When my father was growing up, his family lived in a chawl, which is essentially a tenement building. These were cramped quarters where each family would live in a small room and share common bathrooms with other residents on the floor. For those of us used to our personal space, these living conditions seem to be less than ideal. However, as most of the residents were Gujarati and from the same community, everyone was like family. Doors were left open and the entire society would live their lives in the chawl courtyard. Even though they no longer live there, my Dad’s family continues to make the trip to Madhav Bhuvan (the name of the chawl) during the festival time of Navratri, to celebrate with the old friends they made many years ago.
Perhaps one of the fondest food-related memories my father has is of my grandmother, or Dadi as we call her in Gujarati, preparing an elaborate vegetable casserole in an earthenware pot. Dadi was born and raised in a village, so when she came to Mumbai to marry my grandfather in the late 1950s, she brought the culinary traditions of her home with her. This dish was a prime example. She would venture out into the chawl courtyard and place the entire pot in an underground pit and then cover it with hot coals. What would emerge a couple of hours later was umbadiyu, the smoky relative of today’s treasured recipe undhiyu.
Undhiyu is perhaps the definitive hallmark of Gujarati cuisine, one that is shaped by traditional religious beliefs. Even though they are bordered by miles of coastline, the Gujaratis are a predominately vegetarian community, and as a result, they have developed a plethora of ways to cook vegetables. Such a cooking style is one that involves taking advantage of the freshest ingredients, and undhiyu is no exception. Typically prepared during the winter months, the seasonal produce of sweet potatoes, yams, plantains, and papdi beans (an Indian variety of green beans) lend themselves into the making of this stew. Gujarati cuisine is all about showcasing the sweet and spicy flavors of the food, and when these sweet vegetables are combined with a spicy masala and savory fenugreek dumplings known as muthiya, the end result is both a spectacular feast for both the eyes and the mouth.
I first collected this recipe from my Dadi when I visited India last month. As it was summer, her rendition was a lot simpler, containing only potatoes, eggplant, and papdi, but it was just as, if not more delicious than the traditional recipe. Back at home, my mother decided to get involved and add her own touches to the recipe, which involved the traditional stuffing of the eggplant. What resulted from this endeavor, was an undhiyu that combined the best of both worlds and one that would make any Gujarati happy.
- 2 cups surti papdi
- 3 medium red potatoes, peeled and diced
- 8 small Indian eggplants
- 1 head of garlic
- 2-inch piece ginger, peeled and cut into rough chunks
- 1 large bunch fresh cilantro, chopped
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 2 tablespoons besan (gram/chickpea) flour
- 2 teaspoons ground cumin
- 2 teaspoons ground coriander
- 1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
- 1/2 teaspoon dry fenugreek leaves
- 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
- 1 teaspoon black mustard seeds
- 1/2 teaspoon asafoetida
- 1 teaspoon ajwain seeds
- 2 teaspoons white sesame seeds
- 1/4 cup shredded desiccated coconut
- 1/4 cup shelled, unsalted peanuts
- 2 green chilies
- 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
As beautiful as undhiyu is, it does require some and time and effort to make. Therefore I will providing a step by step tutorial on how to make it, along with explanations of unfamiliar ingredients.
Ingredient Explanations: What’s what and where do I get it ?
- Surti Papdi are an Indian varietal of green beans which originate from the city of Surat. You can find them frozen in most Indian grocery stores. If you can’t find them, you could substitute with pigeon peas, but as papdi are one of the essential ingredients in undhiyu, I’m afraid your dish won’t be the same without them.
- Indian eggplants are small and bell-shaped. I found them at a local fresh produce market (Caputo’s for those of you that live in the Chicagoland area). Many Indian grocery stores which carry fresh produce will have them. If you can’t find Indian eggplants, try using baby eggplants or if that also fails, regular eggplants will be fine. However, you will have to cut them into chunks and coat them in the filling rather than stuffing them.
