My dad's family migrated to big city Delhi when he was 7 years old. While his parents, my grandparents, got busy adapting to fast-paced lifestyle and establishing the new business, my dad was practically adopted by this very affluent Sikh family next door. In the very Punjabi neighborhood of Filmistan, this family provided my dad with an emotional support and encouragement that helped him stay grounded in his youth after his mom passed. He grew up calling them Mummyji and Daddyji, learnt to read and speak Punjabi fluently, went to Rakab Ganj Sahib with them every week and even started eating eggs and chicken with their family- behind his own parents back, of course.
By the time my brother and I came along, daadaji and daadiji’s home was always this immaculate, white fenced kothi in Filmistan full of huge, turbaned men and one little beeji in elegant white. They were loud and boisterous, gave us hugs tight enough to break our bones and fed us like we had been starving forever. When we were little, the differences between this family that we knew of as our daadaji and daadji and the rest of our uncles and aunts were very confusing. As we grew up, the story of how this family had helped my dad by pitching in after my grandmother died and my grandfather took time healing from the loss became deeply a ingrained family lore. My dad’s love and gratitude was very obvious when he talked of them as his ‘parents’.
And yet, even though my mom acknowledged their love and selfless encouragement with deep appreciation, she still “blamed” them for spoiling my dad by making him a "meat-eater”. She was very forthright about her feelings, and refused to eat anything in their home while visiting them, a rebuff that they always accepted in their genuine, magnanimous spirit.
When I was about 8 or 9, we went to their place just before Diwali. As always, the entire clan with several married sons, daughters-in-law and grandkids got together for lunch with us. Two tables were set up- one with chicken and meat dishes and the other vegetarian. By this time, daadaji and daadji had taken the oath of vegetarianism - a religious rite I remember being referred to as “becoming an amritdhari sikh”. So they were at the table with all vegetarian dishes with me. At their insistence, I took a little of an unfamiliar sabzi - with chewy brown chunks, peas and potatoes, the taste was very new, but not quite unpleasant.
I got very suspicious when after lunch, every person in the room asked me how I felt about the new sabzi. “It was good”, I said, over and over to everyone who asked.
Then I went to Beeji, confused. "Why does everyone keep asking me the same thing? About the new sabzi?”
“Because they finally made you eat chicken and like it too!!!,” said Raja- Beeji’s oldest grandson.
Everyone in the room laughed loudly. I stood there, unblinking, shell-shocked for about 5 seconds. And then, threw up all over Beeji’s pristine white.
It took the whole afternoon to calm me down. I refused to talk to anyone. Even my mom telling me that they were all kidding wouldn’t stop that hurt of betrayal. Finally, Beeji sat me down in her lap and brought out her “Sukhmani Sahib”. We went through the entire book, and she promised to give it to me if I’d believe that what I ate wasn’t chicken - it was chunky Soya nuggets, sold as Nutrela in India.
Punjabi Soya Nuggets with Peas and Potatoes.
For the gravy: grind all of the following together to a fine paste
Onion 1 small
Tomatoes 2 medium
Green chillies 2
Ginger 1 inch piece
Salt to taste
Red chilli powder 1/2tsp
Turmeric powder 1/4tsp
Coriander powder 2Tbsp
Garam masala powder 1tsp
Potato 1 small chopped
Frozen peas 1/2 cup rinsed
Soya nugget chunks 1/2 cup soaked in boiling water for 30 min.
Water 1 cup
- First of all, wash and soak the soya chunks in plenty of boiling water for 20-30 min. The water accumulates white foam at the top and the soya nuggets swell up.
- Throw away the water and rise off the nuggets 2-3 time in tap water.
- Heat oil in a pressure cooker, add the ground gravy paste and dry spices to it. Stir fry for 3-4 min. till oil leaves the sides.
- Now add the washed and drained soya nuggets and stir to coat. After 2 min., mix in the peas and potatoes. Keep stirring for another minute or so.
- Add the water, pressure cook on high for 1 whistle. Then turn the heat to low for another 5 minutes before turning off the stove.
- Allow the pressure cooker to open by itself before serving.
My two cents: Somehow, I haven’t looked at soya chunks in a kind way ever since that incidence. I have blamed them for being excessively chewy, or dense or flavorless. But the fact is that soya nuggets, made of modified soybean protein, provides a healthy dose of protein in a vegetarian diet. This is a processed protein, so presoaking in boiling water helps you get rid of that strong, unnatural smell associated with this product. The soya nuggets available in Indian grocery stores are also dried, so this pre-soak helps rehydrate them so that they absorb flavor better when cooked.
Soya chunks are also lacking in inherent flavor- which makes them ideal for soaking up the various spices and customizing them to your taste. The chewy-ness takes some getting used to, but it is not quite as unpleasant as I make it sound!! Plus I have been told by several people over the years that it does taste a lot like chicken.
There are many ways of using Soya chunks- of which this Soya nugget sabzi with peas and potatoes is just one. I encourage you to try it at least once!