Tomato garlic chili chicken and busting the myth about chili powder

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When I was growing up, I heard the same thing over and over again from my Maa. She said “it’s not good to eat a lot of red chilli powder” and she added green chilies to everything she cooked, reserving the red chili powder for the unavoidable dishes. The theory was, too much of it can rip off your stomach lining and cause ulcers. I never asked Maa how much was too much, as at the time I was quite uninterested in cooking myself. Recently I heard the same thing from one of my friends; suddenly I thought about reading up on the truth about red chili powder and deciding based on fact rather than hearsay as to whether it is indeed harmful.

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Chilies (which Americans call chili peppers although chilies are not peppers), are originally from the South America and are an indispensable item in South America and Asian cuisine. Although introduced to India and Asia much later by the Portuguese, chilies rapidly gained extreme popularity across all of Asia. Indeed, I cannot imagine my kitchen without having my stock of fresh green chilies and also a jar full of red hot powdered red chilies.

Chilies, both fresh and dried, are rich in nutrition. The main component responsible for the fumes which come out of your nostrils and ears after you consume chilies is called capsaicin. Capsaicin is responsible for releasing endorphins (the pleasure hormones), maybe explaining why some people (like my husband) are quite addicted to hot foods. From a medical perspective, capsaicin has long been used in rubs and ointments as an analgesic and pain killer. Further, capsaicin is known to have anti-bacterial component and believed to be anti-carcinogenic for certain types of gut cancers. It also helps in digestion if eaten in moderate quantity. This resolves the apparent paradox that Naga jolokias, the world’s hottest peppers, are used by some tribes in Northeast India as a cure for stomach ailments.  Apart from capsaicin, chilies in general are rich in antioxidants like Vitamin A and contain a large amount of Vitamin B complex and Vitamin C.

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Coming back to where we started-  why do chilies have such bad reputation then? Why are my Maa and my friend so cautious about using it? Looks like they had no clue what they were talking about. It’s one of those things which you learn from your mother which she learnt from her mother and the theory goes from one generation to another without being exposed to the scalpel of rationality (knowing the adulteration culture in India, red chili powders are contaminated with inedible/harmful ingredients like colored saw dust, the warning from my friend, my grandma and my mom might have a background there).

First myth: Green chilies are healthier than red chilies: Wrong. There are no significant differences between the two (although the vitamin C content might reduce while drying). The dried chilies are dehydrated, hence more concentrated in terms of heat. The drying changes the flavor as well.

Second myth: Red chili powder is bad for you: Wrong. If you are familiar with the word ‘moderation’, you are more likely to benefit from it than being harmed. So, turn up the heat and enjoy the endorphin release, just don’t go overboard. Too much of anything is bad, even water. So, don’t blame the harmless chilli powder – blame your measuring spoon instead. And yes, did I tell you how easy it is to make your own chili powder? It takes just a few minutes and you can be certain that there is no adulteration.

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Recipe:

Ingredients:

Organic, free range chicken: around 2.5 lbs.

Tomatoes: two medium, vine ripened, chopped

Garlic: three medium cloves (a little more will add extra flavor if you are a garlic lover like me) very finely minced

Preferably mustard oil: 2 tbsp. (replace it with olive oil if you do not have mustard oil)

Red chili powder/cayenne pepper powder: 1 tbsp. or more if you like it to be hot (the tartness of the tomatoes will cut back on the heat a lot)

Turmeric: ½ tsp. (optional)

Water: 11/2 cups (adjust to your liking)

Salt to taste

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  • Heat up the oil in a heavy bottom pot/kadai. If you are using mustard oil, do not let it smoke, it will destroy all the nutrition. Let it heat up on medium flame. This is a very important step.
  • Once the oil is hot, remove the pot from the fire and add the garlic. Let the garlic sizzle in the warm oil for 10-15 seconds. Put the pot back on fire.
  • Add the chopped tomatoes and add a tea spoon of salt. Mix it well. Let the tomatoes sweat a bit and then break the tomatoes with the spoon a little bit. It will help the tomatoes cook faster.
  • Add the red chili powder/cayenne pepper and the turmeric (if using). Again mix them well. Keep stirring the paste every so often until the raw taste of the tomatoes is almost gone (around 5 minutes).
  • Add the chicken (try to tap the moisture a bit) and mix them well with the spices. Turn the heat to high and stir the chicken very often to dry up the water released from the meat.
  • Once you see that the excess water is gone and the spices have taken a paste like consistency and hugging the meat, you know you are ready to add water.
  • Add around a cup of hot water, add salt and give it a good stir.
  • Let the whole thing come to a boil and reduce the heat again to medium. Cook it until the meat is done and the gravy has reached almost its desired consistency.
  • Let the chicken rest for at least 15-20 minutes before serving (if possible). That way, the meat will absorb the flavor and the gravy will come to its desired consistency.
  • Serve piping hot with roti or any bread of your choice (can be eaten with rice but it will taste better with bread). Dip the breads in the gravy and enjoy.

