For a long time I couldn’t feel anything that resembled more than a faint sense of contented nostalgia for my home in Calcutta. I had left home to study, to work and to build a family. It was the natural order of things.
Yet the minute my children began arriving I started to feel a stomach wrenching unease. Raising them all by myself didn’t seem as natural as I had imagined. What surprised me was discovering that my beloved children were after all their own people, separate from me despite all the entanglement of the initial months. Was I supposed to actively mold them, watch them anxiously or just get out of their way? I dreamed frequently of opening my front door, and seeing my mother’s face. She would take over the house, and all of us would become her children.
In this situation, the only thing I am able to do is cook. My nani’s fiery aloo dum replete with the taste and memory of Calcutta’s dusty streets is the best antidote to fear and homesickness. One mouthful, and I come alive to the flavors chasing themselves on my tongue. I become a child again, eating forbidden street foods and surrendering to visceral pleasures. As for the children, I leave them to chase baby potatoes all over the house with hoots of “aaalu,” and to lick cautious fingers poked into the spicy masala paste.
Kala aloo dum, spicy black baby potatoes, Calcutta street style.
1 lb or ½ kg small baby potatoes, boiled and skinned
½ cup red onions, minced or grated
1 tbsp ginger, minced or pureed
1 tbsp garlic, minced or pureed
1 tsp of cumin seeds
2-3 bay leaves
Spice paste: grind to a dry powder first and combine with the ginger for a wet paste
1 ½ tbsp coriander seeds
½ tbsp cumin seeds
3 or 4 whole dried red chillies, less if milder taste desired
½ tsp whole black pepper
1” piece of cinnamon stick
1 or 2 black cardamoms
2-3 bay leaves
½ tsp turmeric powder
2 tbsp of solid tamarind fruit paste, with pulp extracted after soaking in hot water
2-3 tbsp of mustard oil, or any vegetable oil + 1 tsp for later
salt to taste
½ tsp sugar
1. Heat 2-3 tbsps of oil. Add the tarka spices: cumin seeds and the bay leaves. Wait till the cumin seeds sputter.
2. Add the garlic paste and fry for a few seconds. Add the onions + ½ tsp of sugar and fry till the onions are golden brown.
3. Add the spice paste and 1 tsp of the oil. Cook until the oil separates from the mixture.
4. Add the baby potatoes, tamarind pulp and salt. Cook for a few seconds. The spice paste should adhere well to the potatoes.
5. Now slowly, 1/8 cup at a time, add about ¼ – ½ cup of water, waiting until the water is absorbed before adding more. The potato mixture should look moist without becoming watery. Cook through for a few seconds, garnish with chopped coriander and serve hot.
Can be eaten by itself with toothpicks as an appetizer or with Indian bread. Piping hot deep fried luchis or puris and parathas taste particularly good with this aloo dum.
The pictures below are from the time when I made aloo dum in nani’s home. Note the use of the sil batta to make the wet spice mixture.