The spud and the dud
They're a historic pair, the potato and the puri. If only they'd learn to get along better
"You're a nothing!" said the potato to the puri. "A cipher."
The puri sank a little lower into his plate, and a little steam escaped from a crack.
You’ve seen the puri — or maybe not. Imagine a tortilla rolled really thin and fried till it puffs up like a soccer ball. It’s a staple of Indian cooking, though laid low in recent times by rising cholesterol-consciousness. The quickest meal at any Indian eaterie is hot puri with a dish conjured up with potatoes, alu bhaji.
This was certainly not the first time the crude thought had been put to the puri that he had a serious personality defect. And as usual, the remark came again from his constant companion, the insufferable boiled potato.
But it was true. The puri was almost unbearably fat. Just a few minutes in the heat had done it to to him: turned him a warm golden brown. A clear liquid, definitely oil, dripped off his sides and gathered in a pool. You felt like poking a finger into him, and allowing the pent-up stuff to escape. With a hiss.
"It is my deeply held belief that you are the ugliest and most arrogant thing that ever grew under the mud," spat out the puri, with whatever dignity he could muster. It is not easy to look respectable while steam is escaping from a crack in your hull.
The dude and the prude
The puri and the potato are (appearances to the contrary) actually old friends locked in a complex relationship, which works sometimes and fails at others. Each knows that it is nothing without the other, but the potato knows he has the edge because he can always go to parties dressed up as a spicy wafer.
The puri has no such illusions. Whoever wants a crisp puri?
The potato took off his jacket and burped. "Say what you like," he said equably. "Around here, I'm the dude. You're the prude."
It was so true it hurt. For as long as the puri could remember, no one had paid heed to him or his illustrious family, which included the little, dark-brown, thick-skinned fellows that were fried up off cauldrons at weddings; the dal puris, noble and golden, like old soldiers, almost perfectly spherical, spiced with lentils on their inner surfaces; Bengal's white-faced luchis, made of refined white flour, and full of pulchritude; and the clumsy oval puris served up at Udipi restaurants.
The puri, reminded of his own heritage by such thoughts, swelled up a little bit and said, as loftily as he could, "You're not a dude. You're just a muddy spud. I've seen many like you, and most of them, by the way, are better than you. I remember, in the Mathura railway station. . ."
Memories of Mathura
The puri's eyes misted over at the recollection. For years, the puri and the alu bhaji at the Mathura station platform had been the closest of friends, like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Or perhaps Amitabh Bachchan and Dharmendra in Sholay.
They had been made with rustic love, in good ghee. The puri knew he would always turn out becomingly warm and browned, if a little on the oily side. The potato, comfortable in his gravy, knew he tasted better than he looked. He was dressed to demolish.
One day, the puri suggested that they should move to nearby Delhi, where only kulchas and bhaturas ruled, accompanied by those thugs, the cholés (chick peas).
"We could take over the territory," said the puri temptingly.
The potato declined. "I would do anything for love, but I won't do that," he said.
Looking back now, it seemed to the puri that they had let a good opportunity go by. "You were a dum fool," he said, unable to resist the cheap pun. "It could have been so good. We could have so much together, if only you'd stop pretending you were Al Pacino."
Deep down, the potato knew he was just a pompous windbag himself. Under the skin, he was just a puri of a different kind. People were kind, they treated him like a personality, but whenever there was puri, the potato knew he sang better.
Enter the puri-masal
I had been listening covertly for a while now. I could see that things were not well between the puri and the potato. I cleared my throat and said, gently, "You know, I think you fellows should give it another go."
They looked up, both of them, instantly suspicious. "Are you from McDonalds?" asked the potato. "Are you going to standardize us and franchize us?"
"No," I said. "I'm just a potato lover with a soft spot for puris. And I have something for you. If you're interested, that is." And I told them about the puri-masal.
I described the langurous dish known as _masal, _with potatoes and onions in a thick lemon-yellow and reddish gravy flecked with the green of curry leaves and coriander. The potatoes all but crumbled, steaming with bliss, tangy with the overlay of lime juice, spicy with ginger and chilies, and married forever and ever amen to only the puri — perfectly round, full of hot nothing, golden brown, pomposity holding hands with seduction.
And that's the dish that we ate on all our childhood weekends for breakfast — masal, with its puri.
"How do you like it, boys?" I asked the puri and the potato.
The puri, easily pleased, beamed, but the potato looked huffy.
"It's all right, I suppose," he said. "But this guy's still the dud. I'm the stud."
- Peel the onions and cut them in two pieces. Slice them into slices about 3-4 mm thick.
- Cut each tomato into 6 wedges.
- Chop the ginger and green chillies finely.
- Shred the curry leaves with your fingers.
- Cut a line across the middle of the potatoes and set them to boil. When they are cooked, slip the skin off, let them cool, and mash them with your fingers. The result should be lumpy. Remember that they will disintegrate a little more while cooking later.
- While the potatoes are boiling, add a tablespoon of water to the chick pea flour (besan in India) and dissolve it into a smooth paste. This will be used for thickening the dish. Note: If chick pea flour is unavailable, use rice flour or potato starch.
- Heat the oil, and when it is smoking, throw in the mustard seeds. When they begin spluttering, lower the heat and add the split black gram. When they start turning pink, add the onions, ginger and chillies. Cook on low heat till the onions soften and become translucent.
- Add the tomatoes, and cook for a a couple of minutes more.
- Add the mashed potatoes, turmeric, salt, and hot water, stir and then leave to cook uncovered on medium heat until the water has evaporated and the gravy thickened somewhat.