When the round piece of dough emerges from hot oil, looking all brown and puffed up, you can't help succumbing to the temptation.
Last Sunday my little sister-in-law invited us to lunch. It was getting on to 45°, it was dry as only Delhi can be in May, she lives on the top floor of her apartment building, and the loo was blowing. In other words, it was blazing hot. And she stood in the kitchen and made us, with her own fair hands, hot pooris with the traditional rase ke alu, dahi and achar the only other accompaniments.
That was a memorable meal, for many reasons: The company was easy and comforting, she had chilled the house with the air conditioner set to glacial, and the menu was just perfect. To have added or subtracted from it would have been criminal.
The boiled potatoes, roughly broken by hand into a thinnish orange-yellow gravy of tomatoes and dahi were flavoured with just zeera, cumin and haldi. Just a hint of hing (asafœtida), garam masala and freshly chopped coriander. The dough, the poori atta, had been kneaded with dried methi, fenugreek leaves.
I asked for mine puffed but soft, her brother for his crisp, and our niece for her solitary one without the methi. We all ate till we collapsed and a crane had to be brought in to lift us.
The main reason was that in my house pooris are inedible (“but why, bhabhi, there's nothing to pooris — why can't you?”) and so I've given up. The second was the purity of the alu, and the crowning taste was the aam ka achar. For years I've annually suffered “hints” about the best raw mango pickle being the one with no stone, no saunf-methi-kalonji (fennel-fenugreek-nigella), only red chillies and hing and I've turned a deaf ear because I don't like it. It's cut into long, limp, thin slivers and tastes only of its ingredients, which don't work for me, they're too unconnected, too raw.
But the pickle at Chhoti's house had small triangular pieces of mango, positively reeking of hing, but sweet and hot. The texture was firm and crisp and naturally the taste was sour, but a large amount of sugar added an unexpected kick. With that savoury meal, sweetness did the trick. I'm still waiting for a consignment and the recipe.
A few days later I went to a mall for a movie, the plan was to eat a large breakfast and skip lunch. So I filled up on the mandatory popcorn and then politely agreed to share a sandwich or pizza after.
One look at the menu and sure enough, all three of us wanted to eat many things. I'm a sandwich fiend, am supposed to avoid red meat, so ordered a tuna sandwich. Tuna is supposed to be a good source of vitamins D, B3 and B6, and, in any case, it has a flavour that I like. Unlike most shop-bought sandwich fillings, which taste and smell of pink reconstituted plastic, tuna has character.
This came in toasted brown whole wheat bread, cut into four large triangles and filled almost to bursting. The filling was held together by mayonnaise — probably eggless — and its flavour and crunch explained the name they'd given it: Colaba tuna sandwich. They could as well have named it Nungambakkam or Defence Colony Tuna Sandwich, or anything else desi. But to non-Mumbaikars, Colaba has a certain ring. In it they'd mixed fresh chopped dhania (coriander) stalks and leaves but there was also the pungent, unmistakeable bite of finely sliced raw purple onions.
I like onions as much as the next person, but only with hot food, and only with meat. We were tortured as children and not allowed onions at lunch, which was usually vegetarian, but they were served steeped in malt vinegar at dinner — which was always mutton in some form — and the habit has stuck.
The onion in the sandwich was crisp in the middle of the squishy tuna salad and its flavour balanced the smell of the tuna without overpowering it. Occasionally a succulent stem of coriander would burst freshly into the mouth. Both onions and coriander are “ornery” and a part of all our larders, but the unexpectedness of the juxtaposition was what wrought the magic.
All unusual combinations don't necessarily succeed, sometimes they manage to be only just edible. But some act like a magic wand, transforming pumpkins to carriages and scullery drudges to belles of balls.
I find that with saunf, fennel. The humble every day dhuli moong (yellow, hulled mung), often cooked in combination with masoor ki dal (red split lentil) is usually tempered, like most other dals in the North, with cumin.
In the South it's most likely mustard seeds. This one is boiled with saunf. Sautéing saunf changes its smell completely — it becomes smoky, crisp, fried. While that's right for some dishes, it lacks the almost herbal freshness of boiling. Sorry — that makes it sound almost grassy which it's not. It adds a sweet, pleasing lightness to the dal.
All one has to do is to put the washed dal to boil with water, salt and turmeric, add a pinch of whole saunf to the pot and cook till the dal is done. Then one can temper it with a bit of chopped onions or tomatoes. But the whole stew is infused with the delicate, refreshing fragrance whose appeal comes from the simplicity and the surprise.