A Very Brief History of the Potato in Bengal
Somewhere in late 19th century, potato started to get quite easily available in India, and one good reason for that was the fact that potatoes were getting cultivated a lot more, and the British traders were actively encouraging potato farming. The term "Alu" was drawn from Sanskrit's alu, a term that was a common word for "yam", and from which the Bengali "Ol" is derived, the popular term for elephant foot yam. As a result of that, potatoes started to get rather popular here in Bengal, and preparations included styles that would be adapted by different households. Over time, potatoes started getting added to the menu quite often, and soon became commonplace.
The Different Types of Aloo Dum in Bengali Cuisine
The Aloo Dum recipe has its roots in Kashmir, but is spread across the northern and eastern belt of India quite prevalently. In Bengal, there are several versions that are made, and recipes differ based on the household as well as whether the end result would be "niramish" or "amish", the terms indicating vegetarian and omnivore, respectively, as well as the occasion. A very popular dish in many Bengali weddings is the Kashmiri Aloo Dum, where the potatoes would be cooked in a white, nutty gravy, and often hollowed out and stuffed with dry fruits, which is apropos to the festive ambiance.
On the other hand, streetside tea stalls would often be seen serving a fiery red aloo dum, redolent with caramelized onion and garlic and a slightly runny gravy that would be served with a freshly-baked quarter pound bread, preferably toasted over hot coals and brushed lightly with butter. Bengali households would see different versions of the aloor dum being served with khichuri on a rainy day, stuffed inside a phuchka shell by a neighbourhood phuchkawala on a weekday afternoon and topped with lemon juice and coriander leaves, luchi on a Sunday, with a bowl of puffed rice (moori) in the afternoon, and with polao during festivities. Each of these occasions would merit a different recipe, from a version without onion and garlic to one made with whole, new gooti aloo (tiny, round new potatoes), topped with a generous slathering of sour tamarind chutney, or one made with a good deal of onion, ginger and garlic. Depending on the region, you would also see a stark difference in the amount of gravy in the recipes - some would be very dry while some would be really runny.
The Aloo Dum In The Current Dining Scene
Such is the presence of the aloo dum in the city that it has made its appearance in a new avatar in the casual and fine dining scene, apart from the Bengali and Indian eateries of the city. In the newly-opened Farzi Café, you would see the Aloo Dum served with a spicy jhaalmuri mixture on top, and drizzled with a sesame-turmeric sauce that has a distinct texture to it. The fun is in demolishing the fine construct and eat it, one spoonful at a time, and observe the contrast in different textures - the creamy potatoes, the crunchy puffed rice, the silky sauce, and the delicate hint of mustard oil and coriander leaves that brings the dish together. Speaking about the dish, Zorawar Kalra, founder and director of Massive Restaurants, under whose aegis Farzi Café comes in, said, "When we started to research about the food which we could add to the menu and "farzify" them, we realized that the one thing that needed to be added, among other things, was the Bengali version of the aloo dum. For Kolkata, because the city is sophisticated, you can't really pull the wool over the eyes of the people and the food needs to taste great as well as look great. The dishes we added, the pure Bengali, local dishes, like the aloo dum, needed to have a very Bengali touch to it, with a combination that's uncommon but familiar. So, we ended up combining the jhaal muri aspect with the aloo dum and added the sauce that would bring the dish together - it's also very interactive, which is what makes it unique."
The Aloo Dum Recipe shared here is one that is cooked with onion and garlic, which makes it "amish", which translates to something being meaty, as well as something that induces hunger. As onion and garlic are ingredients that is commonly associated with meat, the addition of these ingredients makes the dish "amish".
Amish Aloor Dum Recipe
500 gm. boiled potatoes, peeled
1/4 teaspoon whole cumin
1-3 dry red chillies (preferably Kashmiri)
2-3 bay leaves
100 gm. onion paste
1 tablespoon ginger paste
2 teaspoon garlic paste
100 gm. crushed tomato or 4 tablespoon tomato puree
1 tablespoon coriander powder
1 teaspoon turmeric powder
1 teaspoon red chilli powder
1 teaspoon cumin powder
1/2 teaspoon garam masala powder
1 tablespoon chopped coriander leaves
Salt to taste
1 teaspoon sugar
3 tablespoon oil (mustard oil works best but any odourless oil will work)
Heat oil, add whole cumin, red chillies and bay leaves. Let this cook for 10 seconds, then add onion, ginger and garlic paste and cook, stirring over medium heat, till the onion paste looks darker and the water is almost gone. Then, add the powdered masalas, sugar, and stir fry for another 1 minute. Add the tomato and a splash of water, cook till the tomato is completely cooked and the masala mixture releases a bit of oil, stirring continually.
At this point, add the potatoes and 1/4th cup water. Add salt, stir everything, and simmer till the water reduces down considerably. Top with coriander leaves and serve with freshly fried luchi or hot rotis.
About Poorna BanerjeePoorna Banerjee is a food writer, restaurant critic and social media strategist and runs a blog Presented by P for the last ten years where she writes about the food she eats and cooks, the places she visits, and the things she finds of interest. She is deeply interested in culinary anthropology, and food history and loves books, music, travelling, and a glass of wine, in that order.