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Sali jardaloo murghi/chicken with apricot and fried potatoes and the Kissa-i-Sanjan

DSC_0705Approximately a thousand years ago, a tired and disheveled group of Zoroastrian refugees fled Islamic persecution in their native Persia and arrived in the Sindh region of Gujarat, India. Responding to their request for asylum, King Jadav Rana, the ruler of the tiny community where they landed, sent them a bowl filled to the brim with milk (a gentle hint that his kingdom was full and couldn’t accept refugees). In reply, the leader of the Persians dissolved a spoonful of sugar in the milk and sent it back to the king, suggesting that his small flock would dissolve like sugar in the milk and enrich the king’s community without straining its resources.

These refugees were the forefathers of India’s Parsi community. Although Persians were doing business with India from approximately 500 BC, the exact time of their arrival in India is controversial. The story above which describes the arrival and settling down of the Parsis in Gujarat is called the Qeṣṣa-ye Sanjān (The Story of Sanjān). Before Gujarat, they had briefly inhabited the Diu region of India, but soon afterwards their Dastur (leader) determined that their destiny lay elsewhere. They left Diu and after braving a life-threatening storm, they reached Gujarat. King Jadav Rana’s permission to the refugees to stay in his land came with afew caveats; they would have to learn and use only the local language, the women would have to wear sarees, and the use of weapons or conversion of any of the local people was strictly prohibited. The Dastur agreed to these conditions and hence the Parsis settled down in India, enriching India’s culture and contributing heavily toward our economy and prosperity.

DSC_0691Despite having lived on the Indian subcontinent for well over a thousand years, the Parsis remain a very distinct minority community. They speak their own dialect of the Gujarati language and follow rules which combine aspects of their ancient religion and their historical background as refugees. Their cuisine is also very distinct, again being a mix of Persian and Indian influences. Sali jardaloo murghi (Sali=potato, jardaloo=apricot, murghi=chicken) is a beautiful example of such intermixing. Being from Persia, they were quite used to using dried fruit and nuts in their food, which they introduced to Indian cuisine. This dish is at the same time familiar and different when compared to most “Indian” food items. I think it gives a nice twist to the everyday chicken curry.

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Recipe: (adapted from Madhur Jaffrey)

Ingredients:

Chicken, cut into bite sized pieces and skinned: 3lbs.

Freshly grated ginger: 2 tsp.

Finely crushed garlic: 1 tsp.

Dried apricots: 15-16 nos.

Vegetable oil: 4 tbsp. or a bit more

Onion: 2 medium sized, finely cut into half rings

Tomato puree/paste: 2tbsp. (you can use fresh tomatoes too) mixed with 1/2 cup water

Distilled white malt vinegar (or, regular white vinegar): 2 tbsp.

Turmeric: ½ tsp.

Sugar: 1 tbsp.

Salt to taste

To grind:

Hot dry red chili: 4 whole

Cinnamon stick, somewhat broken: 2 inches

Whole cumin seeds: 11/2 tsp.

Cardamom pods: 7 nos.

Cloves: 10 whole

For potato straws:

Salt: 1 tbsp.

