A smoky, slow-cooked feast, Gujarati style
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Uttarayan, also known as Makar Sankranti, marks harvest, the time when the sun shifts from the southern run to the northern run, or from Dakshinayana to Uttarayan. While it is celebrated in most parts of India, Gujarat is certainly the place to be in at this time. The old city areas resound with cries of Katiye, Lapet and Kai po che as thousands of colourful kites soar in the sky. Bollywood numbers blare to compete with each other from adjoining terraces and bottle caps are popped/twisted open and the clink of glasses mingle with the raucous sound of the pipodi, a coarse horn for the lack of a better word.
As with all Indian festivals, Uttarayan has its special foods and eats: Surti undhiyu, matla undhiyu, jalebi, bor/ber (Ziziphus mauritiana), sugarcane, peanut and sesame brittles (chiki), ponk and much more. Behram Contractor once wrote that the undhiyu is to a Gujarati what dhansak is to Parsis and roast beef and Yorkshire pudding is to the English.
This brings me to the Matla Undhiyu tradition introduced by my parents at our farm in Charotar five decades or so ago. Undhiyu is derived from the Gujarati word ‘Undhu’, upside down, while ‘Matla’ is a clay pot in which the vegetables are cooked. Undhiyu uses a bounty of winter vegetables like the desi papdi, a flat green bean, rataalu, purple yam, sweet potato, potato and tender juicy brinjals. and the kalal. Our variant of the matla undhiyu usually uses five matlas, one each for papdi coated with ajwain (carom seeds), salt and peanut oil, medium-sized whole potatoes, sweet potatoes cut into two-three inch pieces, purple yam cut into chunks, and brinjals freshly plucked from our fields, slit four ways and stuffed with finely chopped garlic, garlic greens, cumin-coriander powder, salt and oil.
All the vegetables are then put in individual matlas and sealed with kalal, a weed that grows wild in the fields, and adds to the overall flavour of the steamed vegetables. The matlas are then inverted on a patch of cleared ground, covered with twigs and hay, and set afire. The matlas with the brinjal, papdi and the purple yam must be checked after the third firing to see if they are cooked through. If not, a fourth firing is called for—which is how long the sweet potato and potatoes need anyway. After the final firing, the vegetables are left in the matlas for an hour, ensuring there are no embers on them. The slow cooking in the matla is what gives the vegetables a wonderful, rustic, smoky flavour.
The cooked vegetables are then emptied out in cane baskets lined with Patralas, large circular plates made with six-eight dried sal or banyan leaves stitched together with tiny wooden sticks; the individual vegetables of the undhiyu are also served in these, mashed up with raw peanut oil and eaten with an array of chutneys.
Somewhere along the way, a dear friend of my father, Sankho Chaudhuri, who frequented the farm, suggested that a whole chicken marinated overnight in yogurt, ginger-garlic-green chilli paste and salt should be wrapped in foil and put in the centre of the matla with the ajwain-salt-oil-coated papdi. The result was a deliciously tender chicken which had taken on the smoky flavour of the ajwain-coated vegetable; this has happily become part of the family tradition. Incidentally, Matla Chicken has become popular over the past few years in Charotar and then in the cities of Gujarat.
Another must-do at our undhiyu dos is a lip-smacking Khatiyu, a sort of digestive my mother always made: It’s essentially tamarind water sweetened with gur/jaggery and spiced with red chilli powder, green chillies chopped into 2 or 3 pieces, salt, ginger paste, a garam masala of whole coriander seeds, cinnamon, cloves and dry red chillies sautéed in a little oil and powdered, and a couple of fistfuls of raw peanuts. The Khatiyu is cooked over medium heat for almost an hour before it is tempered in a little peanut oil with coriander seeds, cinnamon, cloves, whole red chilli, a fair amount of sesame seeds and a few pinches of asafoetida. One can never stop at just one bowl!
The undhiyu is served with a green chutney made with coriander leaves, green chillies, ginger, salt and lime juice and a kotha/wood apple chutney with the fruit pulp, ginger, jaggery, salt, roasted cumin powder and salt. Crisp, juicy jalebis and fine sev, a snack made of gram flour and spices, are a must as well. And to finish off the meal, a glass of buttermilk tempered with oil, curry leaves and cumin seeds. There’s no better winter food than this as far as most Gujaratis and many who call Gujarat home are concerned!
Nandita Amin is an architect, landscape architect, educationist, intrepid traveller, a bon viveur and also runs an animal shelter in Vadodara.