Uzbekistan – Khiva (part 1 of 2)

Next day, Shokhrukh came to pick me early morning at 6 a.m. The hotel Grand Arte could not arrange breakfast for me at that time, hence we rushed to the airport. We caught a local flight of Uzbekistan Air to Urungech. The flight was on time and in an hour’s time, we landed. From there we went to Khiva (Also written as Xiva) by taxi. This journey is of about half an hour.

We checked in at Hotel Old Khiva. I think this is the most convenient hotel in Khiva as it is just across the road to the main attraction of Khiva. The hotel is very clean and the service was excellent. Most of the staff speaks decent English. One more comfort was of a currency vending machine. In this machine, you can exchange your Dollars, Euros etc to Som.

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Did I say attraction ? oh, it is a cluster of attractions. All enclosed within walls of Ichan Kala Fortress. Khiva is an open air museum (UNESCO, world heritage site.) But, strangely it is more modern than the other cities like Bukhara and Samarkand. Meaning the constructions are from 17th to 20th Century. Some of them are recreated but you can hardly tell.

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Outside the gate there is a huge map depicting the various branches of ancient silk route. You can easily identify the cities as they are still known by the same names.

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When you enter the main get, you feel that you are entering few centuries earlier in time. But it is not deserted or scary. It is as full of life as it would have been, then. The streets are full of young crowd, and the beautiful souvenirs, are on display.

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Some of the rooms have been converted into museums and some buildings are getting converted into hotels. There are couple of restaurants around, but they are also housed in some traditional buildings.

Another speciality of this place is that, most of the streets are meant only for pedestrians. The streets are so narrow, that no modern vehicle can move in or turn. Hence, you are at ease in moving around. You need to buy just one ticket for all these buildings and the supervisor (usually a lady) at these buildings will sign it off, once your visit is complete. One day is enough to cover all the buildings. You may take one more day, in case you want to go into details. The ticket is valid for two days. (Throughout my entire tour, my guide was taking care of all such tickets.)

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As soon as you enter the Kala, you see a huge Kalta Minor. The base itself is of diameter of 14.5 meters. Sadly the beautifully decorated minar is only one third of its original planned height (70 to 110 meters, as estimated). It was never completed.

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Adjacent to this Minar is a huge complex of Muhammad Aminkhan Madrassah (meaning school). This Madrassah is the largest (72 x 60 meters) in central Asia.

It has 125 hujris (cells) for students. The cells on ground floor have two rooms each and the ones on first floor have a room with attached balcony. A hotel is being planned in this building now, but the appearance is kept intact. Even the staircase, is also kept as it was.

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There is a camel kept in the area for joy ride. Surprisingly it looks much different from the camels, which we see in India or Gulf region.

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One of the buildings has a museum dedicated to music. It has some instruments, some portraits etc. The rooms also play the relevant music, while you are in. Uzbekistan had some Zoroastrian community, and one of the portraits shows their ancient dance around fire.

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There are other museums showcasing ancient silk, wardrobe, copperwares etc. Everything is very well preserved.

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to be continued …

Uzbekistan – Tashkent

I had not been to any country in Central Asia, before, hence I had narrowed my search to countries in that region. Uzbekistan was not that familiar a word to me, but cities like Tashkent, Bukhara, and Samarkand sounded somewhat familiar to me. I read all the travelogues on the net.  Each blogger has written affectionately about this country and the people. So I decided to go there.

I searched for visa procedure, and I understood that it was possible to get e-visa. I could have done it myself, but decided to go thru ivisa.com . The documents required were passport scan, a clear photograph and address of the hotel. Proof of return air ticket, financial resources or even hotel booking was not required. So, it was done.

While looking for air tickets, many bloggers had suggested Uzbekistan Air. This airline does not appear on other ticketing websites but offers most convenient and economical connections from Mumbai, Delhi & Amritsar to Tashkent. The booking was done promptly. Fifteen days before the travel, I could select my favorite window seat. The website did not provide tools to book AVML hence I emailed them, and that was also done promptly.