Potato: One large peeled

Vegetable oil: enough to deep fry the potato straw

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  • Grind the spices ‘under to grind’ into a fine powder. ( I usually toast them a little bit)
  • Put the ginger-garlic paste, ground spices and one or two table spoon of oil and turmeric and massage everything well with the chicken. Leave it at room temp. for an hour (more will not hurt)
  • If you are using apricots which are very dry, soak them in hot water. The time will depend on how dry the apricots are. The ones I use here in the US, do not require soaking.
  • Once the meat is marinated, heat up the oil in a deep bottom pot. When the oil is hot, put the flame on medium and add the onions. Sauté them until they are reddish brown in color.
  • Add the marinated chicken and mix well. Sauté for another 5-10 minutes.
  • Add the tomato puree with the water, mix well again and add the salt and sugar.
  • Cover the pot and simmer the pot for another 10 minutes or until the chicken is almost cooked (add water if you want a bit of gravy, I do like have a bit of gravy)
  • Slip in the soaked/dried apricots and simmer again until the chicken is completely cooked.
  • Let the chicken sit for half n hour to an hour before you serve it.

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Making the potato straws:(if you are not in mood to make the potato straws, just go and buy some ready made straws from the stores. Recently I have seen dehydrated potato straws which can be fried at home…how convenient is that?)

  • Fill a large bowl with cold water and add the salt to it.
  • Put the grater on the bowl and grate the potatoes with a coarse setting/blade.
  • Once the potatoes fall in the water, separate the grated potatoes with your hands.
  • Heat enough oil to fry the straws.
  • Once the oil is hot enough, bring the flame to medium, take a small handful of potatoes, squeeze the water out as much as possible and drop them in the oil.
  • Immediately separate the straws with a spoon. Don’t put a lot as it will bring the oil temperature down and make the potatoes soggy. Fry in small batches.
  • Once all of it is fried, drain them on an absorbent paper until used.
  • Before you serve the chicken, heat it up gently and spread the straws on the chicken. Serve immediately.
  • Goes best with white rice.

Dahi vada/lentil dumplings in spiced yogurt: bringing street food home

Dahi_vadaEveryday, I used to take a bus from outside Howrah Station to go to college. Soon after the bus crossed Howrah Bridge, the next four or five miles from Burrabazar to Dalhousie were flooded with commuters, hawkers, buses, cars – if you are from Calcutta you know what I mean. People running and trying to reach their destination, bus conductors screaming for more passengers, people running to catch the bus, coolies carrying huge baskets on their heads, office goers eating breakfast on the footpath as if no one was watching them. But in reality, someone watched them every day and that someone was me. I always preferred a window seat in the bus if I had a chance. The window was my portal to the world outside the bus.

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Greedily, I peeked outside the bus window at the people eating hurriedly on the streets outside Writer’s Building. The sheer variety amazed me – ranging from biryani topped with an egg and potato, bread toasted on the hot griddle and then coated with a fried egg, huge deep fried puris served with ghugni to colorful fruits laid on a basket like a work of art to make fruit salad. I would have given anything to eat there, but being perpetually late and running for my life, I never had a chance to stop.

To me it might have been just a hankering, but for many, those street food stalls were lifesavers. People used to commute to Calcutta for work from far away, six days a week. Some people left the house even before dawn, some had odd working hours and some had late night shifts. They didn’t have the luxury of a full breakfast before leaving for work or eating home-cooked delicious dinners. The food stalls of Calcutta were where they ate their regular meals. More than   just snacks, many of these sold lunch and dinner items, designed to provide sustenance on a budget. If you ever get a chance, go to the office para (office neighborhood) – you’ll be more than surprised to see the spread. Starting form freshly made fulkas  (Indian flat bread) to Chinese dumplings to colonially influenced chop-cutlet, you name it, and they have it. Street food does not mean that it has to be prepared on the street. Often the vendors would bring their wares already cooked and then reheat it before serving. Sometimes they were halfway prepped and would be completed (usually by frying) in response to your order.

Street_vendor_3Although street food in India largely varies from one place to another depending on the local ingredients, there are certain things likely to be found in most cities. Chaat being the number one ubiquitous street food found all over the country can widely vary in terms of ingredients and taste. On the other hand, dahi vada is very similar in taste across the country with a little bit of tweaking here and there. The basics will always be the same, with the condiments being a little different based on whether you are in North India or South India. It is very feeling and healthy, and can be eaten as a snack or a main meal. Served throughout the year, it’s a staple in many restaurants, on the streets and in the homes of a myriad families.

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Recipe:

Ingredients:

Urad daal/split, husked black gram: 1 cup

Fennel seeds: 2 tsp.

