Nothing spells 'home' like a plate of piping hot alu parthas

The alu parathas that I had for breakfast  today and which were made by our cook, Banu. I shot the picture at my writing desk. Did not eat there though!

Pygmalion. The paratha edition. 

Our cook, Banu, came early to work today. This is the first time in the sixteen odd years that she has been with us that she has done so. 'Early,' as in before I had woken up and before K had left for work. Banu called us close to midnight last night to say that she would be doing this as she had some work later in the day which she needed to attend once she finished 

I took advantage of this rare opportunity to have a home-cooked desi breakfast and requested K to ask Banu to make a couple of alu parathas for me. The parathas were ready by the time I was up and about and I sat down to to have them while they were hot. Alu parathas are best had when fresh off the tava after all. 

I waited impatiently for them to cool a bit so that I did not singe my fingers or my mouth. I managed to click a couple of pictures for Instagram while I waited. I had requested Banu not to put green chillies today. Her spicing of the mashed potato stuffing with a touch of red chilli powder, coriander leaves and a touch of tartness was just the heavy fuel (to quote Mark Knopfler) that I neded to start the day with. 

Banu was not always our cook. We had 'inherited' her from the owner of the tiny apartment  in Bandra that we had moved into in 2003. Her duties centred around cleaning the house then. K & I would do the cooking.

Urged by both our mothers, we enlisted Banu to make rotis a few years later. While she did not work as a cook anywhere, she told us that she was often hired to make rotis and that they were very good. Her pride was not misplaced. Her hand-made chapatis are indeed wonderful.

Our mothers again got together sometime later and convinced us to give Banu the cooking duties too sometime later. "How long will you guys sustain your enthusiasm to cook on a daily basis," said the two (now retired) working mothers, who were not really fond of the kitchen, from experience and so Banu became our cook as well. 

She was not a trained cook at that point. I took up the task of teaching her a few dishes to cook for us. She would call me at work every day and I would step out and take her call even if I was in an important client meeting with the big bosses. Answering Banu's phone call was non-negotiable as I had to tell her in detail what to cook and how to cook it. Even if she had made the dish before. She would forget what I had taught her the very next day. What was creditable though was that she would always make an effort to follow the instructions and with an open mind.

We then asked her to make a few dishes from her own home recipes and that is how we were introduced to the kebabs that she makes, ones that people who come to our house rave about, and her alu parathas

She has been cooking for us for over a decade now and has mastered some of the dishes that I have taught her. The only caveat is that they should be Indian dishes. She often tells those who come to her house that I was the one who taught her how to cook and how that opened up more work opportunities for her. While that is a bit of a hyperbole I am sure, I am happy that it turned out well for all.

Today I asked her where she had learnt how to make alu parathas. 

"I have been making these at home for years," she said and then added with a worried tone, "was the salt too much."

It is the month of Ramzan now and she fasts during the day and hence cannot taste what she cooks and is always on tenterhooks on whether she has got the salt levels right.

Just another Mumbai story

With my PG aunty in 2015. Having alu parathas in the room I stayed in at
her place in 1997

As I sat at the little bistro table, that serves as our dining table at home today, and dug into the soulful alu parathas, I remembered a time when Mumbai (Bombay then) was not home to me. This was more than twenty years back when I had moved in to the city as a research executive MT and stayed at a PG in Bandra run by a Punjabi family.

One of my fondest memories of the PG were those of the alu parathas that would be made in their kitchen by the family's man Friday, Swapan. He had been taught to how to do so by my 'PG aunty'. She would supervise the parathas made for me and they were truly delightful.

They were so good that I would often take them to work and my colleagues, fellow PGites all, would wait eagerly for me to do so. My PG aunty would pack them for me when I would take the train back home to Kolkata. Till 'home' became Mumbai. I later realised that the love and affection showed to me by my PG aunty played a big part in Mumbai becoming my home.

I am not the only fan of the PG alu parathas in the family.  The girl I was dating then, who became my wife later and whom you know as 'K' here, loved those parathas too. She first tasted them when I had got them to work at the ad agency where we met and shared them with her. Her mother (my mother in law now) was smitten by the parathas when I had once got a lot made for K to take home. She still cannot stop talking of them, though Banu's alu parathas have her heart now.

K and I visited my PG aunty a few years back and yes, she had got alu parathas made for us by Swapan!

My not so secret sauce

The alu parathas made for me by my grandmother's caregiver, Anjali mashi

Judge me if you will, but I love to have my alu parathas with, no not pickles or dahi, but with ketchup!

To figure out why, I have to take you back almost forty years to Kolkata (Calcutta then). I had just moved in to the city with my parents after having lived in the UK and then Iran in the very few years that I had spent on the planet till them.

Of the many things that I found hard to adjust to in Kolkata, the power cuts, the heat, the mosquitoes, the language (I was 8 then and did not speak Bengali), food was the toughest. I had hardly eaten any Indian or Bengali food till then and did not take to either easily. My mother would have to dish out fish and chips, meatball curries, fried rice and noodles to make fussy little me eat in Kolkata.

