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The chef who wants people to know what Kashmiri Pandits eat

Matamaal’s Nalini Moti Sadhu talks about the idea behind the restaurant, and growing up in Srinagar

(left) Nalini Moti Sadhu of Matamaal restaurant in Gurugram, which serves Kashmiri Pandit cuisine and also ‘wazwaan’ dishes; and their non-veg ‘thali’.
(left) Nalini Moti Sadhu of Matamaal restaurant in Gurugram, which serves Kashmiri Pandit cuisine and also ‘wazwaan’ dishes; and their non-veg ‘thali’. (Courtesy Matamaal)

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Nalini Moti Sadhu, who along with her husband Surender Sadhu runs the Kashmiri cuisine restaurant Matamaal in Gurugram, says her cooking has been shaped by two women: her maternal grandmother Umawati Kaul and mother-in-law Jigri. The former could rustle up dishes in a matter of minutes—“she had magic in her hands”—while the latter was a master of slow, traditional Kashmiri Pandit (KP) cooking—“she was a class apart”. And mother? “She taught me love.”

When Nalini Moti Sadhu got married in June 1987 in Srinagar, Surender was working in Bahrain at the time. Till her visa came through, she lived with her mother-in-law for four-five months. “I used to watch her in the kitchen and picked up her secrets and most of my traditional KP cooking from her.”

Her biggest critic though is her husband: “We have done a lot of cooking together. He’s difficult to please. If he passes my dish, then I know I have aced it.” Appreciating and understanding the nuances of good KP food runs in the family—her two sons, says Sadhu, will point out if the nadru (lotus stem) has been overcooked and lost its crunchiness.

Also Read: How many ways can you cook lotus stem? Ask a Kashmiri

The couple opened Matamaal, which means maternal grandmother’s home, in 2015, serving traditional KP cuisine. Their tag line: At Matamaal, you are family. Two years later, they introduced some wazwaan (an elaborate Kashmiri Muslim cuisine) dishes. In a phone interview with Lounge, Sadhu talks about growing up in Srinagar and sticking to the traditional method of cooking. Edited excerpts:

Tell us about your maternal grandparents’ home, or ‘matamaal’?

My matamaal was in Dewan Bagh in Srinagar’s Karan Nagar area. My grandmother, who was a teacher, would enter the kitchen at the last minute and rustle up dishes like capsicum-aloo, bamchoonth-wangun (quince and brinjal) in a jiffy. She was also particular about laying out the table properly with crochet doilies, etc. I have learnt alu-bukhara mastch (meat balls stuffed with plums) from her, and it is one of the specials at our restaurant.

In summers, my grandparents would shift to the top floor of their house. Here, a branch of an aelchi (sour cherries) tree would literally loom inside the room. While the rice would be cooking, my grandmother would snap a bunch of aelchi and muddle it with a bit of salt and prepare a chutney in minutes—it used to be reddish-pink in colour. You could eat your entire meal with it.

Walnut chutney, made with walnuts, whole dried red chillies and curd.
Walnut chutney, made with walnuts, whole dried red chillies and curd. (Courtesy Matamaal)

You put a great emphasis on chutneys even at your restaurant.

I always need a chutney on the side—they are my comfort zone. It could be a quickly pounded coriander; mint; walnut; or radish chutney with green chillies. When I call people over, I first plan the chutneys. A chutney can lift the entire menu, and make even a simple dish exciting.

Growing up, what was the food like at your parents’ home?

At home in Rajbagh, Srinagar, my earliest memories, say late 1960s-early 1970s, are of a joint family of at least 30 people. The food, cooked by my mother and aunts, was made on wood-fire. There used to be two mandatory deechas (big vessels) every day—one of rice and another haakh (collard greens, a Kashmiri staple). My brother used to get so angry that he would shout at the haakh vendor, telling him not to stop in front of our house. While everyday food was basic, there was no holding back on festivals like Shivratri. And then there were those rare days when there would be shikar (pintail duck) on the menu, which my grandmother would cook with lotus stem.

How was your interest in cooking kindled?

My father would often return from office in the evening carrying home a small amount of mutton tied up in a daej (handkerchief)—there were no plastic bags those days. He would call out to me and ask me to make a quick snack of toeth-toeth (spicy) kanti—boneless mutton sauteed with onion, tomatoes, chilli powder and black cumin. I think this is how the seed was sown (kanti is on the restaurant menu too).

What was idea behind opening a restaurant which offered traditional KP cuisine?

People who travel to Kashmir know only about wazwaan. I wanted people to know what Kashmiri Pandits eat—not many people knew who we were as a community, what our rituals and festivals were, and that we were thrown out of our homes (in 1990). That was how the idea of Matamaal was born. It took us six years to explain to people that there is KP cuisine and there is wazwaan, and the two are different.

What are some of the misconceptions about Kashmiri Pandit food?

People look at the top layer of oil and are shocked. People don’t understand that roganjosh, damaloo, etc., are wedding/celebratory food, which is richer and heavy on meat. Our everyday food—like haakh, turnips, knol khol and seasonal vegetables—uses minimal of oil and spices. At the same time, we do not use onion, fresh ginger and garlic, our food is cooked in mustard oil, uses curd and whole spices, and all the flavours are concentrated in the mutton, vegetable or paneer—we do not drown the food in gravy.

Did you ever think of tweaking your recipes because the customer wanted gravy?

Initially when customers would ask for gravy, I thought maybe we should do that. Then an acquaintance said: “If you keep on changing your dishes according to the customer’s whims and fancies, you will be diluting your food. Then how are you authentic? Don’t change, let people change their perception.” We have been able to do that and kept our recipes traditional.

Would you say that traditional recipes are getting diluted with time?

When you air-fry a damaloo or roganjosh, the authenticity is already lost. You want to have the flavours but in a compromised manner. The transition is because of lack of time and also for health reasons. People are not interested in slow cooking. Now everything is pressure-cooked, even roganjosh. The new generation wants a quick-fix, like readymade roganjosh or chutney mix.

Any plans of opening Matamaal in Kashmir?

Yes, if things improve there. That is our home. When some of my clients ask me why Matamaal type of food is not available in Kashmir, I tell them because there are hardly any Kashmiri Pandits there. You have to come here (Gurugram) and eat it.

Any interesting anecdotes?

Once a guest asked if we inject spices in the damaloo with a syringe!

Nalini Moti Sadhu's ‘doen’ chutney (walnut chutney) recipe: 3-4 walnuts, 3-4 dried fiery red chillies, salt to taste, whole black cumin (shah jeera).

Method: Soak the walnuts and chillies in a little bit of water for 5-10 minutes. In a mortar-pestle, roughly muddle them (should have a grainy texture). Crush the cumin in your palms, add to the mixture along with salt. Optional: You can add curd or fresh/dry mint to this.

Also Read: Recipe: Reclaiming a Kashmiri Pandit Sunday lunch staple after lockdown

Inheritance of flavours is a series with chefs, restaurateurs, hospitality experts and professionals about food memories and tastes of home.

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