The delicious case of dahi vadas

The thought of cooking feels no less than a punishment in this sweltering heat, and so, our meals have simply shifted to cold salads or curd-based dishes that require minimum effort in the kitchen.
Homemade dahi bhalla
Homemade dahi bhalla

By now, we’ve all probably resigned to our collective fate—it seems like there would be no immediate respite from the heatwave that has taken over the north of India.

The once-lush green plants in my balcony, that I so carefully tended to all year round, are now drooping and their pale shade of brown nearly mirrors the desolate devastation of the heat outside. In such times, the thought of the kitchen and the zeal to cook are understandably running low in many of us—including yours truly.

The thought of cooking feels no less than a punishment in this sweltering heat, and so, our meals have simply shifted to cold salads or curd-based dishes that require minimum effort in the kitchen. Since the beginning of this month, I have locked myself in the shade of my home, and have avoided stepping out as far as I could. But, we are social beings who step out frequently for work and social commitments alike. Two days ago, a friend insisted that we meet in the evening hours, which are far from pleasant, but are at least tolerable. We chose a new neighbourhood cafe that opened its gates only a few weeks back.

In Noida’s buzzing neighbourhood of Sector 104 stands Athyeka—specialising in South Indian cuisines. A bungalow that has been transformed into an oasis in the middle of a fairly generic row of concrete, Athyeka offers a calming sight with its white walls, a soothing green roof, and warm wood that breaks the monotony. As we settled in, we ordered spiced buttermilk and a plate of dahi vada each.

Though their menu boasts of dishes like Kerala appam-stew, dindigul mutton biryani, Andhra chicken curry, tomato rice and the ever-dependable varieties of idli and dosa, we chose to go for the cooler options. The dahi vadas were refreshing, with the vada boasting bold flavours of ginger and curry leaves, fried and then dunked inside sweetened cold yoghurt and topped with salted boondi namkeen. It reminded me of the dahi vada that I used to eat at a friend’s place as a child, whose family hailed from Andhra Pradesh.

These dahi vadas were different from the ones that are made in my Punjabi family. Firstly, we call it dahi-bhalle here in Delhi and Punjab, and secondly, it comes doused in sweetened chilled yoghurt with a generous topping of the imli-saunth chutney, roasted jeera powder and some red chilli powder for the kicks. It is a must-have during summers at our homes, and one can also see people lining up at their respective chaatwalas for their share of the dahi bhalla-papdi chaat savouries.

One of the most famous ones in Delhi is Natraj in the Old Delhi market—but of course, the city is divided between those who love it and those who don’t! There is also Shahi Dahi Bhalla Waala at Ring Road near AIIMS. What is ‘shahi’ about his offering, you ask? Well, it is the generous topping of dry fruits to denote royalty in the oldest possible sense, of course.

This recollection reminded me of the delicious dahi ki gujiya that is popular in the homes of Uttar Pradesh, especially in the Mathur community. I first had it at a friend’s place, where the vada, made of urad dal batter, is shaped like a gujiya (no surprise!), filled with dried fruits and then fried. It is a close cousin of the dahi bhalla, but a far superior one with more nuanced cooking, if you ask me.

And while we are on the topic of dahi-vada, how can I not mention my most favourite preparation that comes from Odisha! Yes, I am talking about the tart and spicy doi-bora alu’r dom. This street-side snack is quite the rage amongst the locals in Odisha, where the ‘bora’ is soaked in tempered buttermilk and then later served with a dollop of spiced chilled curd and the ‘alu’r dom’ subzi. I was a little apprehensive when I tried it for the first time, but this instantly became my favourite as soon as I took a bite. You can try a version of it in Bhawan at Gurugram, where Kainaz Contractor and Rahul Dua celebrate the street-side snacks from across India.

The inspiration for my weekly tribute, this time to the humble dahi vada, is clearly no secret. As more restaurants open their doors across the city even amid all the heat, each would do well to offer a menu that can help even out the sweltering heat and its side effects. Like we see often enough, it is the humble dish that strikes us the most in times of need, and this one is no different.

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