Strawberries romanoff, a light rereshing summer dessert

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Nowadays there is a theme going on in my family, neighbors, relatives and friends back home in India. The usual complaint is that it’s getting harder and harder to find domestic helps, as the demographic that was the traditional recruitment pool refuses to work as domestic helps anymore. Quite understandably, they would rather work in an air-conditioned mall or a departmental store, earn more money and have a structured career. Seems like the growing high-disposable income middle class with and the elite upper middle class is in a panic because the moment might be at their doorstep, when they have to drive themselves home from work, cook their own dinners and clean the dishes afterwards.
Why wouldn’t the so-called “lower classes” stop working as domestic help? They should have stopped a long time ago. They couldn’t as they did not have any choice. They are still not exactly spoilt for choice but it’s better than before. In “India Shining”, there are many new odd jobs which need more manual labor than education, allowing them to overcome their biggest disadvantage – lack of formal education.

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Somehow, I always empathized with the people who worked as domestic helps in our house, feeling that with the slightest vagary of fate, my mother or my father could have been in their place. Both my parents grew up in a very lower middle-class family where the chances were more that they would end up doing menial jobs. Fortunately they didn’t. But when I see my mom complaining about her domestic help, my mother-in-law shouting at her maids, see other people mistreating them, my heart sinks. Many of you will say, “Why don’t you do something for them? Why don’t you stand up for them and do something that will help them rather than writing a fancy article for my blog?” That is so true. I believe social work starts from home. I told my Maa a zillion times over the phone and in person that they are human beings, they deserve compassion, love and should be treated like any other human being. They are not disposable and cheap laborers. My Maa doesn’t abuse her maid or mistreat her but the expectation is unbalanced. A girl who is almost exactly my age, has a son who is in ninth standard, got married (probably long before she was ready for it) to a husband who deserted her after four months of their marriage and now works as maid for five houses, works as a night-care nurse during the night, lives in a falling apart rented apartment, what do you expect her to do? When I asked my Maa how old she was and learnt that she is around my age, I felt even worse. I faced my own share of struggles to rise above my destiny, to do my best, but my life is no way comparable to hers. Actually, I should not even compare my life with hers. When I was hungry, I had food on my plate, my parents worked hard to send me to a convent school, I married the man of my dreams, I haven chosen not to have children until I feel ready for it – the list of advantages is endless.

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I have tried talking to my mother in law too and tried to explain that the way she treats her domestic helps is wrong. But exactly like my mother, she has her set of excuses for her way of dealing with them. I’ll keep on trying even if my own family members refuse to understand what I say. I’ll not quit. There are many good things I’ve learnt after I moved here in the US. Possibly the biggest is that no job is menial. And for those of you about to say “We treat our domestic help Ramu kaka or Susma mashi as our own family” – let me be frank – most of you have no idea what you are talking about.
So, when I complain that the local gourmet store ran out of the Vermont Dairy crème fraîche I need for my strawberries Romanoff and get upset that I have to compromise with the mass-produced version from Trader Joe’s, I think I need someone to bang me on my head and remind me to be grateful for whatever I have in the first place. Gradually, I am trying to stop running after the utopian life we all dream about.

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Recipe:

Ingredients:

Crème Fraiche (full fat): one 8 oz tub or heavy whipping cream around one cup (I have used creme fraiche)

Any brandy of your choice: one and a half tablespoon (I used Kirschwasser/cherry brandy), you can use Cointreau or Grand Marnier too.

Sugar (brown or white, I prefer brown): to taste

A pinch of salt

Strawberries: around one cup (approximate)

Juice of one lemon

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One vanilla pod or one tablespoon vanilla flavor (try to use a good quality one).

