Selected Recipes from Niloufer Ichaporia King's My Bombay Kitchen
The following recipes from My Bombay Kitchen have been lightly edited to stand alone as a feature. Each recipe is followed by Sue Darlow's notes on her test of it, and accompanied by photographs taken by Sue. The line drawings are by David King.
1. Taro-Leaf Rolls / Patrel
If there were a top five of favorite Parsi snack foods, patrel would be on everyone’s list. It’s one of those dishes with Hindu Gujarati origins now completely absorbed into our cuisine and transformed by it. Patrel is definitely exotic and requires some effort, but it is worth all the time you put into it because there is no other taste quite like it. This recipe, which produces patrel of the highest order, was adapted from the one in the 1975 edition of the Time and Talents Club cookbook; its contributor, the late Mary Jamsetjee, my friend Firoza’s aunt, was a respected authority on Parsi food.
Patrel for Parsis, patra for Gujaratis, consists of taro (Colocasia esculentum) leaves spread with a sweet, sour, hot paste and then stacked, rolled, tied, and fried, following the traditional approach, or simply steamed, which I prefer. To finish the dish, the rolls are sliced after they cool and then lightly sautéed or grilled. For Parsis, patrel is a finger-food snack or appetizer, although Gujarati cuisine has recipes for patrel in coconut milk or other sauces.
Having made patrel for almost thirty years, I just recently discovered that large uncrinkly chard leaves make an entirely satisfactory substitute for the taro leaves. The size of the leaves determines the yield. You’ll get from four to eight rolls and at least forty to fifty slices of patrel from this recipe—enough for a gathering. Serves a crowd.
About 4 green chiles, depending on heat
1 egg-size piece compressed tamarind or 1 cup Thai prepared tamarind pulp
For the masala: grind the chiles, ginger, garlic, cumin, and turmeric to a paste in a food processor. Heat the oil in a small skillet over medium heat. Add the paste and fry for 3 to 5 minutes, until the aroma rises.
Place the compressed tamarind in a bowl. Pour in enough boiling water to cover the tamarind generously and soak about 15 minutes. Rub the softened pulp through a strainer. Measure 1 cup of pulp into the bowl of a food processor and add the fried masala paste, all the flour, the banana, and the jaggery. Pulse to a smooth, thick paste. Season the filling with salt to taste.
Steamed, tied patrel
Wash the taro leaves gently, and trim off the stems. Using a knife or vegetable peeler, carefully shave down the midribs. If leaves tear in handling, save them for the inner layers, where you can also use smaller leaves or make a patchwork. Make piles of 3 to 4 leaves, keeping the strongest ones for the outermost layer.
Put a leaf in front of you, dull side up, pointed end facing away. Using your hands or a rubber or wood spatula (you don’t want to tear the leaves with something metal), spread thinly with the filling. The filling should be thin enough for you to see bits of leaf through it. Stack another leaf on top and spread with filling, then repeat the operation with 1 or 2 more leaves, making a stack of 3 to 4 leaves. Fold the 2 bottom lobes away from you. Fold in the sides and crease slightly. Then roll up away from you as tightly as you can, easing over the hump where the stem joins the leaves. Tie with cooking twine in three places so that you have a neat cylinder. Repeat until you use up the filling and leaves.
It’s best to cook the rolls right away. Place in a single layer in a bamboo or metal steamer and steam for 25 to 30 minutes. You know patrel is cooked when a thin sharp knife slips easily through the thickest part of the roll without any resistance. Even though patrel is fully cooked at this stage, it will not be firm enough to slice until it is thoroughly cold. At this point, the rolls can be held, refrigerated, for a few days.
When ready to serve the patrel, cut the cooled roll into 1/2-inch-thick slices and shallow-fry them (the usual Parsi method), grill them briefly, or dry-fry them in about 1 tablespoon oil in a hot cast-iron skillet, the type with ridges if you want a striped effect.
Cut, unfried patrel
Serve hot or warm with a squeeze of lime.
Notes: Do not undercook the taro leaves. All parts of the taro plant contain minute crystals of oxalic acid that need to be cooked out. Some individuals are genetically more predisposed to react to the crystals (nothing more serious than an itchy mouth). I am one.
Look for taro leaves at farmers’ markets catering to a pan-Asian clientele, Southeast Asian groceries, and West Indian shops. If you’re faced with a choice between large torn leaves and small sound ones, go for the sound ones. If you’re substituting chard for taro, use the largest, flattest green leaves you can find. For gardening cooks, this is an ideal way to use those really enormous leaves. Trim the stems off and reserve them for other dishes. Pare the midribs carefully if they seem too stiff, then proceed as with taro leaves. Use extra bits of leaf to make patches. I am astonished at how authentic a chard patrel tastes.
Sue's Comments on the Recipe
Patrel has been one of my favorite tea time treats for as long as I can remember. While growing up in Bombay, the ritual in our house was to attend church on Sunday morning (my Parsi mother was a Christian by choice) and then on the drive home to stop at one of two places, Parsi Dairy Farm or the RTI, the Ratan Tata Industrial Institute, to buy some tea-time goodies. I grew up on RTI patrel, so I am conditioned to the Parsi style, which is very spicy and rather sweet.
However, in all the years since, I have never thought about making patrel myself. It always seemed a rather mysterious thing, and too much bother, surely? Then I read Niloufer’s introduction to the recipe, saw what an enthusiastic fan of patrel she was too, and was determined to try and make it. What clinched it though, was being able to substitute easily available chard leaves for impossible-to-get (where I live) taro leaves.
At first sight the chard leaves seemed rather brittle and even somewhat holey for the job, but after shaving down the midribs as instructed, all went well and they behaved themselves. The process is quite simple and I ended up with somewhat anemic looking logs once they were steamed, though the taste was good. What really lifted the patrel to heavenly realms was frying the slices, which slightly caramelized and deepened the taste of the filling, as well as improving the colour. The inclusion of a very ripe banana is pure genius. Top marks!