As per the bloggers it would not have been too difficult for me to travel on my own, but I always prefer arranged personalized tours. I looked for some travel agencies in Delhi. They were very slow to respond and were offering stay only in Tashkent. (“Night Life” being their USP. This is a trap. There is no so called “Night Life” in Tashkent and most of the attractions are outside the capital.) So I looked for local tour guides and came across a wonderful organization toursbylocals. The quote was bit costly for a solo traveler like me, but I still went for it. The dealing with these people was wonderful. They did their part of planning and reminding very well.

I knew it would be winter in Uzbekistan, so I packed some winter clothing and thermals. I had written to Shokhrukh, (my selected tour guide), about me being vegetarian and he assured me that it would not be a problem.

I made booking with booking.com with Hotel Grant Arte, in Tashkent for a day. They immediately confirmed my booking and emailed a detailed guide note regarding how to reach them, from airport. (Including how should I bargain with Taxi Driver.)

The flight was on time. To my surprise, Masala Dosa was served for breakfast. The flight route was over Pakistan and Afghanistan. The skies were clear and I had wonderful clicks of snowclad peaks of Karakorum and Hindukush mountains. When we landed in Tashkent the temperature was -2 degrees centigrade.

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The immigration and customs did not even take 10 minutes. The only document required was print out of my e-visa (apart from passport.) There was no declaration form required. Shokhrukh was waiting for me at exit. He took me to the hotel, and after check in, we immediately started our tour of Tashkent City.

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I had not converted my dollars at the airport, so that was the first priority. We went to Hotel Uzbekistan to exchange. This is a very huge building of Soviet era. This hotel is still operational. You must have seen a photo of this hotel, but this is a different angle.

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The exchange was quick. The currency of Uzbekistan is Som and the exchange rate as of January 2019 was 1 USD = 8,440 Som. Som does not have sub units. The notes are available in various denominations from 200 to 50000. Notes of 5000 or 10000 are more convenient to deal in.

It was lunch time. Hence we went to Shalimar Restaurant in Tashkent. The menu was typical north Indian. The ambience was very good. The service was prompt. The food was very tasty too. (It was bit hot and spicy for Shokhrukh.)

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Being a capital city, the roads in Tashkent were quiet wide (4 lanes on each side) and there was not much of traffic.

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We first went to Abdulla Murodxo’jayev 17a Mosque. It was just the introduction to Uzbekistan architecture for me. It had all the elements like huge prayer hall, minaret, decorated front gate, a lovely garden etc. which I was going to see for next seven days.

Here are some snaps of that complex.

 

We were allowed to enter the main prayer hall too. (Uzbekistan is very liberal. There are no restrictions on entries to any mosque. Some places require that you dress up decently, but that’s all.) The main prayer hall has beautifully decorated domes.

In Uzbekistan, you find a iwan (a gallery-like structure with one side or two sides entirely open). This structure is usually supported by beautifully carved wooden logs. The top portion of these logs, is always beautifully carved.

Then we went to Khazrati Imam Architectural Complex. (In Uzbeki language A gets converted to O. So Imam may be written as Imom and Naan as Non ) These buildings were restored in year 2007, but the original style was kept intact. All the buildings look very beautiful, but it is difficult to capture on camera. Here are my trials !

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Muyi Muborak Madrasah is said to have been built on hair of The Prophet. Besides, it is famous for the great Islamic relic kept in its library, the Uthman Koran (also known as Samarkand Kufic Koran, Samarkand Codex, Samarkand Manuscript and Tashkent Koran; also spelled Osman Koran). This codex, in Kufic script, dates back to the 8th century and is believed to be the world’s oldest Koran copy. We are allowed to see this relic but photography is not allowed. ( Well, that is the only place, where I found this restriction.) There are some other translations of Holy Quran kept in the building.

