Unlike where I live amidst snow, bitter cold and temperature dropping to negative, winter is a joyous time in the plains of Bengal. Because it is not really "cold" cold but merely a delusion of being "cold". Also this is the season when it is not really hot and you are not sweating at the mere prospect of a bus ride. That is a lot of "not"s. In fact winter is so pleasant that you can wear a sweater or wrap a shawl or sit in the sun after a bath in a bucket of water warmed by the same sun and yet not lose an ounce of body fluid by perspiration.
Of course this luxury is only for the plains and the lower range of Himalayas in the far north of the state get severely cold and suffer from a case of proper winter. But we will not talk of severe winters as they are not as fun as the mild ones.
So in the plains of Bengal, winter is the season to show off napthalene scented Kashmiri shawls and to indulge in heavy eating. Not that the other seasons see any less of the last bit but Bengalis love to think that a cold weather demands more of fatty food, sweet desserts and variety of dishes made with fresh vegetables like cauliflower, sweet peas and carrots which grace the markets only in the months of December and January. Okay, okay, now you do get these vegetables around the year but even then you cannot deny the pleasure of aloo-phulkopi chingri'r dalna, narkel-khejur gur pur diye pati shapta, piyaajkoli diye maach and beet-gajor er chechki on a winter afternoon which has the prospect of a nap under sun soaked quilt later.
The erudite Bangalis also believe(and rightly so!) that the umpteen cups of hot tea or coffee gulped down to abate the so-called-cold, needs to be served with some deep fried deliciousness on the side. So, croquettes are fried, stuffed kochuris are rolled out and battered fish sizzle in a kadhai full of oil.
Now, though it is the Egg Roll, Fish Fry, Chicken Kobiraji, Beguni and Aloor Chop which are the more famous deep fried snacks, there are several humble counterparts that are made at home with minimal effort and with ingredients easily found in a home pantry.
"Chire Bhaja" or "Crisp Fried Poha" or "Crispy Beaten Rice" tops the chart in that category. It was the most frequent snack made by Ma, winter or no winter and especially on the arrival of an impromptu guest for cha. And guests were almost always impromptu in those times. Like most mothers of that generation, my Ma believed in the code of conduct set by the ancient Sanskrit verse "Atithi Devo Bhavah" which means "A guest is like God". Translated it meant -- "it is necessary to ply all guests with food and beverage irrespective of their desire to consume food".
In summer this meant sherbet, sondesh and mangoes and when the weather turned cooler it was always tea and fried goodies. Since we lived in a small town, where getting shingara and mishti from the stores was as long winded as placing a telephone call, Ma always served something made at home. It could be nimki, which she would make by jarfuls every few months, or home made sabu papad and chips, which were made in winter. Most of the time those jars would be emptied by us, without her knowing, and so she had to resort to the default choice of "Chire Bhaja" on many a evenings.
It was quick, easy and inexpensive. All it needed was chire or beaten rice which was a pantry staple, raw peanuts and gallons of oil. Heat enough oil in a kadhai --> fry the peanuts and remove--then fry the chire in a kadhai full of oil until those flat dry pieces puff up snowy and crisp. Simple.
During winter when the sweet peas were a plenty and Ma already had some shelled peas at hand, she would throw in boiled and lightly sauteed peas with the chire bhaja. That Koraishuti diye Chire Bhaja was my favorite. Sometimes if she had left over grated coconut after the pati shapta stuffing was done, she would mix the fluffy, soft "narkel kora" with the fried chire and sprinkle a little sugar on it. That gave the savory chire bhaja a sweet undertone which instantly took my fancy. The dregs of sugar and salt mixed with the oil at the bottom of the bowl was a delight to lick and it was perfectly ok to wipe down those oily fingers on the pleats of skirts or the sari, whichever was easily available.
Oil, then was not a bad word. Chire Bhaja needs to be fed oil. Period.
But now, it is the oil which makes me freak out every time I have to fry chire. The result, I would rarely make chire bhaja, hyperventilating at the memories of oil stained fingers until my Ma-in-law showed me a less oily way to fry this stuff. She would first dry roast the chire in a kadhai and only then fry it in oil. This step cut down the oil dramatically. The chire turned crispy even with very less oil. Voila !! A trick worth learning.
I went a step further, as is my habit to always take a different step for better or worse, and these days I toss the chire with little oil and roast in the oven as the first step. Only then do I fry it in very little oil in the Kadhai. Works wonders every time. Well, I mean not exactly same "wonder" as frying in gallon full of oil. And the oily dregs of sugar-salt-pepper are missing. And definitely that more oily chire baja tasted better than this less oily one. But this was one tastes very good too. Only a teeny-tiny bit less good.
We will settle for that I say.
Koraishuti ba Narkel diye Chire Bhaja
Option 1 -- Badam diye Chire Bhaja or Crispy Poha with Peanuts
Toss 3 cups of chire/thick poha/flat beaten rice with 1 tbsp of Vegetable oil.
Next spread them in a layer on an oven safe tray and bake in the oven at 300F. After the first 7-8 minutes, take it out and toss it around. Pop in the oven for next 7-8 minutes. keep a watch to see that the chire is not getting brown and burnt.
At the end of this oven time, the chire should be crisp, brittle and no longer raw
Now heat 2 tbsp of oil in a small kadhai.
When the oil is hot add about 1/4th cup of peanuts and fry till light brown. Remove the peanuts and keep aside.
To the same oil, add a cracked red chilli and a small piece of ginger julienne.
Add the crispy baked chire gradually, tossing it in the oil. Sprinkle little salt while tossing. The chire will puff up a little more.
Now switch off heat and pour out the fried chire in a bowl. Mix with the fried peanuts. Sprinkle salt and black pepper powder to taste
Option 2 -- Narkel diye Chire Bhaja or Crispy Poha with Coconut and Sugar
After the last step, where you have poured out the chire and added salt/pepper etc., add a fist full of grated coconut and about 1/2 tsp of sugar to the piping hot chire bhaja. Toss quickly and eat.
Option 3 -- Koraishuti diye Chire Bhaja or Crispy Poha with Green peas.
If using fresh peas, then shell and boil the peas till tender. If using a bag of frozen peas, then microwave the peas till just done. I love these sweet peas ad so we will be generous and use 1 cup of cooked peas.
Bake the chire in the oven as described earlier
Now heat 2 tsp of oil in a small kadhai.
When the oil is hot add a cracked red chilli and a small piece of ginger chopped in julienne.
Now add the cooked peas and toss with salt and black pepper powder. Saute for a couple of minutes. Take out the peas and keep aside.
Add about 2tbsp oil to same kadhai and heat.
Add the crispy baked chire gradually, tossing it in the oil. The chire will puff up a little more.
Now switch off heat and pour out the fried chire in a bowl. Add the sauteed peas. Sprinkle with more salt and black pepper powder to taste.