It indeed is one of the many beauties marking the existence of India that the diverse quotient of this land hinges on as diversely wide a range of elements. From fusion of flavors to the fiesta of festivities, from the many dynamics of its culture to the vast saga of its religious celebrations, India has been a nation bestowed with uniquities galore. No wonder then that this country, so infused in a spirit that celebrates life in every aspect of its being, compulsively turns to tickling the taste buds in a manner that makes for an experience of the epicurean, native, mindboggling and simplistically indulgent. For indeed, there cannot be a celebration of life more extravagant than exploring the fuel of food through which it sustains. And with a rich treasure trove of local delicacies and interesting recipes stemming from her many myriad identities, India truly is the place to be if you want to satiate your gastronomic cravings to the fullest.
But while this land of feasts and festivities is known for its many iconic dishes that which includes such southern staples as idli and dosa as well as such northern delights of chole bhature and sarson ka saag and butter chicken, not to forget the many native delights from the eastern part of the country like rasgullas and fish curries and pithas and litti chokha or the theplas and dal baati churmas of north India, there are still a lot many such cuisinal offerings that are equally popular but tend to be somewhat less explored, at least outside of their regional boundaries. One such very unique, utterly seasonal and scrumptiously irresistible of culinary treasures that owe its flavour to the western part of India is a classic Gujarati specialty, a winter delight relished as undhiyu.
For the Gujaratis, undhiyu is no doubt a much loved staple, that returns and re- returns to dominate the furnace of kitchens and rule over hearts with warmth every winter. A cult dish, in fact that which proudly boasts in its flavour the signature Gujarati touch in being an amalgamation of a whole lot of hearty ingredients, undhiyu boasts of enough prominence to claim a day of its own. With January 14 designated as the National Undhiyu Day in celebration of perhaps the ultimate dish of the veggies, the undhiyu indeed comes across as one of the worthiest of reasons to celebrate winters in India. One of the many definitive winter foods and a really diversive one at that, there’s no beating the undhiyu when it comes to not just flavour and taste, but also in its amazing nutritional profile and wholesome uniqueness.
In being a true Gujarati delight, the undhiyu is readily relished throughout the expanse of this western Indian state. With every morphing of geography however, there occur certain tweaks and twists in the recipe, meaning therefore that even in its identity that rattles up an entire world of emotions for every Gujarati, the undhiyu reiterates its presence in slightly different variations. Making also therefore for a recipe that is as exclusive as it is ‘egalitarian’, the undhiyu indeed comes across a dish worthy of its national image in the sheer amount of diversity that makes it so versatile a delicacy gorged upon with the most gargantuan of appetites every winter.
As an exclusively offbeat preparation, the very mention of undhiyu prepares one for what can be expected out of this very classic preparation of vegetables galore, at least in the technique of it. Deriving its name from the word for upside down in Gujarat, that which is undhu, this is a preparation that traditionally is cooked upside down underground in earthen pots, termed “matlu”, which are fired from above. In its technique therefore that already sounds laborious, this really meticulous dish cooks up a panoply of the most unique flavours, subtle yet hearty, making for an offering so tugging at the nostalgia of every Gujarati that is instantly discernible to anyone the minute they have dug into some spoonfuls of this bowl of ephemeral goodness.
What lends this exclusively winter dish so much of its flavours is indeed the fresh, seasonal produce that permeates every bite of it. Such veggies that characterise the harvest season in most parts of India make up this hearty offering of health and deliciousness, rendered a different kind of taste with the smoky flavour of the earthen pot in which it needs to be cooked for the most authentic feel of it. Notable in its inclusion of vegetables as ubiquitous as the potato and as uncommonplace as the purple yam, the undhiyu comes across as a medley of the most exquisite and most popular of plant produce. Green beans and tender new peas, thrown in often with the pod as well, unripe bananas, small eggplants, plantains make for the most integral of fares that sum up this dish of fresh harvest, albeit with such additions that only strive to make it all the more diverse. Apart from the assortment of veggies and tubers however, any undhiyu preparation also includes some specific kind of fritters that which are known as muthiyas. Made by combining methi or fenugreek leaves with besan and wheat flour and a whole lot of spices, these muthias need also to be steamed and fried separately before finding their way into the final undhiyu preparation.
