I must have been less than 10 years old when I visited Rishikesh for the first time, and the only time I have been there. Perhaps I was younger. Our memories are so peculiarly selective—details are often blurred as we grow old. My parents took me and my sisters on immensely long trips during the summer break albeit to places that had some spiritual connection. Rishikesh, part of Devbhoomi, land of gods as Uttarakhand is often referred, was an obvious choice.
I still crease up with laughter at that family picture taken on Laxman Jhoola, my eldest sister trying to play along the typical coaxing before every photograph, "smile please", my elder sister almost ready to get out of the frame as mother held her tightly and father nudging me to simper. I and my sisters with our windblown bob cut hairs and bangs look quite riotous in it, and it's evident we weren't willing to pose. It was a relatively hot day, and all of us had taken off our sweaters and other must-have gear for the hills, our scarves tied by mother's bag and jerseys by our waists. I remember we were hungry, eager to devour plates at the local eatery we stopped by next.
It was a shack down the suspension bridge, a few blocks of walking distance. Unadorned and rustic, the eatery had wooden benches outside for travellers to sit and enjoy all the pahadi khana—food of the hills. A dense crowd outside was foolproof to father that the food would be good, although mother has always been slightly disapproving of eating at such places. I ate pahadi aloo gutke for the first time at that tiny joint selling large portions of food for really paltry prices from what I recall. There was a relish of greens on the side, with hot gahat ki dal and steamed rice. Food is such a pneumonic. Every time I think of Rishikesh and that trip, that bowl of aloo gutke emerges crystal clear in my memories.
Although India has an elaborate expanse of mountainous regions including, Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, parts of Punjab, Uttarakhand and Sikkim, the Hindi word pahad literally meaning mountains or hills, strangely gets associated with the state of Uttarakhand and its many quaint cities only. And, anything from the hills or the mountains means pahadi. It was many years later that I married into a pahadi family and realized that the tempering in the quintessential potato stir fry of the hills isn't seasoned with usual mustard seeds as I had first thought as a child, rather with seeds of a rare wild plant called jakhya in the local dialect, which goes by the botanical name, Cleome Viscosa. Black in colour, it's much smaller than mustard and adds a distinctive crunch and fragrance. As my mom-in-law learned from panditji, head cook in our family home at Haldwani, she enlightened me that jakhya isn't cultivated as a traditional crop like mustard. It grows of its own accord on the rugged Himalayan Terai and Sivalik Hills, often as a second fiddle beside other native plants.
Uttarakhand is divided into two regions, Kumaon and Gadhwal, and jakhya happens to be a dominant member amidst spice jars in all homes in both these terrains. Dogged life in the hills, especially in the upper altitudes, has many lessons to offer on simple and slow living. The extensive use of native Himalayan spices like jakhya, timur (a variety of pepper), faran (or jimbu, a herb from the onion family), gandhrayan (a Himalayan herb), bhaangjeera (hemp seeds) in the Kumaoni and Gadhwali kitchens is a deliberation on how locals prepare and eat food in its most unedited form.
My husband, a champion of slow living and simple eating, loves pahadi aloo gutke as much as he loves the other non-pahadi versions of it. Whether it's the sookhe aloo or aloo jeera (potatoes tempered with mustard or cumin), or the dosa waley aloo (the mash potato filling that goes inside a dosa), he loves them all. He has fond memories of aloo gutke, gutke means pieces in the Kumaoni dialect, his Bua M (Aunt M) made—eminently charred at the bottom, smelling of mustard oil, crispy on the outside and soft inside, done to perfectness but not mushy—and ladled with love on a plate of hot pooris or paratha, bringing heaven all the way to his mouth in every bite. Since that's the way he likes it most, I intentionally char the potato chunks a bit more. It's an art, the char. You don't want to burn them but you definitely want the brown roasted edges and bottom on the potatoes.
Finding jakhya outside the Himalayan belt can be hard, although globalization has been helpful in making things available at our fingertips. Ever since my papa-in-law got me a good stock of jakhya for me from a pahadi mela (local fair in the hills) in 2019, my Canadian kitchen hasn't seen dearth of it. While many will propose aloo jeera as an equivalent, purists will dismiss the substitution of jakhya with mustard or cumin. I'm with the latter on this one. For an authentic taste like how it's made at home, and to genuinely call a potato stir fry as pahadi aloo gutke, cooking it with mustard oil and tempering it with jakhya are key. The rest are extremely basic pantry spices.
Make this easy stir fry on a weekday or weekend and enjoy with dal and rice or flatbreads with some raita. There isn't much you need to do. It needs 20 minutes of your time and some easy techniques to create this magical dish of the hills.
Pahadi aloo gutke literally means big chunks of pahadi potatoes, a variety of potatoes that grows in the mid-lower region of Himalayas where Uttarakhand is located. While you may not find this variety of potatoes easily outside this region, you can still cook any variety of potatoes in this fashion. Pahadi potatoes cook much faster, and do not need pre-boiling. If you're using any other variety of potatoes, simply boil them before hand and you're sorted.
If using a pressure cooker to boil the potatoes, do not cook them beyond 2 whistles to prevent turning them mushy. If boiling in a pot, boil until an inserted fork comes out effortlessly through the skin of the potatoes.
To ensure maximum char and crisp edges, shuffle the boiled potatoes in a vessel before adding into the pan for sautéing, and once you season the potatoes, cover and cook them on medium heat. The steam helps to cook and soften the potatoes from inside while the medium to high heat helps to roast them nice at the bottom and on the sides.
4-5 medium sized potatoes
2 tbsp mustard mustard oil (or any oil of your preference, although mustard will provide authentic taste)
1 and 1/2 tsp jakhya (dog mustard or wild mustard)
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp red chili powder (preferably a variety that provides colour but isn't too hot like Kashmiri or Deggi)
1 tsp coriander powder
2 dried whole red chilies
1 tsp salt, or to taste
2 tbsp fresh coriander leaves with stems, chopped
Boil the potatoes in a pressure cooker on medium flame for 2 whistles only. Remove from heat and let the steam escape naturally. OR Wash and cut the potatoes in half. Boil 4-5 cups of water in a tall pot and add the potatoes into it and boil for 25-30 minutes or until the potatoes are done and tender on pricking with a fork. Note: If you're using the pahadi aloo variety available locally in Uttarakhand, you'd not necessarily boil them beforehand. They easily soften when covered and cooked in a pan.
Remove the potatoes from the hot water, peel and chop them into large pieces.
(optional) Add them to a colander or dish that has a lid. Now shuffle the potatoes in the colander/dish slightly by shaking swiftly so that the edges of the potatoes get ruffled. This will ensure crispy edges when they're finally sautéed.
In a bowl, add 1 tsp oil, turmeric and red chili, and mix to make a paste. Add a few drops of water to adjust consistency. This ensures that the spices don't burn while you toss the potatoes on high heat.
In a pan or wok that has a lid, add the remaining oil. Heat the oil to smoking point if using mustard oil. Once hot, add jakhya, let them sputter and then add the dry whole red chilies. Move the chilies in the pan with a spatula and let them smoke up. Now reduce the flame slightly and add the masala paste and cook for 30-40 seconds.
Add the boiled potatoes and stir to combine. Once the potatoes are coated with the masala, add salt and stir gently taking care to not break the pieces. Cover and cook on medium to high heat to let the potatoes char from the bottom. Open in between and check the crispiness. This should take about 10-15 minutes.
Remove from heat, add fresh coriander and serve hot!