Holiday wish and history of ice cream with my Bourbon-walnut-vanilla ice cream

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Dr. Sen’s sole purpose in going to a Chinese restaurant is most often ordering a plate of extra spicy Singapore rice noodles or may be a bowl of tongue-numbing Sichuan beef tendon noodle soup. For most of us, the thought of Chinese food doesn’t revive memories of bowls of ice cream, more likely you’re thinking of stir fries or orange chicken. But, to my surprise, Chinese people have been eating ice cream far longer than you and I can imagine. The documented history of ice cream goes back to AD 618-907 during the reign of Emperor Cheng Tang, founder of the Shang dynasty. Among the army of 2,271 staff in his kitchen and winery, 94 were ‘ice men’. It was the ice men’s job to go and collect ice from the mountains, cut them in uniform sizes and then store them in ice houses made of stones. The ice was then used to freeze a milk-based dessert made from water buffalo, goat or cow’s milk. The milk was first fermented and then flavored with camphor (although I hate it, adding camphor to desserts is still practiced in India), thickened with flour and finally frozen into something very close to modern-day frozen yogurt. So basically, Tang was eating ‘tangy’ frozen desserts long before ‘froyo’ became popular. Caucasians (not “whites”, the original inhabitants of the Caucasus region) are known for drinking a fermented milk drink called “kumiss” made from mare’s milk for thousands of years. The Russians still drink something similar to it. The Mongolian equivalent is called “airag” or “tsegee”. This culture of fermented milk must have traveled to China and then Persia and to India.

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But this was all still using natural ice/snow to make frozen drinks or desserts. The real trick was to make ‘man made ice’ which in above-freezing climates needed an endothermic reaction to be created. Although Indians and Egyptians were making ice for a long time, the first documented evidence is found in a book written by Ibn Abu Usaybi’a (A.D 1230-1270), the famous Arab historian of medicine. Here, we find the first record of ice being made with cold water and saltpeter. Persians were known for making exotic and delicious frozen drinks made from fruits or fruit extracts. The Westerners got their taste of “sorbets’ from the Persian “sherbets” which are basically frozen fruit desserts in various forms.

Although making ice is pretty historic, it was not common to make it on an industrial scale even until the late 1600s and early 1700s. Ice was still being sourced naturally and stored in ice houses.  Harvesting and transporting ice became a great business model for the Americans. From United States, ice was travelling to Caribbean, South America and to India via large cargo ships in the 19th century. Making of artificial ice and then ice creams slowly started from the late 1600s in France and Italy. The ice cream back then was pretty much frozen creams with flavors added to them. There was no egg involved. The the French chef Vincent La Chapelle mentions for the first time in 1742 the addition of eggs, which became immensely popular as ice cream additives as it added a desirable texture and reduced the use of more expensive cream as an ingredient.

American started eating ice cream probably in the early 1700s when it traveled from Europe to New England. George Washington was so fond of this frozen treat that he bought a couple of pewter pot freezers from France and a “cream machine for making ice” to make ice cream at home (probably he lost all his teeth from eating an excess amount of his favorite flavor). His handwritten recipe for vanilla ice cream, preserved in the Library of Congress, is a burning testament to his passion.

Thank goodness making ice cream is not so tedious anymore and I do not have to climb mountains to harvest ice. While I standardize another flavor, go and make this ice cream, you’ll thank me later. And, wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a wonderful new year 2015. Let’s celebrate this festive season one (or maybe two or three) scoop(s) at a time!

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Recipe: (adapted from Food52)

Ingredients:

Vanilla-Bourbon Ice Cream

  • 5 cups whole milk
  • 5 cups cream
  • 1/2 cup sugar, divided
  • 1 pinch salt
  • 1 vanilla bean
  • 2 tablespoons bourbon, divided
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 1 cup raw walnuts, lightly toasted and broken into smaller pieces

I have ‘almost’ copy-pasted the recipes as I haven’t changed anything in the recipe except making the walnut crumble. I just added toasted walnuts but if you have time, you can make the crumbles.

  1. In a medium pot, combine the milk, the cream, 1/4 cup of sugar, the salt, the vanilla bean (split it open first, and scrape it), and 1 tablespoon of the vanilla bourbon. Heat the liquid over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until it froths. Turn off the heat.
  2. In a separate small bowl, collect the egg yolks. Add the remaining 1/4 cup sugar, and whisk for about 2 minutes, or until the yolks look a lighter yellow.
  3. Take a tiny measure of the milk mixture, and whisk it into the egg yolks. Keep adding the milk, little by little, whisking without pause as you go. When you’re finished, run the custard base through a sieve, add then add it back to the pot.
  4. Turn the heat again to medium-low. Stir the custard almost constantly as it heats. You want it to coat the back of your spoon; after that, it’s done.
  5. Move the custard to an ice bath. If you give it the occasional stir, it should be good and cold in about 45 minutes-1 hour. (You can also chill overnight in the fridge.) When the custard is cold, I like to stir in another tablespoon of the vanilla bourbon.
  6. Pour the cold custard into an ice cream maker. Let it go for about 20-25 minutes, or until the ice cream reaches the consistency of soft-serve. (Don’t let it go too long, or you will start to make butter.) At the last minute, add the walnuts.
  7. Spoon the ice cream into a plastic container, leaving as little air between the ice cream and the lid as possible, and move it to the freezer for at least 2-4 hours.
  8. As it is as natural as it can get, it melts really fast, so you have to be quick while serving.