- The traditional vegetable mix in undhiyu includes potatoes, eggplant, surti papdi, sweet potatoes, yams, plantain, tindora, and if you really want to go all out methi nu muthiya, which are deep-fried chickpea flour dumplings flavored with fenugreek leaves. If you can get you hands on all of these vegetables, by all means go ahead and use them. However, due to seasonal and local availability of many of these products, you can choose the vegetables according to your taste, and that is the beauty of undhiyu. The spice blend generally remains the same, but the vegetable blend is up for interpretation. If you want to make the simplest of undhiyus, as I am showing you today, use some potatoes, eggplants, and papdi. If you want really want to hit on the sweet and spicy effect, add sweet potatoes and yams, and if you want to make the dish really rich and satisfying, add the dumplings.
- The spice blend may look a little intimidating at first, as it involves 17 different ingredients. Now while you can change around the vegetables, I’m afraid there is not much adjustment you can do with the spices. Each one is important and brings a different dimension to the table.
- You can find ground cumin, corriander, turmeric, sesame seeds, cayenne pepper, and peanuts in almost all grocery stores in America so I trust that you should be okay in finding those.
- Black mustard seeds and cumin seeds can be found for sure in Indian grocery stores, but larger supermarkets will carry them as well.
- Besan is a chickpea flour that has a sweet and nutty flavor. It is typically used to make batters and thicken gravies in India. You can find besan in most Indian grocery stores.
- Fenugreek is an herb which is also known as methi in Hindi. It is found in both fresh and dried forms. Indian grocery stores will usually carry both versions. This is also probably the one optional ingredient in this recipe. It adds the flavor you would get if you were to add the muthiya.
- Asafoetida, also known as hing, is a rather pungent spice that is commonly added to lentils in order to aid with digestion. It blends in beautifully with most dishes and it is used extensively in Gujarati cuisine. You will find this in the Indian grocery store.
- Desiccated coconut is essentially grated coconut shreds which are unsweetened. You can find them frozen in Indian grocery stores and larger supermarkets.
- Ajwain seeds (sorry but there really isn’t an English equivalent here) are these little seeds which have a pungent flavor and aroma which I would best describe as a cross between carraway seeds and thyme. This is one of the major flavoring agents in this dish and hence, it is a must. It also aids in digestion. Look for these in the Indian grocery stores.
Okay, now that I have explained to you most of the unfamiliar ingredients in this recipe, we can finally get to cooking the undhiyu! Let’s begin the tutorial shall we?
1. In a food processor or blender, grind the ginger, garlic, and green chilies into a smooth paste.
2. Dump the paste into a large bowl, and add the ground peanuts, coconut, besan, ground coriander, ground cumin, ground turmeric, sesame seeds, dried fenugreek, sugar, salt, and 1/2 of the cilantro leaves. Mix well. This is the filling with which you will stuff the eggplants.
6. Place a large heavy-bottomed saucepan, preferably a Dutch-oven, on the stove over medium-high heat. Pour in some vegetable oil. Traditionally, quite a bit of oil is used so that the vegetables will remain separate and not clump up with each other. If you are making this for a special occasion, then perhaps you should go that route. If this undhiyu is just for a normal weeknight, as mine was, it is better to be more health conscious and put just enough oil to evenly coat the bottom of the saucepan.
7. Once the oil is hot, add the asafoetida and allow it to sizzle for a couple of seconds. Then add the cumin seeds, mustard seeds, and ajwain seeds. Allow the seeds to crackle and pop in the oil for a minute or so. This step is known as the tempering of the spices, and by doing this, the seeds will release their aromas and flavor the oils.
8. Then place the eggplants in the pot in a single layer. Layer the potato, papdi, and masala mixture over the top. Add about a cup of water and allow bring the mixture to a boil. Simmer the undhiyu over low heat for about two hours, till all of the vegetables are tender and the spices have cooked through and released their aromas. If you find your undhiyu to be sticking to sides of the pan or clumping up, add a little more oil. Season the undhiyu with salt to taste. Sprinkle the remaining cilantro leaves on top.
9. Serve the undhiyu immediately, or allow it to sit for day. The flavors will intensify and mingle overnight, resulting in an even tastier undhiyu the next day. When I had this in India, my Dadi made some guwa roti, a steamed chapati of sorts to go along with it. You can serve this though with chapatis, parathas, or the traditional accompaniment, puri (a deep-fried bread) and a golden bowl of aam ras (mango pulp).
There you have it! A step-by-step undhiyu recipe that should perhaps take a way the fear from a dish that actually isn’t too complicated. Serve this at you next party, and believe me, your guests will be floored.