The secret recipe of guru's arbi

Published: Dec 03, 2019, 04:59 IST | C Y Gopinath | Mumbai

For four decades, the old Sikh had guarded his recipe. But what good is a friend who keeps secrets from you?

The indomitable Ranjeet Kaur, the woman who had married him and turned him into a cook better than herself, had passed on. The old Sikh, a widower now, sits alone in his eaterie
The indomitable Ranjeet Kaur, the woman who had married him and turned him into a cook better than herself, had passed on. The old Sikh, a widower now, sits alone in his eaterie

C Y GopinathGuru, aka Inderjit Singh, has never recognised me even once in the four decades I've known him. I've been to Guru da Dhaba, his legendary Punjabi vegetarian diner in Lokhandwala Complex, scores of times. I've probably written about him half a dozen times (including once in this very column) starting from the 1980s.

My hosannahs have always been directed towards his redoubtable piéce de resistance, his rajma, whose recipe he regrettably let slip in my presence many decades ago. I have shared it without remorse with legions of cooks and readers. It has been the single most popular recipe I've ever posted.

Legal disputes over his shop forced him to shift his diner over a decade ago to the first floor of Kamadhenu Shopping Complex, so it took me a bit of finding. It was still an oblong space flanked by four-seater tables. Gauche, lanky village adolescents still took orders.

Guru was still a gnome, in an orange turban this time, a little plumper. An unfamiliar young woman sitting behind the cash counter was introduced as his daughter-in-law. His daughters had married and moved on. The indomitable Ranjeet Kaur, the woman who had married him and turned him into a cook better than herself, had passed on. The old Sikh, a widower now, sits alone in his eaterie.

It's best not to go with expectations. His single most striking feature, then as now, is that he himself doesn't know what he might say next.

"Many people come here, you know," he said, as though I needed to be put right. "What will you have?"

"The usual," I said. Without missing a beat, he shouted back to the kitchen, "Give the gentleman makai di roti and sarson da saag!"

"You have no idea who I am, right?" I said, cancelling the order. He stared at me unblinking for a long time, not sure whether to surrender or soldier on. Then, brilliantly, he said, "Those who want justice must wait in line."

"I wrote about you," I said.

"Many times."

He sprang up suddenly, as though electrocuted. "It's you!" he said. "It's really you!" He called his daughter-in-law and introduced me. "It's really him!"

He ran to the back and rummaged, emerging with a cutting from the Punjab newspaper Jagbani. "See! His name is Khurana! My old friend Khurana!" He came and sat
next to me.

The only two dishes I ever order at Guru's are the rajma and the dry masala arbi. Guru's is the most elegantly spiced arbi I have ever eaten — but I have never been able to tease the recipe out of him.

Arbi, the root of the colocasia plant, is not easy to cook. It gets slimy, mushy, mashy, squishy and unmanageable. Because it has no taste of its own, there is a strong temptation to smother it with spices. But somehow, ginger, garlic, coriander, onions, the usual suspects, do not have happy marriages with arbi. It needs compassion, a light touch and something tart to cut the blandness.

Guru had left and returned, this time with a family of diners. He was brandishing a cutting from The Telegraph. "This is my lifelong friend Fonseca," he introduced me. "He has made me famous. Read this."

But while he had been away, I'd quickly asked his daughter-in-law, the new kid on the block, how Guru made his arbi. And god bless her newly married soul, she told me all.

You need arbis, about 12 medium-sized tubers of similar size.

Green chillies, 4 long ones Ajwain, 1/2 tsp Coriander (whole), 3-4 tbsps Amchoor (mango powder), 1 tsp Red chilly powder, 1/2 tsp or to taste
Turmeric, a pinch Salt, to taste Cooking oil, 2 tbsps

Skin the arbis and quarter them lengthwise. Wash them in cold water several times to get the slime off and then completely boil them, removing them while they are still firm.

Roast the coriander seeds slightly, long enough to release their fragrance, and then grind them, leaving them a little coarse.
Heat the oil, add the ajwain, and then the whole green chillies, stirring. As soon as you see white spots on the chillies, add the coriander powder, turmeric, hing and
chilli powder.

Stir for a few seconds and add the arbis. Lower the heat to medium and cook for a minute. Add the amchoor and cook for another two minutes. Serve with hot rotis and ghee; nothing more, if I were you.

As I left, fully topped up on rajma and arbis, I asked Guru how much I owed. "You ask your brother for a bill?" he said, shaking his head at my immaturity. "What sort of man are you, Mr Gopinath?"

Here, viewed from there. C Y Gopinath, in Bangkok, throws unique light and shadows on Mumbai, the city that raised him. You can reach him at cygopi@gmail.com

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