The little white knight that helped me peel the potatoes last Friday

I know children love playing around with dough, or licking bowls streaked with chocolate cake batter [points at self vigorously], but I know few kids under twelve who would care to remember, let alone observe, the nuances of their mothers’ recipes. Even fewer who could contemplate that the fried fish we had at the shack the other day could have done better with a tinge of lemon. And of kids who’ve already got their life ambitions set on a restaurant concept in Paris and New York, right down to the location, menu designers, chef compensation and housing package, and training strategy for the cooks…all already in the planning, I know virtually none. With one exception – my little 12-year old cousin. The boy is a culinary genius in the making, and I am privileged to have already been recruited as the co-partner in his high-flying restaurateur schemes.

But until the day he becomes my boss, he can continue playing sous-chef in my kitchen endeavors. Like he did this Friday, literally tripping over his toes with eagerness to mash the potatoes or stir the sauce for a popular Indian street snack I was attempting to make: Dabeli. Like most Indian street food, Dabeli has this boomerang effect in your mouth where each element ricochets off the other, sweet against sour, chilly against yoghurt, deep-fried against boiled, crispy against soggy, all coming together to have this cacophonic BOOM-SMACK-POW! in your mouth. In a good way of course. In a very good way. In a so-dang-it-good-you-want-to-plunge-headfirst-in-a-bottomless-lake-fullofit way.

Other than a few notable modifications, like lowering the ratio of dates to tamarind in the date-tamarind chutney, or roasting the garlic instead of grinding it raw for the garlic sauce, we followed Tarla Dalal’s online recipe to get a sense of what spices and ingredients needed to go in. The snack itself had looked so super easy to make when Sourabh’s mom had made it for me back in the U.S. And true enough, the actual elements building up to the dabeli – the spiced potato filling, the date-tamarind and garlic chutneys, and the many garnishes: store-bought sev (salty deep-fried gram flour noodles) and pav (uber-soft and pillowy buns), coriander, pomegranate seeds, peanuts, chopped onions – were nothing ground-breaking.

But one and only word can best describe the final assembly of the Dabeli – slap ghee on skillet rip open pav slam face down toast up pull off slap on potato filling on one side slather tamarind-date chutney on other side sprinkle pomegranate seeds onions peanuts few splodges of garlic chutney garnish with coriander leaves [frenzied activity pauses for a brief millisecond as the chef garnishes with that final coriander leaf with utmost artistic flair and finesse] – it was INTENSE. If someone had videotaped my cousin and me trying to assemble all fifteen of the dabelis in time for lunch, and edited out all the kitchenware and food in the scenes, I think our frantic moves could have given birth to a new age of spastic hip-hop.

It’s safe to say that I would have been a hysterical basket case had I been subject to the deadly dabeli assembly line all alone, but genius cousin was right there like an elf, sliding in the chutney from one side, or shrieking foul play if I missed the peanuts on the top*. My Friday lunch sessions can really turn into sessions of Chopped in the kitchen, except that I’m the lone contestant and I often still lose.

*it only occurred to me a day later that I could have just mixed up all the chutneys and toppings, except the crispy sev, with the potato filling all at once in the bowl and slapped them on the pav in one go. So much for quick thinking. I think my brain had become potato mush by this point too.

All said and done, I think  I we won this time. 2 parents, 1 uncle, my cousin’s older brother, and then little sous-chef and I all sat around dunking our dabelis into the chutney as we talked about restaurants to try and where to go swim and the upcoming chocolate factory visit and all those other loose odds and ends that get stirred up when plates of warm familiar food bring the family together at the table.

To the little white knight who peeled and mashed the potatoes, deseeded the pomegranates, heaped up the sev, stepped in as the official stirrer in those crucial seconds when I had to step away from the stove, and washed every dish not once, but multiple times [I can be such a clumsy futz with clean dishes in the kitchen] – but most importantly, to the little boy who actually helped start this blog by coming out to review restaurants with me when I moved back to Dubai and everyone thought taking photos of the cucumber on your salad plate called for serious psychotic help – a big THANK YOU. Taher, till the day our roles switch in a kitchen in Paris, here’s to many more food excursions and kitchen experiments, just you and me.

