Shalini Kala’s jimikand is much more than a food on the table, it is immensely resourceful in bringing about stories that invoke surprise, laughter, and adventure. Here’s to this splendid story.
Shortly after we were married I heard paeans being sung, well almost, to Jimikand – that dark brown, uneven, strange looking tuber with a stony exterior. To the best of my knowledge, I had never eaten this root and hence, felt no evocative food memories rising whenever it was mentioned. To get poor me to up to the standards of their gastronomical family standards mum-in-law decided to educate me with a special preparation. Jimikand and peas curry it was to be, she proclaimed. Soon after the in-laws went into a celebratory song and dance routine, and I, after consuming the curry, fluttered my eyes in fake admiration. I really wondered what was special, Jimikand seemed quite ordinary to me, in fact worse than everyday potatoes that are so much easier to cook. I hadn’t been educated properly.
It was under M’s verdant potted plants and through her that I was truly enlightened. M grew up in the historical city of Sultanpur, the same place that Majrooh Sultanpuri belonged to. Hers was a large joint family whose males were well known for their litigation skills, advising the local rajahs and politicians of the day. The family lived in a big house inherited by her Dadi (paternal grandmother)from her father. Sometime in early 1920’s Dadi was married into a deeply rooted family of Kalka gully in Benaras but within a few years returned with her super accomplished and suave lawyer husband to manage her family’s grand estate in Sultanpur. She was the only surviving child of her parents.
This house and the estate were managed with a small army of staff. Chutari, the cook, was among the top echelons of this army. He took his job very seriously and just like some of the most avant-garde, Michelin star-donning chefs of today, he grew his own vegetables, trekked every day to the market to buy the best of supplies and was picky about ingredients used for each meal. M tells me that all kids remember his namkeen – a light mathri– and Dalia till date, a great duet that he laid out regularly for morning breakfast. Other than this, Chutari was an easy going man, generous with kids, indulging their excesses – food or otherwise, and ready to pitch in with other jobs in the house.
Chutari came as a ten-year old to Dadi’s family from a village that was part of her dad’s estate. He belonged to a trusted line of family helps and was even sent to support grandma in Benaras when he was about thirteen. He spent some years there and returned with Dadi to Sultanpur with many experiences of the historical city.
As Dadi’s brood grew – she bore ten healthy children – with several grandchildren from her sons and daughters, prancing around the big house, Chutari the trust worthy had his hands full and not just with cooking. Every evening in the winter, Chutari was tasked with keeping the sleepy kids awake till his meticulous preparations were served for dinner. He would narrate tales of ghosts, bandits, hyenas, monkeys and more to this wide-eyed juvenile audience evening after evening each time succeeding spectacularly in his mission to keep sleep at bay till paranthas flew straight off the tawa like missiles into thalis and were absent mindedly wolfed down. Several of these stories were from Chutari’s childhood in which Kalka gully featured regularly.
Chutari had a small bump right in the middle of his forehead. Kids were forever asking him questions about this curious beauty bulge, some intrepid ones tried touching it a few times. He always laughed it off, never revealing the details while spinning yet another interesting tale to distract. One day when the kids had been particularly exhausted playing and fooling around the whole day, in his desperate attempt to keep the group from sleeping, he relented. The moment he declared he was going to talk about the bump, in a jiffy he got undivided attention of all juveniles, those who were half-asleep were hurriedly woken up.
It happened in to him in Benaras when he was all of thirteen. On his daily market trips before entering the Kalka gully, Chutari would walk through the large front gardens of the house, parts of which were like mini forests that housed some wildlife like insects of a large variety, birds, snakes, mongoose, and monkeys. Monkeys were the most entertaining and also the smartest. Chutari was identified as a carrier of food goodies. Often he would be robbed of fruits and vegetables as these were snatched from his bags, or he would be forced to offer some in return for safe trips from the market. While adults at home were ok with animals partaking in the family’s food, children made fun of Chutari’s adventures with the monkeys. This disturbed the young Chutari very much and he found it very difficult to accept this state of affairs. He was ok feeding monkeys out of his own will but not under subjugation, not in this manner certainly!