  • Hull and slice the strawberries into medium slices. Add the lemon juice a little bit of sugar and half tablespoon of brandy and let them marinate for an hour in the fridge (optional).
  • Scrape the seeds out from the vanilla pod if using the pod.
  • Whip the crème fraiche or the whipped cream with the sugar, one tablespoon brandy, vanilla seeds or flavor and salt until nice and fluffy (or until soft peak forms).
  • Chill the crème in the fridge for at least an hour.
  • Divide the crème into serving glasses and top it up with the marinated strawberries.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beresta chicken/chicken with fried onions

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I didn’t pay attention to what we eat and do not eat while I was in India. All I knew was that Hindus don’t eat beef and Muslims don’t eat pork. In any case, I never had the chance to eat these “forbidden” meats for almost my entire life back home. After I met my omnivorous boyfriend (who is now my husband), I started exploring beef and pork. They were still not my primary choices; I can almost count the number of times I ate them before moving to the US.. Stateside, I faced the usual questions many, many times – “Are you vegetarian?” “Do you eat meat?” “Do you eat beef?” “What about pork?” I don’t blame them. We Indians are tricky when it comes to eating habits and food taboos.

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Food eaten in India is as varied as it can get. At a broader level, culinary choices are largely dictated by religion, although even within each religion it gets really complicated because there is no “one rule fits all” concept. Although eating beef was not a taboo in ancient India, Hindus are forbidden to eat beef and consider cows to be sacred. The prevalent hypothesis posits that the ban on cow slaughter reflects the dependence of the contemporary agrarian community on cows for their ability to till the soil, pull carts and produce cow dung for use as manure. The pre-Aryan concept of ‘ahimsa’ (non-violence) practiced by Buddhists and Jains may also have influenced the Hindus at some point. Also, cows were the main source for milk, which by analogy with motherhood gave them the elevated status of ‘gomata’ (go=cows; mata=mother). By extension, in Hindu society, cow slaughter carried the unimaginable stigma of effective matricide. The incipient taboo was greatly reinforced by the Muslim invasion of India. As Muslims ate beef without compunction, from the Hindu viewpoint, it came to be strongly associated with the “other” religion, completing its banishment from even marginally observant households. Indeed, even today only very liberal/Westernized/atheistic/depraved families (such as my in-laws; not saying which of the four they are) would routinely serve beef at their table. This of course does not mean that the younger generation does not eat it on the sly, as I did at Olypub with my boyfriend. He of course, ate mainly beef, primarily as it was cheap and he was perennially broke.

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Apart from beef, for many Hindus, meat and fish are considered to be Rajasic (stimulating the baser emotions of passion and excitement) or Tamasic (indifferent, dull and depressing) and are thus prohibited from consumption. Adding to the confusion, while chicken and pork were taboo (as the respective animals are scavengers), often eating goat or lamb was not prohibited. Eating pork is still a no-no for most of the Hindus but chicken has gained immense popularity. It has lost all its taboo and indeed, become the primary animal protein for the growing middle class.

This chicken recipe is very different as it uses beresta/fried onions as the flavoring base. The chicken gets a fiery red color from the fried onions and caramelized sugar. A little bit of extra effort will give you a beautiful robust flavor of smoky, sweet, caramelized onions.

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Recipe:

Adapted from Alpana Habib

Ingredients:
Good quality chicken (if possible organic and free range): around 3 lbs. cut into bite sized pieces.
Onion: one large or, caramelized onion 2/3-1 cup. (adjust the number of onions to have around 2/3 cup of fried onions)
Yogurt: around ½ cup
Red chili powder: one tablespoon or more if you want it hotter (also it will depend on how hot the chili powder is) mixed with a little bit of water to make a paste.
Mustard oil/any other oil: 2tbsp. (you’ll need more oil to fry the onions, around half a cup)
Bay leaves: 2 nos.
Cardamoms: 3-4 nos. (smash them with a heavy spoon just enough to break them a little bit)
Garlic paste: 1-2 tbsp.
Sugar: one tbsp.
Cinnamon: 2 inches stick broken into one inch pieces