The only person who could make me eat apart from my mother was her mother, my grandmother, whom you know as my didu. There was a little language barrier between us then as she did not speak English and I did not speak Bengali. However the Bengali treats of  luchi and chholar dal that she made me won my heart.

One day, when I had gone to visit my grandparents place in the summer of 1980, didu made me a stack of triangular parathas. I took my plate and a bowl of ketchup and liked the new treat so much that I polished off at least ten parathas at a go. If not a dozen!

Didu said she would make me something new when I visited her the next weekend. This time it was alu parathas. I had never had them before and loved those too.

I wiped the plate clean off the alu parathas that she made, a bowl of ketchup by my side. Ketchup was the sauce which connected my new life with the old. 

Yes, I know that ketchup is looked down upon by epicures but I will not trade my love for ketchup with an attempt to get into their good books. My love for ketchup is unconditional!

My grandma was born in Dhaka in undivided Bengal and lived there till she was married to my grandfather and then moved to Allahabad followed by Delhi. I am quite sure that it was her neighbours in Delhi who had taught her how to make alu parathas. I doubt if she had learnt to how to make it from her own mother or grandmother. I called her up in Kolkata to ask her about this in the evening. With her hearing becoming weak, having a conversation with her these days is heart-breakingly tough, but today was a good day.

Didu first told me about how she grated lauki the other day and then a made a shukto with rohu fish head. "I used to have it as a child in Dhaka and I made it after we moved into Kolkata too. No-one can make it these days so I made it for myself as I there was a small lau at home and a fish head," said the 90 year old lady. "You need to slice the lau (bottle gourd) really thin. If not on a boti then with a grater. Do a phoron (tarka) with whole methi and mustard seeds and then add the lau and cook it with some salt and water and then add the fish head after frying it separately and let them cook together. I prefer not to add turmeric to my lau and fish head shukto," she said as she handed over her recipe to me.

Coming to the parathas, she said: "I had heard about them when we moved in to Delhi. The Punjabis would make it. Their food is simpler than that of us Bengalis. They would just stuff whatever was at home and make parathas and eat them with dahi. Not the multi-course meals that we would have to make. The Punjabis lived in different quarters. I did not go to their houses to see how parathas were made. Nor did anyone teach me.  I liked the idea though and started making them. Alu, gobi, methi. I would keep experimenting," she said and then finished by saying, "these parathas were unheard of in Kolkata then."

I could sense the feeling of pride in her voice through the airwaves from across the country.

Didu does not make alu parathas any more. However, when I had gone and stayed with her for a few days a couple of years back, she got Anjali mashi (her night attendant) to make me alu parathas to have before I set off for the aiport.

Anjali mashi served me a plate of mochmoche (crunchy) alu paratha and then with a touch of passive aggression typical to the average character in a Bengali film/ soap said, "you eat all over the world. You will not like this." 

They were so good that I did not add ketchup to them that morning!

The Alu Paratha Sutra

No, I do not have a recipe for alu paratha to give you. I have never made one myself.

My plan in life is to lead one where I am always fortunate enough to have someone to make me a plate of piping, hot alu parathas.

This post of mine is my way of trying to repay my debt of gratitude to those who have done so so far in my life.

I hope you have an alu paratha story of your own. If you do, I would like to hear about them for sure. With or without ketchup.

Where I actually had breakfast today. At the bistro table that is our dining table


I cannot end a post on parathas without tagging ad man, Satbir Singh AKA @thesatbir, the man who has made parathas trendy on Twitter.

Also of interest:

1. Post on my PG aunty
2. Post on trying to understand the true spirit of Ramzan through a chat with Banu
3. Post on my stay at my grandmother's when I had the paratha by Anjali mashi
4. Banu's kebab recipe


Deepa Ravi said…
What an incredible piece of writing, Kalyan! Thoroughly enjoyed reading! Any allusion to your Didu will always resonate with me because my Paati( maternal grandmother) was also very very dear to me.
I'll always be up for a round of aloo parathas for you anytime you're in Navi Mumbai and have the time 😊👍
Kalyan Karmakar said…
@unknown (Deepa) thank you for your very warm comment. On my way for the aloo parathas now :)
Priyanka said…
This struck a chord. My Didu's alu parathas were and will always remain my favourite. Had alu parathas in many places..dhabas, Punjabi households, restaurants,et al.But Didu's were unique. The stuffing was cooked.."roshun phoron diye" Mildly spiced, garlicky, no onions or green chillies, bhaja moshla a pinch of sugar.Soft, overstuffed and utterly delicious.

She was a "probashi" from Allahabad and spent her life in Ranigunj and Kolkata. I regret never habing asked her why her aloo paratha is so different ..the story behind it. And now it is too late. So i carry with me her memories and the magic ofher cooking.