Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Dahi Vada

Despite having visited Delhi over the years, the visits have always been fleeting. Never enough time to explore the facets of a city that they say, has risen and fallen and then risen  again (seven or is it eight times), each time with the fortunes of a different empire and its rulers. And yet, over the past year, three books have taken me to the heart of Old Delhi, bringing it alive at three different points in time.

It all started with Pamela Timms' 'Korma, Kheer & Kismet'. Fed up by the set rules of an expat's life in Delhi, she embarks on a journey to experience the street food of Delhi with it's seasons as her backdrop. She braves Delhi's unbearable Summer for a plate of Ashok and Ashok's mutton korma that finishes within an hour of opening and endures the lashing Monsoon rains and scare of the infamous 'Delhi belly' to try the Mughlai food in the streets around Jama Masjid. The sight of a mound of shakarkhandi (sweet potatoes) atop a khomcha wallah signals the cooler days of early autumn and chilly Winter mornings are spent in the search for the ephemeral 'Daulat ki Chaat'. And in between she visits a whole plethora of small shops and eateries that dot the landscape of Old Delhi feeding the multitudes of residents, immigrant workers, shoppers and curious travellers alike. In her quests, she goes anywhere and everywhere. From Pt. Ved Prakash Lemon Wale's nimboo soda to Old and Famous's jalebis to Gopal Krishna Gupta's aloo tikki to Bade Mian's kheer to a whole host of other places that all sell that one unique dish that they have perfected over the generations, never to be replicated by another.

In her aimless rambles around the streets and bylanes of Old Delhi, she surrenders to the chaos and embraces the mayhem that is Old Delhi and in return, it's people open their homes, kitchens, hearts, lives, dreams and just about everything else except of course, that closely guarded family recipe. With her words, she brings alive the Purani Dilli of today with all its quirks and idiosyncrasies, as the city continues to reveal itself to her through its street food and the people and families behind it.

The second book was Ahmed Ali's 'Twilight in Delhi' that I got to know of while reading another book on Delhi, a couple of years ago, 'City of Djinns' by William Dalrymple. Set in the early 1900s, the author sets out to describe in painstaking detail the days and lives of the people of Delhi at the time. Of women cloistered within the four walls of the zenana oblivious to the humdrum of life navigated by the men outside. Of days punctuated by the calls to prayer, cries of street vendors, whines of beggars, sounds of craftsmen at work, blessings of the fakirs and poetry on the lips of everyone when mere words would not suffice to convey the emotion of the moment. Of nights that belonged to courtesans whose beauty and allure hid a lifetime of heartbreak and denial. Of marriages arranged, festivals celebrated, epidemics battled and deaths mourned. 

But, this is all in the shadow of time when the Mughal Empire was defeated, its rulers exiled and its people looked on as a new colonial ruler sought to stamp its authority at the cost of the local culture. The flashes of despair and melancholy that you glimpse early on in the book grow to a vice like embrace by the time you reach the last pages. Partition's unfortunate legacy would mean that the author had to leave for Pakistan and the Oxford University Press would reduce the book to being described as 'a novel that describes.. ..a way of life in the predominantly Muslim areas of Delhi'. What it is, is a book that documents a time in the life of this city lost forever as it was on the cusp of being re-imagined by its new rulers from the ashes of the previous empire. 

And finally, the book that captivated me completely was Madhur Jaffrey's 'Climbing the Mango Trees', her childhood memoirs. Born into a Kayastha family, a community that were traditionally the record keepers of the Mughals and who would make the transition under the new colonial rulers. On a historic timeline, this books picks up where Ahmed Ali's book ends. Growing up in a large joint family in a house overlooking the Yamuna, she takes you into the world of her childhood. A world where Mughal, British and Hindu influences would intermingle while the country inexorably marched towards Independence. While she discusses the social milieu of the time, this is a book about her childhood. 

She introduces you to her large joint family over expansive family meals with its doses of bonhomie and humour and underlying currents of gossip and speculations. You accompany her on her summer holidays in the hills and her trips to the Yamuna river bed for the choicest pick of watermelons. You watch as her elder brothers and sisters grow up and embrace their lives and loves. She takes you to her school and you meet her teachers, friends and that comes with school life. And there's so much more she will reveal about her childhood and with such honesty and intimacy and with a language so descriptive that these recollections don't feel like those of a stranger but those of a grandmother or grand aunt by whose side you sit as she reminisces. 

