that there could be a word for holud or haldi in english had never occurred to me. i was fourteen, not interested in cooking, and beside, why would people who didn’t use it in any of their cooking bother to find a word for the yellow powder or paste present in practically everything we make?
we don’t have a word for parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. we don’t use those pretty sounding song-worthy herbs in our curries or ghontos or dalnas. nor our shingara, kochuri, dosa, rajma, dahi batata puri, prawn ghashi, beef fry, palya, biryani, maach tenga, raita, dal baati, gustaba, nothing, so why would we devise language for them? if we want to throw any of these into a dish, we’ll simply call them by those lovely names.
so when this aunty at a wedding, who had come from one of the small towns near calcutta to delhi to attend the nuptials of a niece who was the daughter of a well placed government officer, insisted on calling haldi turmeric, i was confounded.
she kept talking about the “tew-meric” for the gaye holud ceremony, a cousin kept giggling… i learnt a new word. still not quite sure why it had to exist.
when you roast chicken, you don’t rub some turmeric on the bird before putting it in the oven, you don’t add a pinch of it in the yorkshire pud; shepherd’s pie and fish and chips are fine without it. you don’t even believe raw turmeric is good for the skin and make a paste of it with neem, besan, and yogurt and sit still for twenty minutes with it slathered on your face so you have beautiful glowing skin.
or eat tiny foul tasting bits of it first thing in the morning because right from bacteria and pimples to diabetes and dyspepsia, there’s nothing it’s not good for. and of course you don’t have the gaye holud or haldi ceremony during a wedding with all its colour and play and coyness.
recently, i read turmeric latte was all the rage. made me smile. doodh haldi, or milk with turmeric is a cure all up north, and every tv soap must have at least one scene with loving sister/grandma/mother/great aunt giving the hero (sometimes the heroine) a huge glass of it, which he shall consume, grimacing and muttering. (my favourite hero looks so good doing that, i am willing to watch such nonsense all the time.)
when i started to learn cooking, i found that, desserts apart, almost everything had a dash of holud lonka in it. turmeric and chilli… the indispensable duo. at my grandparents’ home in calcutta, one of the maids would make turmeric paste and dry red chilli paste on the sheel nora every morning. in case you haven’t come across a sheel nora ever, it’s a simple stone/granite slab with little grooves cut into it and a cylindrical pestle, tapering off at the ends. you sit on your haunches and repeatedly crush the ingredient on the stone with the pestle, till a smooth paste is ready. the cook wouldn’t stoop to this menial task. the lesser mortals, mere assistants, had to do it.
in time, several companies in india started packaging the stuff in powder form and the daily sheel nora routine wasn’t necessary any longer. however, every now and then there would be talk of how all this was impure and no good, the real thing had the real taste… etc.
while i loved chilli, i used to often wonder if there was a way of doing away with holud altogether. of course, if you said that, someone or the other would give you a lecture on how it was really an antiseptic and how it had to be rubbed on fish before frying, not just for colour, but because it killed off germs. there was no way out. holud you had to.
okay, there are a few things into which we don’t throw in heaps or dashes of haldi, like my favourite shada torkari (white curry) of potatoes with paanch phoran and lots of butter. but in general, it’s in every dish. it is the cause, it is the the cause of the particular yellow hue of indian food.
in fact, holud means yellow.
it doesn’t really taste very nice, but you get used to the pungent scent and the slight bitterness gets masked by the other ingredients, like that lonka.
it’s a bit strange i must say when i see all the forwards on wonder food turmeric. it’s always been in our lives, without much fuss. holud, haldi, arishina, manja, tew-meric, whatever you call it.
and really, no matter how fabulous it is, please don’t add it to the roast, nor i think, the latte.
the most simple holud lonka fish curry
rohu/red snapper/ikan kurau 1 kg, cut into pieces for curry
onion seeds (kala jeera) 1 tsp or… paanch phoran 1 tsp
5/6 green chillies or… a dry red chilli and 3/4 green chillies
turmeric powder around 2 tsp
chilli powder one and a half tsp
water around 2 cups
wash fish slices. pat dry. rub a little salt and about half a teaspoon turmeric all over the fish. wait a bit. then heat oil in a wok, you have to deep fry the fish, but quickly. this is to make sure the surface gets toughened up so the fish doesn’t fall apart while cooking, also to hold the moisture in, so texture is succulent. over-fry and the taste sort of goes flat, the gravy doesn’t become part of the fish. in bengali this sort of frying is called “shatlano”, bit of an art. also the fish will adamantly stick to the pan, even as you try to turn it and take it out fast. at some point, you get the hang of it. the oil must be hot. and if you can flip the slice the moment you slide it into the oil, the problem of sticking might be avoided.
once the fish is fried, for a kilo, you’ll get about twelve to fourteen pieces, set it aside.
in a bowl, take a little water and the turmeric and chilli powder, blend to a smooth paste. keep a bowl of water handy.
heat about two/three tablespoon oil in a wok, i like mustard or sunflower. when the oil is hot, lower the flame, crack a couple of green chillies and throw them in, then add a teaspoon of black jeera, soon you’ll get a lovely smell.
this is when you add in the holud lonka straight into the oil. there’ll be much sound and fury, a sharp sizzle, a hit of flavour and fume right in your eyes, your nose, you may gasp and jump back. but you’ll keep stirring the holud lonka and wait for it to change colour, as the aroma grows more subtle, not so raw, and it all begins to stick to the bottom of the pan. let it stick, scrape off with your flat spatula and turn it around in the oil for a while. you can also sprinkle a little water as you fry the holud lonka, but just a splash.
now add about a cup and a half of water. bring it to a boil, add the fish and let it cook. doesn’t take long, about 10/15 minutes. it’s nice to cook it on low flame, partially covered. when the oil and water separate and the fish looks like it’s done, add the green chillies, crack them a little. cover and cook for five minutes, it brings out the scent of the green chillies. and that’s it.
instead of kala jeera, you can use paanch phoran. in which case, don’t put green chillies at first, add a dry red chilli instead.
you can try the recipe with potato cut into cubes instead of fish. just sauté the potatoes before adding to the gravy.
adding on: after reading this, a friend of mine, who has been drinking fresh turmeric infused water for a few weeks and it’s done wonders for her throat, said, “oh we also sprinkle it around cracks in the tiles to get rid of ants…”