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October 2005

Is this all (fenu)greek to you? Methi Alu Sabzi

When we lived in Amritsar, in the days of Black Thunder, there was much coming and going between Delhi and Punjab.Flying visits from politicians with their bodyguards and their AK- 47's,  business men to make quick deals with  beleagured industries, and ofcourse, journalists from all over the world. They all found comfort, safety,refuge, and gourmet food in the ancient rooms of the Hotel Ritz on Mall Road.

'Tiny' Mehra owned the place and made everyone feel welcome. His name belied his size. He was a vast man. 9 foot diameter must be an accurate guess. His girth gave his gait a certain ponderousness and, when he stopped by the kitchens to check on the menu of the day, his cooks must have shivered.

I certainly did, when he went around my buffet table helping himself to one spoon of each dish at a time.Thinking he was holding himself back I urged him to take a bit more. He turned to me and said " I like to taste each dish first to see which one I like." and continued his picky way around the dining table.

Suddenly I remembered that my piece de resistance, the dessert, a superb white blancmange of cream and milk with the very slightest addition of sugar and gelatine has been left in the freezer for the last four hours to make space for other concoctions. I froze as well.

Panic set in. Removing the blancmange I did a foolhardy thing and flung it in the microwave for a couple of minutes, praying that it would not melt or split.

It turned out to be a hit with 'Tiny' after all.

Then he invited us for a private dinner at the Ritz . Just three dishes , a dal, a sabzi and an Amritsari fish, came to the table and he served us personally in  the kindest way possible, putting small helpings on our plates and urging us to taste it.

What is unforgettable is the methi sabzi we ate there. So many years later my mouth waters at the thought of it. What follows is  my reconstruction of it.

'Tiny ', in true Amritsari style, never told me the recipe.

Methi /A bunch of fenugreek leaves and baby potatoes.


  • 1 bunch of methi/ fenugreek leaves. About 4-5 cups of leaves.
  • 250 gms baby potatoes.
  • 1 cup ghee
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp chilli powder
  • A pinch of black pepper
  • 1 tsp sugar

Wash and scrub baby potatoes. Chop 250 gms baby potatoes into 1/2 " cubes leaving the skins on. Makes about 2 1/2 cups .

Chop potatoes

Pick leaves of methi and measure about 4-5 cups . Wash thoroughly and chop fine.

Chop methi/ fenugreek leaves

Heat ghee in kadhai.

Heat Ghee

When hot fry potato cubes in three batches for 4 minutes each.Let oil heat up again between each batch.


Refry potatoes for 1 1/2 minutes till brown and crisp.

Fried potato cubes

Pour off the ghee leaving one teaspoon in the kadhai.Saute methi in this teaspoon of ghee with chilli powder, salt , pepper and sugar. Cover and cook till done.

Saute methi leaves

Toss the potaoes into the methi and stir once. Serve.

Methi Alu Sabzi/ Fenugreek and Potato Vegetable.

Pause for thought

Recently there were a couple of interesting articles in the papers which really challenged my own beliefs about vegetarianism and Indians.

Arvind Kala wrote in The Times of India about the change in the diet of many Indians. He states that a huge numbers of Indians are becoming non-vegetarian. They are taking to eating eggs, chicken and even meat.Much of this change in dietary habits he puts at the door of increased incomes, both in urban and rural homes, as well as the affordable price of eggs and poultry meat.

I do recall a time when chicken was a luxury which most families from middle class homes could afford just once a week. The turning point, in Pune, came with the establishment of Arbor Acres a hatchery and poultrybreeding farm in Talegaon, just 30 minutes away from Pune. They introduced local farmers to chicken farming , and drew investment and new management practices to the field. Some twenty five years later poultry farms are common in Maharashtra with many of the larger ones getting into the marketing of fresh packed broilers and cooked meats. As a result of such a tremendous increase in production prices have dropped and eggs and poultry meat is now within the reach of the common man.

The National Egg Coordinaion Committee , an organisation which promotes eggs in the daily diet, for reasons of health even more than taste, has its CEO in Pune, the owner of Venky's, a large company whose hoardings dominate the visual advertising landscape of Pune.

So a country with a population, 90% of whom are mostly Hindu by faith, whom, till now most thought were vegetarian, are in fact eating a fair amount of meat.Not in global terms to be sure . Kala says that an American consumes twenty three times as much meat.Nevertheless a 5.2 kg per capita consumption is much more than I thought possible.

What is even more of an eyeopener is the fact that beef  and buffalo meat is consumed even more than chicken.This is because they are much cheaper than mutton, poultry or fish. The best cut is known as undercut  here, and that word means---fillet of beef, which can be divided into tenderloin, chateaubriand, fillet steaks, tournedos and filet mignons.You can dine on these for less than half the price of chicken!

Nevertheless, India does have the largest number of vegetarians says Kala.  'More than the rest of the world put together'. However because of individual beliefs and faiths this vegetarianism takes different forms and you have eggytarians, fishitarians and cake eating egg avoiders among other avatars .