Mind a simple chicken curry recipe?

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We have currified the world…literally. There is no continent left behind (yes, Antarctica too) that does not have its own version of this multilayered, adaptable food. I am not going to give you a Curry 101 class here or tell you if it really came from the Tamil word ‘kari’ or not. Before I came to the USA, I was like a hermit crab; sheltered in my own narrow world and pretty much isolated from anything which did not directly affect my life. The only world news I found exciting was the whereabouts of Osama Bin Laden. But to be true, he was almost our neighbor, not really ‘phoren affairs’, as the Bengalis would say.

After I moved here, my horizons broadened with a speed that literally left me breathless. To revert to a food analogy, you know the feeling when you put one spoon of that delicious curry in your mouth and a million flavors burst almost immediately? It happened to me too, I mean in terms of ‘phoren affairs’. But the bulk of my broadening knowledge base, unlike that of my polymath husband, was still mostly related to cuisines of the world. I was fascinated to see people adopting recipes and making their own versions and curry was no exception.

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“Curry”, that universal tag we put on almost every Indian dish is truly versatile. Thank goodness someone came up with that term. Otherwise we Indians would have to write five sentences to explain it. I find it very interesting to see how food travels and adapts and I don’t think anything else comes close to curry and its travel story. If you go to the West Indies, you’ll find Indo-Caribbean curries cooked by the immigrant Indians who traveled there during the British Raj during the 18th and 19th centuries to work as laborers in the sugarcane fields. Japan got the first taste of curry around the same time and there, you’ll find karē raisu which is curry served over rice. If you are in Indonesia, you are well advised not to leave the country without eating Rendang or Kari Ayam. Thailand has a whole spectrum of curries, whether red, yellow, green or Massaman, all equally delicious. Malaysia will greet you with vibrant reddish-orange gravy with chunks of meat and coconut milk in it. The Burmese have their own versions, some of them remarkably similar to Indian curries. The Chinese adopted it to suit their palate and it is now appearing on American-Chinese menus. The French who colonized parts of India like Pondicherry, have also carried their interpretation back with them in the form of  ‘Vadouvan’,  a spice mix with roots in Madras curry powder but has non-Indian spices like thyme and rosemary in it.  ’ I use it to cook chicken and fish and love the slightly unusual flavor profile added by the European spices. The Danish, who went to India wishing to colonize us, went back petty soon and took back curry with them. The ‘Boller i karry’ is Madras curry powder cooked in a cream sauce with pork meatballs. I made it once but it’s too rich and creamy for my taste. I am planning to modify it to suit my taste (thus making “circumnavigation curry”, which went from India to Denmark and back to India). Currywurst in Germany is as popular as hotdogs in the US. They even made a museum for it (and I am NOT kidding).

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The British need a paragraph of their own I guess. You don’t merely put them along with a bunch of other countries when it comes to curry. They have organizations to keep the curry tradition alive and to make sure no one adulterates the recipes and their authenticity. After almost two centuries, when the British decided to leave us alone and finally mind their own business, among the things they could not leave behind were the Kohinoor diamond and curry powder (Veeraswamy’s and Bolst’s were the two most popular brands).  Decades later, maybe still suffering subconsciously from a nostalgia for their erstwhile colony, they chose chicken tikka masala (nothing but chicken morsels cooked in a creamy curry gravy) as their national dish. Many generations of Indians have suffered from a bad British colonial hangover; as such, it is poetic justice that we got our own back at them….in curry form.

I am not going to talk about the curries in the Indian subcontinent because I’ll need to write a book before I feel like I’ve said enough. India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, all cook curries in one form or the other. But if you have eaten curries from these countries, you’ll know that they are very different with an underlying similarity to them. The ‘tarkari’ in Nepal is very different from the curry in Pakistan which most likely has an onion-garlic base. The taste of curry in Bangladesh will depend on whether it is cooked by a Hindu or a Muslim. The Muslims will cook like the Pakistanis with onions and garlic while the Hindus will try to avoid them as much as possible. The South Indian will more likely have curry leaves and tamarind in it compared to a Gujarati (west of India) curry with a chickpea flour taste. The Parsis will put apricot and fried potato sticks in it. The Bengalis will make light curries to aid their famously delicate digestion but the Nagas (North East India) will add a dash of bhut jolokia (ghost pepper) which is supposed to make dead men come alive.*******

To counter the information overload I just made you go through, I present now a basic curry recipe with no out-of-the-world ingredients. A simple, humble and everyday curry. Eat it with bread, naan, roti or rice…it will be delicious every time.

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Recipe:

Ingredients:

Chicken: around 3lbs. (bone in, skinless) cut into medium pieces

Ginger-garlic paste: 2-3 tbsp. (or, grind 3” fresh ginger piece with 4-5 cloves of garlic to a smooth paste)

Tomato: One small

Tomato paste: 1 tbsp. (optional but if you use it, you’ll get the vibrant rich color)

Onion: One cup, finely minced

Turmeric: 1 tsp.

Bay leaves: 2

Sugar: 2 tsp.

Red chili powder: 1 tbsp. (adjust according to your taste)

Green chilies: few, split length (again, adjust to your taste)

Cinnamon: 2” piece broken into two

Cardamom: 2, slightly bruised with a heavy spoon or back of a knife

Cloves: 3

Mustard oil (preferably)/any neutral oil: 2-3 tbsp.

