Born and brought up till the fifth standard of schooling in Mumbai, he found the transition to Chennai bewildering, as no two cities could be more contrasting. Sion, where they lived in Mumbai, was never action-free. The markets in Sion around his house buzzed with activities all the time. The smell of fresh vegetables and flowers is what woke him up daily and he got used to having a lot of fresh vegetables to eat. This influenced him to become a vegetarian. His mother’s excellent Tamilian fare cooked and served hot was a treat he waited for every day, after returning from school. His mother’s fresh tomato rasam with potato fry was his all-time favourite. Mohan’s love for potatoes started in Mumbai from a very young age. Most of the roadside snacks like chaat, bhelpuri, sabudana vada, aloo poha, etc, are prepared with potatoes.
Shifting to Chennai got Mohan into a different world. He got introduced to the big screen in a movie called Thaneer Thaneer in 1980. After that film, there was no looking back for him. He has acted in over 40 TV serials and 35 movies. Many of his films or serial shoots were in villages around south India and he got to taste authentic food of that place — from ragi kanji to muringayila masiyal, he has tasted most of the vegetarian dishes of the villages. Mohan believes that the aroma and taste of the food depend on cooking utensils and the woodfire. Mohan cooks when he finds time, especially, for his two daughters.
Potatoes are not native to India. It was introduced by the Portuguese and later the British brought in the baby potato culture. The Inca Indians in Peru were the first to cultivate potatoes from around 8,000 BC to 5,000 BC. From there, the Spanish introduced it in Europe and it was the Portuguese who first introduced it in our coastal areas of Bengal and Maharashtra. Baby potatoes are taken out before the potato grows fully, hence the skin is tender and the potato can be cooked in their jackets themselves.
Mohan first tasted the Chettinad chinna urulai varuthathu while shooting for a movie near Karaikudi. Chettinad is well known for its spicy and flavourful cuisine. They usually don’t use spices that are already grounded instead prepare fresh spices every day by grinding whole spices. Today, I am sharing the recipe for a simple potato preparation.
Chinna Urulai Varuthathu Recipe
Baby potatoes: 15 | Onion: 1, chopped | Groundnut/sesame oil: 2 tbsp | Salt: to taste | Coriander leaves/curry leaves: for garnishing | Turmeric powder: ½ tsp
For Chettinad masala: Urad dal: 2 tbsp | Pepper: 1 tsp | Dry red chillies: 5 | Cumin: ½ tsp | Asafetida: ¼ tsp
- Cook the potatoes in salt water for 15 min or till cooked. Add a drop of oil to the cooking water
- Dry roast the urad dal, red chillies, cumin, pepper and asafetida
- Peel potatoes and keep aside
- Grind the dry masala and keep aside
- Chop the onion finely
- In a nonstick pan or mud pot, pour the oil and keep on a low flame
- When hot, saute the onions in it for 2 mins
- Now put in the boiled and peeled potatoes
- Add the Chettinad masala and turmeric powder
- Add salt to taste
- Let it roast on a low fire for 10 mins or untill it turns crisp and golden brown
- Toss it over while roasting, so all sides get roasted
- Serve hot with white rice, sambar/rasam
Mohan's Kitchen Tips
- Do not buy potatoes if they have a greenish tinge to them
- Do not over boil potatoes as they will not remain firm and crisp
- Potatoes should only be roasted on a low flame
— Chef Ramaa Shanker is the author of Festive Offerings to the Gods: Divine Soul Recipes