Stirring Up Conversations
On a not-so-wintery afternoon in December, team Verve makes its way to Magazine Street Kitchen, in Mumbai, where stand-up comedian and HR manager Abhineet Mishra is waiting. He is centre stage for a different reason today: to attempt the preparation of a typical North-East Indian dish, aloo pitikas. As someone who wouldn’t mind eating different variants of potatoes for every meal, every day, I’m excited to see how this turns out. Mishra, however, seems uncharacteristically nervous about putting on a show, since the primary focus is on his culinary skills. I reassure him, citing my own lack of cooking expertise, and we chat instead about his years in Shillong.
With his memories of food and the kitchen being related to his remembrances of childhood, Mishra talks fondly of his time growing up. “It’s typical of the North-East to have very lazy Sundays. You would find Sundays to be the chill day when people go to church in the morning and the the family later gets together and cooks. I was prohibited from entering the kitchen after a couple of my escapades, but my parents got together and prepared something. Mom is a vegetarian, despite being in the North-East, and dad is a non-vegetarian — if there’s something called pure non-vegetarian, he’s that,” he shares.
Mishra lived in Shillong for over two decades before moving to Delhi and then Mumbai. Talk to him about the general ignorance of the basic cultural aspects of the North-East, and he says, “People I know ask me how the houses are over there, whether bows and arrows are still used for hunting, if people bring human skulls home, and such very random questions. And so initially, it used to be about explaining and creating awareness, but then you realise that there’s a certain fun that they seem to derive out of it. And if you respond with anger, you’re only feeding into that stereotype. I chose stand-up comedy and said, let me try and take up these stereotypes and present it to society in a manner that they can consume but also be amused about. I think if you can hold somebody by the gut, and make them feel amused about their ignorance, they’ll try and change. But if you retaliate with anger, that’s going to make them far more resistant.”
Regarding the common misconceptions about North-Eastern food, he reveals the surprising and unfortunate stereotyping he’s encountered. “In fact, a lot of my friends in Bombay and Delhi ask me whether only dog meat is made and consumed there. So I think some of the stereotypes are obviously due to the lack of an understanding of the region. A lot of North-Eastern cooking is very similar to the way Indian mainstream food is cooked, but there are specific delicacies. The understanding of central India…the understanding of mainstream India…about North-East food, is restricted to momos. Primarily because they use the term ‘momo’ as slang, to stereotype the region too.”
Armed with an interesting crowdfunded recipe, Mishra emerges victorious with a plate of the delectable “small little globes” for a roomful of willing taste testers.
Here, the recipe explained in the inimitable style of the comedian….
“Let’s begin by washing the potatoes…. We are making aloo pitika, a well-established dish, which will be going down as an experiment today. It’s fairly simple to make, one of the most common dishes in North-Eastern households, specifically Assam. It’s a very complicated process, so do give me due credit at the end of this! I have crowdsourced this recipe from a lot of people. I put up a request for North-Eastern dishes on my Instagram story and had at least 300-odd people who wrote in saying ‘you can make this and that’. I finally zeroed in on this very challenging dish, of which there are four or five variations, and I’m going with the simplest one.”
“We now put the potatoes to boil…. It’s a very complicated step, and you have to be very clear about the right measure of water, otherwise potatoes have a habit of becoming difficult. So there’s the right amount of water, right amount of potatoes and some skill to it…. I chose this recipe for a couple of reasons. One is that I obviously have memories associated with it. Back home in Shillong, this used to be one of the staple foods, if one could call it that. Of course, there’s a lot of potato there, but because as young kids in the hills we’d be running around, it never really reflected on our bodies. And, there is a certain level of convenience too. I chose this because my ability to cook is not something that one should mention. In fact, I think the entire North-East is very nervous at the moment. Along with the Citizenship Amendment Bill, they’re also very nervous about me being the guy who is going to represent us.”
“After putting the potatoes on boil, the next complicated step is boiling the eggs…. And, like you guys know, it’s also something that requires a lot of skill. A fine balance — because eggs can break. And this too requires the right amount of water. Aloo pitika has multiple versions; this version has eggs — in Assam eggs are called dim — and so it has a strong egg flavour, which is really cool…. I have three sharp memories of being in the kitchen. Three, because that’s the entirety of my cooking experience. I started off with making tea, I think. If you’re in the North-East, Assam tea, that’s the easiest to make — that’s something people grow up on. And as far as cooking, I enjoy making halwa. And that would be like a barter system. A lot of my folks who get me aloo pitika, masoor tenga and all those varieties of lovely North-Eastern staples, they would expect something in return, and so I’d make them halwa. Later, they realised that they were at a bigger loss in this arrangement, and so they said, ‘Don’t get anything for us.’ Aloo pitika is something I’ve made in the past, and so there is some degree of confidence here.”