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• Marinate the chicken with the yogurt and garlic paste for an hour.
• In the meantime, heat up around ½ cup of oil. Bring the flame to medium high to medium.
• Thinly slice the onion and fry the onions in the hot oil until golden brown. Do not make the oil too hot, it will burn the onion. Carefully stir the onion while frying to evenly color them. Slow frying will make the onion very sweet and smoky.
• Drain the fried onions on an absorbent paper.
• Take out all the oil leaving only one-two tablespoons.
• Add the sugar and let it caramelize. Keep an eye on it, it’s very easy to burn sugar and it will taste bitter.
• Once the sugar is caramelized, add the red chili paste and stir frequently.
• Drop in the cardamoms and the cinnamons and let them release the aroma.
• Turn the flame to low or take the pan out of the flame and then add the marinated chicken.
• Stir everything together very well or else the yogurt will curdle.
• Salt and again mix everything well.
• Add one third of the beresta (fried onions), mix nicely and then cover the pot.
• After around 10 minutes, uncover the pot, add another third of the beresta, mix well and cover the pot again for around ten minutes. Check the meat too.
• Uncover the pot, give everything a good stir and check if the meat is done or not. Check for seasoning too.
• Add the rest of the beresta, five-six green chilies slit length wise and then cover the pot again. Turn off the flame. Let the pan covered for 10-15 minutes (or more) and then serve with either bread or rice.

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** I did not add any water. The chicken and the yogurt released enough water to make a nice gravy. If you think you do not have enough gravy, add little bit of water while adding the second batch of beresta.
**If you let the chicken sit for at least half n hour, the meat will soak the gravy a little bit and the flavors will mix very nicely.

 

Beguner jhal posto/Eggplants in poppy seed paste

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If you know the Bengalis enough, you will know that we have a clear idea about our recent ancestry. Within the British province of Bengal, we very clearly know if our ancestors were native to what now is Bangladesh or native to what is now West Bengal. In Bengali the two terms “Bangal” and “Ghoti” defines who we are in terms of food and culture. The fight is never-ending, although pretty harmless for the most part. The general theme of arguments is, the Bangals being fortunate in terms of access to abundant vegetables and fresh water as well as sea fish, developed a very well developed cuisine, whereas the Ghotis who were native to West Bengal did not have a vibrant cuisine as the Bangals. The most common statement a Bangal will make is that Ghotis can cook nothing other than daal and posto (lentil soup and poppy seeds). The Bangals in turn are looked down upon for eating things which according to Ghotis, even cows would turn down.

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I always wondered why among many other things, did the Ghotis grow a fondness for poppy seeds? Why didn’t the Bangals incorporate it into their cuisine? Looks like, eating poppy seeds as a common spice is not very ancient in India or in West Bengal. The Greeks knew and used poppy/opium from a very ancient time, followed by the Egyptians. The Arabs got introduced to opium by the Greeks during trading on the Silk Road, and they in turn introduced it to South Asia during the 12th century. As opium was not prohibited in Islam, it soon became very popular during the Mughal Empire and cultivation of opium was very common in the Northern and Western India during the 15th century.

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The situation took a different turn when the British defeated the last Nawab of Bengal and took over the undivided Bengal Province (which is now Bihar, Orissa and West Bengal) in 1757. The British soon after realized that opium could generate huge currency inflows as it was very popular not only in India, but also in China. As compared to other areas, Bengal opium was of a very high quality and it lured the British to set up illegal trading with the Chinese. They also forced farmers to convert all their farmlands to cultivate poppy/opium, in the process contributing to the Bengal Famine of 1770 (Chhiattōrer monnōntór) that killed more people than Hitler and Pol Pot combined. Paradoxically, somewhere along the process Bengalis developed a taste for the tiny white seeds of the flower decimating their land, and started incorporating it into their cuisine. Although poppy seed has been used as a culinary item since antiquity by the Arabs, it was mostly used as a thickening agent (much like flour or cornstarch nowadays). Bengalis were among the first to cook with it, and make it a bona fide mainstream spice. Poppies were mainly grown in the Patna region of Bihar and in the Western part of now West Bengal which is close to the Bihar border. If we look at the use of poppy seed in the cuisine of modern West Bengal more closely, it is still most popular among the Bengalis from that particular region (comprising the districts of Birbhum, Bankura and Purulia). Gradually it spread among other West Bengalis too.