Yogurt/Dahi: 2-3 cups

Tamarind Chutney: As much as you like

Chat masala (found in the Indian store): to taste

Black salt: to taste

Red chili powder: to taste (optional)

Boondi/fried chickpea flour balls (available in the Indian stores): to taste (optional)

Coriander: a handful, finely chopped

Oil: enough to deep fry the dumplings

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  • Wash the lentils with several changes of water and then soak the lentils in enough water overnight or for 3-4 hours. Keep at least one-two inches of water above the lentils as the lentils will expand.
  • Drain the lentils and then grind them in a food processor with very little to almost no water. Do not grind them to a smooth paste. Keep the paste a little grainy…just a little.
  • Add the fennels seeds and a little bit of salt to the batter and whip the batter very well. The whipping will incorporate air in the batter and will make the balls fluffy.
  • Take a small bowl with water and drop a tiny portion of the batter in the water. If the batter floats on the top immediately, you know the batter is ready. Or else, whip it further.
  • Heat a deep bottom pot with enough oil it to deep fry the balls. Again, drop a small portion and if the batter starts sizzling vigorously, you know your oil is ready.
  • Either with your hand or with a spoon take out around a table spoon and a half of the batter and drop it in the oil. Put few more in the oil like this. Do not overcrowd the oil as it will bring the oil temp down and make the balls soak more oil.
  • Fry the dumpling on medium high heat and turn them occasionally to evenly fry all the sides. DO NOT over-fry them.
  • Keep a deep bowl on the side with luke warm water.
  • Once the balls are fried, drain them on a paper towel and then drop them into the luke warm water.
  • Soak the balls in there for 30 minutes and then squeeze them in between your palms and keep them in a separate platter. Do not press them too hard, they might break and fall apart.
  • Whip up the yogurt lightly and add salt to it. Taste it. Add the tamarind chutney and all the powders and taste again.
  • Soak the lentil balls in the spiced yogurt for almost an hour or more in the fridge.
  • Just before serving, add the chopped cilantro and the boondi.

DSC_0821You can add salt to the yogurt and soak the balls in it. Keep it chilled. Serve all the other condiments along with it while serving. People can add them according to their own taste.

Tamarind chutney

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“Jadi hao sujon, tNetul patay nawjon”

Literal translation: “If you are a good person, nine of you can stand together on a tamarind leaf”

Actual meaning: “Nothing is going be too little to share if you are a friend”

If you are not a Bengali, you probably have no clue what this means. But if you are familiar with a tamarind leaf, maybe the English translation makes sense –  the reference is to the tightly packed leaflets of the tamarind leaf. Tamarind is so ubiquitous in India that I always assumed it is native to the subcontinent. Indeed, the scientific name, Tamarindus indica would suggest so, although I found out I was quite wrong.

From time immemorial, Africa and Asia have been connected by commerce. Traders were attracted to ivory, gold and slaves in Africa while spices and precious stones from the Orient. Tamarind, native to Africa, might have been introduced to India or South East Asia through such trading. Exactly when this happened is a topic of debate, with some saying it came around 2000 BC; others argue that it came much later with Portuguese sailors who stopped by the Cape of Good Hope on their way to Asia.

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The word tamarind came from the Arabic word “tamr-hindī” or ‘Indian date’. Arab traders crossing the Persian Gulf brought tamarind back with them, and introduced it to Iran, Egypt and other Persian countries. After the Portuguese took over the trade in the African coast, the trading and exchange of tamarind took an industrial structure. Like so many other things, tamarind was introduced to Europe and South/Central America by Portuguese and Spanish traders. Particularly in South America, tamarind became wildly popular, to the extent that Santa Clara, a city in Cuba declared tamarind as their official tree (as the council of elders had decided to found the city after meeting under a tamarind tree).

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In India, tamarind has been used for ages, be it in candy form, in chutneys, in soups, curries or as an Ayurvedic medicine. It is an indispensable ingredient in cuisines of South Indian states. Maybe due to its strong and unique taste, tamarind found diverse uses across the world. It is used in Worcestershire sauce in the UK, as a refreshing summer drink in India and in the Middle East, as street-side candies in South America and in curries and sauces in South Asia. Apart from the pods, the leaves and the flowers are eaten as a salad in Burma. Due to its high vitamin C content, during the Age of Sail, tamarind was carried by the sailors as a preventative measure against scurvy. According to Ayurveda, tamarind dissolved in water with raw sugar is believed to protect the body from heat. The southern part of India being much hotter than rest of the country, tamarind consumption is more of a staple than a mere condiment.

