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Saturday, 16 April 2011

Meenakshi's Matara

This is a wonderfully comforting, wholesome and tasty, dry-pea stew that you will be hard-pressed to find in any Indian restaurant; this is Indian home-cooking at its best.

I am dedicating this post to my friend Meenakshi, not only because the first time I ever tasted matara was at her home, but also because there is no one I have met since who makes better matara than her.

I first met Meenakshi at Harvard Business School where her husband and I were classmates. We met quite early on during orientation week, at a random networking party in some nightclub on Massachusetts Avenue, and hit it off instantly. At 2am when it was time to go home, she was part of the group of us that walked in the freezing rain in our short skirts and high heel shoes for 45 mins waiting for a cab kind enough to take us home. Little did I know on that cold, wet, drunken night that she would become a friend for life.

Meenakshi was really my saviour at Business School when it came to food. Between all the work involved in being an MBA student, there were simply not enough hours in the day to cook. It was time consuming business, this cracking the network, (aka, partying) leaving whatever little time I had left over, for homework, such is the hard life of a typical B-Schooler. As the spouse of someone in the same boat, she probably took pity on the rather unique nature of our time constraints, and I will never be able to repay her for the innumerable times she invited me over to her apartment for a hearty, healthy, home-cooked meal. Which I welcomed gratefully after spending most evenings at one of the several classy establishments in Harvard Square, downing $4 drinks (Really!), networking.

And so, it was on one such occasion when she first cooked matara for me. It was an icy-cold November night in Cambridge. The 5-minute walk from my apartment to hers felt like 5 years as I huddled under my coat, trying to protect myself from the wind off the Charles, cutting into me like shards of glass. I rang her bell, just grateful to be someplace warm, when I was greeted by the delightful aroma of something that I just couldn’t place straight away.
“What did you make,” I ask her curiously, as she takes my coat.
"Nothing", she says in her typical unassuming manner, "just some simple matara"
“Some what?” I ask her, “what’s matara?”
She looks at me amazed - "You’ve never had matara?"
Somewhat sheepishly, I shake my head, no.
“Don’t worry” she says quickly, rescuing me, “I think it’s just a very common Delhi thing, how would you know?”
“Oh.” I say...“well, I’m excited to try it! Can I see?”

I follow her into the kitchen. Simmering away on the gas is a large pot of matara - it looks like chana (chickpeas) to me, but it is lighter in colour and mushier. Up close, it smells even more delicious. I can't wait to try it. Meenakshi is brilliant with dough and she serves the matara with home-made kulchas (soft leavened bread, that I learn later goes typically with matara. Matara-Kulcha. Like Fish & Chips.)

When she serves me, I am blown away by the taste of the matara. Delicately spiced so that the flavour of the "matar" - the peas from which it gets its name - comes through easily, it simply melts like butter in my mouth.

“Oh my god, this is amazing - how did you make it?” I ask her excitedly. She not only writes down the recipe for me, but gives me a generous rubber-maid container of leftovers to take home with me.

And so - this one is for you, my dear friend, in your name, and in your honour, for the countless delicious meals you have cooked for me.

Ingredients for Meenakshi's Matara:

- 250g dry peas
- 1 onion, peeled and roughly chopped
- 2 tomatoes, roughly chopped
- 2 teaspoons cumin powder
- 1 teaspoon corriander powder
- 1 teaspoon chilli powder
- 1 teaspoon amchur (dry mango powder) or 1 teaspoon tamarind pulp
- 1 teaspoon lemon juice
- salt, to taste

Garnish (optional):
- 1 bunch of chopped corriander leaves
- 4 chopped green chillies
- 1 inch ginger, peeled and grated

Place all ingredients in a pressure cooker, making sure you fill enough water so there is at least half an inch to an inch of water above the ingredients. Cook under full pressure for 3 whistles or until the peas are soft. The natural sweetness of the dry peas is enhanced beautifully by tartness, so the amchur or tamarind are essential for a well-flavoured cooked matara. Garnish with coriander leaves, ginger, and chopped green chillies.

Serve piping hot with Kulchas!

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