Have you ever eaten something that's made entirely of green peas but looks nothing like it? Then, you're here for a treat!
Matar ka Nimona is a stew that tells the story of winters in the Gangetic plains of India, a dish that celebrates fresh peas and newly harvested potatoes in all their glory.
I remember veracious winters when my family was based in Ranchi and Jamshedpur. Packed in layers of warm clothing, only our nose and lips visible, I and my sisters sat with four other children in a somewhat tottering autorickshaw and went to school as early as 6:30 in the morning. Chilly winds, fog and whooshing trees were routine stories as the rickshaw turned around Jubilee Park. By mid day I was eager to reach my bag because mother would have packed the lunchbox with the best meals of the season: parathas stuffed with potatoes or cauliflowers, ghee laden chapatis with simply sautéed peas, mushy garlicky radish or spinach greens or sweet smelling halwa of carrots. The freshest produce of winter is irresistible and being a rare child who loved sabz khana (green food) I ate to my heart's content, and needless to say mother was proud of me and my neatly eaten dabba.
While we lived in the twin cities of Bihar and Jharkhand, my family also got acquainted to many from the Hindi Heartland of India, Uttar Pradesh. Father, a charming talker had many colleagues and friends from his years of service at the bank. We knew people from Allahabad, Benaras, Kanpur, Mathura, Gorakhpur and all of them had the ingenuity to turn winter produce into finger-licking delicacies. On several weekends in winter, we witnessed family gatherings on the communal terraces of our colony. Kerosene operated stoves were setup and everyone got busy bringing platters of green fresh peas, peeled potatoes and carrots, washed tomatoes, turnips and radishes, and bags of flour. As the sun shone through the morning, mats were laid and stoves were pumped. Prodigious iron kadais were brought out and generous quantities of nimona matar (stew made of ground fresh peas), tehri (fluffy rice made with veggies like cauliflower, carrots and potatoes) and gajar halwa were made and served with several batches of pooris (fried bread). Although I got a taste of the most appetizing nimona matar then, I didn't quite understand its history and relevance until I grew up and moved to Bombay.
On a rather frigid day in the barely existent winter of Bombay, I came across nimona matar again. The Bangladeshi cook had been well trained in the family from Meerut in Uttar Pradesh, and had prepared a delicious medley of ground peas, parboiled potatoes and fried moong bean dumplings. Gregarious B, the cook, walked me through the process of how she had learned and mastered the art of making the winter stew of fresh peas while the family told me how nimona originated in Uttar Pradesh and spread to other parts of the fertile northern plains in India.
Made across Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh, nimona varies in taste and texture depending on the family and community where it's made. While the Benarasi version is bereft of onions and garlic, many communities in Uttar Pradesh make it strictly with onions. Some add tomatoes and boiled potatoes while some choose to fry the potatoes and not add tomatoes at all. Asafoetida, cumin and ghee are dominant in most recipes, while some may add a good dose of ginger and garlic. Some make it with glugs of mustard oil with a hint of garam masala in the end, and that happens to be the version I like the most. Accomplished writer and one of my favourite narrators, Anubhuti Krishna, has written an evocative essay on nimona on Goya Journal, and you may want to give it a read to know how the preparation varies across different regions.
Nimona is not merely a winter stew or a way of utilizing fresh winter peas. It's an emotion, one that emanates salubriousness, a feeling of warmth on days that are short and nights that are long. Mother did not necessarily make this at home even though she made a lot of things she learned from other cultures. Father had a fetish for those patio and courtyard get-togethers under the winter sky, and the acquainted families welcomed us with good servings of their typical matar ka nimona. Over the years, this has become a part of my everyday meals in the winters when green peas are best in taste, a dish that reminds me the joys of winter despite the frost and snow.
How I make nimona is naturally influenced from what I learned from the makers and the recipes I relished most. My recipe is easy with some basic prep. Fresh peas ground to a coarse paste and sautéed in cumin, ginger and tomatoes, cooked to let the fat float on top, and soft boiled potatoes dunked in a stew like gravy with badis (lentil dumplings) adding a hint of crunchiness and bites of excitement—this dish is a complete wholesome meal on its own! I like to add a dollop of freshly ground coriander, ginger and green chilies that adds a distinctive spicy note and a gorgeous colour to the stew. This is something I learnt from the cook B at my friend's house in Bombay. Make some simple rotis or ajwain parathas, or indulge in some pooris or cook some hot steamed rice and scoop a bowl of nimona off on a winter day bathing in the sun! Perhaps you'll then understand what I'm trying to emphasize here.
While grinding the peas, make it a coarse paste than fine. Although some recipes make it into a fine paste, I find leaving some peas intact gives a good texture to the gravy.
Add the wadis (dried legume dumplings) only when the gravy is almost ready. If you add them before the gravy is cooked, they will turn soggy and lose their crunch.
You can definitely make this stew without boiled potatoes. In that case, sauté the potatoes for 10 minutes before adding the spices in step 4.
Nimona celebrates the goodness of peas, so don't go high on a lot of spices. Freshly ground coriander seeds, turmeric and asafoetida are sufficient to enhance flavours. Garam masala in the end is great, but not mandatory.
2 cups green peas, shelled and boiled for 5-10 minutes
2 small potatoes, boiled and peeled, cut into wedges
1 medium tomato, sliced
3-4 dal wadi/badi (dried lentil dumplings)
3 tbsp mustard oil (or any other oil of your preference)
For the green masala: 10-15 coriander stalks with leaves, 1-inch ginger, 1-2 green chilies You can choose to not add the coriander, and only pound ginger and chilies together. Taste will vary but not diminish.
For the tempering/tadka: 1 tsp cumin, 1/4 tsp asafoetida, 2 red dried whole chilies
Other spices: 1/4 tsp turmeric, 1/2 tsp freshly coarse ground coriander seeds (or coriander powder), 1/2 tsp garam masala
1 tsp salt, or to taste
In a blender, make a paste of the ingredients mentioned under green masala by adding little water.
Make a coarse paste of the boiled peas and keep aside. Ensure to leave some peas intact. I usually mash the peas with clean hands or use a potato masher.
In a deep pan or wok (kadhai), heat mustard oil to smoking point and then add the badis. Fry for about 1 minute and then remove the badis and keep aside. Now, slightly reduce the heat if needed, and do the tempering with cumin going in first, followed by the dry red whole chilies and then asafoetida.
Add the green masala and toss for a minute or until the residual water is reduced from the paste. Now add the tomatoes and sauté until the tomatoes soften and start losing their skin—about 4-5 minutes. At this point of time, add turmeric and coriander powder and sauté to cook the spices—roughly 3-4 minutes. Next add a pinch of salt and mix.
Add the ground peas paste and stir to combine. Now cook the peas with the masala until the oil separates on the sides of the pan or wok. This will take about 15 to 20 minutes. Stir occasionally at medium heat and keep adding splashes of water to avoid anything from burning.
When the masala is fully cooked, add more water to adjust consistency, slide in the boiled potatoes and fried wadis, and sprinkle garam masala and salt. Gently give a mix and let the stew simmer for 10 minutes before turning off the heat. Cover and rest for 4-5 minutes before serving.
Squeeze a bit of lemon before serving if you wish.