Still coming to terms with a new neighbourhood on the outskirts of a village rapidly morphing into a town, I woke up this morning to full-on cacophony. I dragged myself out of bed and made myself presentable before tracking down the origin of the sound, only to find myself at a door barely 10 feet from mine. It was ajar and what I witnessed washed away all my annoyance, replacing it with a smile and an instant flashback to my childhood: My mother, aunts, cousins bonding joyously over the making of that delectable seasonal must-have—mathiya!
Essentially a Gujarati Patidar specialty—Gujarati Patels from Nadiad are traditionally believed to make the best mathiyas—it is rarely made at home nowadays, both because of the labour it demands as well as its easy availability commercially. Back in the day, it used to be an intensely social activity, with the older women of the family supervising the younger ones in the actual hard work as we children pitched in with a roti press—a kitchen appliance that was just beginning to become popular—by flattening the balls of dough, which were then rolled out.
The scene at my neighbour’s seemed to be a throwback in time, with seven women—sisters-in-law, nieces and cousins—all talking at the same time and very loudly, while rolling out the mathiyas into paper-thin discs 6-7 inch across, laying them out to dry under the fan on old sheets and sarees and then frying them. The frying is an art by itself: The oil is heated to smoking on a high flame. Then after a tiny piece of dough passes the heat test—that is, if it floats immediately surrounded by bubbles—the flame is reduced to medium and a mathiya is gently slid in from the edge of the karhai. Within seconds, as the surface puffs up in parts, it is quickly flipped over. Once the mathiya catches a little colour, it is removed and stood up on its edge in a wide vessel to drain off excess oil.
The mathiya is somewhat like a papad but the main ingredient is muth or matki, also known as Turkish gram or dew bean, which has a very distinct, rich and nutty flavour, particularly once it is fried. Originally spiced with white pepper, many homes use green chilli now, besides a touch of sugar—the Gujarati’s love for the sweet-salty-spicy combination is legend—and a generous amount of carom seeds and a dash of turmeric for a hint of colour. Deep fried and laden with calories, it is absolutely impossible to stop at eating just one: Only a plateful will satiate and, that too, just about—so much so, accompaniments are redundant. It can be eaten at breakfast with tea, stand in for papad at lunch or pair a sweet Gujarati masala chai at tea-time.
I chatted with the ladies next door as I downed a plate full of fresh mathiyas—crunchy, spicy, salty, sweet—with a cup of ginger tea, exchanging notes on pounding the dough to the right elasticity. This is the most important step in the making of a perfect snack. In our home, decades ago, the dough was made by first cleaning and picking the muth beans, washing them and drying them in the sun for a day before grinding them into superfine flour between millstones, as with all our grains. (I still have the millstone, though I last used it to get into better shape on my yoga teacher’s recommendation!)
After the beans had been ground into flour, came the sifting and then the making of the dough with all the spices and the right amount of water. The dough was then placed on a large slab of wood and pounded with huge wooden mallets by our two gardeners standing at opposite ends of the slab, like two birds alternatively pecking on the ground. My neighbours do it very differently now: They place the dough in three or four thick plastic bags—the woven variety supermarkets use to sell large quantities of flour and grains—tie the mouth and then they take turns jumping on the bags, till the dough has been pounded to the right elasticity. Ingenious to say the least! But then I remembered Patel friends in the UK telling me they put the dough in a couple of heavy-duty garbage bags, tie them up and run their car back and forth on the dough: Talk about Patel resourcefulness.
Statistics say that Gujarat accounts for the highest consumption of oil and sugar in the land and I well believe it. The 4pm nasta (snack) with tea is still a part of the culture in many families and even offices. But for a while this festive season, samosas, kachoris, bhajiyas/pakodas, khaman-dhokla and suchlike will be forgotten as the mathiya takes over with melt-in-the-mouth deep-friend suvari, a sweet version of the mathiya, made with a combination of flour and wheat with sugar and seasoned with sesame seeds and ghughara, a sweet deep-fried pastry filled with mava, fresh coconut or semolina, almonds, sugar, ghee and cardamom , the outer crust made of flour. But then, what is life without food and Diwali without deep-fried decadence?
Nandita Amin is an architect, landscape architect, educationist, intrepid traveller, a bon viveur and also runs an animal shelter in Vadodara.