For most Gujaratis, winter isn’t winter without the steaming bowls of undhiyu gracing their dining tables. Undhiyu is a Gujarati mixed vegetable dish that is a regional specialty of Surat. The name of this dish comes from the Gujarati word “Undhu” which translates to upside down, since the dish is traditionally cooked upside down underground in earthen pots, termed “metlu”, which are fired from above.
The dish is a seasonal one, comprising the vegetables that are available on the south Gujarat coastline, including the Surat, Navsari and Valsad regions, these include green beans or new peas, unripe banana, small eggplants, muthia, potatoes, and purple yam. These are spiced with a dry curry paste that typically includes cilantro leaves, ginger, garlic, green chili pepper, sugar and sometimes includes freshly grated coconut. The mixture is slowly cooked for a long time, with some vegetable oil and a very small amount of water sufficient to steam the root vegetables.
In different parts of Gujarat, Undhiyu is prepared in different ways; Surti style, Kathiyavadi style and Matla undhiyu are three popular variations of it. In Surti undhiyu, vegetables like brinjal potato, raw banana etc. are stuffed with masala made out of coconut and peanut. In Kathiyavadi undhiyu vegetables are not stuffed but its masala is little spicier than other styles. In Matla undhiyu, which is very famous in South Gujarat, vegetables are steamed cooked in a traditional matla instead of a pressure cooker and are known as Umbadiyu.
The Undhiyu is a robust, unctuous dish. There is no escaping the quantities of groundnut oil that are required to cook it and it is best eaten with fluffy Pooris or Bajra Roti which is a thick, bhakri- type flatbread, that helps to soak it all up. The Parsis, long-time denizens of Gujarat, have appropriated the Undhiyu, transforming it into a non-vegetarian dish called Umbariyu.
Certain restaurants in Gujarat too, now have versions of Undhiyu that have been modified with chicken. They are many age the Undhiyu too. Inevitable is the healthy interpretations prepared with much less oil and many restaurants even offer a Jain version prepared without any root vegetables, onions and garlic.
Though it is typically a winter dish, Undhiyu is traditionally cooked on Makar Sankranti in homes in Gujarat. Makar Sankranti is celebrated with much fervor in Ahmedabad, Surat and other cities. If you want to immerse yourself in the festivities, go towards the old town, in Ahmedabad – the other side of the Sabarmati River. Families and friends gather on their rooftops in the morning itself and thus begin the annual kite flying festival. There’s music on every rooftop and an amicable competitiveness as to who will cut whose kite first. Undhiyu and Pooris are served on the terrace itself for lunch and the kite flying only ends by sundown. The atmosphere is electric, the feeling of togetherness, infectious.
Much has changed in India’s gastronomic scene today. For one, as our markets flood with international produce all year round, we have more of less lost the concept of seasonal, sustainable cooking. Undhiyu is a triumph of the old, desi way – local, regional winter vegetables, freshly harvested and prepared in a way that makes their flavors shine.