For me, a large part of the experience of being an Indian is the humbling realization that it will take considerably more than one lifetime to know even the basic history, geography, culture and food of my land. I was reminded of this when the theme of Oriya (from Orissa) cuisine was announced. Apart from knowing Orissa as a state in the East of India, and a vague awareness of its landmarks such as the Sun Temple at Konark and Jagannath Temple at Puri, I am blissfully unaware of the cuisine and culture of this state.
What should I make for RCI: Orissa? Madhur Jaffrey came to the rescue (as she often does in my kitchen). Her wonderful cookbook World Vegetarian, contains a little section on basic mashed potatoes, and some really clever ways to spice them up and turn their creamy goodness into one of several kicked-up avatars. The use of mustard oil and mustard seed paste is a hallmark of the cuisine of Orissa, and one of Jaffrey's suggestions is to spike mashed potatoes with this piquant spice.
Because this dish is a simple side-dish, I chose to cook the potatoes in a jiffy using the microwave. Of course, one could cook them in a pressure cooker or simply on the stove. Mustard oil is an unfamiliar ingredient for me, and I don't stock it in my pantry, so I took Jaffrey's suggestion of substituting it with extra-virgin olive oil. Once I had made these mashed potatoes, I remembered a Bengali acquaintance making a similar dish one afternoon for lunch many years ago. She shaped the mashed potatoes into little balls and tucked them into a corner of each plate. It was a cute presentation, and because Bengal and Orissa share some culinary traditions (they are neighbors, after all), I chose to shape these potatoes the same way.
Mashed Potatoes, Oriya Style(adapted from Madhur Jaffrey's World Vegetarian, serves 2-3)
2 medium potatoes (I used red-skinned)
1 heaped t mustard seeds
1 hot green chilli
1 T mustard oil or extra-virgin olive oil (I used olive oil)
salt to taste
1. Wash the potatoes well. Pierce each potato 8-10 times with a fork (to vent steam while cooking and prevent the potato from exploding)!
2. Place the potatoes on a microwave-safe dish and microwave for 2 mins and 30 seconds. Let them sit for 1-2 minutes, then turn over and microwave again for 2 minutes.
3. As the potatoes are cooking, crush the mustard seeds in a mortar and pestle to a powder. Mince the chilli and add it to the mustard powder. Add the oil to the mixture and let it steep while the potatoes cook and cool down.
4. When the potatoes are cool enough to handle (but still warm), peel them (you can leave the peels on if desired). Mash them, then sprinkle with salt and the mustard mixture.
We loved this simple side-dish, with the soft creamy potatoes, the warm flavors and gentle heat from the chillies and the mustard, not to mention the dash of color added by the brown and golden flecks of mustard. V remarked that this dish tasted like "mashed potatoes on steroids", which pretty much sums it up! I don't know if this dish is authentic enough to be part of a traditional Oriya meal, but I think it makes for a very favorful side-dish to any meal. You can put it together in a matter of minutes, with basic pantry ingredients, and serve these spicy little balls as an unusual accompaniment to a simple dal-chawal supper.
For a beautiful array of traditional and modern Oriya dishes, check out Swapna's neatly categorized round-up