Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Goalondo Murgi -- Steamer Fowl Curry

Goalondo Chicken Curry

I have never had a Goalondo Murgi in all my childhood.

I do not know anyone in my family who has tasted this dish cooked by the boatmen on a Goalondo Steamer. That is kind of justified given that my family on the large is probashi bangali, meaning Bengalis settled outside of Bengal. Their ties to East Bengal might seem very very faint but quiet a few of my Baba's uncles spoke in a heavy "Bangal accent" and my Dad fondly remembers the single trip that he made to Dhaka as a young boy with his grandmother, who had her maternal family in that area. He did go on a steamer on his travel but he has never mentioned the Goalondo Steamer curry. I assume he did not taste it.

In the last couple of years the internet is however awash with the recipe of this rustic curry cooked by the Sylheti boatmen on the steamer that plied the Padma. A recipe with a story always intrigues me and this one had enough nostalgia and romanticism going for it. However I wasn't fully convinced  to cook it. Yet.

Goalondo Ghat is a small town on the southern banks of Padma, or rather the confluence of Padma and Brahmaputra, in Bangladesh. Way back in 1871, the Eastern railways established a train line from Kolkata to Goalondo. To go from Kolkata to Dhaka, one would take a train from Sealdah Station which would reach Goalondo ghaat after an overnight journey. There you would then change to a steamer which chugged on the waters of river Padma and traveled down to Naraynganj or Chandpur. Once at Narayanganj, you would then again take the train to Dhaka.

As we see, Goalondo was a major transport hub with daily service steamers connecting it to railway service in Narayanganj, Chandpur as well as to steamer services to the regions of Sylhet from where you could then proceed to the tea plantations in Assam.

A vivid picture of the journey is descirbed in this Handbook from 1913, "From the Hooghly to the Himalayas"
"From Goalundo to Narayanganj by steamer on the Padma, as the Ganges is called on its lower reaches, takes about seven hours, and as the boats are comfortable and the prospect always pleases, the journey is well worth making and serves as a introduction to the great system of waterways that is the main characteristic of this province. The amazing width of the river, the fights and shades reflected on its muddy waters, the vivid green of the fields of rice and jute that fringe the banks and recede into the mists of the far horizon across the flat alluvial plains, the thatched huts with hog's-back roofs - or huts modernized and ugly with the more water-proof iron tops—and the little clusters of palms and other trees - all this makes up a moving panorama that one may watch for hours untired."

I haven't been to Goalondo or on that steamer, but the stories and songs of these boatmen have been retold in many Bengali tales. Aided by literature and imagination, I can imagine the deckhands(also known as Khalasis) preparing their mid-day meal while singing Bhatiyali songs as the steamer plowed down the river. These were men probably from Sylhet or Chittagong, regions famous for their cooks. With sparse ingredients in hand they cooked a chicken and potato curry on the days they could buy dishi murgi or fowls at a bargain price. While they cooked with onion, garlic, mustard oil and lots of red chili ,the fragrance of steaming hot rice and the bubbling curry wafted around the boat, the flavors intensified by the boatmen's songs, songs of the joys and pains of the mighty river.

The life and curry that we romanticize now must have been a routine and mundane thing for those boatmen. As the curry gained popularity, the pise hotels around the ghaat started offering them to travelers. In those days murgi/chicken was taboo in most Hindu homes. For a long time, we weren't allowed to cook and eat murgi in my grandmother's home, though goat meat was allowed. So naturally the lure of the gorgore laal murgir jhol at these hotels and steamer was hard to resist.

Now I have tried two recipes of Goalondo Steamer Fowl Curry. One was guided by Pritha Sen's description of the curry as a "fiery, thin red curry with a layer of oil on top". She had done extensive research on the recipe and had deduced dry shrimp paste as the magic ingredient which the boatmen used.

Very logical, as dried fish(shukti) or dried shrimp paste was very popular among the Sylheti cooks and it was an inexpensive ingredient that could be carried on their boat journeys. I got a bottle of shrimp-chilli paste from the Asian Market but I am not sure if it is the right kind. I worked around what Pritha Di said but I am sure my Goalondo Fowl Curry was nowhere as good as hers.

