“See Darling, if there is one lesson I can give you about cooking, it’s to develop that ‘touch’. Like they say “haath mein safa hain”. You know what that is?
That ability, given by the grace of God,
that allows you to cook with, without, and beyond a recipe.

Never blame a recipe.”

Haidar Ali proclaims, sitting across a zoom screen in a starched white kurta and bokeh of glittering lights in the background. We’ve just spent a good ninety minutes going over a treasured recipe  - a conversation that brimmed with secret tips, life lessons, and smacking of lips at appropriate junctions. A ninety-minute conversation for a recipe that demands no more than a nifty twenty minutes. But what if a recipe, seemingly simple on the surface, held a story? What if the acts of chopping and frying evoked a tender relationship shared by a son with his rebellious mother? What if the soaking and steaming preserved an ancient community’s search for home and belonging?

Chukkandar ka Shorba is what Haidar Ali symbolically brings to the table today. Haidar Ali, a reputed name in the world of Indian cinema, carries his mother's legacy in this fiery, wholesome beetroot gravy. His mother, Esther Victoria Abraham, is known to most as India’s first Miss India, crowned in 1947. But more importantly, he might argue, she belonged to the Baghdadi-Jewish community of India. A part of her identity she held very close.

The Baghdadi Jewish community of India has gone from a few thousand from the early 1800s to a meager twenty today. Having made cities like Surat, Calcutta, and Mumbai home, the Baghdadi Jews, though few in number, have left a mark on the cultural fabric of India. Haider Ali’s mother’s family hailed from Calcutta and settled in Mumbai’s Shivaji Park area. While his grandmother and auntie were fiercely attached to the Baghdadi-Jewish ways of doing things, his mother was a rebel by most standards. A fact that Haidar Ali lovingly cherishes.

This shorba recipe is one such act of rebellion. Shorba, loosely translated to ‘gravy,’ has its roots in Perso-Arabia, and is the perfect medium for vegetables and meat. A staple on the Baghdadi table, the shorba is eaten with bread or rice and feeds plenty, becoming an essential addition to celebrations. He shares, “My granny and auntie, who were fabulous cooks themselves, stuck to recipes and didn’t budge. They perhaps wanted to hold on to them as a way of protecting who they were and where they had come from. My mother, on the other hand, was a rebel. She would have a backup recipe and know her way around ingredients to give the dish a new life each time. She would not be afraid to add local spices and ingredients to an old recipe. Not afraid of ruffling the feathers of the older Baghdadi Jewish aunties. She went her way, and my god, was it yummy!”

Mummy’s Chukandar ka Shorba ︎

︎ Stuff ︎

Try and get these but be creative if your local grocery store runs out of things. Don’t shy away from taking risks!

  • 4 egg-sized beetroots with 2 medium onions and 2 medium-sized tomatoes.

  • Turmeric, chili powder, coriander powder, and cumin powder – never run out of these. Always have them handy in your kitchen. In the old days we’d have freshly pounded chili powder made with long, slender Kashmiri chili but today, the packet would do too. Keep turmeric close. Both for its medicinal properties and its color.

  • Ginger garlic paste – made with around 4 pearls of garlic and a 1-inch stub of ginger.

  • A 1.5-inch sized ball of tamarind. Now the tamarind has to be the ‘juna’ tamarind. Not the green raw version we would get outside school and eat with salt and chilli powder (uff, my mouth is watering!) and not the naya (new) one which is sour. The juna (old) one is dark brown and has a sweetness to it. It should bring a smile to your face and a twinkle to your eyes. That’s the right kind of tamarind.

Also permissible:
  • Lemon if you don’t have tamarind. Vinegar if you don’t have lemon – don’t let my grandmother hear me tell you this!
  • Extra ginger garlic paste in case you run out of onions – happens to the best of us.
  • Extra onions if you run out of tomatoes.

︎ How to cook ︎

  • Boil the beetroots and cut into ring-sized discs. Now if you have knife skills you’ll know the perfect thickness – not too thick for it to be chewy and not too thin, else it’ll turn to mush.

  • Take some oil. You’ll know how much.

  • Add the finely chopped onions and let them cook. Once they become golden (not brown!) add the ginger garlic paste, fry for a bit, and then add in finely chopped tomatoes. Add in your turmeric, chili and coriander, and cumin powders. Imagine if you had the ancient sil-batta (stone grinder) to make this paste. But now make do with the packed spices. Let this cook.

  • When the oil rises on the sides, add water, cover, and let it simmer.

  • While this is happening take the ball of tamarind and soak in hot water. Once it’s soaked, squeeze the pulp out to separate it from its fibers and seeds. Squeeze till somebody yells, “Uski jaan loge kya!”(are you going to squeeze its life out?) It should trickle out from between your fingers.

  • Now go back and check your beetroot. Hopefully, it’s not dried up! Adjust water accordingly and pour in the tamarind pulp.

  • Add salt, stir one last time and switch off the flame.

Chukkandar Ka Shorba is best had with freshly baked Baghdadi naan. Don’t confuse the Baghdadi naan with the Afghani one that is often served with Punjabi food. The Baghdadi naan is soft with a golden crust and has a bit of a tang because of the curd used in the dough. Baghdadis bake a lot of bread, pairing it with all their shorbas.

But if you were my mother, you would also make do with a brun pav from your neighborhood Irani café. You essentially need something to soak up the rich, tangy, deep red gravy. If you’re feeling festive, you could also enjoy this with a green peas pulao. But be generous with your peas else my grandmother or auntie might exclaim, “Oy Ve! Kya kiya, matar dikhta nahi!”(oh gosh, where are the peas!) My mother would add a bubbling tadka of turmeric right at the end to give the pulao a golden glow. A flourish that belonged only to her.

Be prepared to have your guests proclaim how tasty the shorba is, but also how it was “tastier that other time.”

Darling, the recipe can take you only so far.