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When it comes to Indian Food, the term “Indian” is too generic. There are so many regions in India (and sub-regions, and sub- sub-regions, and so on), each with its own list of ingredients, spice palette and flavor profile, not even everyone in India knows what’s cooking elsewhere within India. Within Indian food, the cuisine I’m most comfortable with is Maharashtrian – the food from the western state of Maharashtra (that’s where the big cities like Mumbai [Bombay to some] and Pune [Poona to some] are located). Sometimes referred to as “Marathi” food (Marathi is the language spoken in Maharashtra), it has many, many sub-types. Each region brings its own style, and each family adds a flavor of its own, to complicate matters further in the most delicious way possible.
Growing up, the various men and women in my family had different cooking styles and preferences, so I got to sample lots of different kinds of food and everything [Indian] that I cook today is influenced by my mom, dad, grandmother, aunts, and more recently, the sibling unit that makes its own spice mixes from scratch, just because. My husband’s and mother-in-law‘s cooking style has also influenced my cooking in the last couple of years since they are both amazing cooks, hailing from a different sub-region! When I make “Upma” (a semolina porridge with ginger, green chillies and green peas), I make it like my grandmother’s – I don’t like anything brown too much, and the end result is a soft, white, comforting bowl of heaven. I also copy her garnish, which, like most people who grew up in the coastal regions, is a generous heap of freshly grated coconut! Well, when I indulge, anyway. On a more regular basis I make Upma with quick cooking (1-minute) oatmeal or steel-cut oatmeal because its lighter and healthier. But when it comes to one of my Dad’s trademark preparations, even my mom, who’s the best cook I know, defers to him for instructions and so do I. I hope to post about his “Dal Fry” (spiced Lentil Stew) on the blog soon!
This recipe below, that of “Bhogi Bhaji”, or “Bhogichi Bhaji”, meaning the Bhaji (curry, stew or sautè) of Bhogi (a Maharashtrian festival to celebrate the transition into longer days, typically in mid-January) and it is as seasonal, rustic and delicious as it gets! This recipe comes from one of my dear Aunts in my hometown of Pune, who hosts an enormous Bhogi dinner every year. You think Stretchy Pants were made for Thanksgiving dinner? Nope. They were made for her Bhogi dinner.
The stew (although it is a bit on the drier side by definition) is a mixture of seasonal vegetables and beans, cooked with green chillies, sesame seeds, ground peanuts and warming spices, and garnished with freshly grated coconut and chopped cilantro. The spice mixture is a special Maharashtrian one, called “goda masala” (masala = spice mix) – it is warm and imparts an earthy flavor to the whole stew. You could substitute it with “garam masala”, which is also a warm spice mix, with a slightly different flavor profile (more Northern), but infinitely more accessible in the United States. Even McCormick makes one and it is definitely worth the investment if you are into Indian food!
The vegetables available in India this time of the year aren’t always accessible here in California, so I improvise with what I can get – for most part, it can be made with any combination of vegetables as long as there are a few sturdy ones to hold it all together, like potatoes or sweet potatoes.
In this iteration, I ended up using red potatoes (because they retain their shape well), baby eggplants, carrots, flat green beans and shelled toor/tuvar (lentil) beans (green peas could be substituted as well).
Scrub, peel and chop the potatoes into big chunks, remove the strings from the side of the flat beans and chop them into 1/2 inch diamonds, scrub, peel and chop the carrots (same size as the potatoes), and chop the baby eggplant (same size as the potatoes). I eyeballed the proportions (quantities) based on my preferences, but as long as the bulk of it is some form of potatoes and carrots, you should be fine.
Now the magic makers: From the top, we have cumin seeds, ground peanuts, chopped green chillies, mustard seeds, asafoetida powder (pale yellow), goda masala (brown) and white sesame seeds. Not pictured here: red chilli powder, turmeric powder and salt.
We start by heating vegetable or peanut oil in a heavy-bottomed pot, on medium heat. Once the oil starts to shimmer, we add the mustard seeds, and wait for the mustard seeds to sputter a bit, about 2 minutes. Then we add the cumin and sesame seeds, and let them brown for a minute or so. Watch closely, we don’t want the cumin and sesame seeds to burn! Next, we add the turmeric powder, asafoetida powder and chopped green chillies, and wait a couple minutes for the chillies to just about start browning.
While that happens, the vegetables are on deck, and up next in that order: potatoes, beans, carrots, more beans and baby eggplants. This sizzling hot mess of oil, seeds and spices, the tempering, is called “tadka”, and is usually the starting point of most Indian curries and stews. Certain preparations (stews, curries, sautès, salads) are also finished with a “tadka” for that shot of richness and fragrance (often involves golden brown garlic).
