11 March 2010

Aloo mattar (potatoes & peas)

Welcome to another episode of "ask Dino, because this darn recipe makes no sense".

I have a vague memory of Aloo Matar, from long in my past that was awesome, and I had it at a restaurant somewhere. I've made a few versions at home but they have fallen a little flat (not so flat that I wasn't willing to eat them, but you get the idea).

Recipe: 8 potatoes sliced
1/2 cup veg oil
Small onion, chopped
2 tsp cumin seeds
2 tomatoes, chopped
salt and pepper to taste
1 lb peas
(made a half recipe each time)
Basically it called for sweating the onions, frying the potatoes for 10 min, adding everything else and cooking another 10-15 min. Very easy. I gave it a try, but as above a little bland. I also coarsely cubed the taters, never just sliced them.
My recipe called for tossing in cumin seeds halfway through the cooking, so I tried to Dino-ize it a little and pop them at the beginning. They never popped, but they sizzled and smelled good. No heat in the original, so I chopped a serano pepper and added it with the tomatoes and peas. Better, but still seemed to be missing a little.

Questions: 1) Should my cumin seeds pop or do they just sizzle?
2) What other spices and when to add them?
3) What sort of potatoes would you recommend (bakers?, gold?).


You can cut back on that fat big time, because it's not necessary in the beginning like that. Start with a tablespoon or two, and work forward from there. You can always add more fat, but removing it is not so easy. Also, when you start with a small amount of fat, the pot and the fat get hot extremely quickly, and maintain that heat, so that the spices will pop properly.

Start with a pot that's larger than you think you'll need. Add just enough oil to coat the bottom of it. Let the oil get so hot that it smokes a little. Add in your cumin seeds, and boost the flavour with a bit of coriander seeds for good measure. Let them pop. They MUST pop for the flavour to be worth anything. When the seeds have stopped popping, pitch in the onions. Cook it over very high heat, and let those suckers get softened, then browned around the edges. You don't have the fully get them caramelised, but it won't hurt anything if you let them go to full brown.

All these steps take a tiny bit of extra effort, but they're worth it in the end.

Then, you add your cubed potatoes. If you just slice them, they don't tend to cook so evenly, and they're harder to stir around in your pot. You also tend to miscalculate the amount of fat you need, because the sliced potatoes tend to stack up, and not allow a crust to form.

Here's the trick to getting them to taste like the restaurant. Boil the potatoes first, let them get cold, THEN cube them up. It'll make the potatoes fry off so much more nicely.

As you continue to fry the potatoes in the fat and spices, you'll notice that they take up the fat nicely. THIS is the point at which you can add extra fat, about a teaspoon or so at a time, should the potatoes start sticking to your pot. If you're working with nonstick cookware, you really won't have to worry about this so much.

The next point is a matter of personal taste. Being from the south, I tend to throw in 1/4 - 1/2 teaspoon of turmeric, but this is strictly your own call. I like the colour and taste, but not everyone does.

After about five minutes of cooking over furiously high heat, turn down the heat to medium-low, and cover the lid of the pot, so that they can roast slowly.

SHORTCUT: If you are comfortable with it, lay the potoatoes out onto a baking sheet, and throw them under the broiler of your oven for 2 minutes at a time, until they get brown and crusty and lovely. Then, when the potatoes are brown, toss through the peas, and let it sit under the broiler for another minute or two, to heat the peas up through and through. This method also prevents you from mashing the potatoes as you stir them through. Even my mother, who's been doing this for the better part of 40 years tends to end up with half the potatoes mashed.

At the end, adjust your seasoning with salt, chili, or any other such flavouring you like.

If you do the boiling step, you can use any potato you like, because they tend to all get that lovely texture like the classic dish does. If you don't, just use any good waxy potato, like a yukon gold, or red bliss, or new potato. If you want to add some more north-indian-y spices, like cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, or cardamom, do so in the last five minutes of cooking, so that they stay strong. Just add a few hefty pinches of cinnamon, a pinch or two of clove, a scrape of nutmeg, and a pinch of cardamom powder, and you'll be golden.

If your cumin doesn't want to pop in the fat, or you've forgotten to do so and are adding it halfway through, just dry toast the cumin in a separate skillet, and toss it in. Without properly cooking the cumin, the flavour will fall flat.

Hope this helps a bit!

Tumeric and coriander, excellent. I don't mind if they get a little mashed up. I probably should cube the potatoes a little smaller and I'll have to try the pre-cooking method.

Would you recommend a chili powder or fresh green chilis or what? Thanks again for your time!

Well. There's a couple of routes to go with /that/ as well. Depending on how much you want to control the heat, and what kind of chili powder/fresh chili you're talking, it can change things. The chiles used in India are the Thai Bird chiles. It'll give you the most authentic flavour, and will be sufficiently hot to peel off the roofing tiles if you add enough of them. If you remove some of the seeds, you can scale back on the heat. If you fry the seeds with the onions, you can seriously make the heat a hell load more sneaky.

Here's how it works. You pop your cumin seeds, bla bla bla. Everything is screaming hot in that pot, and it's smelling fantastic. You add in a very big handful of chopped up finely Thai Bird chiles once the spices stop popping, instead of the onion. THEN you add the onion, and let the whole mess get softened, bla bla bla. The heat will dissipate into the fat, and sneak up on you much more slowly.

The chili powder can be ground red chili, cayenne pepper, or hot paprika, depending on your level of heat needs. Add it at the very end in the last minute of cooking, or else your kitchen will fill with lung-searing, painful smoke that you will be coughing up for the next hour.

Personally, when I make something hot, I like to go for a one-two punch. Start with the chiles in fat, and then finish with the powder. That way, when you're eating, you get the immediate jolt of hot hot fire. Then, as you chew and savour the flavour, the sneaky heat that's hiding in the fat comes skulking out and gives you another tingly stabby heat. It's lovely.

Thanks for the answer (and for the question)! Could you substitute plantains for the potatoes? I know it would be non-traditional and all that, but I made the curried plantains out of your book recently and loved them. So I bought more plantains. Thanks!

Yes yes yes yes YES. Yes, definitely. There are a variety of things that you can use in place of potatoes for recipes in the book: plantains (just peel them first), yucca (peel and core first), sweet potatoes, taro (also called ├▒ame in Latin American stores), yautia, or pretty much any other starchy vegetable. In fact, when you're making soup, using yucca would make the flavour superior, because it's got a sort of fragrance about it that works ever so well in soups and stews. Plantains are absolutely a wonderful substitute for potatoes. They work for bajji, curry, soup, stew, or anything else you can dream up.

Oooh, with plaintains! I would assume not completely ripe?

Yes, exactly. Green plantains. I think I put up a youtube video on how to peel them easily.


Suffice it to say, it was a bit of back-and-forth, but it was lots of fun to discuss food with people who are into it.