Kalka gully was notorious for one goonda simian who would lord around the narrow area and marked Chutari for repeated ambush because of his small size and frame. He frequently snatched food stuff from him. Once when he couldn’t find anything to eat in his grocery bags he hit him with a brick sitting atop a tree. This led to the lasting mark on Chutari’s forehead apart from the pain he suffered over the next few days. At this point the audience let out deep, audible sighs of wonder. But there was more to come.
Chutari had reached the end of his patience. Even though he was yet to start cooking, he started to brew a potent concoction, the first and a very promising one at that for an aspiring cook.
Soon enough during one such return trip from the market loaded with special ingredients for the Diwali feast, the hooligan appeared from nowhere and lunged at one of the bags Chutari was carrying. After a short show of protest and a slight scuffle Chutari took out a big slice of a pinkish cream vegetable with a dark uneven skin and threw it in the direction of the monkey. Having got his booty of the day the monkey settled on a tree branch high up. Meanwhile, Chutari rushed to gather the kids playing outside; all of them settled under the tree with the monkey looking intrigued but not distracted from eating the jimikand (yam) slice he had just acquired by unethical and violent means.
It was indeed a somewhat cruel way to get the message home but that was the day when a boy became a man, unequivocally proved his credentials to aspire for a cook’s job, established firmly and squarely his supremacy over animal, and gained the status of a super hero among the kids. Jumping in agony from the itching caused by the jimikand on all body parts that came in contact with it including the throat, the miserable monkey made itself a laughing stock for the kids – N is also laughing as M narrates the story and M tells me it was a favourite among all her cousins in Sultanpur too. It would have horrified the People for Ethical Treatment of Animals but for the just-into-teens Chutari it was a practical solution to everyday nuisance and humiliation, and a fitting revenge for the permanent bump on his head. From that day onwards none dared to trifle with Chutari, not the monkey, not the kids either as M tells me.
Apart from this unique characteristic which makes it a handle-with-care vegetable, jimikand also has several health benefits as a short internet search would tell you amply. But my favourite is the former that makes it a weapon of sorts.
2-3 tablespoon mustard oil for best results
300 gram Jimikand
75 gram shelled fresh peas
Small piece of cinnamon
1 bay leaf
10 black pepper corn
A few seeds of large cardamom
½ teaspoon cumin seeds
1 large onion finely chopped
2 large tomatoes pureed
Half inch piece of ginger grated or turned to paste
1 teaspoon turmeric powder
2 teaspoon coriander powder
1 teaspoon red chilli powder or as per taste
½ teaspoon garam masala
Salt to taste
Juice of half lemon
300 ml water or thereabouts
Fresh coriander to garnish
Oil hands lightly before peeling jimikand. Cut into bite size pieces. Smoke 2 tablespoon mustard oil in a pressure cooker and fry jimikand pieces till they turn pink from all sides. Take out the jimikand pieces. In the same vessel add more oil if needed to make it about one table spoon. Add the bay leaf, followed by cinnamon, lightly crushed cloves, black pepper and large cardamom seeds. Next add cumin seeds. Once fragrant, add onions. Fry till light brown. Add ginger paste and sauté for about 30 seconds before adding tomato puree. Stir. Add all powdered spices except garam masala. Fry till the oil separates. Sauté the peas in this masala for a minute. Add the fried jimikand pieces and lemon juice. Add water to cover the vegetables fully. For a slightly thinner gravy add about half-inch more from this level. Close the lid and pressure cook. After the first whistle lower the heat to the minimum and switch off heat after 10 minutes. Wait till the steam is fully released from the cooker.
Open the lid and check gravy thinness. Add water at this point if you wish, bring to a boil, add garam masala and fresh coriander 5 seconds before taking the dish off the heat. Serve with rotis or paranthas and try to display the festive spirit!
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Shalini is an individual who thoroughly enjoys life and possesses a vibrant and lively personality. She has accumulated a plethora of experiences, with a special emphasis on her involvement in the fields of agriculture and rural development. Shalini takes great pleasure in documenting and sharing her daily encounters and adventures through the written word, which not only allows her to express herself but also brings joy and entertainment to those who have the pleasure of reading her stories.