As delicate, nazuk little NRI bachhas tourist-ing around India, most outside 'hotel' food was off limits to us. My nervous, often irrational, doctor father was extremely cautious about making sure we escaped the Delhi belly on our visits to India.
On these trips, we would end up standing about, drooling copiously like puppies, as we longingly looked at the bewilderingly expansive range of barfis, jalebis, rosogullas, laddus, pethas, pedhas, rasmalai in the glass cases in the innumerable sweet shops we encountered in Delhi, Bhopal, across Madhya Pradesh.
Similar Pavlovian responses were generated when we encountered the Dilli sugarcane juice man, cranking the cane through his tinkling rotary machine, that had bells attached it, to produce little fly-friendly glasses of ganna juice.
Watching -- fascinating as it was -- was where it ended. Eating was not in the plan.
But when we came to live in India, in the late 1970s, in picturesque Ranchi, then part of undivided Bihar, when I was in my teens, in spite of my father's fierce anxieties, dining out did become slowly part of our life, although places were carefully chosen.
Ranchi's puchka stalls that always did brisk business doling out lovely looking donas of Bong-style pani puris were on the no-consume list (we could get typhoid, amebiasis, botulism, E. coli poisoning or worse the-then-extinct cholera, he worried).
So was the popular, grimy Punjab Sweet House that sold all kinds of yummy-looking chaat.
Nor did we venture into the handful of intriguing Chinese restaurants, serving just a few types of heavily MSG-laced chowmein, run by Ranchi's Chinese community of dentists, shoemakers and restaurateurs, who had relocated from Tangra in Kolkata, because my patriotic pater familias disapproved of Chinese food (and the Chinese).
But the very basic Churuwala's in chaotic Upper Baazar, which was not that much cleaner, but served samosas that made the dad happy, with chai and divine chenna pais (a milk-based sweet with mini rasmalai balls in it), had my father's staunch approval so much so that my bemused Tamil husband was, many years later, taken there for tea and namkeen/nimki like it was Ranchi's Ritz-type dining address, and the white kurta-pajama-clad Mr Churuwala, who perennially sat on a high white gaddi in the corner, handling the cash till, and lazily batting off flies, was given proud introductions to the South Indian damad.
Open-air, modern Hot and Cold, serving the sleepy town's first idlis (decently soft) received a clean chit too.
Tidy, neat Sheetal Chhaya on Main Road, Ranchi's most important thoroughfare, also passed muster. And what food they had!
Five of us would be embarrassingly piled into an autorickshaw -- my father was still window shopping, even five years on, for cars, choosing lengthily, ditheringly, between the only two models available, the Ambassador and Fiat -- to head to Sheetal Chhaya, sometimes even once a week.
A simple Marwari-owned vegetarian restaurant, that was 'air-conditioned' (big thing in those days, with a generator to boot to combat the endless cutely-named 'load shedding') and located in the heart of the city, they served up such a vast range of dishes. I particularly remember their buttery masala dosas, the channa and football-size bhaturas and the semi-raseela Alu Mattar that came with butter naans or puris. That Alu Mattar was so tasty, although it wasn't too oily or heavy.
I make it at home, but I don't think I have ever been able to recreate its exact flavour. But try this recipe that produces the closest replica of that wonderful 'hotel'-style Alu Mattar.
Ranchi's Sheetal Chhaya Alu Mattar
- 5-6 large alus or potatoes, peeled
- 3 large red onions, cut in large chunks
- 1-inch piece ginger, grated
- 1 green chilly for the paste + 2 green chillies, chopped lengthwise for the curry
- 2-3 tbsp oil for the baghar or tadka (seasoning) + 2-3 tbsp for frying the alus
- 1 tsp jeera or cumin seeds
- ½ tsp hing or asafoetida
- 6-7 pods garlic, crushed or minced
- 3 large tomatoes, finely chopped
- 2-3 tbsp freshly ground dhania or coriander powder
- 1 large tej patta or bay leaf
- Dash sugar
- Dash butter
- Dash ghee
- 1 heaping tbsp crumbled dagar phool or kalpasi or stone flower spice
- Salt to taste, about 2 tsp
- 1 tsp lal mirchi or red chilly powder, optional
- 1 tsp haldi or turmeric powder
- 1 tsp garam masala powder
- 500 gm frozen or fresh peas
- ½ cup dahi (yoghurt) or a dash of cream, optional
- Chop the peeled alus into 1-inch sabzi-sized pieces and parboil, leaving them a little raw.
Drain, pat dry and pan fry with 2-3 tbsp oil and a little ghee in a frying pan over medium-low heat, turning the alus often, till they lightly redden and brown, but can remain not fully cooked.
- Grind the onions, 1 of the green chillies and the ginger with as little water as possible in a blender/grinder.
- Heat the 2-3 tbsp oil in a large heavy-bottomed kadhai or large saucepan over medium heat.
Add the jeera and the hing and let it sizzle a little for 1 minute and add the onion-ginger paste.
Fry the paste over low heat with a dash of butter plus a dash of ghee for a long time till it begins to redden a tad and the oil separates from the paste.
Then add garlic and the tomatoes.
Fry over low heat for 5-8 minutes more, over low heat, till the garlic roasts and the tomato has blended.
Add the pan-fried alus, green chillies, dhania powder, haldi powder, tej patta, salt, sugar, phool and enough water to cover the alus and cook over medium-low heat till the alus are done and the curry comes together.
The add the peas, chilly powder, garam masala powder.
Adjust the water so you have a thick gravy.
Simmer till peas are cooked and the oil begins to separate from gravy.
- Take off heat.
Add the dahi or cream, if preferred, and serve hot with either rice or butter naans or puris or ghee rotis.
Zelda's Note: I don't always add dahi or cream at the end and sometimes do it when expecting company. It adds a little richness to the gravy.
For a vegan version of this dish, use cashew butter instead of ghee and butter and skip adding yoghurt or cream at the end.
A Jain version might be difficult to pull off -- instead of potatoes use ½ kg peeled, cubed raw green banana and substitute the onion-ginger paste with a ground mixture of ½ kg cashews, 1 green chilly, a little water and 2 tsp saunth or dry ginger powder.
Skip the garlic.