Some of my best times I’ve spent with my Aita (my paternal grandmother) are when it’s just the two of us, seriously deliberating on everything under the sun, from family gossip to mythology. And it has always been this way right from the time when I was all of three and I would be left in Aita’s care while Mother went to school to teach. My Aita would play along with my over-active imagination, and willingly be my partner in all the role-playing games my three-year old mind could conjure up. So if someday she was the neighbor Mrs. Baruah (that would be me, wrapped up in one of Mother’s saris) was visiting, the next day she would be the student in a school Miss. Rita (again me, with slate and chalk in my hands this time) taught in. As I grew older, I found myself being able to confide to her stuff I wouldn’t dare talk about in front of my mother. Being best friends came with its own set of weaknesses though. Just like true friends we would have disagreements and fights, and we wouldn’t talk to each other for days on end. And someday, just like that, I would ask her to oil my hair (that was my olive branch) or maybe help her get dressed and fuss about her, if she had to visit some place nice with us (that was my way of making amends), and things would be alright again.
Somewhere over the years the carer became the one who needed looking after, and the child who needed attention grew up to become the one who had to take care of her. Which entailed taking her to the doctor on the scooty I rode, and keep her entertained while she waited in the long queue of patients; accompanying her on her first ever flight to visit her elder grand-daughter, and holding her hand while she actually shivered in fear before stepping on the escalator in the airport; and my favorite part, cooking for her on days my parents would have to go on day-long trips, leaving me in charge of the kitchen. There isn’t a better sport than my Aita when it comes to food, I tell you. From idlis to momos, there’s nothing my Aita has not tried and relished happily. And my good luck it is, for she happens to love everything I cook for her, not once complaining about too much salt or too much sugar.
Which brings me to yesterday. Which is what this post is all about actually, but once I get started about my Aita, I can’t really stop at a few words. So. It was just the two of us again, yesterday, and although Mother’s instructions were to go get chicken and cook it for lunch, Aita and I decided we were better off having a simpler meal. On the menu: dal, fish fry Aita style, and mashed potatoes Sam style. And as I cooked my potatoes with The Who’s “My Generation” blaring from my iPad, all I could think of was, “This is so going in my blog!”.
On second thought though, I must have been quite the epitome of conflicting contrasts in the boyfriend T-shirt and denim cut offs, smelling of Estee Lauder laced with traces of onion and garlic, dancing a jig in the kitchen while brandishing my spatula, and cooking the quintessential homely mashed potatoes. Hmmmm.
Coming to the recipe itself, you know I don’t share stuff unless it is totally easy-peasy and I feel it would be a crime to keep it to myself. I read this long time back, “While baking, go by instructions. When cooking, go by your heart”. And my cooking is just like my heart; crazy unpredictable, and filled with love. While simple aloo pitika is a favorite in every Assamese household, I always seemed to prefer a jazzier version of it. And no two versions have ever been the same. Not when I’m cooking, no.
So. All you need to do is boil some potatoes, with or without peel. You can always peel them after they have been boiled. Mash them with a fork, but make sure it is not a totally smooth paste. In case you like your potatoes all gooey like I do sometimes though, mash away all you want till it resembles kneaded dough. Chop an onion (I’m assuming you are preparing it for two like I did!) and just one sprig of spring onion. I don’t like the overpowering flavor so I didn’t use it entirely. Mince the smallest bit of ginger you find lying around, and one big clove of garlic (just one). You want the garlic and ginger to be very subtle. Heat a non-stick pan (or an ordinary pan if you like those crispy brown crusts along with your mashed potatoes for a totally different flavor) and put in butter. I crossed my fingers and hoped the belly dancing does its job as I put in a generous helping into the pan. Watching butter melt into golden liquid happiness is a pleasure in itself, no? Once the butter is melted, put in the onion. As it turns slowly pink, tip in the spring onion and ginger and garlic. Add salt, and go ahead, take a whiff of that olfactory feast. When completely done (the trick is to saute it in slow fire for a long time so there’s no rawness) add in the potatoes. Sometime in between a mixture of cheese and mayonnaise might have made its way into the mashed potatoes just before I added them into the pan, I think. Don’t blame me though. The creamy melt-in-the-mouth end product is something worth giving your diet a toss. And if being arrogant and uppity about butter and cheese and mayonnaise is more your style, well, suit yourself. Whatever be it, serve hot, and make sure the Aita has no idea what went into making the potatoes. Oh hang on, but that’s what I did, and as usual, my darling loved it.
Another easy way of having mashed potatoes is with fresh green peas. Now this is more Indian, and hence appealing to a wider range of taste buds. Boil and mash potatoes just like above, and also chop an onion just like above. If you want you can add salt to the potato mash before you add it to the pan. In a pan heat oil, and when hot, put in a bay leaf, tearing it in half to release the flavor. Add chopped onions and green chillies if you like it hot, simultaneously add in a handful of fresh green peas. Once almost cooked, add salt and turmeric powder to taste, and a pinch of cumin powder, and tip in the mashed potatoes. Let it fry for a while, and sprinkle (I say sprinkle because the amount barely covered the tip of my spoon) some ghee on it just before removing from fire. This happens to be my Aita’s favorite. So much that she didn’t even touch the scrambled eggs I had cooked for the meal.
My mother makes a mean south-Indian mashed potato, somewhat like the stuffing they use in dosas. She adds in curry leaves and fried peanuts, along with chopped onions in the oil, and then puts in the mashed potatoes. I insist on her making it whenever we have lusis.
But this is not just about the mashed potatoes, you see. Somewhere between cooking for my Aita and sharing the recipe with you, we did actually sit down for a meal together. And we talked about everything we could think of, as usual… about politics and the upcoming elections and how she finds it hilarious more than anything else, about the awful weather these days, about our latest harvest of potatoes which barely covered the bottom of the basket my mother had optimistically taken along with her, about finally having found a part-time maid who won her heart… And all I could think of was, hell yes, these days how many people actually sit with their grandmothers and have cozy chats brimming with laughter and warmth and oh-so-much love? I’m lucky to say I do. Million times so.