Julia Child in Delhi – Author Rakshanda Jalil’s Marvellous Cook Bishen Singh Cooks His Famous Homely Poha, Central Delhi
The great chef’s life in Delhi.
[Text and pictures by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Author Rakhshanda Jalil is famous for translating classic Urdu novels into English and for her writings on Delhi’s monuments. Even so, it is gross injustice to this beautiful woman that nobody knows her sparkling abilities as a baker—she makes absolutely fabulous baked Christmas pudding and fettuccini bread.
But did The Delhi Walla tell you of her frail, beautiful mother Mehjabeen, who retired years ago as a librarian in Delhi Public School (Mathura Road branch) and is still fondly remembered by generations of ex-DPS students. There is barely any dish that the soft-spoken Mehjabeen doesn’t make brilliantly, and her khichda—a dish of dal and meat usually made in Muharram-is to die for. A newspaper once featured Mehjabeen in a story on Iftar delicacies.
But did I tell you of Ms Jalil’s cook?
Although it might not be a wise thing to compare two different artists but we shall risk Ms Jalil’s wrath by declaring that her cook is better than her—in vegetarian cooking at least. Bishen Singh’s crisp arbi ki sabzi is homelier than the one you get at home. And his tiny matar samosas are better than their famous counterparts in Old Delhi’s Chandni Chowk.
I can go on and on singing about Bishenji, as he is called in the Jalil household. For instance, his lettuce sandwich will shame the exorbitantly-priced versions sold in Khan Market.
Ms Jalil’s two daughters have their own Bishenji favorites. Aaliya goes moony over his ‘pizza bread’ and Insha has a soft spot for his gobhi paratha.
And when Ms Jalil’s friends organize get-togethers in her back garden, some of them look forward to her hand-made shami kebabs and others to Bishenji’s poha. It’s very popular.
One afternoon I met Bishenji at his workstation—Ms Jalil’s kitchen that is, in her Central Delhi residence–and requested him not only to give away his poha recipe but also to make it for us in front of our eyes.
Bishenji, 47, hails from Rudraprayag, the town in the Himalayas where the Alaknanda river meets Mandakini. He moved to Delhi in the late 1980s because “there was hardly any worthwhile occupation in the hills.” Bishenji first worked as a peon to a lawyer and later—thanks to accident of circumstances that principally drive migrant life in big cities—he found himself working as a cook in a Jain family where meat and eggs were a taboo subjects. It was in that kitchen that Bishenji learned and developed tricks in vegetarian cooking. His family still lives in the mountain village. (When Bishenji is alone in Ms Jalil’s kitchen, he is often heard singing Pahadi songs of his native land.)
Bishenji has been working with Ms Jalil for three years. He makes all the vegetarian parts of her meal, and he himself “doesn’t touch meat.”
To be sure, poha doesn’t demand a complicated groundwork and Bishenji’s preparation is deceptively simple. However, if your version doesn’t taste up to your expectations, try getting an invite to Ms Jalil’s table.
Poha recipe for three people
1 Onion, chopped
I carrot, chopped,
50 gm beans, chopped
1 twig of kari patta
200 gm of poha
50 gm roasted peanuts
Turmeric, I table spoon
Salt to taste
Oil, I table spoon
1) Place karahi (small cauldron) on the burner.
2) Pour oil and heat it for a minute.
3) Add kari patta and let it splutter
4) Add mustard seeds and fry them a bit.
5) Add onion and stir until light brown.
6) Add beans and carrots, toss for a minute. Add haldi and stir more. Add a spoonful of water. Cover the mixture with a lid and let it ‘steam’ for two minutes
7) Meanwhile wash the poha in a large strainer, and crush the peanuts in a grinder.
8) Take off the lid and add crushed roasted peanuts into the mixture. Stir for a minute. Add poha.
9) Add salt, and stir.
10) Add a tea spoon of water, cover the poha with a lid and let it steam for two minutes.
11) Turn off the burner. Add freshly chopped dhaniya leaves just before serving.
The making of Bishenji’s poha
1. (Bishen Singh)
2. (Rakhshanda Jalil & daughters)