It’s National Undhiyu Day. But Is the Hype Around this Gujju Version of Mix Veggies Worth It?

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It’s National Undhiyu Day. But Is the Hype Around this Gujju Version of Mix Veggies Worth It?

Illustration: Hitesh Sonar

The first time I celebrated Uttarayan, eight years ago, I remember laughing at what Amdavadis, the people of Ahmedabad, called a cold January. You see, I am from Delhi and for us a minimum temperature of 12 degrees does not a winter make. Of course, the husband and his family gave me a massive eye roll and continued to furiously wrap tapes around their fingers instead. “To prevent kite cuts,” my husband told me somberly. Realising how seriously they took the kite festival, I quietly taped some of my fingers too and took to the common terrace, to join in what seemed like a concert – the entire neighbourhood had gathered. Yes, to fly kites. 

But my mother-in-law stayed behind. She had more urgent matters to attend. A huge kadai filled to the brim with every possible vegetable in the world needed to be stirred. I’d never seen anything like that before. Curiously I asked, “What is this mummy? When will you join us?”

“As soon as the undhiyu is ready. It is a winter special, but on Uttarayan, we must absolutely have it.”

As I took in large whiffs of the concoction, mummy explained why the elaborately made undhiyu had such a fan following in a land that takes pride in its dhoklas and fafdas. “Most of the naashta (snack) can be made on any day of the year. I can steam the khaman in 60 minutes. Khaakra doesn’t take more than a couple of hours in the afternoon. Muthia needs more time, but the steps are simple enough. But the undhiyu is a massive affair. Plus it is reserved for the winters and is the sign of a good harvest. It’s a blessing from Mother Nature,” she said and handed me my first ever bowl of steaming undhiyu. I don’t know if it was the piping hot gravy, the taste of the first produce or simply mummy’s love, but I took to the culinary masterpiece – that has everything from the humble potato to the elegant baigan – then and there itself. It was an unofficial rite of passage into the family.

Undhiyu to the Gujaratis is what kosha mangsho is to the Bengalis – you defend it with all your pride.

Undhiyu to the Gujaratis is what kosha mangsho is to the Bengalis – you defend it with all your pride. That evening, I witnessed an unusual war of words when my husband’s friends suggested that we order chhole bhature instead of undhiyu. “Chhole bhature in the land of undhiyu. It’s blasphemy.” That’s the reaction he received.

In what was a crash course on the subject, I concluded when in Gujarat, you don’t mess with the undhiyu.

Loved by most Gujaratis with a passion only second to aamras, the undhiyu is a delicacy they fight hard for. First, they wait for the winters patiently, and when time comes, load their shopping bags with vegetables of every kind and set them on the kitchen slab with a triumphant smile. The wives and mothers, who may sulk at the thought of cooking all year round, cook the most complex dish of the Gujju cuisine with the enthusiasm bhakts reserve for a Modi rally.

Making the undhiyu is elaborate alright: One has to cut five to 15 different vegetables in various styles – julienne, cubes whatnot. Some of them have to be fried separately like the alu, suran, kand, and sakariya. The tiny brinjals have to be filled with a special masala. Simultaneously, one has to roll out the small methi muthias. All this while the tomato gravy simmers in a large kadai or matlu. By the end, all the items go into the gravy to cook on a low flame for a long time, much like the mutton kosha of the Bengalis or the Biryani of the Hyderbadis. Though many now try to cook the kingly dish in a pressure cooker, seasoned home chefs like my mother-in-law and her best friend Kalpi Ben scoff. “The taste comes from labouring over it for hours; it is a fool who makes it any differently,” Kalpi Ben had explained.

But it’s not all that simple: It is a deceptive dish with no two preparations that taste alike. While the famous Surati version uses green or fresh masala with generous seasoning of garlic, the Jain version has green bananas substituting potatoes. The Kathiawadis like it spicy, the Amdavadis prefer it savoury sans the yam. Needless to say, everyone thinks their version of the Undhiyu is the best.

I have my occasional bowl of undhiyu, but as a Bengali brought up in Delhi, the gorgeous labra will have my heart forever.

That said, the average Gujju salivates at the very mention of it, hunger and childhood nostalgia kicking in at once. I’ve seen my husband polish off bowls in a single sitting with innumerable puris and jalebis, the preferred accompaniment. A cousin, known to be an undhiyu fanatic, insists on having it every day post Makar Sankranti. The man only stops when the winter is over. “Sirf sardi mein hi banta hai, yeh bhi koi baat hui?” is his refrain.

But the outliers who do are not gaga over the Undhiyu call it “too much of a medley” (their words, not mine, lest angry undhiyu fans hunt me down). A colleague in my old office happily chose to be the outcast on days we ordered undhiyu. “Why should I pay for a traffic jam of vegetables?” he would reason with us. I do not completely disagree.

I have my occasional bowl of undhiyu, but as a Bengali brought up in Delhi, the gorgeous labra (a mix of five or more winter veggies) will have my heart forever. I dare not tell my family, lest they disown me. 

Most Gujaratis — no matter how culturally different from each other — obsess over the tedious dish with the compulsion of a child with a packet of chips. No wonder then, in a state famous for its record-breaking number of farsaans like the dhokla, fafda, khakra, and khandvi, it is the haughty undhiyu that has got a national day for itself.

Come winter and it isn’t bijness or Modi Kaka that the Gujju goes on and on about. It is the undhiyu that turns him topsy turvy in love.

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