Salt to taste

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  • Heat up the oil in a heavy bottom wok/kadai or pan. If you are using mustard oil, do not let it smoke or burn; gradually heat it to get rid of the raw smell.
  • Add the sugar and let it caramelize. Keep an eye on it, sugar gets burnt very quickly.
  • Add the cinnamon, cardamom, cloves and the bay leaves. Let them sizzle a bit and release the aroma.
  • Add the onion and sauté them on medium heat. Medium heat makes the onion caramelize beautifully and brings out the sweetness.
  • Once the onions are nicely brown, add the ginger-garlic paste, red chili powder and turmeric. Sauté the paste until oil leaves from the side. If you think that the spice paste is sticking to the pot, sprinkle a little bit of water.
  • Add the tomato and the tomato paste (if using) and again cook the whole thing until the tomato gets mushy and the paste becomes deep reddish brown is color.
  • Add the chicken and cook on medium high heat until chicken is no longer translucent and again oil starts leaving the pan. (I usually smell the spoon to check if there is any raw smell from the spices or not).
  • Add a cup of warm water and salt and mix everything well. If you are using regular chicken, cover and let it cook on medium heat. If you are using organic free range chicken, no need to cover it. The free range chicken will be more than half cooked while sauteing. You can cook it uncovered. (if you think you need more gravy, add another half cup water)
  • After 15-20 minutes, check if the meat is cooked or not and also the seasoning.
  • Add the green chilies and let it rest (covered) for 15-20 minutes before serving.
  • This curry goes well with either roti/naan or rice.

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****** I have generalized the curry for few communities but tried to give you the most common way they cook it. They are not the only method they use and no way I am claiming to be an authority on how everyone cook curries.  Please feel free to share any information or opinion.

Narkol kumri/Pumpkin (butternut squash) with coconut

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Who wants their food to stick to the cooking pot? I guess no one, except me and a few others who have tasted the caramelized flavor that is unique to small amounts of “burn” on “non-non-stick” cookware. The shelves in the supermarket are stacked with ‘non-stick’ cookware of every shape and size. We want to cook with as less oil as possible and take refuge in the nonstick pots and pans. We use them so much that I am sure we even manage to partially Teflon-coat our stomach lining. Dr. Sen, at least, has eaten all the Teflon from the über-flimsy nonstick utensils he bought from Walmart during his grad school days. We all did that, bought cheap nonstick to save money. Once I heard one of my friends say “I have stopped frying fish in the nonstick pan and fry it in an aluminum pan instead. The fish sticks to the nonstick pan.” When I asked her to clarify her sentence thinking she is contradicting her point, she said “oh! the nonstick is not nonstick anymore, the coating is gone long ago”. I laughed.

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Unlike many of you, I find nonstick cookware pretty useless unless I am shallow frying fish or making omelets. Every time I went to India, I brought back one small and one large nonstick kadai (Indian style wok). They were very easy to use but I didn’t like them much. I had to be careful while cooking in them. Couldn’t heat them up really high, had to use wood or plastic spatulas and then my gravies never had that deep reddish-brown color like my Maa. My onions never caramelized the way I wanted and they never, ever became crisp. I blamed my inadequate cooking skills and lack of experience.

One time, my mother-in-law was here and she mentioned that “tor ei nonstick korai te kichhutei ranna-r rong ashena” (your nonstick pot is not giving the gravy the right color). Voilà…..maybe my pale curries were not my fault? After she left, I went to my local Indian grocery store and bought myself an aluminum kadai. The first time I cooked in it, it created magic. I still remember I posted a picture on Facebook saying that I fell in love with it. It brought out the right texture I craved for so many years to so many dishes. It added that extra crispiness, that subtle burnt flavor, that deep caramelized color and that freedom of using any type of spoon I wanted to use. I can scratch its bottom like I am unearthing a stone-age fossil and still be fine with it. I can make the daal pora and finally get the pora taste. The narkol kumri has that caramelized taste and the chhnyachra (a mixed vegetable dish cooked with fish heads) has that perfect texture.

 

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Since then, I have been hooked forever. I hate the nonstick kadais. I am sure you all cook brilliant dishes in your nonstick pots and pans but I failed. I ended up with “close enough but not like my Maa” taste every time. I am still completely not there but in the right direction. You can cook this in any pot you want, it will taste good but to make it perfect, go for a non-nonstick pot, you won’t regret it. You can either grate the pumpkin or chop it up fine. If you grate it before cooking, it will retain a texture and so that’s the best way to cook it. It takes less time to cook and retains some of the texture. I did not have the time to grate and that’s why I ended up with a mashed puree-like end product. If you manage to cut them julienned (maybe with your food processor) , you can avoid grating altogether.

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Recipe:

My husband and I are not big fans of sweet taste in the savory things. We avoid adding sugar if not necessary. This curry has a sweet taste. The sweetness comes from the pumpkin and the coconut. No added sugar. We both love it even if it’s sweet. The occasional biting of the green chilis breaks the sweet monotony as well.

Ingredients:

Butternut squash/Pumpkin: around 1lb/500grms. (without skin)

Mustard oil: 1-11/2 tbsp.

Turmeric: 1/2 tsp.

Whole cumin seeds: 1/2 tsp.

Bay leaves: 2 nos.

Dry Red chilies: 2 nos.

Ghee/clarified butter: 1 tsp.