Author: InaFryingPan

With a family legacy of ingenious cooks, a nutritionist and chef-extraordinaire mother, and a father who introduced me to steak and caviar when I could barely reach the table, I had no choice but to acquire a keen awareness of food during my childhood years in Dubai. But it was only after I found myself on a college campus in Philadelphia – far away from home, too cheap as a student to spend on anything other than pizza, and with dorm rooms that had little rat-holes of kitchens if they even had them at all – when I developed a heightened appreciation of food. An appreciation of food that I once ate every night at the dinner table in Dubai, but that was now an entire ocean away. I lusted for the culinary treasures that lay outside the stale walls of my college dining hall, hijacked friends’ kitchens to try my hand at something, anything , remotely edible, and greedily raided different websites in search of highly-rated restaurants. With my move to New York to work for a consulting firm that secretly harbored self-professed foodies, my appreciation transformed into a passion, an addicition. I felt like everyone around me in New York was talking about food: where to get the best cupcakes, pizza slices, banh mi, kati rolls, pho, fried chicken, and every other food item out there that is just a plain old dish in some part of the world, but that’s become hyped to unforeseen proportions in New York. What fuelled my addiction over time was travel to different cities, both for work and play, which gave me unfettered access to the culinary havens of not only New York, but also of DC, Virginia, Chicago, Houston, Vegas, Austin, Seattle and even a little city called Bentonville (Arkansas!). After 9 years away from home, I’ve finally taken the leap to come back to Dubai – with not just an awareness, but genuine appreciation and passionate addiction for what I’d taken for granted as a child. Mom, I’m back to reclaim my seat at your dinner table, and to rediscover this city with its ever-expanding menu of international flavors.

14 thoughts on “The little white knight that helped me peel the potatoes last Friday

  1. Complete Foodie says:

    I am the hugest fan of street food and am ashamed to say that I haven’t heard of the Dabeli before! They do look amazing though, and the great photos make it look even more mouth wateringly delicious. If only all kitchens came with 12 year old cousins who did most of the work for us :D

  2. Sally says:

    Can you and the white knight come over and cook these for KP please?!

  3. saleem says:

    Yes I can vouch that what Arva and Taher made for us was delicious and light as well.

    1. InaFryingPan says:

      @Complete Foodie – not just any 12 year olds, but talented chef-like ones…that I’m dreading that phase when he’s 18 and thinks it’s uncool to cook with me anymore. :(

      @Sally – haha, you bet Sally. We charge for our services in gingerbread.

      @Saleem – yay! vote of confidence from dad! Thanks daddy :D

  4. Sri says:

    I run the risk of getting into trouble with my wife, but I will say it anyway – I think I am starting to fall in love with this blog!!!
    I stumbled upon this blog while reading your review of N-Grill (you sure did one hell of a grill job on them) on one of the restaurants-in-Hyderabad sites.

    Bravo!! Great site…love the photos, the review and deprecating (self or otherwise) humour. Long live the iliveinafryingpan!!

  5. Sukaina says:

    Oh wow Arva. You have me craving for street food with all the dirt and sweat of Mumbai in it. Your photos are gorgeous and you’re really giving me a run for my money. Beautiful beautiful beautiful. Now I just need Maryam to age an extra 10 years so she can help me in the kicthen too :)

  6. @FaridaA says:

    Why wasn’t my share put aside??? Taher is super to have around and am so glad you dedicated this post to him :)

    1. InaFryingPan says:

      @Sri – aw that’s so sweet, I just can’t stand here and watch as you get into trouble. :(

      PLEA TO SRI’S WIFE: Please let hubby read my blog…maybe he’ll get inspired and cook you lunch?

      @Sukaina – Oh chaat, the one thing on earth that tastes better with all the schmuck that falls into it. As for Maryam, I can only imagine that she’d be a culinary genius in a year or two with her mommy’s awesome cooking and food blog ;)

      @Farida – oh dear. we didn’t keep any aside for you did we? *smacks self* Noted, next time, Taher and I will do better budgeting for absentee family members.

  7. radZ says:

    My favourite line in this one is " so-dang-it-good-you-want-to-plunge-headfirst-in-a-bottomless-lake-fullofit " !
    Love the close-up of the coriander seeds :)
    Hats off to Taher and may his passion for food remain everlasting !

  8. Saif says:

    Thanks to you & Taher for such a delicious and different dish on a lazy Friday afternoon. I had initially planned to eat just one to keep it light but ended up having 3 (Farida’s share as well) !!! Thanks also for encouraging and involving Taher in your quest for good food. Keep it up and you’ll keep winning.

    1. InaFryingPan says:

      @radZ – thanks for all the post love, really appreciate it! :D

      @Saif – Mamu, I think Taher gets this love for great food from you and Maami. You parents should be proud that you have a budding chef in the house!

  9. sssourabh says:

    Yummo, can’t believe I didn’t see this before! Momsy will be pleased to see it. I have to say I love street-esque food, and you know what, I cannot believe you and I have NOT done street food ever. I seriously cannot recall (Chicago doesn’t count). This is awesome, especially for the white knight :) LOVERLY photography!

    1. InaFryingPan says:

      @sssourabh – Your mommy is the best cook ever! I miss her cooking like crazy, she’d always create things that would blow you out of your mind. Though my dabelis took 3x the effort it seemed to take her, and were probably way less awesome than hers too :( Happy stuffed me –> Sad empty sssourabh-mommy-missing me.

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