This sweet, sour and a somewhat spicy chutney is very versatile and can be used in many ways. Use it as a dip for your deep-fried indulgences, use it in salads, add it to beaten yogurt to make a chaat, or just lick it off  your fingers like I do.

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Recipe: (adapted from Manjula’s recipe)

Ingredients:

Tamarind, seeded or buy the seedless packet: ½ lb.

Sugar: 2 cups (more if you like it very sweet and also the amount of sugar will depend on the tartness of your tamarind)

Cumin seeds: ½ tbsp.

Coriander seeds: ½ tbsp.

Dry red chili: 3-4 nos.

Salt: start with one table spoon and then adjust

Black salt: to taste

Black pepper: 1 tsp.

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  • Break the tamarind into small pieces and soak in one cup of hot water for one hour.
  • Mash it into a pulp and strain, pressing the tamarind into the strainer to remove all the pulp.
  • Add the sugar and the salt (regular).
  • Add another half a cup or one cup of water and then boil it for 10-15 minutes.
  • Add all the dry spices and the black salt. Cook it for one or two minutes.
  • Check for seasoning and adjust accordingly.
  • Let it cool and the put it into a clean dry jar.
  • Refrigerate it once completely cooled.
  • It stays in the fridge for few months if handled properly.

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Keep it a little bit more liquid-y than you want your chutney’s final consistency at the end. It will thicken gradually while cooling.

Harissa/Tunisian hot sauce

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There is a fancy French bakery chain close to where we live. I like to go there once in a while to taste their freshly baked baguettes and soups. On one side of the restaurant, they sell overpriced, fancy, organic, locally grown/made sauces, condiments, pasta and books. While waiting in line, I often look at the wall and glance through the bottles and jars. One day my eyes spotted a very different looking bottle with a fiery red, very un-French looking substance inside labeled harissa. I was very surprised to see that they were selling something so obviously not French in origin. I came home and asked my husband and to my surprise he was clueless too.

Knowing my curiosity for food, exotic spices and their history, I knew it would bug me for a while if I could not find a reason for harissa to be sold in a French store. When I came back home, I promptly googled and found the answer.

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Tunisia is the smallest country of the Maghreb region, with Algeria on one side and Libya on the other. It has a vast coastline on the Mediterranean Sea. Being a very fertile country and its convenient geographical location (only 100 miles from Italy by sea), Tunisia attracted many invaders in the past. Among many others, there were Italians, the Arabs, Spaniards, the Turks and lastly the French. Being a demographical melting pot, Tunisians eat a variety of foods which might surprise you if you do not know the history or the country’s background. You might end up eating French baguettes for breakfast, fresh pasta and spaghetti for lunch and Turkish pastry for dessert. The French invaded Tunisia in 1881 and ruled it until 1956 under the Treaty of Bardo. Although France didn’t confiscate any land or displace the monarch, and preserved the preexisting government structure, the French resident general remained the supreme authority.

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Usually when one country invades another, there is an exchange of culture in both directions. As the Tunisians acquired a taste for French cuisine, the French in turn grew fond of some of the Tunisian delicacies (which explains why I saw that bottle of harissa in the French bakery). The composition of harissa, which is a hot pepper sauce, can widely vary from region to region and country to country. Tunisia is the largest exporter of this bright red, fiery paste. Hot red peppers were originally native to South America but gained extreme popularity and spread like wildfire after the Spanish and the Portuguese invaded them and introduced them to Europe. Soon after, peppers crossed the Mediterranean Sea and travelled from Europe to northwest Africa, where they got blended and mixed with the native spices and beautiful concoctions were made.

Harissa, which can be quite hot even for my Indian tastes, has a very unique flavor palate that lends itself to a thousand uses. Spread it on a sandwich, drop a couple teaspoons in your soup or stew, mix it with mayonnaise or hummus to add a little edge to them or rub it on meat before grilling. Once you taste it, it may soon end up being you go-to hot sauce.