Coconut: 1/3 cup grated (nothing like freshly grated but frozen will work as well)

Green chilies: 2-3 nos. depending on how hot they are or how hot you want the curry, chopped.

Either take one teaspoon or a little bit more of roasted cumin-coriander and red chili powder or use them separately to make up the volume. Roasting the spices are optional.

Bengali garam masala:

Cloves: 2

Cinnamon: 1/2″ piece

Cardamom: one

Grind the above three ingredients to a fine paste or powder.

Salt to taste

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  • Heat the oil in  heavy bottom non-nonstick pan (preferred). Do not let the oil smoke, it will take away all the mustard flavor from it.
  • Reduce the flame and let the oil come to medium temperature.
  • Add the whole cumin, bay leaves and the red chilies. Saute them for a minute ow two until they release a nice aroma. Take the fried chilies out of the oil.
  • Add the chopped/cubed/julienned/grated pumpkin/squash in the oil. add the turmeric and then coat everything in oil and turmeric. Keep sauteing every after half a minute for few more minutes until you see light brown spots on them.
  • Cover it withe tight lid for five minutes (if grated) or more (if chopped). Do not add any water as the pumpkin will release their own juices.
  • Add the cumin-coriander-red chili powder, salt and the grated coconut. Give everything a good mix and let it cook. At this point it will depend on how you cut the pumpkin. It will take longer if the pieces are bigger. use your judgement and cook until it caramelizes a little bit at the bottom or the spices are nicely incorporated with the pumpkin mash.
  • Taste for seasoning and adjust accordingly.
  • Add the garam masala and drizzle the ghee. Add the chopped green chilies and mix everything one more time.
  • Cover and let the flavors to incorporate.
  • Serve with plain white rice.

Another version (non-veg):

Skip the garam masala and the ghee and add tiny shrimps instead. We love the non-veg version more. First, coat the de-veined and beheaded shrimps with salt and turmeric and then quickly shallow fry them. Cook the curry in the same oil you cooked the shrimp, it will add an extra layer of shrimp-y flavor. Add the shrimps while adding the coconut.

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The vanishing grain from our kids’ plates: Kaoner chaaler payesh/Millet pudding and wish you all a Happy Diwali

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Every day, it was the same routine without exception. The school bell rang and there was no sign of me. My mother screamed her heart out while calling my nickname: “Tumpaaaa…….Tumpaaaaa….” with no response from me. Suddenly one of our neighbor aunts would say “Didi, Tumpa is hiding here”. I heard my Maa calling my name but always pretended that I didn’t. Sooner or later she would come and drag me home, often spanking my butt on the way back. She would wash my dirty feet, put fresh clothes on me, give me my aluminum suitcase and send me to the local school. The school was a ‘paathshala’ which literally means a place to study (mainly for underprivileged kids). There were two rooms with only 10-12 students in each room. One year was spent in the classroom next to the pond and the next year students were promoted to the other room, that’s pretty much all there was to it. There was no graduation ceremony, no chairs, no table, nothing. We took our own individual floor mats (aashon) everyday to sit on. It was more of a fun place than an actual education. All the kids there were way below the poverty level. There was only one girl whom I still clearly remember who was from a middle-class (not rich) family, she was one of the teachers’ daughters. She looked very different from the rest of us and wore nicer clothes.

Once every week it was special for me because we were given midday snacks. One week it was boiled and salted Bengal gram and the next week it would be followed by two slices of plain white bread. Every week I looked forward to that day. I still remember the taste, I can still feel the pieces of bread in my hands. I always feared that if I went home with the food, I might have to share them with Maa, so I stopped midway while going home and finished all of it (in retrospect, how selfish of me). I formed tiny balls from the inside of the white breads and then ate them one at a time, which was my own little game with myself. White bread was rare in my house. I am sure other kids were also looked forward to those days as bread other than Indian rotis were a luxury to them and the concept of free food was exciting.

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India, being a developing country, many kids go to bed hungry. They simply cannot afford to go to school and are probably too malnourished anyhow. To address the problem, the Indian government started a midday meal scheme. Unfortunately, the scheme is suffering as the demon of corruption is grabbing it with all its power and trying to paralyze the system. As the focus was on nutritionally balanced food, different whole grains were incorporated into the meals. Millet being a cheap source of healthy carbohydrates and fiber was served in different forms. Apart from the corruption issue, there is another big problem coming into play. As the West is becoming more and more aware of the health benefits of ancient grains, like many other countries, India is exporting a substantial amount of millet to the west. Coupled with the export issue, millet is also considered to be inferior compared to rice and wheat in India, so farmers refuse to grow them. They don’t profit as much as they do growing and selling rice or wheat. Hence, the problem of foodgrain availability is increasing, midday meals are encountering hurdles and kids for whom these meals were the sole incentive to go to school are dropping out in thousands. For many of these kids, that midday meal is their only meal of the day, but ironically that is also being taken away. Knowingly or unknowingly we are contributing to a larger problem but there is so little we can do about it.

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Kaoner chaal also known as foxtail millet is one such ancient grain that has almost dropped off the modern Indian food radar. It’s highly nutritious and a cheaper, healthier alternative to rice and wheat. The close relative found in the US is barnyard millet (or Sama ka Chawal/Vrat ka Chawal as it is known in India). You should try the pudding recipe below before this grain too becomes affordable only for the rich. It’s delicious and taste similar yet different to a regular rice pudding.

Recipe:

Ingredients:

Evaporated milk: one 18 fl.oz. can/354 ml.