 

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Poppy seeds were always an expensive item and still are. But, it did not prohibit the Ghotis from incorporating it into their cuisine in many different forms. They eat it in pretty much every fashion, raw, cooked, whole, ground, in curries, in fries, in meat and the list goes on. Being a Bangal by origin, it was never a big thing in my Maa’s kitchen. But I am gradually acquiring a taste for it and incorporating it in my kitchen. Beguner jhal posto is very simple to make and yet delicious. It requires very few ingredients but is a winner even to diehard Bangal, Dr. Sen.
Recipe:

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Ingredients:
White poppy seeds: around 2 tbsp.
Whole dry red chilies: 2-3 nos.
Small eggplants: 8-12 (depending on how small or big they are) You can also use regular eggplants and cut it into smaller chunks.
Turmeric: ½ tsp.
Mustard oil: 1 tbsp. or a tad bit more
Salt to taste

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• Soak the poppy seeds and the red chilies together for at least half an hour (soaking will make the grinding easy)
• Grind the poppy seeds along with the red chilies to a fine paste after they are soaked.
• Slice the eggplants either in half or in quarters if they are big.
• Heat up the oil and add the sliced eggplants to the oil. Stir fry them a little bit to coat them nicely in the oil.
• Add the turmeric and the poppy seed paste. Coat the eggplants well with the paste and continue cooking for few more minutes.
• Add salt and a few sprinkling of water, mix everything lightly and then cover the pot with a lid.
• Let the eggplants cook completely. Uncover, check seasoning and also check if the eggplants are done.
• I like the poppy paste to be clinging to the eggplants but if you want, you can add a little bit of water to make a thick gravy. It should not be watery.
• Serve hot with plain white rice.

 

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Alternatively, as I have done here, mix everything together and cook covered until the eggplants are cooked and then cook uncovered until it reaches desired consistency. This is the original recipe but I like the method I described first. Shallow frying the eggplants brings out the flavor really well. The last method is a healthier option, it requires less oil.

A woman is incomplete if she is not a mother?

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I am at a junction where it’s almost inevitable that I am facing multiple questions about my thoughts and future plans of having kids. Doesn’t matter if I say the same thing again and again, some people are unstoppable. They are very perplexed if I say “no I don’t have any plans and I might not want to have kids ever in my life”. They try to convince me by saying “oh, now it’s fine, but you’ll be very lonely when you are old”, “you might regret later”, “Oh no, why?” “you are already old, don’t be stupid, do it before it’s too late”. Really? How do they know I’ll be very lonely, how do they know I’ll regret later? Am I in a rush to keep up with the social guidelines?

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Did I grow up with the sole purpose to get married in my twenties, have kids in my thirties and then be a mother forever until I die? That’s the social norm and I better abide by it. I should not deprive my parents from having the joy of being grandparents. What about me? I might not be capable of bringing up a kid to be a good human being with good values and principles. What if I decide to take that responsibility and then fail miserably? Giving birth to a child is no big deal but caring for a child is not everybody’s task. I have heard a zillion times that “it will automatically happen, don’t worry, it happens to everybody”. No, it does not happen to everybody. I have seen many, many mothers and fathers failing miserably to raise a kid. I am not saying they did it intentionally but they had no clue what they were doing. They just had a kid or many because that’s what you are supposed to do. I don’t think I am ready yet. I might not feel like I am ready ever in my life or it might be just tomorrow. Who knows?

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Our society sees married women without kids as incomplete, they look down upon them. They look at them with pity and if you are lucky enough, with sympathy if they know that you tried your best but couldn’t have a kid. As if they have wasted their womanhood. I see many of my friends, colleagues, relatives and neighbors being lost in the ocean of motherhood, completely losing their identity as a person. They look like they waited all their life to be mothers and only mothers. I know I’ll be showered with criticism for not being sensible enough to understand the greatness of motherhood because I am not a mother. That’s completely wrong. We deify mothers, we see them as super humans, we demand them to be more than just a woman. We expect them to absorb pain and suffering because they are the mothers. The women also take pride in their godly role.

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Don’t get me wrong, I am all for mothers, all the great mothers (and also the not so great ones) who feed us, nurture us, take care of us. To me, my mother is also my lifeline, the very basis of my existence but in the process she forgot to have a life of her own. She gave all her life to be a good mother (and also a good wife). She is still not done. It’s a lifelong exam and you have to try your best to do your best. I am not that brave and not yet ready to start that journey and I will choose to be incomplete for now.

This daal is a humble everyday daal just like my mother. Nothing extraordinary but still special. It’s simple yet delicious. This is my mother’s recipe with a little bit of my tweaking, just like I am almost my mother’s replica with a bit of tweaking.