I cannot vouch that my recipe is as authentic as it can get, but at least I have used nothing but the basic spices to keep it simple and close to the original taste.

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Recipe:

Ingredients:

Dried Guajillo chilies: 4 nos.

Kashmiri chilies: 4 nos.

Dried Red hot chilies: 8 nos.

Caraway seeds: 1 tsp.

Cumin seeds: ½ tsp.

Coriander seeds: ½ tsp.

Lemon juice: one tablespoon or less (will depend on you)

Salt: ½ tsp.

Sugar: ½ tsp.

Olive oil: 1-2 tbsp.+ more to top off the paste while storing.

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  • Toast the dry chilies on a dry skillet for few minutes (optional). Break them into few pieces.
  • Soak them in enough hot water to cover all the chilies.
  • Dry roast the caraway, cumin and coriander seeds. Cool and then grind them to a fine powder.
  • Drain the chilies and discard all the seeds.
  • Put them in a spice grinder with the olive and blend them to a fine paste.
  • Add all other ingredients and blend them again.
  • Put the paste in a completely dry glass/non-reactive jar and top it off with olive oil. Every time you use it, replace the olive oil. The oil will keep the paste stay fresh longer.

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PS: You can use any chilies you have in the pantry and play with the ratio. The guajillo chilies give the sauce a nice smoky flavor, the Kashmiri chilies I used gave it a nice color and the heat came from the hot chilies. You can use any hot and smoky chilies you have or can buy.

You can also add a little bit of chopped cilantro or lemon zest to it. I haven’t but I think next time I surely will.

Adjust the seasoning according to your taste. It might need a little bit of tweaking.

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Daliar khichuri/Cracked wheat and lentil porridge and the 1959 food movement

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Duniyata bhai ajab karkhana

Kei ba khaye khiri khechiri, kahar pete uda kana

[What a crazy theatre this world is! Some enjoy delicious food while others starve wrapping a wet rag around the belly (to minimize the pain of hunger): http://www.mcrg.ac.in/PP25.pdf]

My mother was around five years old then but she still clearly remembers those times like yesterday. From her earliest childhood, she loved eating khichuri. Even now, she is a big fan of this humble but nutritious and delicious dish. Knowing the extreme financial hardship both my parents faced as children, whenever I hear their childhood stories I am doubly grateful for how easy my life has been compared to theirs. As part of the many stories I heard growing up, my Maa often talked about a famine when she was a kid. However, as far as my knowledge went, there was no ‘real’ famine during the 1950s in West Bengal. The closest one was in 1943, caused by a devastating combination of crop failures in 1942, war-induced shortages and the heartless refusal of Winston Churchill to allow the US and Canada to ship humanitarian wheat supplies to the starving masses of undivided Bengal. After some research, I realized that the famine my mother referred to was most likely a rice crisis artificially created by rice mill owners and food hoarders, members of the rural upper class who formed the backbone of the Bengal Congress party then in power at the state level.

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As she remembers it, there was a langarkhana/free kitchen in her neighborhood which distributed dahliar khichuri (a cracked wheat and lentil dish) and milor ruti/breads made from milo flour. Rice prices reached a level that put this staple right out of the common man’s budget, although rampant black marketeering ensured that the rich still ate well.  With her own eyes, she saw people sneaking into the neighborhood at night to sell rice illegally. People used to come up with innovative ways to sell rice in the black market. They made long narrow tubes made of fabric and then filled them with rice, wrapped them around their bodies and then put on regular clothes to transport the rice to the black market. While the richer racketeers probably gorged themselves in the midst of widespread starvation deaths, their street agents were often caught and beaten badly by the police.

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Needless to say, the artificial crisis didn’t affect the rich people. They could afford to buy rice but the middle and working classes suffered the most. A shortage of rice and devastating hunger (to my simple mother, the same as famine) spread like a cancer throughout rural Bengal. My mother was a little girl at the time, probably unable to grasp the true extent of the suffering around her. While her own family made just enough money to avoid the demon of starvation, their neighbors in the lower-middle class neighborhood of refugees from East Bengal were saved only by the free communal kitchens. Coming back to the beginning of my story, she used to wait eagerly with her tiny bowl for her neighbor aunt to come back from the langarkhana and give her a small share of daaliar khichuri. She loved it so much, fifty years later she still remembers the taste of it like yesterday.

