Sunday, April 14, 2019

Niramish Mangsho -- Shubho Barsho


Tomorrow is  Poila Boishakh, the first day of Boishakh ushering in the Bengali New year. While the English NewYear involves a lot of hard work like late night partying, looking back, looking forward, making resolutions, blah, blah...the Bengali New Year is much more relaxed and laid back in style.

During the 80's and early 90's, Bengali New year was all about 3 things --
(1) wearing new clothes (2) feasting at home (3) visiting stores and collecting single page Bengali calendars rolled in a narrow cylinder and cardboard boxes of sweets and shingaras. In addition to that there was the usual cultural stuff , involving Rabindrasangeet , because how can a Bengali celebrate anything without kalchar -- but I was not greatly interested in them.

Now, #1 holds no attraction for me and it has been almost 30 years since #3. So that leaves us with #2 as the only way to usher in the New Year.  Not necessarily at home but anywhere. Today, we had one of our classmates visiting us from Finland and so we had our Notun Bochor celebration a day early with lots of Bengali food at home.



This Niramish Mangsho, is something I cooked last weekend and have been thinking of sharing with you but the week just got so busy that I didn't get a chance.

Niramish Mangsho or "Vegetarian Mutton Curry" would sound like an oxymoron to most except a Bengali.

To my ears, it sounds perfectly logical since I have grown up hearing about it. Every year, around Kalipujo, my Father would reminisce about one his Uncles, an ardent devotee of the Goddess Kali. This extremely spiritual Uncle, who practiced a strict vegetarian diet all 364 days of the year, would become the greatest meat eating glutton on the day of Kali Pujo. The sacrificial goat for Goddess Kali would be cooked without any onion or garlic and that mutton curry, labeled as "Niramish Mangsho" would be enjoyed by her devout followers as "maha proshaad" -- the blessed mutton curry!!!

As a child I was awed by this show of reverence. How could someone forego meat for one whole year and the satiate his cravings on just one day? And that too with a mutton curry that was cooked without any onion or garlic. Must be very blehh in taste...I thought!!

I might have have tasted that mutton curry during Kali pujo, a small piece as a portion of a larger proshaad, but it did not really make enough of an impact to my childhood palate. I preferred the "Robibar er Mutton Curry" cooked by my Mother on Sundays.

Recently as I was trying to look up more about this Niramish Mangsho, I found that it had a lot of similarity with Kasmiri Brahmin recipe of Rogan Josh which too is made without any onion or garlic. Onion and garlic were not very popular ingredients in the Hindu kitchen yet and Asafoetida or Hing is the major flavoring agent in both the recipes.

In Utsa Ray's book "Culinary Culture in Colonial India", he mentions the the first Bengali cookbook Pakrajeswar(published in 1831) and the second, Byanjan-ratnakar(in 1858).

Ray says -- " Mutton recipes described there hardly prescribed the use of onion or garlic, something frequently used in Mughlai cuisine. The author of Pakrajeswar clearly stated that since people in the region hardly consumed onion, he had refrained from listing it as an essential ingredient in the recipes. Byanjan-ratnakar also did not include onion and garlic in its repertoire of recipes. It can be understood that the readers of Pakrajeswar were mostly Hindus who were not very accustomed to having garlic and onion in their food as yet."

In the same book he also mentions Mukundaram’s Chandimangal composed in late 16th century, which has elaborate lists of what was being cooked in the families of the trading castes and mentions--"Generally, the spices used for cooking fish and mutton were asafoetida and cumin."

We can then extrapolate that Mutton curry cooked without any onion or garlic was the norm in Hindu Bengali families in those times and so "Niramish Mangsho" was not really an anomaly. It was therefore very natural that the goat sacrificed to the Goddess Durga on the ninth day (Nabami) of Durga Pujo and to Goddess Kali on Kalipujo was also cooked in a similar way and offered as prashad.

I cooked this Mutton curry taking cues from Rogan Josh and my Mother's tip of using asafoetida+ginger to temper purely vegetarian curries. I have used whole Garam Masala and the Garam Masala powder just like we do for our regular mutton curry. For the wet spice paste, the very Bengali jeere-dhone baata, I have taken Kashmiri liberty and added some fennel seeds. Fennel seeds was probably not used in Bengali mutton curries. This dish is cooked in ghee in many recipe, however I have cooked it in Mustard Oil and added little ghee towards the end. Cooking it in ghee will definitely add more flavor.

The Mutton Curry was truly flavorful delicious. You wouldn't miss the garlic and onion at all in this dish. However it tastes best when had the same day as cooked and it does not keep well in the refrigerator.

Wednesday, March 06, 2019

Neha Murad's Mom's Kolkata Chicken Biryani




I am not a Biryani expert.

I mean, I am an expert at eating it but not at cooking it.