The rest of the ingredients etc. was based on a recipe that Ahona Gupta gave me. She had found it on a cooking forum in FB and made it few years back. Her recipe asked for same ingredients but the shrimp paste. Other than that her recipe called for a more simpler method of cooking and also she advised against adding any water. However I did add water because you know what, the curry has to be a "thin red curry".

My curry was thin and tasted pretty good but didn't have the fiery red color, probably due to my skimping on the red chillies. Mine also tasted more or less like the Murgir Jhol my Mother or Mother-in-law cooks with the faint note of the shrimp paste adding a new layer. It has to be more about my cooking though as the recipes is perfect and I hope with more trials my murgir jhol gets the "gorgore laal" (fiery red) rustic flavor like that of the steamer fowl curry.

Method I

Start off with 1lb of bone-in chicken, skinned and cut in pieces

Make a paste of
5 fat cloves of garlic
1" of ginger
4-5 Dry red chilli that has been soaked for 15-20 mins(Note: My curry was medium hot, you need to use double the chilli to have a more spicy curry )

I made the paste using my mortar and pestle given that this was supposed to be a rustic curry. I am sure if the boatmen had an electric grinder they would have used that, so please take liberties and do your best.

Now grate 3/4th of a red onion and keep aside. I was lazy to grate and so boiled and then made a paste of the Onion. Also the onions I get here are really big in size, so 3/4th of my big onion would amount to 2 small onion.

Chop 1 potato in 4 quarters

Now wash and clean the chicken pieces. Marinate the chicken and potatoes with
half of the garlic-chilli paste
2 tbsp of Mustard oil
half of the onion paste
generous sprinkle of turmeric
little salt
Keep aside for 30 minutes to an hour.
Note: If I am not wrong, Pritha Di had asked for a little fish sauce in the chicken marinade which I skipped.

Heat Mustard Oil in a Kadhai/Wok. Be generous with your mustard oil

When the oil is hot, add
the rest of the onion paste
rest of the chilli-garlic paste
about 1/2 tsp of this dry Shrimp paste/dry Shrimp powder.
Saute the onion and spices until starts turning brown.

Add the potatoes and the chicken and saute for about 5-6 minutes.When the potatoes start getting a touch of color and the chicken has lost its raw coloring, add about 1 cup of water. Add salt to taste.

Let the curry come to a simmer. Now reduce the heat, cover the wok/kadhai and let the chicken cook in low heat. After 20-25 mins or so, lift the lid and there is a fair chance that you will see a slick layer of oil floating on the top.

Now open the lid and cook for 4-5 minutes more until the chicken and potatoes are cooked.

Method II

I marinated 1lb chicken and the potatoes with all the ingredients as above(i.e. grated onion, garlic-chili-ginger paste, mustard oil,, salt, turmeric powder)

Now heat mustard oil in a wok/kadhai.

Add the marinated chicken and potatoes. Saute for 8-10 minutes. Now cover, add a little water, salt to taste and let it cook until a layer of oil floats on top and everything is cooked.

Serve this thin curry with steaming hot rice, red onions slices and a twist of lime.

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Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Fuluri or Phuluri ~ on the trail of a fried snack

Let me jog your memory and remind you of the A-Z of Bengali Cuisine that I have been half-heartedly attempting since last year. I mean my heart is fully into it but I keep falling back in chronicling the recipes.

Anyway,let me remind you that around November last year, we were stuck at the Letter "F". Not the word, the letter. The reader's choice popular awards demanded "F for Fuchka", "F for Fish Orly" and "F for Fish Fry".

However what was stuck in the grooves of my brain was steeped in memory, nostalgia and zero real life experience. F for "Fuluri".

A few yards away from my maternal grandmother's home in northern parts of Kolkata, right behind a small temple that was built upon faith and an old banyan tree, there was a narrow lane. This narrow lane was one of the many, many narrow lanes that crisscrossed that part of the city.Those days cars and buses were few and they for the most part stuck to the main roads. Bicycles, rickshaws and mostly people on foot plied the narrow gallis. Even then the by-lanes were a quiet, peaceful haven where you could chalk the time of the day by observing the thoroughfare.

