Thinchuani– comprising radishes and potatoes, is a simple, light dish from Uttarakhand for cold days… but don’t wait for winter. Go ahead and have it any time of the year
By Shalini Kala
Mum was 13 when she began cooking on a regular basis, moving in with her elder brother. This was a serious shift from her life till then. As the youngest of six siblings – her eldest brother was 22 years older to her! Until then, she had had a carefree, household-chores-free existence, surrounded by the love of all her family members.
But her father’s untimely death led to some hard decisions – she had to move to continue her studies in a bigger town where one of her brothers had started teaching at the well-known local college. She was expected to help with cooking, cleaning and other home responsibilities in her brother’s house as he too wasn’t proficient at household chores. Together, they muddled along cooking stuff that my mother found incredibly difficult to accept as food – boiled apples was one of those dishes!
She had never cooked before and probably never even observed her mother cooking, but was a fussy eater and had a hard-to-please palate. This was what triggered her journey in becoming an entirely self-made cook. She told me that her early forays resulted from observing a kindly neighbour who was an expert at her own kayastha cooking style. This is quite different from our cuisine from Uttarakhand.
Mum lost her mother at19and flitted between her eldest brother’s home whose wife was a pure vegetarian Kanyakubj Brahmin from the plains of Uttar Pradesh and where the kitchen was run strictly according to that protocol; kayastha dishes and food from several parts of Rajasthan that she was exposed to through her classmates at the Ajmer University. That’s how she developed a unique style of her own which was almost totally devoid of any traces of the food she had eaten till she was 13.
It was not until Mum got married into a very traditional, un-mixed, Uttarakhandi family that she had the opportunity to seriously learn to cook the food that her mother used to. I never saw my dad’s mum cook, so I really don’t know if she was a good or bad at it. She also never showed much interest in cooking. She wanted her food to be prepared well and served at the right time and felt obligated to criticise her daughters-in-law – their cooking included – as convention demanded of her.
I don’t think she added to my mum’s Uttarakhandi cooking repertoire in any way. The time spent with a bevy of other female relatives on my dad’s side and with her elder sister for a few days every year, were the main contributors.
However, since my dad was posted in the capital city, mum didn’t have easy access to many of the ingredients needed to cook us a pure Uttarakhandi meal on a regular basis. Those dishes were consumed on annual trips to the countryside and only occasionally at home when raw materials appeared magically through visitors.
Jakhya, koda, cheura, bhang seeds, and many other such items were treasured like family jewels, used sparingly and savoured languorously to somehow extend the pleasure. As kids we relished the food on our trips to the hills but never really wondered why we didn’t have this kind of food at home. It never crossed my immature mind that we were eating a hybrid cuisine at home which, we liked very much too, but it wasn’t all Uttarakhandi. Infact that claim could be made only for a few scattered dishes here and there.
Over time, mum’s keenness to cook “our own” food became sharper and with visitors streaming in frequently it was possible for her to regularly cook some native dishes at least. Jakhya became a staple in tempering. Jakhya or wild mustard or cleome viscosa is mostly used in Uttarakhandi cuisine. It is available online and has a crunch when cooked, unlike mustard seeds and hence goes very well with dry vegetable preparations too. Its a must in green leafy vegetables and potatoes. In this case of course it’s in a curry. Both taste and flavour of jakhya are quite different from mustard seeds. Its quite gentle in taste, with no bitterness, no sourness.
Pakoras always had the crunchy bhaang(cannabis) seeds in them. It was almost impossible to imagine cold winters without the dark, deeply flavourful, calcium and iron rich, ghee soaked kodaroties. Also known as mahua in the Hindi heartland, Koda is Himalayan Ragi or Choona as its called locally. It should not be confused with Kodo millet that is grown in Southern India and is called Varaku or Koovaraku. Resourceful as she was, Mum also managed to get that pounded rice or cheura which I still love chewing with walnuts but can’t find at all.
One of our favourite dishes -hers and mine – came to be the light radish and potato curry with curd. Thinchuani (literally meaning “pounded” or “crushed”), that probably emerged as a result of the tough schedules of mountain women, is a non-fussdish that in its original and fairly basic version mainly requires first pounding (no cutting) and then boiling of radishes, potatoes, and garlic.
Once soft, the vegetables are tempered with jakhya, asafoetida and whole-red chillies; spiced with turmeric, coriander and salt; and finished with thin sour curd slurry and fresh coriander leaves. For its super flavours and gentle taste, the round and fat mountain radish is the most preferred for this dish, at least in the Pauri region of Garhwal. However, any other type of radishes can be worked into it with decent results.
Mum used to add chopped onions to the dish and since she was super-efficient, she’d start with the tempering, and pressure cook to get a smoother consistency. I started adding a bit of chopped tomatoes too as our curd rarely turned sour due to frequent use and better refrigeration quality.
Tomatoes also changed the looks of Thinchuani. While I love it and can have it anytime of the year, it intrigues me no end that every single person who’s eaten it at my home instantly took to it. And these include in-laws obligated to criticise my cooking, friends from across India and the world, neighbours and colleagues.
For me it remains something that I fondly remember my mum by and make sure to cook it every year to feed a friend in her memory. Of course, it’s a regular at our dining table all through the radish season.
2 tsps of mustard oil or ghee
2 long or 4 medium-sized radishes
1 medium-sized potato, add more if you wish, for me potato is only to thicken the gravy a bit
6 large-sized garlic cloves
1 small onion, chopped finely
1 small tomato, chopped finely (optional)
1 green chilli, cut in half
1 whole red chilli
1 tsp jakhya (wild mustard) seeds
1 tsp asafoetida
Half a tsp turmeric powder
1 tsp coriander powder
Salt to taste
1 cup or thereabouts of water
Half a cup of well-whisked pouring consistency curd slurry
1 tbsp fresh coriander leaves
Pound radishes, potatoes and garlic roughly on sil-batta or cut into large pieces and pound with the rolling pin on the kitchen slab or in the pestle and mortar, just enough to loosen them taking care not to break into small pieces. I cut the radish in larger pieces than potatoes before pounding as they cook faster and this way one can identify each of these after cooking. I prefer more radish and less potato, while husband likes it vice versa. Pound garlic gently not to break the cloves into pieces.
In a pressure cooker, heat ghee or smoke mustard oil. Lower the heat, add whole red-chilli, followed by jakhya. As it splutters add the pounded garlic. Saute till it turns pink, add chopped onions. Fry till they soften. Add tomatoes – skip these if the curd you are adding is sour – and green chillies; stir; add salt, turmeric and coriander powders.
Once the mix turns mushy and starts leaving oil, add radish and potato. Fry, mixing them in the masala(spice mix) for about a minute. Raise the heat, add water and mix once more. This is going to be a thin curry so add more water if you think it is not enough. Close the pressure cooker.
After the first whistle, lower the heat and cook for 10 minutes. Switch-off. Let the steam release on its own. Open the cooker and let the heat release for another five minutes. Stir well before adding the curd slurry, stirring all the while. Garnish with chopped fresh coriander. Serve with plain hot rice; it is heavenly on cold days.
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Shalini learnt to enjoy cooking at a mature age by which time she had gained many other experiences particularly through her work in agriculture and rural development. Her writing is an attempt to mix lessons from her cooking experiments with those from life in general.