My wife and I went to see a film yesterday that I so enjoyed, being into food as I am. It’s called ‘The Lunchbox’ and I won’t say much about it, spoilers and all that, but if you’re a fan of a small warming romantic story, if you like food, and if you’ve been to India and specifically Mumbai for the first time recently and while you were there you really felt like you ‘got’ the place, then this film is for you. Go and see it. Actually go and see it if only some of that list applies.
I went to India, Mumbai, in January and it was overwhelming, in every sense. It was brilliant and terrible, elating and depressing, shocking and heart-warming. I’ve never been anywhere like it in my life before and one day I do hope I can go back there. I saw cows in the street, and not just side streets, but dual carriageways. And I say dual carriageways, but that would imply there are two lanes of traffic on either side of the road. Two. Pah! Lanes. Pah! The pavements are broken, the people are abundant. The atmosphere is electric. The sounds and smells are constant and invasive, and at first it’s too much, but it doesn’t take long to get used to it and then it’s reassuring. Reassuring that life is happening.
My Anglo-Indian descendant co-blogger Matt, despite having such a rich heritage, has never been. And when it was looking like I was going to go (I went there for work. A comedy festival as it happens) we both remarked on how unfair it seemed that I should go there first. Dear Matt, with his Asian roots and expertise in creating the most delicious and inspiring Indian feasts had to hear of my adventures while staying home in the West Country. I hope he gets to go there too in time. There was so much in the film that reminded me of him. The hilarious absurdity that goes un-noticed in a city so naturally absurd itself that the surreal passes as perfectly accepted normality. The head-wobbling positivity and eagerness to please.
While I was in Mumbai, twice I had this dish. Twice because I enjoyed it so much the first time. On the menu it was called PURI BHAJI, and while the PURI part was superb (small fried flat breads) it what the potato BHAJI part that stayed with me the most. Very simple, frugal, filling but so delicious. On my return I made it about four times in one week and my family, not being able to enjoy it in tandem with the memories of an unforgettable trip, got bored of it quickly and protested. I stopped making it. But after seeing ‘The Lunchbox’ last night I felt inspired again, and we had it for dinner, with fresh chapatis (cooked directly over the hob flame so they puff up like pillows).
Puri Bhaji, (well the potato curry part of it that would be had with the Puri if I’d made them too)
1 tablespoon mustard seeds
2 tablespoons urid dhal
½ teaspoon crushed chilli
½ teaspoon turmeric
¼ teaspoon asaphetida
2 onions (very finely chopped)
1 thumb-sized piece of ginger (finely chopped)
3 garlic cloves (finely chopped)
2 green chillis (cut into thin strips)
a generous handful of curry leaves (roughly chopped)
2 teaspoons palm sugar
8 largish new potatoes
Put the potatoes on to boil with some salt. While they’re cooking heat a generous amount of oil (about 3 tablespoons, or maybe even more) and fry off the mustard seeds, and the urid dahl until the dahl turns nut brown. Then add the chilli and the onion and lower the heat cooking until the onion has started to brown too.
Next add the ginger and garlic, the turmeric, the chillis and the asaphetida and stir around for another 5 mins. Then add the palm sugar and about a mug of water. Bring it to the boil and simmer for about 12-15 minutes. When the potatoes are cooked, drain them, let them cool and peel them and then roughly chop them and add them to the mixture. Cook for another 5 mins or so. Add more water and a drizzle of oil if it looks dry.
Finally garnish with strips of raw ginger and fresh coriander. Serve with Chapatis, Parathas, Puri, or have it by itself. When I had it in Bombay they served it with a small bowl of raw chopped red onion and wedges of lime, and tiny sachets of mixed pickle.