If you must know my last meal on earth, the desert-island dish of choice that would take me instantly to my happy place, it would be pithla.
A stew made of chickpea flour, onions, and green chile peppers, with a semi-solid liquid consistency that goes beautifully well with white rice as well as with Indian bread, it’s a dish I make after an exhausting day, when I can’t think of anything else to cook, or when I’m crunched for time. Spicy pithla mixed with steaming white rice, topped with a generous swirl of homemade ghee and a kick-in-the-gut hot side of bhurrka—a freshly made, fiery red condiment containing oil, roasted garlic and red chile powder—and I’m on my way to a night of serious Netflix binge-watching.
I grew up eating pithla. After a siesta-inducing heavy lunch, pithla along with white rice was a typical Sunday evening meal. It was also a quick dish to throw together when we returned home from travel or guests dropped by unexpectedly (believe me, that happened a lot and, shockingly enough, did not invite any kind of ire from my mother). But please note that my mother would nevermake pithla if guests were coming to our house for the first time or if there was any party or occasion of any kind. Pithla could be made only if the unexpected guest was a close friend or family.
Because the point of pithla is that it’s humble, everyday home cooking.
A few years back, I went on my annual trip to India and asked my mother to make me pithla after I recovered from the jet lag. As soon as it was ready, I took my plate without bothering to wait for anyone else. White rice, perfectly cooked (which meant every grain was visible yet came together when mixed), landed luxuriously on my plate followed by golden yellow pithla, topped off with ghee. My mother’s pithla was particularly divine that day. I grumbled, “How come my pithla NEVER EVER turns out like this?”
She was going about her work and tried to quell my grumbling, “Anything tastes especially good if it is freshly made and you yourself haven’t made it.”
“No, no, there’s something else,” I said, “an underlying, very subtle sweetness. I’m 100 percent sure I do not get that in my pithla. Something about the onions?”
Then she dropped this nugget of knowledge on me: “Yes, I let the onions cook at low heat for a long time, till they acquire browned edges, even longer sometimes. As long as they don’t burn.”
“Where did this come from?” I asked. “How come you did not tell me this before?”
“Your father taught me.”
I almost fell out of my chair, trying hard to imagine my father, a highly unlikely kitchen entrant, giving my mother, the consummate cook, cooking lessons. A picture that refused to form.
Pithla was reportedly my father’s specialty. Every time he got together with his friends, at the end of their card sessions, invariably there was a demand for his specialty: pithla.
Apart from the simplicity of preparation, no advance planning required, and easy scalability, pithla wins points for its pantry ingredients: onions, green chile peppers, Indian spices (like turmeric, red chile powder, black mustard, and cumin seeds), and chickpea flour. The pithla expert in my family says that the dish is all about the chickpea flour, how you add it and how you let it cook.
My parents come from separate towns in western India, barely 90 miles apart from each other. Yet the pithla-making style in each of these towns is vastly different. This variation in the same dish is a perfect representation of the culinary diversity found throughout India.
My father grew up in a town called Nanded in Eastern Maharashtra (the state whose capital is Mumbai). Here the chickpea flour is added to the boiling water slowly and the mixture is stirred continuously to prevent clumps—the purpose being to reduce the number of clumps, not avoid them completely.
My mother was raised in Nizamabad, a border town in the neighboring state of Telangana. Here the chickpea flour is mixed with a little bit of water to make a clump-free, loose paste before adding to the boiling water. Sometimes plain yogurt is also added to this paste to give a tangy kick. My father thinks that adding chickpea flour directly to the water results in a tastier version, and I tend to agree with him. (I can see my mother rolling her eyes and muttering “whatever.”)
Pithla has sidekicks, too. If you visit a restaurant devoted to local, regional food in Mumbai, you will get pithla with bhakri (sorghum bread) and thecha, a tongue-scorching hot condiment made of roasted green chile peppers and garlic pounded into a course paste, traditionally via mortar and pestle. I like thecha for its variations—a pounded paste made from roasted peppers and garlic, unroasted peppers and garlic, roasted peppers and lime juice, fresh red peppers with tiny lime pieces—oh, I can just get willfully lost in the world of peppers! But what I love even more is the lesser known sidekick, bhurrka.
Dubbed a “poor man’s supper,” pithla is very close to the heart of all Maharashtrians, spanning all classes and walks of life. Pithla with bhakri is a staple food of the farmers while pithla paired with white rice is a quick, go-to meal for the harried home cook.
All I know for certain it that pithla is comfort food, and my desert-island dish. A husband and wife cooking pithla together—the husband pouring the chickpea flour and the wife stirring continuously to avoid clumps—is the height of Maharashtrian romance according to popular culture.
Now every time I go to India, my father makes pithla for me. Of course, it comes with strings attached—he always needs an assistant. If I don’t want to work for my pithla, I’ll just ask my mom.
Serves 1 to 2
• ¾ cup chickpea flour
• 1 cup diced red onions, 1/2-inch pieces
• 2 pieces Thai chile peppers, diced into round thin slices
• 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
• ¼ teaspoon mustard seeds, black or yellow
• ¼ teaspoon cumin seeds
• 1 piece dry red chile pepper
• ½ cup chopped cilantro, divided
• ¼ teaspoon turmeric powder
• ¼ teaspoon red chile powder
• ½ teaspoon salt 1 pinch asafetida powder (optional)
See the full recipe on Food52.
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