Early morning as the eastern sky turned pink, you could hear the trill of the bicycle bells of the doodhwallah, the thwack of the newspaper guy who brought news on his bicycle and the faint All India Radio signature tune of "Vande Mataram" from the houses along the lane who stirred and woke up from deep slumber. Little later the lane would resound with high pitched voices of kids in school uniform, the tiny ones with sleep in their eyes and their small fingers wrapped around their mother's, the older ones huddled close with their friends, walking towards the school bus stop. Almost the same time as the school crowd there would be the "bajaar goers", middle aged men, sometimes women, purposefully striding towards the morning market to get the best fish for the day. This was when the lane would get really busy and you would know the small hand of clock was somewhere around 8 and 9 in the morning.

By the time the sun had risen further and the shadows stretched long and thin from one end of the lane to the other, office goers with their briefcase, three tiered tiffin carrier and a small box of paan, marched along the lane, to wait for their crowded bus at the corner where the narrow lane met the main road.

Soon after, with the sun high up in the sky, the lane would turn hushed, sleepy, interrupted only by sounds of a pressure cooker whistle or the hiss and sputter of mustard oil. Elderly men would sit out on the porch and maids with slim waist bang doors as they rushed from one home to another.

Sometime around 5 in the evening, in this very ordinary lane, a small shop would open its shutters. The shop was nearer to the main road and closer to the temple. A very strategic location.

And in this shop, there would be an old woman, sitting behind a huge black kadhai that rested on a unoon, a coal fire stove. Great amount of oil sizzled in this Kadhai. The old woman swirled her bony wrists and poured dollops of chickpea and various other batter into the hot oil. The oil bubbled and sputtered angrily, magically turning the batter into golden balls, which she then took out with a slotted spoon, and served to her customers in paper cones made of day old newspaper. Her small store front would be so crowded with cries of "Chaar te Chingrir Chop", "Duto Beguni", "Dash ta Fuluri", that you had to stand sideways and push with your shoulder to get an entry. By mid evening pools of yellow light gathered under the street lamps and the lane was redolent with heavenly smell of deep fried food. This was "Buri'r telebhajar dokaan"(the old woman's fritter shop) from where my uncles got beguni, aloor chop and fuluri, wrapped in newspaper, on rare evenings.

And this is the only place where I ever had "Fuluri". Rest were all Pakori.

Now, I always assumed "Fuluri" was same as "Pakora or Pakori". Whenever chickpea batter fritters were made at home, my Mother used the term "Pakora" and never "fuluri", but I though they both were basically the same. The husband-man who has stronger memories of Fuluri claimed that "Fuluri" has to be bigger, rounder and more air filled than Pakori. It doesn't have vegetable or onions which we tend to put in a pakori batter. He also insisted that in addition to besan(chickpea flour), "Fuluri" has to have some dal paste in the batter.

After all even "The word pakoṛā is derived from Sanskrit पक्ववट pakvavaṭa a compound of pakva 'cooked' and vaṭa 'a small lump' or its derivative vaṭaka 'a round cake made of pulse fried in ghee" -- source Wiki.

So what was after all Fuluri?

To verify the husband-man's claim, I scoured the internet for "Fuluri" and got pages and pages of Trinidad Pholouries. In Trinidad homes, pholourie is fried balls of a thick batter made from flour, yellow split-pea flour, turmeric and cumin (and other seasonings like garlic as well, depending on the cook).Clearly the Bangali Fuluri and Trinidad Phulourie were first cousins. It was more natural that it emigrated to Trinidad from Bihar where such fritters go by the name of "phulourie".

Next I turned to Progyasundari Devi's book, treasures gifted by my friend A. In there she has recipes of Fuluri which is made of only Besan just like pakori and she calls them "Besan er Fuluri". She also has recipes of Oriya Fuluri which uses dal paste in the batter.

To come to a conclusion, I then asked my trusted Encyclopedia Britannica of food, Pritha Sen. We debated a bit over whether dal paste should or should not go in a fuluri batter until she threw open the debate on her Facebook timeline. Somnath, another ardent food enthusiast got to work.This is what happened after that.