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Then we went to Chorsu Bazar. Chorsu means cross road (similar to Chaurasta in Hindi, and yes Chor means char, four.) This is a very busy market. The beautifully designed dome has salads, meat, dairy products on the ground floor and the first floor has dry fruits stall. The ladies and guys are so generous, that they are ever willing to offer you handful of their products. The products are of first class quality and all reasonably priced. I purchased some cream cheese but the lady offered me to taste at least three varieties of it, to taste. (Well, she made it difficult for me to choose, as all were equally tasty.)

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We just had a quick round, over the dry fruits section. Outside this dome, there are various sections, selling colorful fresh vegetables, fruits, breads and other things. It is a very lively but clean place. I wanted to do lot of shopping, but I kept it for my last day. I purchased some fruits and bread, for dinner.

 

 

Then we proceeded to Timur and Independence Squares. This is a huge open space, with large trees around. It has a horse ridden statue of Timur ( Taimoor, as we say in India). This Taimoor is forefather of all Mughal kings from Humayun to Auragjeb, who ruled northern India. There is a war memorial too.

The area is so vast, that I was unable to capture the whole area in any single frame. The national bird of Uzbekistan, crane, appears in beautiful sculpture on the arc.

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The statue of mother of war heroes, represents the grief and sorrow of all such mothers. The names of war heroes (of Second World War) have been written on brass plates on specially constructed iwans.

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The metro station is just nearby. The former bunkers have been converted into metro stations now. Until recently, photography was banned inside these stations. But now, there is no such restriction. We had joy ride of just one station.  Due to very cold climate, the photo is not very clear. But I am told that each metro station is beautifully designed. (Wish could, visit all of them !)

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The huge building of Hotel Uzbekistan turns into a giant LED screen in the evening.

Well, it was time to return to hotel. We had to catch early morning flight to Urungech, next day.

 

Where is Uzbekistan !

When I was planning a vacation, this time, I wanted to go to a region not visited by me earlier. The first criterion was of course the ease in getting visa. I can’t afford the wait for visa, if I have to apply for it from India. My vacations are short and I make sure that my travel arrangements are made, before my vacation actually starts.

So I came across blogs about Uzbekistan. Every blogger, without fail, has written affectionately about this country. But, they have also listed some problems they faced there. Maybe the blogs are based on their experiences, couple of years earlier. My experiences were different, or rather much better.

Hey, but let me start from the beginning, for the benefit of all of you. And yes, this is going to be a long story, because the country has offered me so much, I am almost in love with her. Let me start with basic information, about this country.

  • Where is Uzbekistan ?

It is a land locked country in central Asia. She shares her border with one of our neighbor, Afghanistan. She was part of former U.S.S.R. , but now a separate country.

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  • How to go there ?

Tashkent is the capital of this country. It has international airport. ( There are some other international airports also.)  Uzbekistan Air is the national airline. It has direct flights from Mumbai, Delhi & Amritsar to Tashkent. But you will not find this airline, on any of other search engines. It has it’s own website, and bookings can be done on it. Contrary to what you may read on net, my experience with this airline, was fantastic. (read on !! )

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  • How to get visa ?

E-visa is available.  You need to pay 20 USD per applicant. You need to upload, your passport scan, photograph and need to provide hotel address. They did not ask me any proof of hotel booking. In case you need any assistance for visa, you can check with ivisa.com. I did.

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  • Is it costly to go there ?

The airline offers fantastic rates.  (other indirect connections are also available.) The currency is Som, and in January 2019, the exchange rate was 1 USD = 8,440 SOM. The food is abundant and much cheaper than most other countries. The accommodation is also not very costly. You may find decent hotels from USD 30 onwards. Even hostels are available, which are, of course, much economical. You can easily convert your USD with any bank or hotel. USD are widely accepted and they are more convenient to carry. Make sure you have small bills as the seller may not have change.

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  • How to go around ?

I had made my entire arrangements with toursbylocals.com. But if you want to move on your own, buses, taxies, trams, trains, local flights and even high speed trains are available.  They are quiet reasonable priced. Be assured, that you will not spend much on it.

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  • What about language ?