Whole milk: Same amount as evaporated milk/18fl oz.

Brown sugar: (can be substituted by gur/jaggery) ¾ cup (start with ½ cup and gradually increase according to your taste)

Kaoner chaal/Foxtail millet/barnyard millet: ½ cup

Cardamom: 2 nos.

Bay leaves: 2 nos.

Salt: One tiny pinch

Cashews: a small handful, somewhat broken.

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  • Wash the millet several times and then soak it in water.
  • Mix the evaporated milk and the whole milk and start boiling it. (you can use all whole milk or substitute with half n half too). Once the milk comes to a boil, reduce the flame to medium. Add the bay leaves and the cardamom (break them slightly). Keep stirring frequently otherwise the milk will stick to the bottom. Keep an eye on the milk to avoid boiling over.
  • Once the milk is reduced to almost half, drain the millets and then add them to the milk. Mix well and let it cook on medium flame.
  • After the millets are properly cooked, add the sugar and the salt. Let the sugar melt and taste. If you need more sugar, add more. Add the broken cashews and turn off the heat.

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PS: The millets soak a substantial amount of liquid, so keep it a bit more liquidy than you want. If it thickens too much after cooling, boil a little bit of milk and add it to the pudding. The pudding will taste a little bit more sweet when at room temp., so add sugar accordingly.

Samo-Seeds

Are we Durgas or Daminis? Does Durga eat Mangsher bhuna khichuri?

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Ya devi sarvabhuteshu, shanti rupena sangsthita

Ya devi sarvabhuteshu, shakti rupena sangsthita

Ya devi sarvabhuteshu, matri rupena sangsthita

Ya devi Sarva Bhooteshu Buddhi Roopena Samsthita

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She is preparing for her annual visit. Photo courtesy: Sanchari Sur

She is omnipresent as the symbol of peace, power, and intelligence. She is Gauri, who sheds light on our lives and she is Narayani who makes us conscious. We take refuge in her when in distress and she accomplishes all our objectives. She is Maa Durga, the universal mother. We bow our head to her and worship her power to fight against the evil.

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Maa Durga will be coming home soon with all her kids to visit her parents. She must be counting the days like we all do. She must be packing her bags, buying gifts and making sure she has everything in place before she leaves. She must have called her mother and given her a list of things she wants to eat while she is home. I cannot help but think that she must also be having a tough life dealing with all the craziness around her. Just handling Shiva, her clearly bipolar husband must be sufficient to keep her busy all the time. Ganesh, the lovely son with a big tummy must be constantly nagging her for food. And what do you do if you have two unmarried adult children at home? She must have tried a zillion times to convince her son Kartik and daughter Saraswati to get married and settle down. Poor Saraswati, being too highly educated acted against her as she thought too highly of herself. Being excessively handsome didn’t work well for Kartik either. Thank goodness, Lakshmi was there for her mother. Being the epitome of goodness (and also having found an excellent husband in Vishnu) she must have been be a huge relief to the much-hassled Durga.

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Photo courtesy: Sanchari Sur

But, she is Durga, the indestructible. She is Trinayani, and with her three eyes can easily keep an eye on everything around her. She is Durgatinashini who can eliminate any misfortune. She is Dashabhuja who with her ten hands can handle a thousand jobs simutaneously. Don’t we expect a lot from her? My troubles are not even a fraction of hers, but already I am dead tired. I really need eight more hands and two extra eyes to deal with all the things around me.  I really cannot handle life the way it is now. I can only dream of visiting home and my parents annually. I haven’t been home for a while (I mean quite a while) and I always wonder and ask my friends “Is India still the same? The way it used to be?”. The answer, unfortunately, is probably not. On one hand we are planning for Devi Durga’s annual visit and on the other hand we are blocking roads because a real-life Durga, someone’s mother or sister was raped and molested. Someone has killed another female baby because they will take chances with a male child who may turn out to be an Asura (demon) rather than a Durga. I can’t open the daily news anymore without having to read about rape, molestation and domestic violence against women. Maybe in the minds of a certain section of Indian males, mortal women do not deserve to be treated as Durgas. Are we going to fight with these demons all our life but fail? Are our real life Asuras so destructive and powerful that they are invincible? Maybe not, as I read somewhere that divine power is slow but efficient. I believe one day we will all unite and with our divine power kill the demons. Their abode is already known- they reside in the darker recesses of our own minds. We can all celebrate a very real Durga Puja in our lives then.

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Anyhow, being modern-day Durgas, we are also allowed to play with sociocultural rules a little bit, aren’t we?  So I have added a little bit of meat to the traditional khichuri served at Durga Puja. Go ahead and break this one taboo- you will be OK, Durga is a mother and she knows that her kids get hungry.

You can read more about Durga Puja here, my last year’s post.

Recipe:

It’s a festive dish and requires a little bit of patience and time. The end result is delicious, so why not? The recipe was given to me by my friend Mita di who is from Bangladesh and it’s a delicacy in her home. Originally it’s her mom’s recipe . I have tweaked it very little. If you do not want to break any rule, you can make this traditional khichuri.

Ingredients:

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Short grained fragrant rice (like kalijeera/gobindobhog/kamini atop/chinigura) or basmati rice: 1 cup. I used short grained rice but basmati will work fine too. The rice has to be fragrant.

