Potatoes have always been a comfort food. And Dum Aloo will always have a special place. Tiny little potatoes which are cooked slowly and coated with spice will always be a dish to make me swoon.
There is a certain extent of soothing calm in this simple homey dish; a lot of which probably comes from the sweet memories of the winter time and spending time in the kitchen with maa. With the advent of the chilly winter air, the tiny little potatoes with flaky paper thin skins began to flood the bazaar.
We call these potatoes, “Notun Aloo” (new potatoes or the potatoes from the first harvest). They are about the size of the ping pong ball, or even smaller.
The typical scene in the kitchen with my maa on a relaxed winter evening lingers; of shelling fresh peas and rubbing the thin but slightly muddy skins off the potatoes. Breads were to be stuffed with the peas and little potatoes would end up in Dum Aloo. And here I dive deep into nostalgia. It amazes me how these memories create an overwhelming surge of happiness within me, but tinged with pain.
During those years we did not have access to all the vegetables all year round. Instead we looked forward to each season to enjoy the fruits and vegetables offered only for those few months. The winter brought in deep orange carrots, sweet tomatoes, fragrant cauliflowers, fresh peas, oranges, misthti aloo (sweet potatoes) and notun aloo. The taste and flavors of these seasonal vegetables were distinct and memorable and the reason that made us wait all year long. The “notun aloo” which I so miss, has its own rustic charm no where to be found now where we live.
Toss the pierced potatoes with salt and turmeric and shallow fry them until light golden…
There are a zillion ways to cook Dum Aloo (well may be that is an exaggeration but you get the point). There are so many that they are even marked by names of the region. Not only do the ingredients and the spices for Dum Aloo vary from one region to another, but every household might have a different way to cook this particular dish.
The basic concept of Dum Aloo is cooking potatoes with spices in a tight well covered pot, until the flavors of the spices infuse and the potatoes are tender. (Dum = cooking process in a tightly covered pot where steam is not allowed to escape, Aloo = potatoes.).
Braise the golden fried potatoes with pastes and spices and cook in a tightly covered pot until potatoes are tender.
The north Indian Dum Aloo is rich; simmered in a cream or yogurt sauce, often with the addition of nuts and raisins, it is a delightful dish to savor. In West Bengal, Dum Aloo for special occasions is cooked in the similar fashion with ghee, cream and nuts, but the quick everyday affair is quite different. I have mentioned before that Bengali cuisine has plenty of recipes where no onion or garlic is used; these are the niramish (satvic) recipes. The widows have rigorous dietary restrictions and with my grandma at home, most of the food that were cooked every day had no use of onion and garlic. These dishes make comforting, light, and simple meals.
The Niramish Dum Aloo is definitely a much simpler version of the classic more popular Dum Aloo. Once in a while, some yogurt would be used, but during winter fresh juicy tomatoes were used to thicken the sauce and have the little tart in it. The weekends were special when ma made Aloor Dum (= Dum Aloo) and Luchi (Poori made with enriched flour) or peas stuffed breads.
Niramish Dum Aloo – Spice Coated Baby Potatoes
Ingredients: (serves 4 as a side)
- 15 baby potatoes (about ping pong ball size) *
- 1 tablespoon oil + 1.5 tablespoon oil
- 1 teaspoon turmeric, divided
- salt to taste
- a pinch of sugar (this balances the taste if the tomatoes are tart, but will not make the dish sweet)
- 1 -1.5 cup grated ripe tomato (the tomatoes will make this dish a tiny bit tangy and it is meant to be that way. Reduce the amount if you do not like the tang)
- 2 tablespoon ginger paste
- 1/2 teaspoon cumin
- 2 dry red chili pepper
- 1 teaspoon red chili powder (optional)
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground coriander powder
- a generous pinch of hing/asafoetida
- 2-4 green chili pepper, or to taste – slit
- 1 teaspoon ghee (optional)
- 3/4 teaspoon roasted cumin powder or garam masala (optional)
*Note: If you are using potatoes with red skin or very thin skin, you may leave the skin on. If you are not using baby potatoes, simply dice the potatoes into smaller pieces.
Peel and wash the potatoes. Using a fork, pierce holes in the potatoes; approx. 6-8 times with a fork for a small baby potato. Soak them in salted water for about 10 minutes. In the mean time, in a large pot bring water to a roaring boil. Add salt. Remove the potatoes and drain. Put all the potatoes in the boiling water and cook at high heat for 2-3 minutes only. The potatoes need to be only partly coked.
Remove potatoes from water and drain. Add 1/2 teaspoon turmeric and half teaspoon salt to the partially cooked potatoes. Toss well to combine.
In a pan, heat 1 tablespoon of oil. Carefully place the potatoes in the hot oil and cook at moderate to high heat while tossing them frequently and scrapping off the bottom of the pan. The potatoes should be golden brown all over. (you will see the spots where they have come in contact with the pan). When golden brown, remove potatoes with a slotted spoon and set aside.
Combine the grated tomatoes, ginger paste, salt, sugar, coriander powder, red chili powder and the rest of the turmeric.
In the same pan, add the rest of the oil and heat the oil. When the oil is shimmering hot, add the red dry chili pepper and the hing/asafoetida. Few seconds later, add the cumin seeds. When they start to sizzle, carefully pour in the tomato ginger and spice mix. Allow this to cook at moderate to high heat for about 5-8 minutes. The cooking time will vary with the water content of the tomatoes and ginger paste. Keep stirring occasionally so the spice mix does not stick to the bottom of the pan. When you see the mix reduced and the oil separating from the sides and bubbling the mix is cooked. Add the partially cooked fried potatoes to the pan and toss well for all the spice mix to coat the potatoes well. Cook for 2 minutes and then add about 1/2 cup of warm water and tightly cover the lid of the pan.
Cook at low to moderate heat, until the potatoes are fork tender, but they should by no way be falling apart. When done, uncover and cook at high heat to have the extra moisture evaporate. There should not be much sauce left, only enough to coat the potatoes. (if you need more sauce, add a tiny bit of water, some more tomatoes if you want – while cooking and mash a couple of potatoes with the back of the spoon once cooked.)
Preparation Time: 25 minutes
Cooking Time: 30 minutes
Serves 4 as side
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