In fact, it isn’t just the muthiyas that are prepared individually; every single vegetable that makes up for the dish of undhiyu in their entirety is first cooked individually, making the preparation all the more extravagant. Because the many different ingredients that make for the undhiyu do not all cook at the same time and in the same manner is why they need to be tended to separately in separate pots for the maximum infusion of flavour and taste through even and perfect cooking of them. Not just the cooking, even the method of cutting the veggies is as exclusive- some need to be chopped, some diced, some cut into strips while still some, particularly the eggplants slit enough to stuff them with some masala, that which also is prepared separately. Slow cooked to smoky perfection before they are finally included in a tomato gravy, simmered for hours on end so that the final preparation is a dry mixture of the most exotic winter vegetables, the method of making undhiyu is no any less cult in status as is the dish that is recognised nationally as a Gujarati classic. Even the cooking method is markedly diverse with the earthen pots being sealed by a particular type of green leaves called the kalra that which also lends its sweet flavour and aroma to it. Placed underground and covered with hay, sugarcane waste and cowdung cakes that are set on fire, the distinctive method of cooking is what lends the undhiyu much of its characteristic taste and signature flavour.
Undhiyu tends however also to be a one pot dish across some of its regional variations, like in the Surti version that which is marked by the prominent presence of surti beans and which sees cooking everything at once but in different layers, making allowance for the diverse kind of preparation for each ingredient. Still more assertive is the preparation of the dish in the Valsad district of the state where it is known as umbadiyu, a name that also alludes to a similar preparation among the Parsis and one that comes also steeped in the rich deliciousness of meaty inclusions. Across all its encompassments however, the resultant dish is always a dry preparation, with intact chunks of vegetables coated with all the masala and oil, that which is achieved by very little stirring of the mixture during the entire cooking process. Crunchy in some of its elements yet perfectly cooked as a whole, undhiyu indeed is a tricky dish to master which explains partly the place of pride it occupies in the Gujarati culinary space as an assertion of the nuanced play of cooking skills in churning out a dish that is a different world altogether in its many flavours and the finesse so typical to it.
For a dish so evoking in essence, whether it be in regard to the unifying appeal for all Gujaratis or as a seasonal indulgence that caters to the body as much as it does to the senses, it is no any surprise that undhiyu occupies a distinct place in the cultural space of Gujarat as well. One of the essentially special Makar Sankranti foods of the state, that which however celebrates the harvest festival as Uttarayan. Marked by such prominent celebrations that which encompass kite flying activities, this festival celebrating also the advent of summer is most notable in the servings of undhiyu since it serves as almost the last indulgence in this classic dish for the season, till the next advent of winter that is. Also palpable of its standing in the cultural lineage of Gujarat is just how elevated a status undhiyu enjoys within the regional food scene, specifically for a land that is so famous for its many snacks that sees even the collective term ‘farsaan’ attributing to them. Surpassing even perhaps the pan Indian appeal of its fafdas and jalebis and dhoklas and handvos and khandvis, undhiyu occupying place of prominence amongst the other hugely popular foods of Gujarat is yet another testament of its cult culinary class.
But while undhiyu might enjoy place of reverence within the stately ambits of Gujarat, it is by no means the only such dish. In the neighbouring state of Maharashtra, a similar dish occupies centerstage during the harvest festival there. For farmers of Coastal Maharashtra near Alibaug, it is Popti that which sums up a world of similar emotions as what undhiyu does in the land of lions and legends. Referring both to the festival as well as to the dish that is integral to the celebrations therein, the preparation here however tend to be a non vegetarian delight. Specifically including vaal beans that which in fact is the harvest that Popti tends to celebrate, the dish is a rather hearty melange of potatoes and onions and beans with eggs and chicken, minimally spiced and cooked in earthen pots on a woodfire for a similar dish that also is notable in the smoky taste and feel of it. Not just within the confines of India though, similar one pot dishes are also not a rarity in other parts of the world, the most popular being perhaps the French classic ratatouille. For a dish so iconic to find international resonance, undhiyu rightfully deserves all the fame accruing to it, irrespective of whether it is anytime of the winters, of January or of Uttarayan instead.