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Recipe:

Ingredients:

Red lentils/musur daal: ¾ cup

Water: around 2-3 cups (doesn’t really matter, you can always add or reduce the water)

Turmeric: ½ tsp.

Radhuni seeds/wild celery seeds**: a little more than ½ tsp.

Dry red chili whole: 2-3 nos.

Mustard oil/olive oil: 2tsp.+ 2tsp.

Shallots (small)/small onions: 10-12 nos., peeled. (I usually use small onions)

Or, Regular red onions: half of a small onion, thinly sliced or finely chopped.

Salt to taste

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  • In a deep bottom medium pot bring the water to a boil.
  • Wash the red lentils and add it to the boiling water. Let it come to a boil again. Once it starts boiling, bring the flame to medium (the water should still be in a rolling boil).
  • Periodically remove the white scums (foamy substance).
  • Once there is no more scum on the top, add the turmeric powder and mix with a spoon.
  • Let the lentils get almost cooked and then whisk it with a hand whisk. Do not whisk it vigorously and you don’t need any fancy electrical whisk too.
  • Add salt and let it boil for few more minutes.
  • While the daal is boiling, heat up two teaspoons of oil in a frying pan. Add the shallots or the small onions and bring the flame to medium. Shallow fry them until there are multiple brown spots on them. Slow and shallow frying will make them sweet and a bit smoky in taste.
  • Add the onions to the almost cooked boiling daal and gently boil it for another five minutes or until the daal is completely cooked and reaches your desired consistency. You can add more hot water here if the daal looks very thick or boil it vigorously if it looks very thin.

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Seasoning/tadka/phoron:

  • In another small deep ladle or pot add the rest of the two teaspoons of oil and slowly heat it up. Don’t let it burn.
  • Once the oil is hot, bring the flame to medium low and add the radhuni seeds. Let them sizzle, it will take around a minute (slowly sizzling the seeds will flavor the oil).
  • Add the dry red chilies and let them come to a shade darker.
  • Pour the seasoning into the daal and immediately cover the pot with a lid and turn off the gas/flame.
  • Keep it covered for 5 minutes and then serve it with plain white rice and lime wedges (not lemon). You can eat it as a soup too.

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Variation:

*Instead of adding slow roasted onions, you can deep fry the thinly sliced onions, crumble them and add them add the end.

* You can skip the slow roasting part and add the radhuni seeds, followed by the red chilies and then finely chopped regular red onions and slowly fry them until a little brown. Make sure that the spices do not get burnt. You can skip the onions altogether but that will steal the taste.

** Radhuni is a very special spice mainly used by the Bengali community in India. It is called wild celery seeds in English but do not confuse it with celery seeds. If you do not have access (which is very likely) to radhuni, grab a Bengali friend to provide you some or use anise seeds instead. I have never used anise seeds for this soup but they are the closest in terms of taste.

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Keemar doi bora/Meat balls in spiced yogurt and a tribute to Tagore on his birth anniversary

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If you know any Bengali, you know that we are too proud of our ‘kalchaar’ (read culture). We pay good attention to cultural education apart from the traditional ‘going to school and reading our books as a routine’ education. If you listen to too much Bollywood music as a kid, you stand the deadly risk of being branded ‘unkalchaarred’ (read uncultured).

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Maybe Bengalis subconsciously compensate for their physical laziness by being very intellectually active (or at least attempting to)?  I heard it many times when I introduced myself to a non-Bengali: “Oh, Bengali, from the land of Tagore, eh? Very cultural community.” Hence, by the virtue of being a Bengali, I became a part of a very cultural community.

When it comes to Bengali culture, no one messes with the Old Man. He is the be all and end all of our very own Bengali existence. He overshadows every nook and cranny of our culture. I really don’t know how we existed before he was born. In case you are curious to know who the Old Man is (Bongs might have guessed it already), I am referring Rabindranath Tagore. In one of the true ironies of our land, the greatest poet of the Bengali language usually signed his name using the Anglicized version of Thakur, the original family name. Anyhow, as a people, we eat sleep and breathe his literary and musical creations.

