Indian

Fumbling Through Aunty Meera's Crispy Potato Cakes, 20 Years Later

The jagged, cosmopolitan path of my aunt's aloo tikki recipe.

October 18, 2018
Photo by Julia Gartland

I don’t have a single aunt—and I have many aunts, since both my parents had four siblings each—whose food I don’t adore. Aunty Meenu makes amazing Punjabi lamb chops, while Aunty Bindiya churns out Sindhi loli, a spiced roti more similar to pie crust than naan, like a queen. Aunty Rupa always invited us over for late morning meals (if breakfast daal isn’t a thing, she made it one). But dinner was Aunty Meera’s territory, and it didn’t come without a party.

Aunty Meera lived in a high floor of a building, maybe the 12th or 14th, and my brother and I often raced each other up the stairs to see who got there first. Before long, we were all seated by the TV, which played either a cricket match or a Bollywood music video countdown. That’s when the crispy, spicy aloo tikki—or potato croquettes, which I prefer to call “cakes” because that sounds less fancy—came out of the kitchen. Aunty Meera had placed a bottle of ketchup on the coffee table before we got there, because that’s the classic accompaniment. It offsets the spiciness of the green chile, and the tomato adds some acidic sweetness.

My mother warned me not to bite into them too quickly because they were hot (in both senses), and then she warned me not to eat too many, lest I be too full for dinner. That’s when I’d slip away from the TV area and go straight to the kitchen, where I’d find Aunty Meera, who never seemed to let the food she cooked be far out of her sight. I didn’t mind eating them without ketchup; to me, they were the perfect food, challenged only by Aunty Meera’s “macaroni”—penne with cumin-spiced marinara.

Aunty Meera lived in Ethiopia for some time right after she got married, which is why her food had some Italian influences, but that was long in her past, as was her husband. Sometimes, when my cousins and I took our plates out to the balcony so the adults could sit at the table, we’d whisper about his whereabouts. He was rumored to have left Aunty Meera to join the Hare Krishnas, and last they’d heard, had a different family he was living with. Nobody asked Aunty Meera or her siblings or her kids about him directly. That’s because he wasn’t missed. In the warmth of Aunty Meera’s hospitality, the measured spices of her food, nothing felt lacking—except her physical presence in the dining or living rooms, because she was always fussing over her food in the kitchen.

When she sent me the recipe for her aloo tikki—essentially a short WhatsApp text with four ingredients (white bread, potatoes, cumin, and green chile) followed by the instruction “mix, shape, and fry”—I understood why. She cooked by instinct. She knew exactly how long to cook the potatoes without a timer, how brown the cakes needed to be before leaving the oil. It didn’t leave much room for her to socialize, like an unwrap-and-bake appetizer might, which is why I tried (and failed) to bake her aloo tikki recipe. But to be honest, her recipe didn’t work when I fried it, either. I was missing a few key ingredients—focus, practice, a way with potatoes. No matter how perfectly shaped my patties, they fell apart and became more of a potato hash (also good, but not aloo tikki).

There are so many ways to make aloo tikki in India, since it’s one of the country’s most beloved street foods. Meera Sodha adds onions; Madhur Jaffrey used to sneak them into movie theaters. It even forms the basis of McDonalds India’s enviable veggie burger, the McAloo Tikki (see Annada Rathi’s homemade take on it). But I liked the simplicity of Meera Aunty’s recipe, the retro-ness of using white bread dipped in water as a binder. I also liked the enigma of it—how such a simple set of instructions could be so hard to crack. It echoed the enigma that was Aunty Meera, who had lived such a contoured life but never shared the details with us. Instead, she shared her food. After a few rounds of testing, I concluded that the recipe, too, was a secret I had to respect.

In the warmth of Aunty Meera’s hospitality, the measured spices of her food, nothing felt lacking—except her physical presence in the dining or living rooms, because she was always fussing over her food in the kitchen.

That is, until I came across a tidbit that sounded way too delicious and smart for me to ignore. While talking to an Italian-American co-worker about meatballs, which is bound to come up in 99% of the conversations I have with anyone Italian (because I love meatballs, or polpette), he mentioned that his nonna dipped bread in milk before adding it to the meat, because it helped bind them. Milk, it turns out, has strong adhesive properties (see this French tape hack).

When I put it to the test, it worked like a charm. And then I played around some more, adding coriander to cumin (because those two spices make the best team, in my opinion). I read that cookbook writer Anjali Pathak adds lemon peel and turmeric to the potato boiling water, and tweaked the following recipe to include lemon peel for a subtle hint of acid for the ketchup-averse. Not turmeric, though, because that felt like it would mess with Aunty Meera’s original recipe too much. (And while we’re on the topic of boiling potatoes, start with cold water and boil them whole with skins on; do not budge on this.)

I had just moved to London when I cracked the how-to-make-aloo-tikki-stick-together dilemma, not homesick per se but maybe a tad home-confused. Like many immigrants, I’ve always felt like I had two homes, and suddenly I had three.

But the process of making the tikki—poking the potato with a butter knife, oiling my palms so the mix wouldn’t stick—didn’t allow any room for moping. I couldn’t help but marvel at this aloo tikki recipe’s jagged path—India, Ethiopia possibly, Brooklyn, Italy sort of, London—and how the ingredients are so simple that one could probably cook it most places in the world, no special equipment needed. They belong not to a country but to Aunty Meera’s 12th or 14th floor apartment, or to any place where the concept of home is completely irrelevant because food is hot and needs to be eaten then and there.

Do you have an "Aunty" who cooks incredible food? Share her story in the comments below.

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2 Comments

Annada R. October 18, 2018
Hi Nikkitha, I like your Aunt Meera as making & serving the tastiest food seems to be the primary thing on her mind. Thank you for her story!<br /><br />I have a question about soaking bread in milk. Did you try to do the same in water? If yes, what was the difference between adding water-soaked bread as opposed to milk-soaked bread?
 
Nancy October 18, 2018
Lovely story...parallel lines as you master the recipe and draw a picture of your Aunty's life, respecting the parts she doesn't talk about.