The official language is Uzbeki. Russian is widely spoken. But, English is also not very uncommon. Most of the salesman and hotel staff, can surely communicate with you in English. Even taxi drivers, speak decent English. ( It is being taught in schools now.) And in the era of google translator, no language is any issue, anymore. You may download an offline dictionary, if you wish to. You may find many signboards in English too. They use Roman script (Russian script is also used) and you will be surprised to notice, the number of Hindi words found in their language.

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  • What to see there ?

You may follow the silk route like me. The cities like Tashkent, Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand are covered in it.  This tour may require seven to eight days. If you have more time, you may visit Chimgan mountains, which is like Switzerland. You may even go for trekking in that area.  Aral sea ( which has almost vanished now) and Fergana valley can also be visited. But please do not fall prey to some tour agencies who promise you the “night life” of Tashkent, in just two days.. There is no “night life” in Tashkent.  The cities, I just mentioned are treat to eyes. I will be posting many photographs here, in this series.

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  • What to eat there ?

I am vegetarian and after spending eight days in Uzbekistan, I am still alive. Jokes apart, there is plenty to eat there. Their food is not heavily spiced like ours, but it is very healthy and tasty. They do eat Naan, Kabab, Pulao, Samosa and do call them by these very names. There are some Indian restaurants too. The bazars and supermarkets are flooded with fresh vegetables, fruits, cheese and dry fruits. Every seller will happily offer you a handful of his products just for tasting. And that includes best dry fruits also. Many restaurants, you visit will surely have couple of vegetarian dishes too and the menu card, would be available in English also. Most of the hotels, you stay, will offer you free breakfast, and will make sure it is of your choice.

 

  • What to shop ?

If you are like me, who think that it is your obligation to buy a small gift for everyone you know, back home, then you will not be disappointed. The only limiting factor would be your baggage allowance and of course, the cash you are carrying. (Some establishment in big cities do accept, visa cards, but not all.)

Uzbekistan has best silks and cottons to offer. Brass plates, dry fruits, wooden carvings, ceramics, furs, chocolates, fruits, knives.. the list is almost endless. Everything is reasonably priced and you are always welcome to offer your price.

 

  • When to travel ?

I visited in January. It was winter there. The temperatures were negative. But I enjoyed it. Being off season, I had most of the sites, for myself. The skies were blue and clear. April and May are ideal months to visit. All the trees would be flowering at that time.  The weather would be comfortable but it would be high tourist season also. ( You need to make your bookings, in advance.) August will be fruiting season, but it would be very hot also. So, the choice is yours.

  • Immigration policies.

The net has some reports which say that you need to declare your foreign currency at the time of arrival and departure too. You can not take more forex out, than you brought in. (Obviously).  But, nobody asked me to declare. The only document requested, apart from my passport was the print out of my e-visa. There is another report on net, which says that you must register yourself, for every night, you stay in any hotel. The hotel would do it for 3 USD per night.  The hotels, still do it, but nobody checked it for me, at the time of departure. I am not sure, if these rules are done away with now, but in case.. better to be ready.

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  • How are the people ?

They are the sweetest, I have met. They are Very friendly, caring and hospitable. They will come forward to talk to you. I can assure you, that you will also have some pleasant experiences to cherish, for life. I will narrate few of mine, in this series.

 

And last.. IS IT SAFE ?

 

ABSOLUTELY … It is very safe to move around. There are special tourist police available at places of tourist places, in case you need any help. I would just narrate one incident. I wanted to see the night lighting at Bukhara, so my guide and I went for after dinner walk. We purposely walked the lanes and by lanes of Bukhara. I found many working young ladies walking back home (maybe after work.) They were relaxed and quiet comfortable to walk alone. I did not find, any groups of young chaps, chatting in any dark corner. Need I say more ?

 

As there are many photographs to be uploaded, I am going to it is a phased manner. Bear with me. I travelled from Tashkent to Khiva, to Bukhara, To Samarkand and back to Tashkent. I Will write in this order. The photographs posted here are some random ones, will arrange them in subsequent posts. Enjoy !!