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Hunger, that most primal of animal sensations, ultimately drew hundreds of thousands to a mass demonstration on the Calcutta maidan, shaking the very roots of the post-colonial establishment in West Bengal. Eighty people were killed by the police that day, even more shocking because not a single shot was fired. The protest was organized under the aegis of the ‘Committee to Combat Famine’, primarily an initiative of the undivided Communist Party of India, so different from the pitiful farce that is communism in modern India. That day’s protest was the herald of the 1959 food movement was a turning point in the history of class struggle of West Bengal.

Recipe:

Ingredients:

Cracked wheat/Dalia: 1 cup

Masoor daal/red lentil, mung daal/yellow lentils and motor daal/split pea lentils: ½ cup each

Ginger: one inch piece

Cumin powder: 1-2 tsp.

Red chili powder/cayenne (optional): ½ tsp.

Turmeric: 1 tsp. or a little less

Whole cumin seeds: one tsp.

Bay leaves: 1 nos.

Whole dried red chili: 2 nos.

Mustard/any oil: one tbsp.

Ripe tomato: one, medium

Water: 6 cups

Salt to taste (I start with four teas spoon)

Sugar: one tsp.

Garam masala (grind equal quantities of clove, cardamom and cinnamon to a fine powder): 2 tsp.

Clarified butter/ghee (optional): per taste

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Optional vegetables (You may or may not add the vegetables. There are no hard and fast rules. Vegetables make the khichuri more delicious and healthy, but if you don’t have them handy, leave them out):

Cauliflower: few medium florets

Green beans: 8-10 no. cut into one inch long pieces

Carrot: 2 medium

Peas: ½ cup

Potato: one/two medium

Bell pepper: One (any color, I like the red one)

If you have squash, zucchini or broccoli handy, add them as well. More vegetables will not hurt, only make the porridge taste better and more wholesome.

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  • Toast the dalia and the mung daals separately until you get a nutty aroma. Keep the flame low medium and stir frequently.
  • Once cooled, mix all the lentils and the wheat and wash them with several changes of water. Drain the water.
  • Grate the ginger finely and mix the red chili, turmeric and cumin powder together to make a paste.
  • Heat up the oil in a pressure cooker or in a deep heavy bottom pot.
  • Add the whole cumin seeds, bay leaves and dried whole red chilies. Let them turn a shade darker. You will smell the aroma of the spices.
  • Add the spice paste and sauté them for few minutes.
  • Add the chopped tomato and mix it well with the spices. Cook the spice paste for few more minutes.
  • Add all the vegetables except peas. Mix them well with spices. Cook them for a minute or two.
  • Add the wheat and lentils and again give it a good mix. Cook it for few more minutes.
  • Meanwhile heat up the water.
  • Once the entire thing is nicely coated and the raw taste of the spice paste is gone, add the water, salt and sugar. Mix them well. Add the peas.
  • If you are using a pressure cooker, put on the lid, bring the flame to medium and wait for one whistle. Turn off the heat and let the pressure release normally.
  • If using a heavy pot or slow cooker, cover and let it cook for another 20-25 minutes. Check in between to make sure it’s not sticking to the pot. I have never cooked it in a regular pot/slow cooker. You might have to adjust the time.
  • Check the consistency and seasoning. You might need a little bit warm water to loosen the porridge. Add the garam masala powder and the ghee, mix and cover it for five more minutes.
  • Serve with pakoras, papad or Indian pickles. You can eat it by itself as it is delicious by itself.
  • The vegetables will end up broken into a mush, that’s fine. They will add flavor to the porridge.

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Murgh malai tikka kabab and the origin of kababs

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Historically in the Middle East, lamb has been the meat of choice. Evidence shows that it has been consumed since 3000 BC. Indeed, in many ancient literatures of the Middle East, “meat” meant lamb – when other animals were consumed they were specifically named. The most prized meat came from fat-tailed sheep and was the preserve of the rich and wealthy. About the only others could enjoy this luxury were the nomadic pastors, who fried their meat in the delicately flavored tail fat (or less desirably, just in any lamb fat). Such nomads may have been the inventors of some forms of the shallow-fried kabob (for my American friends: these do exist) , as the word kabab in Arabic itself means “to fry” or “to burn” which is almost equivalent to the modern-day technique of either grilling the meat on open flame or shallow frying them.

