Being a small-town girl, I had to commute everyday to Calcutta for work. It might be a frightening thought to those who are not used to that kind of travel, but it was fun to many of us. We took the same train every day and became like friends and family. The hour-long train ride use to be really fun and exciting. Trust me, every morning I used to look forward to the morning commute. In the evening it wasn’t that enjoyable. Everybody was already tired from the day’s work, the Calcutta heat and traffic and sometimes if you were unfortunate enough, the added hassle of an aborodh (mass protest by blocking public transport, a Bengali specialty which can last for hours). But, if you were lucky, you got to catch the train you wanted, the heat wasn’t too bad and your daily passenger friends not once but twice a day.
On the train, entertainment also came from itinerant vendors who sold everything starting from food to underwear. If you were a daily passenger, you could pay in installments, all on trust. Someone knew someone and that someone knew someone else who knew the vendor who then extended credit without question. Amazingly, it always worked out. Among the zillion vendors, some were my favorites. These were usually the ones who sold food, jewelry or clothes. There was one old man we called ‘ghugni dadu’ (elderly man who sells curried chickpeas) who used to board the returning train two stations before my town. He carried his daily batch of ghugni in a large aluminum hnari (pot) with a loose-fitting lid. It was freshly made every day and would still be hot when I was going home on the evening train. On the top of the lid, he would put all the accompaniments like chopped onion, cilantro, green chilis, tamarind water, black salt, roasted spices (bhaja moshla) and red chili powder. Even the thought of it still tickles my taste buds so many years later. As I had very little time left on the train and used to be starving, I looked for him eagerly and the moment I saw him, I would literally shout from the other side of the compartment to get the first serving.
Till date, his ghugni was the best I ever had. It was really a mush, a clump of overcooked motor (yellow peas) dumped on a shaal-patar baati (bowls made from Shal leaves), but it was just delicious. Try as I might, I’ll probably never reproduce the same ghugni that dadu sold on that hot crowded train in my air-conditioned US kitchen, even with freshly ground spices and best ingredients available. I can only close my eyes while eating the ghugni below and pretend I’m on the 8.45pm Bandel local train with dadu about to climb on at Bhadreswar.
Ghugni recipe (cooked by Maa):
Not in a mood for savory? Try this.
Chickpeas/yellow peas: 1 cup
Onion: 1 large, half finely chopped and half paste
Ginge paste: 2 tbsp
Red chili powder: 1 tsp.
Coriander and cumin whole: 1 tbsp each (grind them to a paste)
You can use cumin and coriander powder as well. Just mix the powders along with the red chili powder with the ginger paste and leave them for few minutes.
Turmeric: ½ tsp
Tomato: 1 small
Oil: 1 ½ tbsp
Garam masala (clove-cinnamon-cardamom ground together): 1 tsp
Green chili: 2-3 nos.
Cilantro: a handful chopped fine
Tamarind water/lemon juice: as needed (soak a lemon size tamarind in water for few minutes and them squeeze the juice out of it. Discard the pulp)
Chat masala/roasted coriander-cumin powder: as needed (dry roast 1 tbsp. each of whole coriander and cumin and one dry red chili. Cool and then grind them to a fine powder)
- Drain the chickpeas and wash them with two-three changes of water. Drain again.
- If you are using dry yellow peas, soak them with three cups of water and leave them overnight. Drain the water and use it the next day
- Mix the cumin-coriander-red chili powder together, add it to the ginger-garlic paste and mix together.
- Finely chop the tomato and try to reserve the juice as much as possible.
- Heat up the oil in a pan, add the chopped onion and the onion paste and sauté them until translucent.
- Add the ginger-coriander-cumin-red chili paste and sauté for few more minutes.
- Add the tomato and turmeric powder and cook the paste for several minutes until oil leaves the side of the pan.
- Add the yellow peas and cook in the spice paste for few more minutes. The masala/spice paste should get rid of the raw taste/smell.
- Add around three cups of water and salt to taste.
- Mix well and transfer the content to a pressure cooker.
- Turn the heat to medium and let it whistle once. Turn off the heat and let the steam come out naturally. Uncover and check for seasoning. If the peas are not cooked yet, boil them until cooked.
- If using a regular pot, let the whole thing come to a boil and then turn the heat to medium. Cover the pot until the peas are cooked.
- If you are using canned chickpeas, do not add the chickpeas to the spice paste. Instead add water to the spice paste and let it come to a boil.
- Boil it for several minutes until the raw taste of the spices are gone.
- Add the chickpeas and stir gently.
- Cook them for another 5-10 minutes.
- Check for salt.
- When done, add the garam masala powder and cover the pan.
Serving suggestion: Top the chickpeas with little bit of chopped cilantro, finely chopped onion and few chopped green chili (skip it if you are not a fan of hot peppers). Drizzle a little bit of either lemon juice or tamarind water. Sprinkle a little bit of chat masala/roasted coriander-cumin powder and serve. The toppings serve an essential part of the dish, but if you do not have everything in hand, just sprinkle a dash of lemon juice and throw in a little bit of chopped cilantro and it will still taste great.