Methi Chakri (Baked version) Fenugreek leaves rolls

 

Ingredients

 

The ingredients are :-

 

 

  • 1) 1 ½ plain flour (maida), (you can even use whole meal flour.)
  • 2) 1 cup chopped methi (fenugreek) leaves and / or other green leaves of your choice,
  • 3) 3 tablespoon vegetable oil,
  • 4) ½ teaspoon baking powder,
  • 5) ½ teaspoon turmeric powder,
  • 6) 1 teaspoon red chili powder,
  • 7) 1 teaspoon roasted cumin powder,
  • 8) ½ teaspoon asafoetida,
  • 9) ½ teaspoon black pepper powder,
  • 10) ½ teaspoon sugar,
  • 11) salt to taste,
  • 12) Chat masala to sprinkle on top. (optional)

 

Directions

Instructions

 

  • 1) Take flour in a bowl, add 2 tablespoon oil, salt and baking powder to it. Mix well.
  • 2) Adding little water, make a semi soft dough, cover and keep aside.
  • 3) Chop the leaves and add remaining oil, salt and all other ingredients, except chat masala. Mix well and keep aside.
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  • 4) Preheat oven to 200 degrees centigrade.
  • 5) Knead the dough till smooth and make two portions. Roll out each portion to oblong shape. Thickness should be around 2 mm.
  • 6) By this time the methi leaves would have started releasing some juices. Divide the mixture into two parts. Spread one part over the rolled out dough. While spreading rub it with your fingers, so that the juices get absorbed in the dough.
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  • 7) Start rolling the dough from one end. Keep on pressing while rolling so that the roll is very tight. Press the roll again and give it a round shape.
  • 8) Using a sharp knife, cut slices of the roll and lay them in a tray, lined with baking paper.
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  • 9) Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, till golden.
  • 10) Cool in the tray itself and then sprinkle with chat masala (optional) and store in airtight box.
  • 11) Will keep for 8 to 10 days.

 

 

These chakris taste of methi leaves. Do taste great with tea. The same recipe can be used for other greens, of your choice.

I have added sesame seeds also, these are optional.

 

 

 

Kolhapuri Bakarwadi (Baked version)

 

Ingredients

 

The ingredients are :-

 

For the filling or bakar :-

  • 1) 2 cloves,
  • 2) 8/10 black pepper corns,
  • 3) 2 teaspoon cumin seeds.
  • 4) 2 table spoons coriander seeds.
  • 5) 2 inches cinnamon stick,
  • 6) 1 tablespoon aniseeds,
  • 7) 1 tablespoon poppy seeds,
  • 8) 2 tablespoon sesame seeds,
  • 9) 1 ½ cup desiccated coconut,
  • 10) 1 tablespoon red chili powder,
  • 11) 1 teaspoon asafoetida,
  • 12) 8/10 garlic pods,
  • 13) salt to taste,
  • 14) fresh coriander leaves, chopped and slightly dried,
  • 15) 1 teaspoon turmeric powder,

For the cover

  • 1) 1 ½ cup gram flour (besan),
  • 2) ½ cup plain flour (maida),
  • 3) ¼ cup rice flour (optional, but recommended for crispy bakarwadis)
  • 4) ½ teaspoon baking powder,
  • 5) ½ teaspoon turmeric powder,
  • 6) 1 teaspoon red chili powder,
  • 7) 2 to 3 tablespoon oil.

 

Directions

Instructions

 

