I’VE GAUGED the five seasons through my home garden over the last 40 days, the last chrysanthemums, the first roses, the fragile pansies, the occasional larkspurs, the omnipresent petunias and now the heady fragrance of the Indian jasmine.
The skies are occasionally blue, and I’ve seen a rainbow after 35 years. The time on hand allowed for lots of housekeeping, especially of my late mother’s belongings, which gave me another season, one of remanences. I chanced upon a ledger or diary, dated 1956, the year she got married, but the entries become more frequent, from 1965 onwards during the Indo-Pak hostilities. She married into the Diwan family, who had resettled in the leafy suburb of Nizamuddin, which was an oasis for a community post-Partition.
Things were bleak, she writes, blackouts, home guards, trenches everywhere, sirens sounding nightly as the air battles were heard (real or imagined) over Delhi’s skies.
But, as many Punjabis would empathise, what was unacceptable was the rationing of staples and scarcity of meat and vegetables. Her mother-in-law (the family matriarch) had gone into a shell and spent her time cultivating her grape vines, or processing the grapes, to make grape juice or a fortified grape wine.
The journal incorporates a recipe book, of easy-to-make minutely measured and tasty dishes, collected from her mother and grandmother, aunts and friends and acquaintances. My choice for today is the saalan.
The saalan, she writes, is India’s, or at least undivided Punjab’s, first curried dish, it combines seasonal vegetables and a meat or chicken and of course lots of onions. Not surprising about the onions, as they are native to Punjab and Iran.
More significantly, the saalan has barkat (munificence), and all three generations under her roof, plus the family cook (a hereditary cook from the Kangra valley) loved the outcome. I can vouch for the dish.
Chicken was expensive, goat meat was to be had every alternate day, but Sundays were reserved for desi murgh (free-range chicken). The cook would diligently buy it by cycling to the neighbouring vegetable and meat market, as soon as the daily curfew was lifted.
We may not be at war with our neighbours, but time has chosen an unknown enemy, we are now a community of Seldom Seen, Seldom Heard and Never Touch people. Till a cure declares a ceasefire, till such time the journal has become my curfew culinary diary.
Diwan E Saalan
Chicken boneless (thigh pieces) – 2 thighs cut into two-inch, diced
Carrots (diced) – 1 small
Turnip (diced) – 1 small
Ridge gourd (diced) – piece
Green beans (diced) – 5-6 beans
Green peas – cup
Sliced onion – 1 cup
Ginger garlic paste – 2 teaspoons
Yogurt – cup
Malai – 4 tablespoons (to marinate chicken pieces)
Mustard oil – 2 tablespoons
Bay leaf – 1 leaf
Black Cardamom – 1
Green cardamom – 2-3
Yogurt – cup
Salt – to taste
Turmeric powder – 1 teaspoon
Ginger julienne Coriander leaves
– Blanch diced carrots, turnip, beans, ridge gourd and green peas.
– Marinate the chicken pieces in cream and keep aside for two hours.
– Heat mustard oil in a thick flat-bottom pan, add the whole spices and once they start crackling, add the sliced onions and brown.
– Add marinated chicken pieces and roast.
– Once chicken gets semi brown add the turmeric powder, yellow chilli powder, coriander powder, ginger-garlic paste and salt.
– Slow cook over low flame for half an hour. Add the pre-blanched diced vegetables ensuring they do not get too soft.
– Fold in the yogurt and simmer over slow fire till done.
– Garnish with ginger julienne and sliced de-seeded green chillies.
– Just before serving heat one tablespoon of mustard oil to smoking point, wait for 20 seconds and add 1/4 tea spoon of fenugreek seeds till they splutter. Strain and pour over the dish along with dry fenugreek leaves.
– Serve with hot Indian bread or pulao.
– Use a combination of mutton or chicken or just vegetables.