Straight from Pritha Di's Facebook post:

"Somnath Roychoudhury took matters into his own hands and went on a street food jaunt, talking to three Phuluri makers. Somnath said it was the fluffiness that led to the name -- Phuley otha besan bhaja (Fluffed up fried besan). He said that he doubted if any cook book writer ever mastered real streetfood. He said that there is a variety of besan you get in the market for commercial use. It's not as fine as the branded besan and that besan is a must for a good fuluri which tastes best if you eat it super hot. Somnath went across to Tyangra and two places in Behala, acorss the city and has this to say:

"According to the vendors I spoke to, there are two kinds of Phuluris -- one is hard and crusty with a soft fluffy inside, which is probably made from grainy and coarse besan mixed with different flavourings and fried the size of Rajbhog. The second has a softer outer layer with super fluffy inside made from fine powdered besan. No no daal paste business. Dalpaste is used in daal pokora or mixed with besan to make Daal bora."

His findings corroborated what some others had been saying. That a Phuluri is besan batter, beaten well with chopped green chillies and chilli powder and salt and bicarbonate of soda and deep fried into round fluffy balls and served with spiced salt sprinkled over it. To further prove his point he has pictures and a video of the Phuluri maker whipping the batter.

So Sandeepa, the conclusion was that when affluent Bengali homes recreated the Phuluri in their own kitchens, they did so with the ingredients they were used to making boras from, not having had the privilege to talk to the actual street food makers about how it was done. So a Phuluri is plain batter fried into fluffy balls and never has any vegetable in it."

Isn't it interesting how a simple thing like Fuluri can set you on a long trail ?

I decided to merge the recipe of Oriya Fuluri and the Besan Fuluri to make my own.  We liked the result. The inside was soft fluffy and the outside was more crunchy. Mine were almost like a pakori and didn't really look like round balls of Trinidad Pholourie. As Somnath said, you need some amount of street food expertise to make the perfect round balls.
*You can skip the chana dal paste and use only chickpea flour or besan to make your Fuluri.

Fuluri or Phuluri

Soak 1/2 Cup of Split Pea/Chana Dal for an hour.

With little water, grind this dal to a paste.

Now in a wide mouthed bowl pour the dal paste.
To it add
1/2 cp of Besan/Chickpea Flour
Salt to taste
1/2 tsp of baking soda
2 green chilli finely chopped

Adding little water, whip up the batter to make a thick smooth paste. Don't pour water all at once. Add water gradually until you get a smooth batter without any lumps.

Now heat enough oil for deep frying. Take a tsp of hot oil and mix it with the batter.

Now test if the oil is ready for frying. Put a drop of the batter in the oil. If it sinks, oil is not ready yet. If the drop of batter bubbles and floats back then oil is just right.

Drop in spoonfuls of batter in the hot oil and watch it swell and turn golden. With a slotted spoon gently move them around until the ball is golden brown.

Take the crispy golden brown balls out and let it drain on a paper towel. Sprinkle some rock salt/pink salt and serve.

Great with a cup of hot chai.

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Thursday, March 26, 2015

Aloo Chingri PeyajKoli Chorchori -- those were the days

I don't know what has happened to my evening these days. With the kids getting older, you would expect that, my evenings would roll around like a glorious expanse of free time. Instead, there I am sitting at precisely 8:15 PM explaining place value to a six year old.

I have no clue how I landed in this morose place where six year olds need to be taught but apparently there is something called the common core curriculum, which is like going to make an Einstein out of each tiny tot who has ever passed through the holy grails of American Public School System. To step up to this whole new challenge, the fancy town we moved to because its schools if not best is better than many, has devised multitude of tests. These tests apparently test little children on things they know, things they do not know, things god-dang-six-year-olds could never know. You are not supposed to prep your kid for these tests but apparently everyone does. Except of course me who lives under the rock and some other hippie Mom who believes in karma.

And then I wander into one of LS's school classmate's birthday party and everyone is discussing how their first grader knows multiplication, division, decimals and what nots and I am like really, where was I all these years ? The hippie mom of course is peacefully exhaling and not taking part in this discussion about child prodigies, but she doesn't count. She has flat abs and amazing skin and her children eat flax-seed crackers.