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Mysteries, magic and a recipe from a forgotten drawer

An unexplored corner of an old cupboard is a repository of forgotten memories, glimpses of the old self and recipes from mysterious folk

Dum onion masala by Samar Halarnkar.
Dum onion masala by Samar Halarnkar.

I stumbled on a bunch of mysterious inland letters when I was searching for a book I had misplaced. I began to pull open drawers in my mother’s home, where we have stayed most of the time after my father passed in January.

I quickly forgot about it when I opened the top drawer of a small cupboard my daughter uses as a tabletop for school work and noticed the 10 fraying letters. Drawn as I am to things old and unknown—especially 15-paise inland letters from 32 years ago—I pulled them out and started reading.

I was soon distracted. Unexplored drawers in old cupboards are magical worlds. They are repositories of forgotten memories and offer glimpses of the person you were. Apart from the letters, I found reams of neatly written notes on the practices of physiotherapy by my mother; a large manual on human rights training for police personnel; notebooks with my father’s untidy scrawl, recording the proceedings of a computer-training session for police officers—explaining RAM and ROM and bits and bytes.

I also found some 45-speed vinyl records of Marathi natya sangeet (theatre music) and lavni (a folk form) from singers such as Suman Kalyanpur and Sulochana Chavan, familiar to many Maharashtrians and my parents. Alas, I cannot play them. I do have a record player but it can only play 33-speed LPs (that’s long-playing record, if you are unfamiliar with that world).

I discovered 22-year-old printouts of emails I had sent to my in-laws, introducing myself, and emails from the wife introducing herself to my parents. I found an email I had sent to my old boss, a former editor of India Today magazine. Titled “Down The Tubes?”, the email told him that “over the months our leanings have become evident” but a recent cover was “abject pandering to one political party”. I will only say that his reply was gracious. He did not agree with me, but he welcomed the fact that I had written the email.

Reluctantly, I moved back to the inland letters, a couple of which were from family friends. Most, however, were from unfamiliar people. They came from Patna, Shillong, Bengaluru, Mumbai and parts unknown—the postal stamps were too smudged in letters where the sender’s name and address was blank.

They all contained recipes. Many of my mother’s stash of recipes elsewhere—collected over more than half a century—are postscripts in similar inland letters filled with life updates and gossip. Mystifyingly, there was none of that in the current bunch. After a perfunctory “Dear Mrs Halarnkar”, they got down to a recipe. What was this about?

I asked my mother, but she smiled and shrugged vaguely. She had no idea. A little more detective work yielded some common references to a “recipe tree” and a “recipe tree programme”. Obviously, these appeared to be some sort of chain, started by someone and directed at my mother, who perhaps had to keep the chain going. My mother looked even more mystified. “I cannot remember any of this,” she said.

Finally, a letter from Patna said it was in response to the letter “sent by Neelam mausi regarding the ‘recipe tree’; I am therefore sending my favourite recipe.” This was a reference to my mother’s old friend Neelam Sahay. I had my mother call her, but she too could not remember. She did promise to check with her niece, “Leeshu” or “Leshma”, who had written the letter, and there the matter stands.

I turned to the recipes. They were detailed, diverse and easily replicable. I read through instructions for garlic fish, meat loaf, vermicelli vada, “sweet nimkin” (a deep-fried sweet laden with ghee, sugar, maida, or refined flour, and vanilla essence), stuffed bhindi (okra), chicken Schezwan, milk barfi and sabudana (sago) vada. The only one that caught my eye was one for dum onion masala from a mysterious Ushakiron from Mumbai—no, my mother had no idea who she was.

Now, I have cooked dum chicken, dum mutton, dum biryani and even dum pork. Dum pukht, or steam cooking by sealing a dish with dough, is an old Mughlai tradition, but I had never heard of dum onion. Nevertheless, I followed the recipe, and my carnivorous daughter liked it enough to mutter “it’s delicious”. I thought it was just about average, but you, dear reader, can be the judge of the secret in the drawer.


Serves 3


Quarter kg small sambar onion, peeled

2 medium onions, quartered

2 medium tomatoes, quartered

2-inch piece ginger

2 red chillies

Quarter cup grated coconut

2 cloves

2 cardamoms

1 stick cinnamon

Half tsp turmeric powder

Half cup yogurt

Half tsp sugar

1 tsp ghee

1 tsp garam masala

1 tbsp chopped coriander

Salt to taste


For the masala: grind to a rough paste the ginger, red chillies, cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, turmeric, coconut and quartered tomatoes and onions.

Heat ghee in a wok and fry sambar onions until slightly golden-brown. Add masala and sauté for 10 minutes. Add salt and sugar. Lower heat and stir in yogurt. Cover and cook on moderate heat till the onions are tender. Add garam masala, stir in and add coriander leaves before serving.

Our Daily Bread is a column on easy, inventive cooking. Samar Halarnkar is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures. @samar11

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