When talking about kabab, it is impossible not to think of Turkey. Istanbul, the capital of Turkey might also be the capital of kababs. Constantinople, as Istanbul was known before modern times, was a city of the Byzantine Empire and was conquered by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II in 1453. During the 15th and 16th centuries, the Ottoman Empire was among the largest in the world. Founded by Turkish tribes in Anatolia, it reached its peak during the ruling of Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-66), when its influence was felt from Southeastern Europe to the Middle East. During this imperial expansion, the Ottoman army was treated ruthlessly and was forced to live in camp for months at a stretch. One theory holds that the soldiers hunted local animals as a way of adding to their diet and grilled their meat on open flame using their swords as skewers, giving birth to the modern-day concept of skewered kababs.

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Although India was not a part of the Ottoman Empire, we inherited the kabab culture probably from the Afghan invaders of north India in the 13th and 14th centuries. In India, the specialized cooks for kababs are called kababiyas. There are numerous kinds of kababs starting from lightly seasoned to heavy on spice, from chunks of chewy meat grilled to seared perfection to melt-in-the-mouth galauti kababs made with meat paste for a toothless old nawab. Indian kababs have a very distinct taste compared to their Middle Eastern or Central Asian cousins as they are infused with spices native to India and are made following specialized recipes perfected in the royal kitchens of the Mughal Empire by legendary families of kababiyas.

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Murgh malai tikka kabab is one such kabab which is an Indian kabab with a very distinct taste. Murgh is chicken and malai is cream. The name can be interpreted in two different ways, one being that the chicken cubes are marinated with cream along with other ingredients; alternatively, that the kabab itself is soft and creamy when eaten immediately after cooking. I have adapted the recipe from here and made slight changes. These kababs are best eaten by themselves with a dash of chat masala (or black salt and lemon juice) and an onion- cucumber salad on the side. You can also tuck them in pita bread and make a wrap, or just eat them with any green salad too.

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Recipe:

Ingredients:

Chicken breast: 1 lb.

Cardamom powder: 1 pinch

Grated sharp cheddar cheese: 2-3 tbsp.

Cilantro: loosely a handful copped

Corn flour:  1 tbsp.

Sour cream: 2 tbsp.

Ginger garlic paste: 1 tsp.

Green chilies: 1-2 nos.

Meat tenderizer or raw papaya paste: 1/4 – tsp. (if you do not have ready-made meat tenderizer, use papaya paste as mentioned or mash up half (or even less) a kiwi and add it to the meat. Just  like the papain in papaya, actinidin in kiwi acts as a natural enzyme and breaks down the meat tendons/fibers. Do not tempt to use more of any of the meat tenderizer, it will make your meat a mush and the kababs will not hold its shape)

Oil: 1 tbsp.

Black/white pepper powder: 1 pinch

Salt: to taste

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  • Cut the chicken breast into bite sized pieces and wash them well. Drain them and then pat them very well to get rid of excess moisture.
  • Grind the green chilies and cilantro together with little to no water.
  • Marinate the chicken with all the ingredients and keep it in the fridge overnight.
  • Take them out of the fridge well ahead of their cooking and let them come to room temperature.
  • Set the oven to broil or the highest possible setting in your oven. If you can fire a charcoal grill, nothing like it.
  • Put the meat in the skewers leaving a little bit of space in between. (If you are using wooden skewers, soak them in water for half-n-hour to an hour. Take them out of the water and let them dry out before putting the meat in. Otherwise the skewers will burn. If using metal skewers, brush oil on the skewers before putting the meat in).
  • Brush oil over the meat and arrange the skewers on a cooling rack or a baking tray.
  • Place the rack/tray around six inches below the hot wire or six inches above if using a charcoal fire. (I place the skewers on a perforated sheet/cooling rack to allow the marinade to drip)
  • Grill the meat for approximately 8-10 minutes each side (I go 8 minutes on one side and then 5-6 minutes the other). The cooking time will greatly vary depending on the size of the meat cubes, oven setting and quality of the meat. So, keep an eye on them, do NOT overcook them. They will become dry.
  • Serve them immediately.

If you are using organic free range chicken, you can skip the meat tenderizer or papaya paste.

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