Once everything is starting to brown nicely, about 2 minutes, add a couple tablespoons of water to the “tadka” and bring it up to a boil. This will form a thin sauce that will coat the vegetables more evenly.
In go the potatoes because they take the longest to cook – add them to the pan, toss around to coat. Add salt, and goda or garam masala, and mix well. Cover the pot with a lid. If you were planning to use sweet potatoes instead of, or in addition to the red potatoes, they would go in now as well.
After that, cook each vegetable for 5-7 minutes: once the potatoes are starting to cook, add the chopped beans, then the carrots, then the shelled beans, and then finally the eggplant. If you are using a different mix of vegetables, adjust the order and cook times accordingly – add the tougher vegetables first, and more delicate, quick-cooking vegetables toward the end so that they don’t lose their form. When done, we want all the vegetables to retain their shape and color!
To the mixture, add red chilli powder (just a few pinches if you think the heat from the green chillies is sufficient for you) and ground peanuts. Add up to a quarter cup of water if you think the mixture is too dry. Cook for another 8-10 minutes until the all the vegetables are cooked through. Optionally, just before taking it off the heat, you could add a teaspoon of crushed jaggery or crystalized sugar, to round out the taste.
Garnish with chopped cilantro and freshly grated coconut:
Serve with hot Roti or Chapati, or preferably, Bhakri (a more rustic, hand-formed Maharashtrian flatbread made with Sorghum flour), and lots of Ghee (clarified butter)! We cooked up a mid-size feast for Bhogi this year, so we had the Bhogi Bhaji with Bhakri (my first attempt), Khichdi (rice and lentil stew), tomato and onion salad, and a spicy peanut chutney (dry powder atop the Bhakri), among other things!
The meal is heavy on sesame seeds, which provide warmth in the cold January days. But given how easy and flexible the recipe is, I make it all year round with a different mix of vegetables each time, and also different consistencies. The ground peanuts and sesame seeds act as thickening agent if water were to be added to make it into a thinner stew (to eat with Rice) i.e. it will not be watery at all, just rich and comforting. It’s also a great recipe for using up random, assorted vegetables – the warming spices and sesame seeds really bring the whole thing together each time, without fail, just like family.
• Recipe •
Maharashtrian Winter Vegetable Stew (Bhogi Bhaji)
Serves 8 as a side, with other sides (as a main it would likely serve 6 if served just with flatbread and a small salad)
2 tablespoons vegetable or peanut oil
1 teaspoon black or brown mustard seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
2 tablespoons white sesame seeds
1/2 teaspoon Asafoetida powder
3/4 teaspoon turmeric powder
7-8 green chillies, stems removed, chopped into 1/2 inch rounds (use 4 green chillies for a milder stew)
2 tablespoons water
4 large or 5 medium red potatoes, scrubbed, peeled and cut into 3/4-1 inch cubes
1 1/2 teaspoons of table salt (adjust to taste depending on quantity of vegetables and stew consistency)
1 1/2 teaspoons of goda masala (garam masala can be added if goda masala is not available)
2-3 handfuls of flat green beans, strings removed, cut in 3/4-1 inch diamonds
2 large carrots, scrubbed, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch cubes
1 cup shelled peas or toor dal beans, thawed if frozen
8 baby eggplants, stems removed, quartered (cut into eights if too big)
1/2 teaspoon red chilli powder (optional)
2 tablespoons ground or crushed peanuts
Upto 1/2 cup of water for thinning out the stew, as needed (can be added at any stage and as many times, after adding the green chillies)
2 tablespoons grated fresh coconut
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
Hot Rotis, or Chapati
Plain White Rice
For the “Tadka” (tempering)
In a heavy-bottomed non-stick pot, heat the vegetable or peanut oil on medium heat. Once the oil starts to shimmer (about 2 minutes), add the mustard seeds. Wait about 2 minutes for the seeds to sputter a bit.
Add the cumin and sesame seeds and let them brown for a minute or so. Watch closely to avoid burning the cumin and sesame seeds.
Add the turmeric powder, asafoetida powder and chopped green chillies. Wait about 2 minutes for the chillies to just about start browning.
For the stew
Add 2 tablespoons of water and bring the sauce to a boil.
Add the cubed potatoes, salt and goda masala, and toss around to coat.
Cook, covered, for about 5-7 minutes, then add the chopped beans.
Cook, covered, for about 5 minutes, then add the carrots and the shelled beans.
Cook another 4-5 minutes, and then finally add the quartered eggplants.
Add red chilli powder, if using, and ground peanuts. Add up to a quarter cup of water if you think the mixture is too dry.
Mix well and cook for another 8-10 minutes on medium heat until the all the vegetables are cooked through.
Off the heat in a serving bowl, garnish with chopped cilantro and freshly grated coconut. Serve with suggested accompaniments, and a teaspoon of Ghee (clarified butter).