Chicken (bone in preferred): 1 pound. Cut into medium pieces (you can use beef/mutton too, you just have to cook it longer)

Red lentils/masoor daal: 1/3 cup

Yellow lentils/mung daal: 1/3 cup

Yellow split peas/motor daal: 1/3 cup

Water: 3 cups.+1 cup

Onion: One large, one small

Garlic: 4-5 fat cloves

Ginger: 2” piece

Or, two table spoons of ginger garlic paste

Cinnamon: 2”X 2 pieces broken in one inch pieces

Cloves: 6-8 nos.

Cardamoms: 6-8 nos.

Bay leaves: 4 nos.

Turmeric: 1 tsp.

Red chili powder: 2 tsp.

Cashews: a handful

Oil: 6 tbsp.

Fresh green chilies: as per you taste (I use 3-4 depending how hot they are)

Sugar: one big pinch

Ghee/clarified butter: 1 tbsp. or less.

Salt to taste

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  • Soak the split peas in water for about an hour and then drain.
  • Dry roast the mung daals very lightly until fragrant and then wash several times, drain.
  • Wash the rice several times and then soak it in water for 15-20 minutes. Drain and let it be a bit dry.
  • Wash the masoor daal and drain it as well.
  • Heat up 2 tbsp. oil in a wok or deep pan. Turn the heat to medium and add 2 one inch cinnamons, three cloves, three cardamoms and let them sizzle in oil a little bit. Add the bay leaves and let it sauté in the oil a little bit too.
  • Slice the large onion real thin and sauté the onions with the whole spices until the onions turn a little brownish.
  • Add the ginger garlic paste (if you are using fresh ginger and garlic, make a paste of them), chili powder and sauté the spices in the oil very oil. The spices should not have any raw smell.
  • Add the chicken (make sure they are patted dry), the turmeric and mix everything well.
  • Cook it on medium flame until oil starts leaving the edge of the container.
  • Add a cup of water (hot), salt and bring the meat to a boil. Reduce the flame to medium and cover the meat. Cook it until the meat is tender and reduce the sauce. The sauce should cling to the meat, not soupy.
  • While the meat is cooking, heat up three tablespoon of oil in a separate pot which can hold all the rice, lentils and meat.
  • Once the oil is hot, add the rest of the whole spices (cloves, cardamom and cinnamon) and the two bay leaves. Reduce the flame to medium and let them release the fragrance.
  • Add the small onion (very thinly sliced as well) and sauté until light brown.
  • Add the rice and sauté the rice in the oil until a bit transparent.
  • Add the daals and mix them well with the rice and again sauté them for couple minutes.
  • Add three cups of boiling/hot water and bring the water to a rolling boil again.
  • Add the meat with all the sauce/gravy, mix very well, add two tsp. or so salt, the sugar and the cashews and give it a gentle stir. Just enough to mix everything uniformly.
  • Reduce the flame to low and cover the pot. Let the whole thing cook for 10-15 more minutes.
  • Check in between to check if the rice is cooked or not and also for seasoning.
  • Once the rice is cooked, turn the heat off and keep it covered for another ten minutes. The excess water (if any) will be absorbed by this time.
  • Open the lid and fluff up the rice very gently and add the ghee and chopped green chilies. Cover for few more minutes and then serve with a side of salad.

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The texture will be dry (bhuna=dry) unlike a traditional khicuri which is more moist.

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The modern day Durga praying to the Goddess.

The modern day Durga praying to the Goddess. Photo courtesy: Sanchari Sur

Many modern day Durgas. Photo courtesy: Sanchari Sur

Many modern day Durgas. Photo courtesy: Sanchari Sur

A Bengali’s Chingudi Besara/Shrimp with ground mustard and yogurt:

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‘Shil katao….shil katao’…….it was not so rare when I was a kid. It literally meant ‘have your grinding stone chiseled’. A man used to carry a small fabric or leather bag on his shoulder and go from one neighborhood to another saying the same thing again and again. In the bag, there used to be two simple things, his instruments to chisel the stones. The moment he got a call from my Maa, he will come and sit down on the floor to start the process. As a kid, I was fascinated to see him carving the stone with his skilled hands. It was a unique sound when the metal chisel used to strike the stone. You have to be really careful while carving because a little bit more pressure can break the stone. Within a few minutes, the shil nora (grinding stone) was beautifully carved with a pattern. The most common was a fish pattern on the top of the flat stone and then followed by some other random pattern. It was a basic and must have equipment in a Bengali household even not too long ago.

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My grinding stone

 

Everyday my Maa used to grind her spices on that grinding stone (she still does). She used a small piece of a palm tree bark as a scraper to scrape off the spice paste from the shil. Whenever she ground her spices and move the nora/mortar back and forth on the shil/flat stone, her bangles hit one another and made a distinct sound. After one spice was ground to a paste, she will take a little bit of water and wipe the shil to follow with her next spice. You have to know the order in which the spices are ground. For example, you start with the bland/subtle spices first and then follow by the more pungent ones. If you have to grind anything bitter, it should be the last.

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With the rapid urbanization and people with their crazy busy schedule, the shil nora is rapidly getting replaced by mixer-grinder-blender and what not. I cannot ‘convince’ anybody that a shorshe or posto bata (ground mustard or poppy seed) is best done with a shil nora unless you have the taste buds to realize it by yourself. The second time I went to India, I brought a mini shil nora for my US kitchen. I use it more often than any other kitchen gadget. It is not a difficult task for me. For some reason I have learned how to grind spice in a shil nora from an early age. I cannot recall how I learnt it but am very glad that I did. It is a prized possession in a land where everything is premade and ground and packed in a jar. Some people might be thinking that I am such a crazy woman and some will understand. I know it was a crazy decision but it helped me to recreate many dishes my Maa used to make. I cannot imagine grinding mustard or poppy in a mixer grinder….to me it’s never the same. I am not that skilled to bring the exact same taste when I try it with a modern gadget. I have tried but failed.

