creative author who has published her first mystery novel Kaivalya.

Alur Dum

As a Southie, marrying into a Bong family required a complete mental make-over. I was at first overwhelmed, shocked, surprised, gobsmacked at a Bong’s unconditional devotion to food – but then, slowly I started to understand and appreciate the sacred place ‘food’ holds in a Bengali’s life.

I think the biggest difficulty I brought in as a new bou was my vegetarianism. My new family was perplexed – what to feed me? No fish. No chicken. Not even dim (egg). What’s left to eat?

On my first visit to Kolkata after the wedding hoopla, we stayed in The Husband’s grandmom’s home. Deedun is 70 + years, the most open-minded, open-hearted woman I’ve come across. With her smattering of English, and my (then) smattering of Bengali, and my MIL’s smattering of Hindi, we formed a special bond; women across three generations in synchronous cacophony, trying to overcome the language barrier. My veggie situation, it was established, was not a catastrophe after all. I could be fed many things. Many, many things. I could have luchi with alu torkari, bhaath (rice), daal and seddhu alu (boiled potato). And then, my MIL said triumphantly – Doi bhaath (curd rice). My heart leapt with joy. That’s all I wanted after the two-day train journey. To just have some curd rice with pickle and curl up somewhere. But I was afraid of conforming to the ‘south-indian cliché’; many books and many movies have impressed upon me that several roti/daal eaters look down upon curd rice eaters.

Then, Deedun came to me and asked if I wanted the luchis fried in ghee or oil. My eyes bulged. Oil! Oil! Oil! She patted me affectionately and went back to the kitchen. Finally, the plates were set. Hot, piping luchis were piled up on my plate. Alu torkari looked and smelt delicious. I ate swiftly. Then, the rice was brought. By the time I found the right word and gesture to say stop, Deedun had piled up a mini Mt. Everest on my plate. In a spoon which was really a small ladle, she scooped some fresh butter and slapped it on the rice. And then the thick daal was poured on this. Mishti achaar (sweet pickle) was dropped on the mountain peak. Boiled alu was mashed, mixed with finely chopped onion and chilly and, yes, butter. A ball of this was a ‘side’ to the rice and daal.

For a stomach that was used to decades of light rasam (with some tomatoes floating around), a spoon of dry playa, and curd rice; this was nothing but a nuclear assault. I sat there, like a cow chewing the cud. The taste was simply impeccable; but I figured I’ll take five hours to finish the lunch. Thankfully, The Husband returned from some errand, and understood the catastrophe. He took away more than half of the Mt.Everest. Finally, I was done, after forty-five minutes. But MIL had not forgotten the doi baath. I refused politely. She thought I was shy. She convinced me that I must not feel shy to eat. I was now a Bengali, and I have to take pride in eating. We finally reached a compromise. I will just have the doi without the rice. The doi was brought out. I fell off my chair. It was quite a large matka. I was told this was specially bought for me. I said I will have a few spoons. The dreaded ladle came out and now, I stared at a glacier on my plate. Besides, it was not the good old thick curd that I was used to. This was mishti doi. Sweet yoghurt. I took another 45 minutes to finish it.

It’s been almost eight years, and now we laugh about that first meal – served with the right intention of welcoming a new bride. But the quantity, it seemed, was for several brides! Since then, I’ve always been fascinated with the Bengali approach to food. It’s not just ‘prepare, cook, eat’. There is a ritualistic devotion that goes behind every meal and snack that is served in a Bengali home. My MIL’s generation - what can I say, except that they are walking, talking wikis of Bengali cuisine. In every visit to Kolkata, I’ve tasted something new and exotic, and immensely complicated to prepare. Yet, MIL laughs it off – she can do it blind-folded with her right hand tied behind her back.

I’ll share with you the simplest, easiest dish - and it’s my absolute favourite. It is the Bengali ‘Alur Dum’ with my own modifications.

Preparation time – 15 min

Cooking time – 15 min.

