This article is part of a special series called "The A-Z of Marathi food". India is the land of diversity. Each of the 28 states in India has a unique cuisine but the Indian food served in restaurants represents only a tiny fraction of our culinary heritage. I come from the western Indian state of Maharashtra. Capital: Bombay (Mumbai). Population: 96 million (only 11 countries in the world have a population higher than Maharashtra). Language: Marathi. Traditional Marathi food is earthy and humble, diverse and very tasty. It also remains relatively unknown to non-marathis. Its time to change that. I invite you to join me on an alphabetical culinary tour of my state. We will go through the letters A to Z and make a dish with each letter to show-case Marathi cuisine.
R is for Ratala Kees.
We are already at the final 1/3rd of the alphabet! The letter "R" is a sweet treat in many ways. It stands for rava or cream of wheat (coarsely ground wheat also known as "farina" or "semolina"), a pantry staple in most Indian households. Although rava has many uses in sweet and savory foods, the Marathi favorite is the rava ladoo, rava cooked with ghee, sugar and cardamom and molded into little balls. Rava can also be cooked into an easy stove-top pudding called "sheera", and we shall make this for "S" in a few days.
Ras in Marathi means "juice" and aamras, simply called ras is the thick pulp of the mango. In the summer months, mango reigns supreme, and the bright orange aromatic "ras" is served at most meals in a little bowl, to be scooped up with some hot rotis, or for festive occasions, with a hot puffy fried puri.
One "R" dessert that is loved across the length and breadth of India is rasmalai, where small cheese dumplings are soaked in a sweet flavored milky syrup. I love making and serving rasmalai, and will devote a whole post to this wonderful dessert soon.
Now on to the savory "R" foods. The most popular spicy "R" food is ragda-patties, and I have posted that recipe already. From "ras" or juice comes another word, rassa or juicy curry, and the egg rassa is an example of this popular Marathi curry.
In the produce section, we have the power-house of nutrition, the ratala or sweet potato. It is unfortunate that we don't eat this amazing vegetable more often...in the US, the sweet potato is almost exclusively eaten at the thanksgiving holiday, and in Marathi homes, it is eaten mostly on days of religious fasts. By all accounts, it ought to be a much more routine part of our diet because of its excellent nutritional profile. Religious fast days allow for some restricted foods such as tapioca, potato, sweet potato and certain spices like cumin but forbid garlic, onion and many other foods. The sweet potato recipe I chose to make today is called ratala kees ("kees" means "grated") and this is a traditional "fasting day" dish. Personally, I think the natural sweetness and beautiful color of sweet potatoes makes this a wonderful side-dish for any meal, Indian or otherwise, any old day of the year. This recipe can be made in exactly the same way with regular potatoes. I adapted the recipe from this one that I found online.
This recipe is also my entry for ARF/5-a-day over at Sweetnicks, an event geared towards helping us all to make better nutritional choices.
Ratala Kees (Grated Sweet Potato)
2 medium sweet potatoes
1 tbsp vegetable oil
1 tbsp ghee or butter
1 tsp cumin seeds
4-5 fresh curry leaves
2 tbsp crushed roasted peanuts
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper (optional)
salt to taste
1 tbsp fresh lemon juice
2 tbsp minced cilantro leaves
1. Wash, peel and grate the sweet potato coarsely into a bowl (this can be done manually or using the grating attachment of a food processor).
2. Heat the oil and ghee in a skillet. Add cumin seeds and curry leaves and saute for a minute.
3. Add grated sweet potatoes, salt and cayenne pepper. Saute for a minute, then cook partially covered on medium heat for 4-5 minutes, stirring occasionally, till potatoes are just tender.
4. Add the crushed peanuts and saute for a minute more.
5. Turn off the heat, then stir in lemon juice. Garnish with cilantro.
This dish can be served warm or at room temperature. The natural sweetness of the sweet potato is a very pleasing contrast to the nutty peanut crunch and the slight spicy kick from the cumin and red chillies. Note that the sweet potato tends to stick to the bottom of the pan, so I had to use a non-stick skillet to avoid this. Another note: If you work reasonably quickly, the grated sweet potato does not discolor as it sits around. If the sweet potato is grated into a bowl of water, this is one way to avoid discoloration, but you will lose some water-soluble vitamins. I would suggest getting your ingredients organized, then grating the sweet potato (not into water) and sauteeing it right away.
We shall meet in a few days to look at "S"...do let me know if you have any suggestions for this letter!