Indian cuisine has very little to do with pasta or noodles. At best, there are sweet treats made out of the noodle lookalike, seviyan, a kind of vermicelli made from wheat flour that is turned into a hot or cold pudding, seeped in milk.
There are noodle-like preparations-such as the South Indian idiyappam where rice flour is pressed to create swirls that are steamed and tempered with ample turmeric and curry leaves. There are a few Indo-Chinese influenced dishes where noodles are involved and an Indian-Muslim dish called dabba gosht that’s loaded with curry.
But that doesn’t make noodles less compelling. In Darjeeling, a city in West Bengal on the eastern side of India, a dish called lal aloo Wai Wai stands out. It literally translates to red potato served with Wai Wai, a Nepalese brand of ready-to-eat noodles, available in India and more than 30 other countries.
“It’s literally sold across the whole city,” says food expert Rahul Jha, a third-generation owner of Keventers, a 110-year-old cafe in Darjeeling, who himself eats it “at least once in a month.” “In fact, as soon as you enter the city, along the highway, you’ll notice stalls selling it.”
The exact influences of this dish are not known, but its popularity could be because of the easy access to Wai Wai noodles, since West Bengal (Darjeeling’s parent state) and Nepal share a border. Jha points out that this dish wasn’t as widely available 15 years ago, but now every nook sells it. Today, lal aloo Wai Wai is as common to Darjeeling as a hot dog is to New York or a Buddha bowl is to Bali. Locals are known to walk around town carrying the plastic noodle packets, an ideal snack in Darjeeling’s cold weather.
Lal aloo wai wai involves hot Indian-style tomato gravy poured over toasted noodles that moisten a bit with the liquid. All the oils and spices that come pre-packed with the noodles are sprinkled on top of the dish.
While this drunk-with-a-red-gravy form is the most popular version of these noodles, Wai Wai’s website encourages you to turn it into a salad with arugula and strawberries, or a honey-soaked noodle dessert. But let’s start with the original version first.
Lal Aloo Wai Wai
17 ounces potatoes (diced)
1 tbsp Nigella sativa/black cumin
1 tbsp fennel seeds
10-12 dry chilli
5 tomatoes (roughly chopped)
7 cloves of garlic (peeled)
3 tbsp mustard oil
2 tbsp chickpea flour, salt as per taste
½ tsp natural edible red colour (optional)
1 packet Wai Wai noodles (or any other instant noodles)
1. Boil the potatoes and keep them aside.
2. In another skillet, heat 2 cups of water and tip in the tomatoes, dry chillies (save 2) and garlic. Allow it to simmer for 8-9 mins. Once the tomatoes soften, transfer it into a blender. Allow it to cool and blend it into a smooth paste.
3. In a pan, heat mustard oil and add Nigella sativa and fennel seeds. Once they begin to crackle, add the saved chillies. Allow the tempering to cook for ½ a minute on medium flame.
4. Add the tomato paste and cook this further for 8-10 minutes on medium heat.
5. In another bowl, mix chickpea flour with water, just enough to obtain a thick pancake-batter like consistency.
6. Pour this into the cooked tomato mixture and simmer the gravy for 7-8 minutes further. Add water if it gets too thick.
7. Tip in the boiled potatoes and season with salt. Cook this mixture for 3-4 minutes and add the natural edible colour (if using).
8. Transfer into a serving bowl and get the noodles ready.
9. Before opening the noodle packet, crush it with your hands. Now open and transfer it on a pan, add the dry spice mix that accompanies the noodles (and any other seasoning or oil). Toast it for 2-3 minutes on a slow flame.
10. To serve, equally divide the toasted noodles in a bowl or put it back into the packet, and pour the tomato-potato gravy on top.
11. Allow it to moisten the noodles for 2 minutes and eat hot.
Sonal Ved is a Thrillist contributor and the author of Tiffin: 500 Authentic Recipes Celebrating India’s Regional Cuisine. She is the content lead at India Food Network and Tastemade India, and the food editor at Vogue India.
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