Believe me, I have tried. Maybe not enough times.

But how many times can you try cooking a ghee laden Biryani until it is just perfect?
Who eats it? Even if its not perfect,it tastes good after all! And it has all good things.
So do you give your experimental Biryani to unsuspecting neighbors? But people are very health conscious these days. They might not like you giving them ghee laden not-so-perfect Biryani every week.
Then do you eat it yourself? But that means to shed off those excessive calories from the not-so-perfect Biryani you have to go running! Too much work.

So with all these doubts clouding my head, I had stopped experimenting with Biryanis.
Maybe this is a sign.Maybe God is telling me to only eat Biryanis cooked by others.

And then sometime in October, I was chatting with a blog reader Neha Murad over some kaanchakolar kofta that she had made.

Chatting as in FB messenger. Not real life. And I didn't even know her until that fateful day in October.

Now comes the very special thing that keeps me blogging on food and sharing my stories.

Just out of the blog, Neha said "If you are ever in the Bay Area and want to try some Kolkata style Biryani feel free to ping me. I am more adept at that than Kaanchakolar Kofta". Just like that. A warm invite to her home to share a plate of Biryani.

And then she shared her Mother's Biryani recipe. Beautifully hand-written in her recipe diary. I was overwhelmed by this generous gesture and held the recipe close to my heart.

However, I was worried about trying it out as I did not have enough Biriyani faith in myself.


Thursday, February 28, 2019

Fish in Ajillo Sauce -- Inspired by Vacations


Over the Christmas break in December, we went to Los Cabos, Mexico. A mini reunion of of some of our college friends from million years back. If I think of it, friends = family for us now.

Anyway, only 4 families could join this time. But don't think that was a small number!! The four families made us 16 people in all, and this was more than enough to turn the service folks crazy at the resort we stayed in. If there were more of us, there is a fair chance that we would be banned from the resort in future.



This was the first time we were going to an all-inclusive resort. So far, we had avoided that wonderful thing, thinking it will be boring and give us an insulated view of the country. That is true but when going in a large group with kids of myriad ages, there is nothing better than an "all-inclusive-resort". I will tell you why.

The first thing you have to understand is, when you have been brought up in a developing country, like me, the word "FREE" comes with a lot of magic.
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Not "born to be free" or free-dom or such.
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More like " Buy 1 Get 1 Free". Or better still -- "Free Food". That raises our dopamine level and makes our heart race faster than if #FarhanAkhtar was in town.
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I don't know about yours, but my mom-in-law gets immense pleasure in picking up free sachets of ketchup at any place that has them and my Dad brings home tea-bags and sachets of sugar from every hotel we stay in. There was time, when I had no idea that you could buy toothpicks at the store. We always got them from the restaurant we ate at and stored them as precious possessions.
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The point is we love anything that is "FREE". Many years back, when we were still new to this country and scratching our heads at -- 1% Fat Milk, 2% Fat Milk or Whole Milk, my Baba had excitedly picked up the Fat-Free Milk on basis of the argument that this had "free fat" and why would one refuse milk that has "free fat" added to it!!!
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So in these #allinclusive hotel/resort deals, you pay upfront and then you don't have to glance at the cheque, end of each meal. Which to us meant -- the food is practically FREE!!!
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Yehhhh!! 💃🤸‍♀️🤜🤛
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And if anything is FREE, we make sure that we get lots of it. Much more than we need. Even if we don't need. .
"Take it na, it's free anyway"!!! .
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That is ingrained in our DNA..So we ate like gluttons at every meal. As if we had arrived at the land of plenty from some famine struck place where we were deprived of food and drinks. That the food was delicious and the menu was tantalizing made it worse.



Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Daab Chingri -- Prawns in Tender Coconut Shell



Not all recipes start with a line like "And in my grandmother's kitchen..."

Neither do all recipes have a boat load of nostalgia tied to them.

But one thing is true, every delicious recipe is triggered by the memory of a meal.

I had never seen a Daab Chingri cooked in my grandmother's kitchen. Neither did my Mother ever make it. Daab aka Tender Young Coconut was very popular in India and we loved it as a drink. Bonus was the tender meat of the coconut -- the shaansh. But prawns cooked in the shell of a tender green coconut? It never featured in any of my childhood meals!

Now Shorshe Chingri Bhaape, where prawns were mixed with a mustard-coconut paste and steamed, was a very popular dish in my home. Only it was steamed in a sealed stainless steel container, that was put either in a pot of rice being cooked or in a pressure cooker.


I started hearing about Daab Chingri only when finer Bengali food restaurants started sprouting around Kolkata metropolis. Unlike the paise hotels, which served everyday Bengali meals to the masses, these restaurants offered fine dining in a lovely ambiance and a menu that boasted of Bengali delicacies -- some known and some concocted. I have a hunch that "Daab Chingri" was a brilliant idea spawned by one of them. It tasted delicious like Chingri Bhaape and was very unique in its presentation style. No wonder the dish took off swiftly and spread like wild fire.