“We have boiled the potatoes, boiled the eggs, and now it’s time to set the other critical pieces of the dish in place…. We have just chopped some fresh onions, which are very expensive today, therefore we have to be very careful with the amount we’re chopping. We have to ensure that all of it is consumed, and I hope we don’t have to pay taxes for chopping six onions because that’s quite a lot at the moment! Chopping the onions was one scary experience because I always thought that it is a simple exercise, but I now realise that it’s an actual skill. I tried four or five different methods and none of them seemed to work, but finally we have managed — they were beaten at the end.
“Next, we’ll go with the mirchi (green chillies). I have to chop them, and this too is very hard, because you’re not sure whether you have to chop it laterally or longitudinally…. We have chopped the dhaniya (coriander) and mirchi, and the aloo too is ready. For the aloo, it’s very important to know that irrespective of whether you have six in the pressure cooker or three, the amount of steam will ensure that in three whistles we get them completely cooked. It’s important to check the potatoes, so a fork which is usually used to eat, can be employed to check whether the aloo has been boiled completely or not. Then there’s another species you can use, called tongs. Ensure that you don’t use your hands because the steam might just burn them. You pull the aloo out of the cooker with the tongs and then cut it so that they cool down after which you can peel and mash them.
“We’ve peeled the boiled eggs, which is a skill too, but one that bachelors would know — as this is our lifeline. These are more important to us than oxygen — bananas and eggs. We’ve managed to peel off the eggs, we’ve managed to peel off the onions, we’ve managed to peel off the potatoes and we’re all set to finally do my most favourite part which is the mashing.
“My father works in the police force, and Dad generally gets posted here and there. So, he is proficient at cooking, which I appreciate. I think it’s a lot to do with the fact that the society that we grew up in, in Shillong, is a matrilineal society. So this notion of just the mother or the woman cooking is completely out. I’ve had days when my mom and I have been sitting and watching cricket, and Dad has been in the kitchen; we lived in that kind of a household. So, my memories with cooking or anything kitchen-associated have been largely that. My mother cooks most of the Indian cuisines and my father is more acquainted with the dishes of the North-East, so he’s proficient at cooking with his fish, chicken…aloo pitika is something he really kills — I don’t want to even give him a flavour of what I’ve cooked today….”
“We’ve mashed the potatoes, added the onions and chillies — green chilles, specifically…. If this was Assam, it would have been bhut jolokia, probably the spiciest chilli that I have tasted in my life, but unfortunately we don’t get that here. We have also added the mustard oil; two mashed, boiled eggs with their yolks, and now we’re converting them into beautiful little shapes. If you’re trying to convert your mashed aloo pitika into small little ‘globes’ as I call it, it’s important that you first apply a couple of drops of sarson oil (mustard oil) to your hand as it helps in getting a grip of these and also adds a finer texture.
“I’m no Sanjeev Kapoor, but I must confess, that I feel extremely elated because this seems like my biggest achievement in life at the moment. But as in the North-East, being a matrilineal society, a lot of men cook, so today, I’m getting a feel of what it is to be from the North-East.
“Growing up, learning to cook was very important. There were two things that I really wanted to learn when I was a child. One is, I wanted to be a cricketer for the country, and second, I wanted to cook well. I failed on both fronts, which is the reason why I started doing stand-up comedy. The best thing is to make jokes about your own failures. But as far as cooking is concerned, like I mentioned earlier, a lot of it was derivative from the society that I grew up in. So, matrilineal society, both parents cooking, both parents working…. My brother is an excellent cook by the way; he’s brilliant. My sister has taken the ability to cook well from Mom, and the ability to eat well from Dad — she does both! And a lot of my friends from the North-East, they excel at cooking in fact, not just momos and not just ‘dog meat’ as they call it. But way beyond that as well.”
“I think this was just magic…. None of us were expecting it to come out this brilliantly, and I think the whole garnishing, with the addition of the coriander, just added a beautiful texture. The whole experience has been brilliant. I think I’ve just found a new purpose in life today. So you could with all honesty think that this is just an investment of potato and onion and coriander leaves and oil…. But there is a lot of emotional investment as well, where I could feel the creation of something beautiful and I hope you guys follow the steps and make aloo pitika in the way that I’ve made it, because I am the proudest human being at this moment.”