Humra Quraishi , also in the TOI , shatters other commonly held perceptions  in his article on a  "Guide to Daily Diet" in  Islam. He quotes botanist M.I.H. Farooqi who says that the Quran and Hadiths (the recorded sayings of the Prophet Mohammad) give great emphasis to conservation, in the tilling of the soil and the care of plants and trees. The Prophet speaks of fruits, vegetables , herbs, roots and grains. These books mention dates and olives and figs as well as gourds, brinjals and lentils. "The Prophet said, add more gourd to the curry. It strengthens the depressed heart."

"So Muslims are not really averse to a vegetarian diet" writes Quraishi. A fact that Kala reinforces in his article when he says that Bangladeshi non vegetarian Muslims eat less meat than a partly vegetarian Indian, though the reasons he cites are somewhat different.

While all this was news to me, it confirmed one strongly held is always a mistake to make generalisations about anything or anybody at all in India.

But now consider the Supreme Court's judgement on cow slaughter. Does this mean no protein for the poorest of the poor?

Mutton Biryani

'So we plunged the hand to the mid-wrist deep
In a cinnamon stew of the fat-tailed sheep,
And he who never hath tasted the food,
By Allah! he knoweth not bad from good. '-Rudyard Kipling The Ballad of the King’s Jest

A biryani is the closest thing to a one dish dinner in Indian cuisine. With a salad of chopped fresh tomatoes, cucumber, onions and green chillies, moistened by some yogurt, it makes a hearty meal. And heartwarming too, in this time of Ramzan, when people often share a huge plate of biryani on breaking their daily fast.

Mutton Biryani

Yesterday, on a public thoroughfare, I saw the boss of an enterprise, calling his employees and collegues to eat from a communal plate in a large circle.He  fed them himself ,quite unselfconciously, if they were in the midst of work. Other colleagues continue to feed the men working, while exhorting them to leave it for a while and join in the meal.The gesture was one of such warmth, and inclusion, as an observer I found  it was completely moving.

A good mutton biryani needs a number of spices. Outside the Shivaji Market here, there is a vendor of small packs of mixed whole spices just for biryani. So people who cannot afford to buy so many expensive spices in larger amounts, can buy just enough to make that special dinner.


1.You do need 10 friends or family to help you eat this.

2..In a blender make a paste of the following

  • 50 gms fresh ginger
  • 1 large pod of garlic, peeled.
  • 6 green chillies chopped
  • (250 gms of sliced raw papaya)
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 2 tsp chilli powder

Marinate 1 and 1/2 kg of mutton ( cut into fairly large pieces),along with the bones, in the paste for an hour or more while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.

3.Wash and soak 3/4 kg of rice for 30 minutes. Drain well.  Measure and add water equivalent to one and a half times the amount of rice. Bring to the boil and cover tightly.Cook for exactly 15 minutes. Remove from fire.

4. 50 gms almonds blanch, peel and slice in slivers or make a paste

  • 250 gms ghee or vegetable oil
  • 1 kg onions sliced fine .
  • 1 1/2 kg potatoes, washed, peeled and quartered.
  • 5 pieces of whole cinnamon about 2" in length
  • 1 tsp cardomom
  • 1 tsp whole cloves
  • 1 tsp peppercorns
  • 1 tsp jeera
  • 1 tsp shah jeera/ black cumin
  • 2 tsp turmeric
  • 1 1/2 tsp saffron, roasted and soaked in the juice of 1 lime.
  • 1 tbsp of chopped fresh mint leaves.
  • 1/2 kg tomatoes
  • 400 gms dahi/yogurt
  • 250 gms raisins or chopped dried apricots

5. Fry the onions in ghee till brown and crisp. Remove and crush three quarters of the onions, reserving the rest for garnish.

6. In the same ghee fry quartered potatoes till half done.Remove.

7. Now fry all the whole spices for a few seconds. Do not let them burn. Add the yogurt , the powdered spices and chopped mint (reserving a bit for the top) and mix well. Take off the heat.

8. Add the saffron lime juice, reserving a bit for the top layer of rice.Now add the mutton to the crushed onions, the spices , the yogurt ,saffron ,almond paste  and chopped apricots (or raisins). Mix well.

9. In a well greased pot put a layer of the all marinated mutton. Add a layer of peeled and chopped tomatoes,and then a layer of potatoes.

10.Now cover these layers with the parboiled rice.Level the rice and then sprinkle the reserved saffron and lime juice,a tbsp of chopped mint, 2 chopped green chillies and the rest of the fried onions on top. Pour over the left over ghee. ( Some people add a mixture of yellow food colouring mixed in 2 tablespoons of water to get the characteristic yellow colour).

11.Cover tightly with a heavy lid or put a weight on top of a flat lid so that no steam escapes.Make a paste of 250 gms of wheat flour and water and seal the lid to the pot with this paste.

12. Cook on low heat for 2 hours or for 1/2 an hour in  an oven at 400 degrees. Reduce heat to 275 degrees and cook for another hour.

Remove the wheat paste seal just before serving and dig deep into the dish while spreading out the rice and mutton.

It sounds complicated but it really is not. If you do not have some of the fussier ingredients go ahead anyway. In a biryani you never notice whats missing. You always feel blessed by what you have.