When we were young and living in Somerville, Massachusetts, Robert and I liked to visit a tiny Indian market in Union Square. On one of our visits he picked up a little can with a label picturing something dark green and golden brown, rolled and sliced like a cinnamon roll. Curious, we added the can to our pile of spices and legumes.
At home, we fried the rich, spicy, slightly sweet rolls, called patra, according to the instructions on the label. Every time we visited the store after that, we had to bring home patra.
When an Indian salesman from Robert’s company visited Oregon last year, he came to our house for dinner. Robert and I hadn’t eaten patra in thirty-five years, but neither of us had forgotten its taste. So in the talk of Indian foods Robert asked about patra. Ankur was surprised. The women in his family used to make it, but they hadn’t in recent years. Ankur hadn’t tasted patra in a long time.
Ankur was no cook, so he couldn’t tell us how to make patra. But he knew we needed a special leaf, a big leaf . . . He tried and tried but couldn’t remember the English name of the plant.
Knowing how enthusiastically Indian cooks have taken to the Internet, I later googled “patra recipe.” Suddenly, patra lost all its mystery. The big leaf, I learned, is from taro, or colocasia, as Indians prefer to call it; the Hindi name is arbi ke patte. This is the tropical wetland plant whose starchy tubers are a staple food for Pacific islanders and West Indians (the latter call the plant dasheen). The arrow-shaped leaves are edible, says one Indian writer, only when they “are not itchy.” The paste around which the leaves are wrapped is made up mostly of besan, gram flour—or, to us, chickpea flour.
Some cool-climate gardeners grow taro in summer and dig up the tubers in fall to overwinter indoors, but I have no patience for ever-thirsty plants, especially when they can’t survive the winter outdoors. And I’m sure that no grocery store in this town stocks colocasia leaves. Still, Robert wasn’t discouraged. He figured he’d just found a new use for collard leaves.
The next day Robert studied several recipes on the Internet and created his own—
3 medium collard leaves
1½ cups chickpea flour
1 teaspoon ground dried hot pepper
2 teaspoons ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cumin
2 tablespoons brown sugar
About ½ teaspoon salt
1 1-inch chunk fresh ginger
1 green jalapeño pepper
6 small garlic cloves
About 5 to 6 ounces water
1 tablespoon black mustard seeds
2 teaspoons sesame seeds
1 small bunch cilantro, chopped
Cut the large central rib out of the leaves, and cut each leaf in two lengthwise. Trim each leaf half a bit so that it is more or less rectangular. With a rolling pin, lightly crush each leaf half to make it more pliable.
In a bowl, mix the flour with the dry spices, sugar, and salt. In a mortar or food processor, make a paste of the ginger, pepper, and garlic. Add the paste to the flour mixture, and stir well. Add water a little at a time, stirring, until the mixture forms a spreadable paste.
Lay a leaf half on a board. Spread some of the paste in a thin layer on top. Place a second leaf half over the first, and spread the paste in a thin layer over the top. Roll the leaves to form a log. Use the rest of the leaves and paste to make two more logs in the same way.
Place the logs in a steamer heated to a boil (Robert uses a Chinese bamboo steamer set over a wok). Steam the patra for 25 minutes.
Let the logs cool, and then slice them crosswise into 3/8- to ½-inch rounds.
Pour enough oil into a large skillet to cover the bottom ¼ inch deep. Turn the heat to medium. When the oil is hot, add the mustard and sesame seeds. As soon as the seeds begin popping, place a single layer of patra rounds in the pan. Cook for about 1 minute, until the paste begins to brown. Turn the rounds, and cook them on the other side for another minute. Transfer them to a dish lined with paper towels to soak up the excess oil. Cook the remaining slices in the same way.
Serve the patra warm with chopped cilantro.
Makes about 3 dozen
The spices covered up the cabbagy flavor so well that Robert’s patra tasted, to us, just like the patra we remembered from the Indian market. With the sole addition of sautéed daylily buds, his patra made a lovely dinner.
Robert took a picture of his patra and sent it to Ankur. About a week later, Ankur sent back a very similar picture of a dish his own family meal. Apparently, he had talked his mother into making patra.