U is for ‘Underground’ cooking – one of the ancient methods of cooking, baking and steaming and Undhiyu – is a traditional Gujarati dish especially prepared during Uttarayan – the International Kite festival on 14th January.
According to Wikipedia, ‘Underground’ cooking or Earth Oven as it is generally called is one of the simplest and most ancient cooking structures. The underground oven is also known as ground oven or cooking pit, where a pit is dig to trap heat and bake, smoke or steam food. Apparently underground cooking method or Earth oven has been used in numerous places across various cultures in the past and their presence helps archaeologists to determine any human settlement in those areas!
Underground cooking option or Earth ovens were a common tool for cooking huge quantities of food where no equipments were available. In the present scenario, underground cooking is a preferred form during camping and bonfire. Apparently they have been used extensively around various civilisations around the world and are still commonly found in the Pacific region to date.
Baking and steaming in Underground ovens
In order to bake food in an underground oven first the fire is built, and then allowed to burn down to a smoulder. The food is then placed in the oven and covered. This covered area is then used to bake bread or other various items.
Steaming too follows a similar process except for the fact that green vegetation is put in the pit to add moisture. Sometimes steaming requires more water than usual hence water is also kept with the food in the oven. Finally, a covering of earth is added over everything. The food in the pit can take up to several hours to a full day to cook, regardless of the dry or wet method used.
Now coming to Undhiyu. Undhiyu as defined by Wikipedia is a Gujarati mixed vegetable dish that is a regional specialty of Gujarat, India. The name of this dish comes from the Gujarati words “matlu” meaning earthen pot and “undhu” meaning upside down since they have been traditionally cooked upside down underground in earthen pots fired from above.
Undhiyu is a seasonal dish, comprising the vegetables that are available on the South Gujarat coastline during the winter season, including green beans or new peas (typically used along with the tender pod), unripe banana, small eggplants, muthia (dumplings/fritters made with fenugreek leaves and spiced chickpea flour, and either steamed or fried), potatoes, and purple yam, and sometimes plantain. 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 slow cooked for a long time, with some vegetable oil and a very small amount of water sufficient to steam the root vegetables.
Undhiyu is generally relished on Uttarayan – the kite festival of Gujarat and on weddings! Though I am leaving you with some traditional Undhiyu recipes, be warned that they might not turn out as good as the original for reasons unknown unless you have a Gujarati friend to help you.