Soon, every other person started saying "The Bengali traditional Daab Chingri cooked by my grandmother....". Like really? Your grandmother in the 60s, 70s, 80s and even early 90s cooked Daab Chingri in her kitchen? Errr...think twice!

But to be honest, Daab Chingri is more of an urban Bengali dish and not one of those traditional ones with boatmen, portugese, Thakurbari and history written all over them.

Daab Chingri at 6 Ballygunge Place
So anyway, having heard so much about this dish, I wanted to desperately try it. Last time during my India trip, my parents took me to 6 Ballygunge Place. Beautiful decor, awesome table settings, very unique menu -- I was blown over! And they had Daab Chingri on the menu. I had to order it of course. It was a beautiful dish no doubt but I had a feeling that the prawns were cooked prior and then the dish finished off in the Daab. No harm done of course. Maybe this is how one makes Daab Chingri, I concluded.

Then last week, my very talented friend Moumita made Daab Chingri at home and shared with me. It was delicious. The Daab that we get here is not the green coconut served in Indian restaurants, but a slightly more mature version, stripped of the green exterior.

Today, I had a deep desire to cook Daab Chingri at home. Moumita was away from her phone. I started browsing recipes on the internet and each involved garlic, cream, paanchphoron and what not 😡😭. That's not how  I envisioned Daab Chingri. I knew my Daab Chingri would be the mustard-coconut one and not the garlic-cream one.

I then, texted another friend Baishali and she promptly shared two recipes with me. Both her recipes were exactly how I wanted them to be and here's what sealed the deal. Her recipes were very, very easy.

In fact one of them was done totally in the Microwave. As I was experimenting, I tried both the Oven and Microwave method. With lots of green Chili, the sharp mustard paste mellowed by the mildly sweet Coconut, golden Mustard Oil, and succulent prawns -- this was a beautiful dish. Triggered by the memory of a meal and aided by friends, it was dish I would always treasure.💓

To be honest, it is very much like the Shorshe Chingri Bhaape who has gone to a glamorous party. The Tender Coconut Shell definitely adds some panache to the presentation and lends a layer of coconut flavor to the dish.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Moumita's Nolen Gur er Cake -- eggless Date Palm Jaggery cake for Sankranti

Nolen Gur Cake
Photo Credit: Moumita

Khejur Gur (liquid date palm jaggery -- made from boiling the sap from date palms) is very popular in Bengal during the winter months. It is also commonly called "Notun Gur" ( literally, "new jaggery") or "Nolen Gur".

During the cold season from December to February, the sap of the date palms is best harvested and that is the reason we get this gur or jaggery around this time. If you are in rural Bengal during the winter months, and you happen to stroll across the damp fields on a foggy morning, you will see palm trees with a afro-top hair rising like sentinels across the mist. And if you hear closely, you will hear the tip-tip of the sweet sap dripping into the earthen pots hanging just below the palm fronds. The night before, tappers have scaled the thorny trunk of the tree, to tie those pots there.

That sap is pure nectar and when boiled for hours over a wooden fire, it changes color and form to shape into our favorite Nolen Gur or Khejur Gur -- a jaggery synonymous with every Bengali's winter.

The liquid Khejur Gur is delicious, tastes better than Maple Syrup and we used to have it poured on our Luchi (Puri) or Roti for dinner or breakfast. In solid form it is sold in the shape of oval discs and is also known as "Patali Gur" or "Notun Gur". This new jaggery harvested only in the winter months is used to make a variety of sweets in Bengal like "notun gur er sondesh" or "khejur gur er roshogolla".  Ahh, the nolen gur er sondesh is so divine that if you taste it even once, the memory lingers on your tongue forever.

The whole sweet thing, reaches a crescendo during Poush Sankranti when Date Palm jaggery, Coconut and rice flour is used to make a variety of pulis and pithes across the breadth and width of the state

Some of the most popular ones being Gokul Pithe, Khejur Gur er Paayesh, and Pati Shapta.




Now since I was not too keen on making any of the above, this year I decided to celebrate sankranti with Nolen Gur er Cake. It has Khejur Gur plus coconut, that is 75% of Sankranti requirements being met. So, why not, new traditions?

The cake recipe comes from my friend Moumita (of the Kochu Paata Chingri fame), who had made this last month. Her cake was fantastic and we had devoured it in no time.

I took her recipe and added my little nuances which is my habit. However, her cake had more of the Date Palm jaggery flavor. In my recipe, I also added some dates, which made the cake very fluffy and moist but the dates  kind of masked the  delicate flavor of the Date Palm jaggery.

Sharing both versions here