The first time I had to describe tehri to someone, I was at a loss. More difficult than explaining the simple dish was accepting the fact that there was someone who did not know what tehri was. After all, I had grown up eating it every other day.
As luck would have it, in the years to come, I had to describe the dish many times over, to many people. And so I adopted a simple shortcut: I called it “yellow pulav”. It is another matter altogether that tehri and pulav are as different as chalk and cheese; their only similarity is that they are rice dishes. The differences I usually leave for my culinary skills to explain.
A staple of vegetarian households in the dusty small towns of Uttar Pradesh, tehri is a potent one-pot meal that owes its origin to the vegetarian employees of the Nawabs of Awadh, who could not eat the meaty biryani, and invented a vegetarian counterpart which was simpler to make. Another story goes that during the time of famine, when meat was hard to find, the cooks of the royal kitchen substituted mutton with potatoes, and thus was born tehri.
Unlike pulav or biryani, tehri is neither rich nor ceremonial, but an ordinary meal for ordinary people. And in that ordinariness lies its specialty. Although cooked throughout the year, it is in spring that the true character of the dish comes out, when other than potatoes, peas and cauliflower are also added to it.
One does not know if the rice dish got its colour from spring or if spring adopted tehri for its rich yellow colour, but when bright yellow flowers blossom on the rich soil of the Hindi heartland, a pot of tehri is certainly being cooked somewhere.
2 cups long-grain basmati rice, soaked for 20-30 minutes
1 cup shelled green peas
1 cup cauliflower florets
1 large onion sliced
1 large potato cut into 4
50 ml cooking oil (mustard oil preferred)
2 bay leaves
1/2 tsp cumin
1 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp coriander powder
1 to 1.5 tsp red chilli powder
1/2 tsp garam masala powder
Salt to taste
1 tsp ghee
2.5 cups water
In a large, thick-bottomed pressure cooker, pour the oil and heat till smoking point.
When the oil begins to smoke, add bay leaves, cumin seeds, and onion. Stir.
When the onion turns translucent, add the potatoes and the cauliflower.
Stir for another couple of minutes and add the turmeric, coriander powder and red chilli powder.
When the vegetables turn a light shade of brown, and the spices are cooked, add the soaked rice and stir gently for about a minute, until every grain is covered in oil. Make sure the rice does not break.
Add shelled peas and water.
Finally add salt, garam masala and ghee, and give it another stir. Close the cooker.
Turn the stove off after the first whistle and let the rice cook in its own steam.
Open the cooker after about 10 minutes; serve immediately with plain curd, fresh coriander chutney, or pickle.
Best eaten in the warm spring sun, among flying kites and playful banter.
Note: In summer, the dish can easily be made without the peas and cauliflower: just increase the quantity of potatoes. Soaked soya nuggets can also be added.