There is something about the mountain air. It makes food better, if that is possible. My most romantic memory is of standing outside a PWD guest house in Ooty with a bunch of my college friends at dawn sipping on gloriously hot coffee. As the early morning and the caffeine hits you, you believe anything is possible. Here’s another example. Riding a horse from Gaurikund to Kedarnath and stopping at a little tent restaurant for breakfast and dipping your cold fingertips into warm rotis and aloo-tamatar ki rasedar subzi. The hot subzi defrosts your finger tips and makes the cold worthwhile – all you can notice are the beautiful snow covered peaks in the distance and the glaciers you have to ride over to reach your destination. You breathe deeply and fall in love. After all, you are only 13; it is the age to fall in love with everything.
On the first day of our Ranikhet vacation, I had a nice hot shower and then spent the rest of the morning feeling cold and tired, wrapped in a shawl, waiting for lunch and the prospect of the nap afterwards. And I was not disappointed. Lunch was some beautiful basmati rice with dal, pahari palak saag (greens from the mountains) and fish curry. I don’t think anything beats the absolute joy of pouring warm dal over hot rice and then gingerly putting your fingers in to test the temperature. The saag added a nice contrast of flavor, texture and color. Then we moved onto the fish which was a watery, slightly tart, nigella seeds based Bong-style curry that my aunt had learned from her stay in Bengal. Such simplicity and yet so immensely satisfying. The delicately flavored gravy perfectly complimented the sweet rice and the fish was fresh and soft. The meal was completed with beautiful langda mangoes and I think that was probably my son’s entire lunch – one mango. He is a mango nut. On our entire trip there were several days when his entire meal was a mango. But then just as our rules go out the window on vacations, so do his. I was just glad when he ate.
By evening I had a high temperature and spent a glorious twilight in bed instead of taking a walk down the mountain roads. Given my history with the mountains – being from the mountains and all – I am ashamed and bitterly disappointed that I lost such a chance. I was visiting the mountains after very long and the entire fun of the mountains is in the walking to the corners where the vehicles will not go, stopping at the edges and looking out at the valleys, exploring the sights from different angles, admiring the peaks. Such a loss. Some of my most cherished memories are of trips to the mountains, be it here or in the US.
Still by dinner time the Crocin had taken effect and I was up and about helping my aunt in the kitchen and talking about food. My aunt had made kebabs, aloo-gobhi and a paneer makhani for dinner to go with romali rotis. And I am glad I got better because I made a wonderful kitchen discovery that evening – how romali rotis are made. Romali rotis are one thing that have always fascinated me. In Kolkata, come evening and every corner has a shop making whole wheat rotis and flour or maida romali rotis on a hot tawa or griddle placed outside. On winter evenings the heat from these add a warmth to the air and people stop by to pick up rotis for dinner because honestly, people will do anything to avoid making rotis won’t they? I have always wondered how they managed to get the rotis so thin and soft, just like a piece of cloth but never saw how they rolled out the rotis only how they cooked them. This is how. You roll out a piece of dough into a small circle about 3″-4″. My aunt had kneaded a regular roti dough choosing to use whole wheat instead of all purpose flour or maida. Then spread the circle generously with ghee – apparently the ghee ensures that the rotis stay softer for longer (this is my aunt’s kitchen experimentation discovery) even though oil will also work. Then you roll out another piece of dough into a circle the same size as the first and stick the two together. They will obviously not stick together completely because of the layer of fat between them and that is the trick. Then you roll out the compound circle as thin as possible into as big a roti as you want and put it on the tawa or griddle to cook. This roti is cooked entirely on a tawa at medium heat. When one side is cooked turn over and cook the other side. Once the other side is done, take it off the tawa and shake the two pieces apart. You have two beautifully thin and soft romali rotis! The layer of fat in between the two pieces of dough evaporates and separates the two sides. Plus the fact that you are rolling out a “compound” dough means you can roll it out as thin as a regular roti but the final “romali” roti will be half in thickness! So clever.
I am forever fascinated by the techniques and tricks up the collective sleeve of our country’s culinary masters – historically and now. There is so much to learn that is hidden away in the corners of our country that we have no idea about. We can barely dust the surface. And yet that gives me hope. Because that means I will never be bored. There is always something new to learn in the kitchen. Amen.