Celebrated chef Manish Mehrotra, who heads the kitchen at the Indian Accent restaurants in Delhi and New York—with the latter having gotten a mention in the Michelin Guide—, was born in Patna in 1974. “It was a small sleepy town and I grew up in a large joint family,” he recalls. In an interview with Lounge, Mehrotra talks about his grandmother’s fondness for peanuts and his love for the season’s first gajar ka halwa.
What do you remember about food from your childhood kitchen?
Ours was a strictly vegetarian household and food would be cooked without onion or garlic. But if we really craved non-vegetarian food, we had to cook it on the terrace in separate vessels and stove. Bread was not kept in the fridge because it was considered impure. We would use hing and a mix of masalas to replicate the flavours of onion and garlic. It helped me to understand that you didn't need many things to make food delicious. I grew up in a large family and everyone in the mohalla (neighbourhood) was somehow related to us. Food would be cooked in bulk and sometimes our neighbours would visit for community cooking.
Can you share a few examples?
If we made mathri, it wasn’t just half a kilo. Do you remember those massive 15 kilo ghee canisters? We would make enough mathris to fill one big canister. If we got a large harvest of guavas from the tree at home, bottles of jams would be made to last the whole year. In the summers, when we made achaar, our chaachis or mamis from the neighbourhood would come to help us, and they’d carry some home. When we prepared aloo ke papad, it was a whole day affair. Even ketchup and fruits squashes—which are now called cordials—would be made at home. My grandmother loved peanuts, but she lost her teeth as she grew older. She devised a clever way to eat them. Roasted peanuts would be hand-grounded in a sil-batta with a pinch of salt. It would turn into a paste and my grandmother would lick it off a spoon. It was basically peanut butter.
What about heirloom utensils or appliances?
My grandmother had a steamer-like cooking vessel in which dal and rice could be cooked together. We had both gas and kerosene stoves. The latter would be for only two reasons—to boil eggs or water during winter for baths. My grandfather was a doctor who was working in Edinburgh, and he brought the refrigerator with him when he moved to India in 1948. In the seventies in Patna, we were one of the few families with a fridge. During summer when the heat got unbearable, we had people dropping in for refrigerated water or ice.
What are certain childhood foods that you crave?
There are a few things that I really wish for, and sometimes it’s fulfilled, like the season’s first gajar ka halwa with juicy red carrots. Janmashtami’s nariyal barfi sweetened with chashni (sugar syrup) and Holi’s bhingri laddoo. This was a unique laddoo made with finely crushed fried papdis that were mixed with jaggery syrup. It was a long process, but the result was delicious.
Did you go out to eat? What about street food?
My family would rarely eat street or ‘outside’ food, but they never stopped us. There would be matka kulfi during summer which was churned in a huge metal matka with ice. In Delhi, matka kulfi is allowed to set in a small clay matka, whereas in Patna, metal kulfi moulds sealed with atta are churned in a huge matka. There were rolls stuffed with a dry chicken gravy-kind of filling and jhaalmuri with the sharp taste of mustard oil. I witnessed the revolution of Chinese food up front. Matador vans would turn into kitchen and service spaces, selling manchurian, chilli chicken and Hakka noodles. This is now called food trucks in cities. It’s sad that in Patna, you get more noodle bowls on the streets than litti chokha.
What about chaat?
We had a cousin who ran a halwai shop and our supply of samosas and kachoris would come from there. It was all in the family.
Mehrotra shares the recipe of Bajre Ki Khichdi, which combines his love for comfort and flair, just like the menu items at the Indian Accent.
3 tbsp bajra
150 ml water
2 tsp ghee
Half tsp cumin seeds
Half tsp ginger, chopped
Half tsp garlic, chopped
One-fourth tsp green chillies, chopped
2 tsp masala gravy (optional)
2 tsp makhni gravy (optional)
One-fourth tsp garam masala powder
1 tsp coriander leaves, chopped
15 gms salted butter
1 tbsp Parmesan cheese, grated
Salt to taste
Tamarind chutney ½ tsp
Green chutney ½ tsp
Lime juice ¼ tsp
Onions, chopped 1 tsp
Tomatoes, deseeded and chopped 1 tsp
Parmesan cheese, grated ½ tbsp
Puffed bajra ½ tbsp
Wash and boil bajra with a little salt. Drain the water. Keep the boiled bajra aside.
Heat ghee in a pan. Add cumin seeds. Allow to crackle. Add chopped ginger, garlic and green chillies. Sauté well. Add masala gravy and makhni gravy (optional). Sauté for a while. Add boiled bajra and a little water. Allow the bajra to become soft and thick. Add garam masala powder. Adjust seasoning and finish with chopped coriander, butter and grated parmesan cheese.
Place khichdi in a bowl. Drizzle tamarind chutney, green chutney and lime juice on top. Sprinkle chopped onions, tomatoes and grated cheese. Garnish with puffed bajra and serve hot.
Inheritance of flavours is a series with chefs, restaurateurs, hospitality experts and professionals about food memories and tastes of home.
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