What you need:
  • 8-10 baby potatoes.
  • 2-3 large, ripe tomatoes
  • A cup of shelled green peas
  • 1 inch ginger
  • 2-3 green chillies
  • 1 pod of garlic (optional)
  • 2-3 tsps of mustard oil for seasoning
  • A pinch of turmeric
  • 1 tsp cumin (for seasoning)
  • A dollop of cream (optional)
  • 2-3 tsps of grated paneer (optional)
For the panch phoran masala –

1 tsp each -
  • Fennel
  • Cummin
  • Mustard
  • Nigela (onion seeds)
  • Fenugreek
Note: The key to panch phoran preparation is that all ingredients have to be used in equal measure. I usually take a 3-4 tsp measure of each, and store the ground masala in an airtight container. It tastes great with any gravy, adding a rush of flavours.

Method of preparation:

Panch Phoran preparation:

First, let’s get the masala done. Take the panch phoran ingredients and dry roast them for a couple of minutes, till a lovely aroma wafts out. Allow to cool, then dry grind this into a powder. Some prefer a coarse powder, some prefer it fine. I powder it to a fine consistency because it blends well into the gravy.

Gravy preparation:

Puree the tomatoes along with the green chillies, ginger and garlic. The resulting liquid should be thick and smooth.

Wash, peel and boil the baby potatoes in slightly salted water. Keep aside.

In a kadai, heat mustard oil till it is smoking hot. Turn off the stove, and wait for the oil to cool a bit. Now, heat it again. This takes out the pungency of the oil.

Add cumin seeds. Wait till they sputter.

Add the tomato gravy. If you need to, you can add a bit of water depending on the thickness you prefer. Close the kadai for 2-3 minutes, allowing the gravy to simmer. The oil separates from the gravy, and you are now ready for the next step!

Add 2 tsp of the panch phoran. Add a pinch of turmeric, a pinch of chilli powder (if you need additional spice) and salt to taste. A dash of sugar brings an interesting balance.

Now, add the green peas, and allow the peas to cook in the gravy. You can also use boiled peas to save time.

Prick the boiled potatoes with a fork, and add them to the gravy. Gently stir them around, allowing them to soak in the flavours of the gravy. Add the scoop of cream, and take it off the stove.

Your Alur Dum is done. You can transfer this into a serving bowl, and then garnish it with the grated paneer. Serve it hot with rotis/chapathis/luchis!

TIP: If you need a thicker body for the gravy, you can try this – after you season the oil with cumin, add 2 tsps of besan. Stir it, allowing it to cook in the oil. In about 3-4 minutes, the besan turns golden brown, and the oil leaves the sides. The besan now gives out a rich aroma. Add the tomato puree on this and proceed as described above.

We celebrated Padva/ Ugadi today with friends. There was Alok, Varsha and Chulbul Aditya and Anand and little Gauri, Gurunath Uncle and a visitor from Nagpur, Mr. Sant. The food was well planned out and quite a mix not a typical Maharashtrian Thali but an enjoyable one said everyone. Cdr. wish you were there.

Started out with drinks of Pepsi/ Sprite. Then handed out plates served with Sumana's Alur Dum, Lucchi, Tamarind rice, Vangi stir fry and Amul's Kesari Shrikhand. There was varan bhat too but not a single person asked for it not even the kids.

This evening was fun. I played "Farmer's in the den" after years; with Aditya and Gauri on the terrace.

I tripled the quantities and skipped the cream. Sumana everyone one that is 8 adults and 2 kids loved your recipe! Thanks buddy for sharing this recipe and writting this post for me!!

Ugadi ShubhashayagaLu!! Gudi Padvyachya Shubhecha!


  1. The photo looks GREAT! I am so glad that this came out well Anjali...but then, when you are the sure even a humble upittu comes out heavenly :)

  2. Now Now do you see me blush! Thanks again Sumana!!

  3. nice presentation.. feel like grabbing few of those aloos...

  4. Yummy, scrummy! Sure to try it out. By the way, where do we get the onion seeds(Nigela)???

  5. Swarnavalli Suresh come on over.

    Sandhya I bought nigela seeds from big bazaar. You must try it, its a creamy one.

  6. Sumana enjoyed the post.You write well.

  7. What a sweet story- I truly enjoyed reading it. And this recipe has to be bookmarked right away!

  8. Delicious dish,truly tempting..


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