  • 1) In a hot pan, roast the sesame seeds till they pop. Remove.
  • 2) In the same pan, heat a little oil and fry the dry spices from 1 to 7, in that order.
  • 3) Remove and cool in a dish. ( Do not mix with sesame seeds )
  • 4) In the same pan, roast the desiccated coconut till pink and crisp. (Take care not to burn it.) Turn off the heat. Add red chili powder, asafoetida and turmeric powder, while still in pan. Cool slightly.
  • 5) Grind the roasted spices to fine powder. Add the roasted coconut mixed with other dry spices, the garlic pods (chopped, if too big) and grind together with spice powder again.
  • 6) Remove in a plate, add sesame seeds and coriander leaves. Add salt and check the taste. The filling should be little hot and spicy. You may add more chili powder, if needed. This filling can be made, one or two days in advance. Actually it is advisable to make in advance, so that the coconut, is infused with spices. Store in air tight container.
  • 7) When you want to make the Bakarwadi, prepare dough for the cover. Mix all the ingredients, except oil. Then add oil and mix well. Knead a hard dough with little water and cover with damp cloth. Keep it aside for 15/20 minutes. Knead again. It should be smooth to roll, but still not very soft.
  • 8) Divide the dough in two parts. Roll it in oblong shape, as thin as possible. (Not too thin, otherwise it will break while rolling.)
  • 9) Preheat the oven for 200 degrees centigrade.
  • 10) Divide the filling in two parts, Apply little oil and spread the filling on rolled out dough, evenly. Leave the edges uncovered as seen in picture.
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  • 11) Press down the filling (with rolling pin), so that it sticks to the dough.
  • 12) Start rolling from one side, and keep on pressing, so that there no air pockets left inside.
  • 13) When the roll is done, flatten it firmly with your palms and cut into one inch wide pieces.
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  • 14) Repeat for remaining dough.
  • 15) On a baking tray, spread parchment paper and apply little oil. Arrange the Bakarwadis, keeping little space in between, and slightly brush with oil.
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  • 16) Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or till done.
  • 17) Cool them and keep in air tight container.
  • 18) Enjoy with cup of tea.

 

 

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These Bakarwadis are spicy, but if you prefer you can add little citric acid to the filling or apply little tamarind paste on the rolled out dough. (Please do not add sugar. If you prefer less spicy filling, then reduce the quantity of chili powder.) These Bakarwadis can be shallow fried also. You may steam the roll for 15 minutes, before cutting. That way the dough will get cooked and will not require much oil for frying. In any case you need to press them firmly, before frying. Some filling may come out while frying, so need to be careful.

 

 

 

Moringa Leaves

 

Ingredients

 

The ingredients are :-

 

  • 1) Moringa leaves, about 4 to five cups. (Read on for the trick, how to remove the stems)
  • 2) half cup raw peanuts,
  • 3) half cup tuvar or moong dal,
  • 4) 2 tablespoon ghee,
  • 5) 1 teaspoon turmeric powder,
  • 6) ½ teaspoon asafotida,
  • 7) 2 green chilies, chopped.
  • 8) 1 red chili, broken into pieces,
  • 9) 4/5 garlic pods, beaten with skin on,
  • 10) salt to taste,
  • 11) 1 teaspoon sugar or gor,
  • 12) 2 tablespoon grated fresh coconut (optional)

 

Directions

Instructions

 

These leaves are very small and it is rather difficult to remove them from the stems. (You need to remove the stems as they do not cook very well). When you buy the bunch from the market, do not wash it. Tie it tightly in newspaper or a cloth. Leave it overnight, like this. Next day untie it and shake over a large plate or thali. Most of the leaves will fall from the stems. Pick up the small sticks from the fallen leaves. Then wash the leaves in plenty of water and drain them in a colander. There is no point in chopping them, as they are already too small. You need to pressure cook them, as they do not cook very well, otherwise.

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  • 1) In a pressure pan, heat 1 tablespoon ghee and add the groundnuts and stir fry them.
  • 2) When they are done add the leaves and continue frying them. Add turmeric and asafotida.
  • 3) Fry till the leaves wilt and change colour,
  • 4) Add tuvar or moong dal and mix very well. Add two cups water and let the mixture come to boil,
  • 5) Close the lid of the pressure pan. Lower the heat and pressure cook it for 7 minutes.
  • 6) Let the pressure drop, then open the lid. Add salt and sugar or gor. Mix well.
  • 7) In another pan heat remaining ghee and add the beaten garlic pods, and red chili. When they are done, add to the cooked vegetable. Add grated coconut, if using.

 

 

 

Enjoy with any roti, or rice.