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I am sharing an Oriya recipe (from the state of Orissa, India) recipe with the stone ground mustard seed paste. I have modified the recipe to my liking, so it’s not an authentic Chingudi Besara. You are most welcome to do it with the mixer-grinder-magic bullet or whatever you use to grind your spice, just grind it very smooth. Here you can find a beautiful post if you do not have a shil nora. I like the creamy consistency of the stone ground mustard and the soft creamy flesh of the shrimp when steamed. I know it’s a luxury to do it my way, so go for the convenience and you will not be disappointed. How can you go wrong with the pungent mustard and the pink fleshy shrimp combination?

I always get excited when I open the stainless steel container once the shrimp has been cooked. The moment I open the container, the mustard-y aroma and the slight hint of heat from the green chili will gush out and tickle my nose and I start drooling immediately. I have made this dish both with head on and headless shrimps, but nothing can beat the head on shrimp. The orange-i fluid that oozes out of the brain is a heavenly bliss which I cannot afford to miss.

Note: I was surprised to know that there is a kind of grinding stone which is similar but distinct from a traditional Bengali shil nora. I was talking to my friend Bonny about shil nora (my only friend whom I can bore with my endless food talk) and she mentioned about her mother’s shil nora which need not be chiseled. It’s made out of ‘Bele pathor’/sand stone which is a different type of stone than the one used in the traditional shil nora.

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Recipe:

Ingredients:

Head on shrimp: 10 big ones or 12-15 smaller ones

Brown/black mustard seeds: 2 tbsp.

Mustard oil: 1 tbsp.

Turmeric powder: ½ tsp.

Green chili (hotter the better): 4-5 nos.

Yogurt: 2/3 cup

Garlic: 3 big cloves, very finely minced

Curry leaves: one sprig

Cumin seeds: 1 tsp.

Mustard seeds: 1 tsp.

Dry red chilies: 2 nos.

Sugar: ½ tsp.

Salt to taste

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  • Soak the mustard seeds for around 15-20 minutes. If you can soak it in luke warm water, it might be better (I don’t always do that though)
  • De vein and de shell the shrimps. Take the eye part out and remove the legs and the tentacles (the long thread like things). Wash them well but not so well that the goodness inside their head gets washed away.
  • Coat them with turmeric and salt and marinate them 10-15 mns.
  • Grind the mustard seeds with couple green chilis to a smooth paste. Add ¼ tsp of turmeric and required salt to the paste and mix it very well. Go low on salt because you have already marinated the shrimps with salt.
  • Beat the yogurt into a smooth paste. Add the mustard-turmeric paste to it. Add one table spoon mustard oil and the garlic and mix well. (I strain my mustard paste after grinding because I like the smooth creamy taste/texture and it’s easy on stomach too. I dilute the paste a little bit to help with the straining).

First method:

  • Take a stainless steel container or any other type of container which you can use for steaming. Put the shrimp and the mustard-yogurt-turmeric-salt-garlic paste, ½ table spoon of mustard oil, three-four slit green chili in the container. Add the sugar. Coat the shrimps well with the paste and close the container.
  • Take a pressure cooker or any other tight lid container and put the shrimp container in there. Fill the larger container with container ¾ the way of the smaller container. You can read a better description here from Sandeepa.
  • Put it on high flame for five minutes and turn the heat to medium and cook it for 15 minutes. DO NOT put the pressure on if you are using a pressure cooker.
  • Take it off the flame and open the pressure cooker very carefully.
  • Take the container out (be cautious) and let it cool for few minutes before you open it. Open the container and mix the content very gently.
  • The shrimp should be very creamy in texture. It’s should taste and feel different than the stove top cooked shrimp. Somehow the steaming makes the shrimp very soft and creamy.
  • Serve hot with steaming hot rice.

Second method:

  • Take any pot/pan and add the mustard seed-yogurt-oil mixture.
  • Heat the mixture very very slowly (if you cook it on high heat, the yogurt will curdle)
  • Gradually turn the heat to medium high and let it come to a gentle boil. Boil it for another 10 minutes. Taste it, the raw yogurt taste should be gone. If not, cook it for few more minutes.
  • Add the shrimp and mix well with the gravy. Add the sugar and few slit green chilies. Let the whole thing cook for another five minutes or until the shrimps are just done. DO NOT overcook the shrimp. They will be hard and chewy.
  • Check for seasoning and adjust accordingly.

 

The tadka/seasoning:

  • Heat up the remaining one tablespoon of oil and add the mustard seeds.
  • When they start dancing, add the cumin seeds. Let the sizzle a bit.
  • Add the curry leaves and dry red chilies. Let them be crisp and turn a shade darker.
  • Add the seasoning to the shrimp and cover the pot immediately.
  • Let the whole thing stand for at least 15 minutes. The flavor will marry each other and the taste will be complete.

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PS: My chingudi besara takes a red/orange hue because of the orange stuff inside their heads. If you are not a big shrimp head fan, cook without them and the color will be more yellowish. You can throw in a couple of heads and then take them out once the chingri is cooked. That way the flavor will be there but you don’t have to deal with shrimp heads.

