At the end of April I posted a recipe for sookha or dry alu sabzi. Here is a close relation: a spicy (or teekha in Hindi) alu sabzi which has a little more gravy but not a whole lot of it. It too is made without any tomato and with even fewer spices. I improvized this take on a broader family of homestyle potato dishes—eaten in wide swathes of North India with chapatis or puris—entirely in order to test out a new (to me) ingredient that I purchased in Delhi right before departure in February. And so I did not want to mix in too many strong flavours. The ingredient in question is yellow chilli powder. I purchased a packet at an outlet of FabIndia (where else?) and then promptly forgot about it until I found it two weeks ago in the back of the pantry shelf where I’d stowed it upon our return. I purchased it because I’d never come across yellow chilli powder before. I’d expected it would be relatively mild but when I tasted it raw it packed a decent punch. I asked a number of Indian friends—in India and in the US—who are avid cooks and very knowledgable about Indian food (some of them far more so than me) if they’d come across it before and drew a complete blank.
Nor did googling help me very much beyond reminding me that the chef Sanjeev Kapoor owns a restaurant chain named the Yellow Chilli and informing me generally that yellow chillis are grown in Punjab and Kashmir. The back of the FabIndia packet, however, said that Uttarakhand was the state of production. That made me wonder if yellow chilli was a pahadi ingredient and if that might explain why some Nepali food I’vve eaten in particular had packed a greater punch than I’d expected based on looks.
Now, one of the people I’d contacted was Rushina Munshaw Ghildiyal—who you should really follow on Instagram if you’re interested in learning more about Indian food. Rushina knows a lot about Indian spices and a lot about pahadi cuisines (pahadi=of the Himalayan foothills) but she hadn’t heard of yellow chilli in that context either—though she did know about a Rajasthani yellow chilli. Rushina being Rushina, however, she was not willing to let it go and a few hours later she sent me a link to this article from a couple of years ago about the Lakori chilli of, yes, Uttarakhand and it seems likely that this is what I have. The article notes that it is apparently in high demand among producers of namkeen (or savoury snacks) as the yellow colour blends with the colour of the namkeen.
This is a reminder once again of just how regional and local Indian cuisines are and of how difficult it is to claim any kind of authority on more than a small slice of it (I refer here not to the excellent Rushina but to myself). I’ve eaten around a lot of the country and in the homes of people from all around the country but my knowledge of Indian foodways is well in the single digits percentage-wise.
Anyway, here’s the recipe. And yes, you can make it with regular red chilli powder as well.
- 1.5 lbs potatoes, cut into chunks
- 1/2 cup red onion, chopped
- 1 tspn freshly grated ginger
- 1/2 tspn cumin seeds
- 1/2 tspn haldi/turmeric powder
- 1 tspn chilli powder, yellow or red
- 1 tspn coarsely ground coriander seeds
- 1/2 tspn amchur/dried mango powder
- A small pinch bhaja moshla or garam masala
- 1 cup water
- 2 tblspns oil (preferably mustard oil)
- Heat the oil over medium heat in a medium saucepan or karhai/wok and send the cumin seeds for a swim in it.
- When the cumin seeds split add the onion and saute till it begins to brown.
- Add the ginger and saute for a minute or so till the raw aroma is gone.
- Add all the powdered spices except the amchur and saute for another 30 seconds or so.
- Add the potatoes and salt and saute for 7-10 minutes, stirring frequently, taking care not to let the spices scorch.
- Add the water, cover the pan and cook over medium-low heat till the potatoes are just done (another 7-10 minutes).
- Add the amchur and mix in for another minute or two.
- Stir in the bhaja moshla or garam masala and take off heat.
- Serve with chapatis and dal (this kali dal would be perfect).
- As I say, you can use red chilli powder if you don’t have the yellow (though it seems to be available at Kalustyan’s if you’re in the US and want to give it a go, or on Amazon India if you’re in India and don’t have a FabIndia store within reach). I say this because I found no appreciable difference in flavour from similar dishes made with regular red chilli powder. The colour seems to be the story here. Do use a hot chilli powder though otherwise your alu sabzi won’t be teekha.
- And ideally grind your own dried red chillies. I say this because the thing I did like about this yellow chilli powder is that it is quite coarsely ground. Now, not all commercially available versions may be as coarsely ground but I did like the textural effect of the coarse grind.
- Speaking of which, do grind the coriander seed yourself instead of using a (usually finely) pre-ground powder. You want them to be ground only just slightly past the cracked stage—you want to be biting into tiny pieces of coriander seed and tasting the citrussy release.
- If you insist on garnishing this with something green I’d suggest a tspn of finely minced chives or chopped green onions rather than dhania/cilantro.
- After all the sleuthing was done I wondered if the 11th picture in the slideshow in this report on the mangal bazar by my parents’ neighbourhood in Delhi might include a sack of yellow chilli powder. I will investigate further whenever the pandemic allows me to go back to Delhi again.