Rendezvous with Iti Misra

#1000Kitchens is a series that goes into kitchens all over the country, documenting heirloom recipes that tell a story. In this edition, we spend an afternoon with Iti Misra as she makes traditional Mughlai kheema parathas.

"Cooking is not rocket science. Anybody who likes to eat can cook; and anybody with a sense of taste will cook well." Iti Misra’s matter-of-fact demeanour downplays the expertise she carries. But at 77, there is no doubt Mrs. Misra is considerably more qualified than the home-cook she modestly describes herself as. She has been cooking for over 50 years, has hosted workshops and festivals in partnership with some of the country's best known hotels, and collaborated with CIA-trained chefs. Today in her daughter Radhika’s green and yellow kitchen  — “A fruit-salad kitchen,” she chortles — she is cooking an heirloom recipe for Mughlai paratha that has been in the family for a few generations. 

"Nowadays it is fashionable to say I learnt to cook from my grandmother, but I can't say that,” Mrs. Misra says with a quiet smile. “I always say I learnt to cook despite my mother." Growing up in Alampur, cooking was entirely the male purview; women didn’t enter the kitchen. “It simply wasn’t done in our family,” she explains. The women of the house set the menu and prepped the vegetables, but the actual cooking was conducted by male chefs in a kitchen separated from the main house. And further, there was almost no communication between the women and the cooks of the house — instead, the menu was communicated through a curious code, where the combination of vegetables, and the way they were cut, indicated to the chef what was to be prepared with the produce that was handed to them that day.          

#1000Kitchens with Iti Misra

Mrs. Misra’s recipe for Mughlai parathas has roots in her hometown Alampur, in the Burdwan district of West Bengal, which was historically a strong Mughal outpost. Her grandfather’s fondness for Muslim cuisine meant that the family had an expert Muslim cook to prepare the kebabs and pulaos. But it was her aunt, Mejo pishima, an all-round vibrant personality and an intrepid cook, who broke tradition and learnt several of the cook’s more well-loved recipes for herself. Thanks to her, the recipe stayed in the family, and was eventually handed down to Mrs. Misra herself.

The recipe has been compiled as part of a larger project  — a book that Mrs. Misra is working on, soon to be released. She describes it not as a recipe book, but as story-book. “Who buys recipe books anymore? I wanted this to be more; something that is good for people who don't cook either.” The book includes recipes from her home cuisine, colonial recipes for sponge cakes and scones from her early days at Loreto Convent, and other family favourites like fish and chips, pasta and chicken cacciatore. But accompanying each recipe are stories about the people she learnt them from. “There are people you come across in life that you cannot forget, who are interesting in very unique ways. The recipes I picked out are ones I learnt from some very unforgettable people." 

#1000Kitchens with Iti Misra
#1000Kitchens with Iti Misra
#1000Kitchens with Iti Misra
#1000Kitchens with Iti Misra

As she steps into the kitchen and demonstrates the recipe, Mrs. Misra goes into detail, explaining each step of the process slowly and clearly. Her hands, when not rolling out dough or filling the kheema in precise, sure motions, move animatedly as she talks to us about ingredients, technique and history. Her expertise is matched in equal measure by passion. "An ideal food item,” she says, “should always contain an element of surprise. If something is soft and mushy, there must also be contrasting textures of crunch or crispness. Same with colour — if it is white here, the insides should break that monotony.”

 Over the hot tawa, Mrs. Misra waits till the parathas are a gleaming golden brown before she turns it over. Radhika comes in to check on her. “Mother, do you want some 7-Up? And why don’t you face the other way, the light is better.” Mrs. Misra waves her away.

#1000Kitchens with Iti Misra

“She calls me a helicopter daughter,” Radhika says wryly. The easy mother and daughter banter brings out each personality, and their affectionate friendship; Mrs. Misra’s strong, elegant character is matched by Radhika’s spirited, lively nature. She lays the table and looks up at us expectantly. “Shall we eat now?”

Wait but photos!

“Do you want to lay that on the floor for the photograph?” Mrs. Misra suggests. “I learnt that from Chef Manu, you know. He put it on the floor to take a picture once, and it was the best shot.” We do and it is.

#1000Kitchens with Iti Misra
#1000Kitchens with Iti Misra

Recipe: Mejo Pishima’s Kheema Parathas

For the Parathas
500 g plain white flour
4 tablespoons white oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
Enough cold water to make a soft dough

For the filling
500g lamb mince*
2 large onions, finely chopped
2 tbsp ginger paste
1 tbsp garlic paste
4 tbsp vegetable oil
Salt, to taste
Black pepper, to taste
4 eggs
2 tbsp milk

For garnishing
2 onions, finely chopped
Green chillies, chopped
Coriander, chopped
Extra oil for frying

Make a soft dough for the parathas with the flour, oil, salt and water.
Knead well for about 5 minutes. Cover and set aside to rest for at least one hour.
In the meantime prepare the filling.
Boil the lamb mince with a little water and cook till all the water is absorbed.
In a skillet heat oil and fry the onions till they are soft and a light golden colour.
Add the ginger, garlic paste, salt and pepper and fry for 2 minutes. Add the boiled mince and 1/2 cup of water and cook on low heat till the spices are well combined and the filling mixture is dry. Keep aside.
Beat the eggs well with a salt and milk in a bowl and keep it handy.
Mix the chopped onions, green chillies and coriander and keep in a bowl.
Portion the dough into 8 balls. Roll out each portion to a thin 8 inch round paratha.
Place on a hot griddle and let it cook on one side for half a minute or till little brown spots appear. Keeping the griddle on a low flame, flip the paratha onto the other side.
Spread some of the mince filling over the cooked side, which is on top and spread it evenly. Remove the griddle from the heat and gently pour three tablespoons of the beaten egg over the filling. Sprinkle with some of the onion, coriander and green chilli mixture. Fold the sides of the paratha in to form a square. Replace the griddle on the fire to cook the egg.
This has to be done carefully, to prevent the egg from leaking over the sides. If you cover the griddle, the egg will set faster. Add 1/2 tablespoon of oil on each side and turn and fry till both sides are crisp and cooked. Keep the heat low as the process requires care and if the heat is high the parathas may burn.

Make all the parathas this way. It is a good idea to portion the filling and onion, coriander chilly mixture into 8 as well to ensure all the parathas have sufficient filling and onion garnish.

Words by Anisha Rachel Oommen; photographs by Aysha Tanya; and illustration by Priyanka Pachpande.