If you are unsure about the freshness of your shrimp, then sauté them a little bit in one tablespoon of oil. Do not cook for a long time. Just let them turn light pink. Use the oil, it’s loaded with shrimp flavor.

 

 

Shorbet Adas: A humble lentil soup from a conflict world

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As many of the ancient civilizations existed along major rivers such as the Nile, Tigris, Indus, Euphrates and Yellow River, commerce was often carried through the ports situated along the rivers. Gradually, as modes of transportation became more advanced, riverine trade was supplemented by sea and land routes and international commerce took a grander shape through the Silk Route. Gold, silver, copper, silk, bronze, gemstones, incense, ivory and wild beasts were heavily traded between countries, often through middlemen who made a good profit by linking the worlds of demand and supply while keeping the source a closely guarded secret.

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The Eastern Mediterranean coastal region which is modern day Palestine-Gaza, Lebanon and Northwest Syria was called Canaan (the Land of Purple) and later, Phoenicia. Before the Western world started producing silk, it was highly expensive and mainly imported from China, Asia Minor, Persia and Syria-Palestine regions. Among all the places producing silk, Phoenicians were known for their luxury goods and specifically for highly refined silk products. The port of Sidon in Phoenicia made a unique fabric by combining silk fibers with the local linen and then dyeing the final product with rare Tyrian purple dye, extracted from the shells of a tiny mollusk. On the other hand, weavers in Alexandria, another port in the same area, embellished their silk with golden embroidery. Apart from silk, Phoenicians were also known for their high quality cedar wood, used for building ships and for beautiful woodcarving structures, glazed earthenware, painted pottery, invaluable glasswork and metalwork. Beyond their highly valuable export goods, their geographical location also made countries in the Eastern Mediterranean pivotal points in the maritime trade. Palestine with two major ports, Alexandria and Antioch was very strategically located in between Syria and Egypt and served as a major connection between the Syria-Palestine coastal regions, Asia Minor and Rome. Palestinians were known as the ‘middlemen of the ancient world’; both for their commercial success, as well as for the cultural beliefs, myths and knowledge they spread to the countries that with whom they traded.

http://biologicalexceptions.blogspot.com/2013/08/life-is-elemental.html

It took 10,000 molluscs to make a gram of dye. The dye was more expensive than gold for its equivalent weight. http://biologicalexceptions.blogspot.com/2013/08/life-is-elemental.html

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What happened to the land of promise? What went so wrong for them, for them to have reached the point that they are at now? Did someone rip them off, or is it part of the natural evolution of nations? Whenever I think about this region, my mind wanders to the thought of caravans unloading valuable merchandise, silk being embroidered with golden threads by skilled hands, stained beautifully purple with Tyrian dye, and the air filled with a mixed aroma of spices and incense. A murmur of people talking in myriad different tongues and in general carrying on with life in a world where there were no ceasefires, no Iron Domes, no Qassam rockets, no bombing of historical monuments and no innocent kids dying. I refuse to see what that land has turned into now, I refuse to see more ruined buildings, roads stained red from blood and corpses lying around because there is no room left in the morgues, and the chaos from losing hope and life like no one cares. I refuse to accept it but who really cares. I guess no one. We are after all pretty disposable among a crowd of 7 billion similar animals.

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Shorabet adas is a common soup eaten in that part of the world. Countries in the region name it differently but it pretty much boils down to the basic lentil soup with some vegetables thrown in. I really hope they find peace and commonality just like this soup. Everything thrown in one pot with a beautiful result shared by everyone.

If you really liked this article, you might also want to read this one.

Recipe:

Ingredients:

Red lentils/masoor daal: 1 cup
Olive oil: 4 tbsp.
Yellow onion: ¾ cup to one cup finely chopped
Garlic: 3-4 fat cloves of garlic finely chopped or mashed with the back of a heavy knife/spoon
Celery stalk: ½ cup-3/4 cup
Carrots: ¾ cup
Butternut squash: ¾ cup cubed/chopped
Chicken stock/vegetable stock: 7-8 cups

Turmeric: 1 tsp.

Cumin: couple tea spoons, lightly roasted and ground to a fine powder

Cilantro/parsley (traditional is parsley): a handful chopped fine

Aleppo pepper/chili flakes: to taste

Few wedges of lemon
Salt to taste

  • Wash the lentils, drain and set aside.
  • Heat up two tablespoon of olive oil and add the garlic. Let the garlic sizzle very gently in the oil to flavor the oil. Do not burn the garlic.
  • Add the onions and sauté them until translucent.
  • Add the chopped carrots, squash and celery. Sauté until fragrant.
  • Add the lentils and then sauté them well while mixing everything.
  • Add the turmeric, salt and the chicken stock (I usually warm up the stock in the microwave). Mix everything well.
  • Bring the whole soup to boil and then reduce the flame to medium.
  • Once the lentils and the vegetables are cooked, turn the heat off.
  • Let the soup cool down a bit and then blend everything to a smooth puree.
  • Bring the whole thing back on the stove top and adjust the consistency. If it’s too thick, add more stock/water. Reduce it if it’s too thin. Adjust seasoning too.
  • Serve in individual bowls, drizzled with olive oil, pepper flakes, parsley/cilantro, cumin powder and lemon wedges.
  • The best way to eat it is with toasted pita or any Arabic bread.

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