Most of us today know Madhur Jaffery as a cook book author and you'd imagine her book to be about food and in that assumption, you won't be doing this book justice. Food weaves itself through the pages of this book as inextricably as it always does with our memories. But this book is so much more. It is about her growing years in all its intimate and innocent detail which you will remember long after you've read the book.

All this talk of Delhi had me pulling out a recipe for Dahi Vadas or as the Dilliwallas call it, 'Dahi Bhalle'. I would describe them here but Madhur Jaffrey does such a delicious job of it that why bother. She describes them as "fried split-pea patties spread with creamy yogurt, salt, a hot chili mixture and, finally, tamarind chutney “as thick as melted chocolate." And then she goes on to write that "the dahi baras would melt in our mouths with the minimum of resistance, the hot spices would bring tears to our eyes, the yogurt would cool us down, and the tamarind would perk up our taste buds as nothing else could. This to us was heaven.”

After such a description, there is really nothing more for me to say except that I've shared my mother's recipe but goes without saying that every home in India would have their own trusted one. It is a simple enough recipe that goes down a treat during tea time. 

For a city that keeps rising from the ashes ever so often in the history of time, I leave you with these words of Anupreeta Das, "Delhi now belonged to everyone who lived in it. But no one belonged to Delhi."


Dahi Vada

Serves 2-3


For the Vadas
  • 1/3 cup white urad dal (split black gram lentil)
  • Oil, to fry
For the Yoghurt and garnish
  • 1-1.5 cups yoghurt
  • Salt, to taste
  • Red chilli powder
  • Roasted ground cumin powder (jeera powder)
  • Tamarind chutney


To make the Vadas:
  • Wash the lentils until the water appears clear. Soak in 3 cups of water for atleast 6 hours.
  • Drain the water and grind lentils to a very creamy texture, just using enough water needed to blend. Using too much water while grinding lentils will make it very watery and will not produce creamy texture.
  • Whip lentil batter for about 2-3 minutes until batter becomes light and fluffy. If needed, add few spoonfuls of water.
  • To fry the vadas, use a flat frying pan. Do not pour more than 1/2-inch of oil above the surface of the frying pan.
  • Place the heat on medium high. To check if oil is ready put a little batter into the oil; oil will sizzle and batter should slowly start to swell up without changing colour.
  • Place about a couple of 1 tablespoonfuls of batter into the oil. Batter should not be covered with oil. This will allow the vada to expand. The vadas will be softer if they are shallow fried.
  • Fry the vadas to golden brown.
  • Place the vadas in lukewarm, salted water and soak for atleast about 30 minutes.
  • Squeeze out the excess water from the vadas gently by placing them between your two palms, taking care not to break the vadas. 
To make Roasted ground cumin seeds
  • Put 2 tablespoons of cumin seeds (jeera) into a small cast-iron frying pan and set over medium-low heat. Stir and roast the seeds until they give out a sharp, roasted aroma and turn a shade darker. Empty the seeds onto a piece of paper towel to cool off, and then grind well in a spice/coffee grinder. Use as desired.
To make Tamarind chutney
  • Soak 1/4 cup tamarind (imli) in 3/4 cup of hot water for 30 minutes.
  • Let it cool at room temperature. Mash tamarind in water and strain through a fine sieve. Press mashed tamarind with spoon while straining to get more pulp out. Discard the residue. 
  • Transfer the tamarind pulp into a pan and add 1/2 cup of finely chopped jaggery. Bring it to boil and cook on medium flame until jaggery dissolves completely.
  • Add 1/2 teaspoon red chilli powder and 1/2 teaspoon cumin powder and mix well. Check for sweetness and add more jaggery if you would like it sweeter.
  • Take it off the heat and allow it cool at room temperature.
  • Transfer into an airtight glass container and store in a refrigerator and use as desired.
 To make yoghurt topping and garnish:
  • Take the yoghurt and whisk until very smooth. Add a little water or milk to loosen it. You are looking for a consistency similar to that of a pancake batter. Add salt to taste.
  • Place all the vadas on a serving plate and douse them in the yoghurt for atleast 20 minutes, giving the vadas time to absorb the yoghurt.
  • Just before serving, pour a few spoons of extra yoghurt all over the vadas. 
  • Sprinkle ground roasted cumin seeds and red chilli powder all over the vadas and yoghurt.
  • For an individual serving, slowly place the vadas in a serving bowl, sprinkle a little more roasted cumin powder and chilli powder, if you desire and finish it off with a drizzle of tamarind chutney.

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