My Dad was raised almost as an orphan and my Maa in a refugee family, so, they did not have the luxury of being exposed to Tagore’s works at an early age. Naturally, they were unable to transfer any such interest to me. No Gitobitaan (anthology of lyrics to Tagore songs) adorned our bookshelf and the tape recorders didn’t play melodious Rabindra Sangeet (songs written and composed by Tagore himself). Having studied in a Catholic school, Jesus was more important than any Hindu gods and goddesses, forget about the mere mortals. They did not care much. Again, I did not get a lot of chance to be touched by him.

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I learnt to appreciate his songs only much later into my adulthood. I still know only a very few songs of his but they are very dear to my heart. I appreciate his art, his knowledge and his immense quality of being very versatile. He is like an ocean of knowledge. He probably deserves the name and fame Bengalis swear by. Being a rare unkalchaarred Bengali, I am probably unable to appreciate him in his entirety, but here is a poem which touches my heart every time I read it:

“Bohu din dhore bohu kros dure

Bohu byay kori bohu desh ghure

Dekhite giyechi parbotmala

Dekhite giyechi sindhu.

Dekha hoy nai chokkhu meliya

Ghar hote sudhu dui paa feliya

Ekti dhaner shiser upore

Ekti shishir bindu.”

Across many a year and distant sands,

I squandered my wealth in exotic lands,

Viewing majestic mountain peaks and the vastness of the ocean.

Alas! Ere my travels were my eyes not keen?

For out my own doorstep, lay yet unseen

A dewdrop sparkling perched atop a golden paddy kernel.

(translated by Shurjo Kumar Sen)

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Keemar doi bora is a very unusual recipe and belongs to the Thakurbari (Tagore family). I adapted this from a book written by Purnima Thakur, who married into the Tagore family and inherited a cookbook from one of the ladies of the Tagore household. The cookbook is like a treasure to me.

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Recipe:

Ingredients:

Mutton or chicken keema (minced mutton or chicken meat): 1 lbs.

Onion: one medium to large, finely chopped.

Green chilies/jalapenos: 3-4 or to taste

Yogurt: as much as you want

Black salt/any salt to taste

Cilantro: to garnish

Ginger: couple table spoon, very finely chopped

Sugar to taste

Oil to deep fry the meat balls

Potatoes: two medium or

One egg and two teaspoons of corn starch

Dry roast and grind to a fine powder:

Cumin: one teaspoon

Coriander: one teaspoon

Dry red chilies: 2-4 nos.

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  • Boil the meat along with a cup of water or even less. Do not add a lot of water in the beginning; you can always add it later. The meat will also release water. If you are using chicken keema, skip the boiling part.
  • Boil the potatoes. Do not overcook them. Just boiled should be fine.
  • Cool the keema if boiling and then mix with the boiled potatoes. With your hands or in a food processor, mas them very well. It should be lump free. If you are not using boiled potatoes, beat one egg and add it to the keema along with two teaspoons of cornstarch.
  • Add chopped onions and the chopped green chilies. Mix them well with the keema. Add salt to taste.
  • Oil your palms and form one inch balls.
  • Heat up oil in a deep bottom kadai/wok/pot and once the oil is hot, turn it down a bit.
  • Deep fry the balls turning them periodically to avoid burning and for even coloring. If the oil is too hot, they burn. They should have a deep brown color but not blackish brown. They will go a shade darker even after you take them out of the oil.
  • Drain them on an absorbent paper. Let them come to room temperature.
  • Beat up the yogurt with black salt (or regular salt) and sugar to taste. Add the finely chopped ginger. If you do not like to bite on raw ginger, skip it. The amount will vary according to your liking. Start with a small pinch and then add more if you like it.
  • Add the bhaja moshla/roasted spice powder to taste and sprinkle some finely chopped cilantro.
  • Drop the balls in the yogurt and serve.

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PS: Avoid eating them while frying. If you want, you can add cumin coriander powder or any spice or your liking to the meat balls.

 

 

 

 

 

Shrikhand and choosing your poison

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Recently I have been struggling to lose some weight. Maybe someday have that perfectly flat tummy which TV, movies and ads have seared into my brain as being the ideal female form. I eat ‘healthy’, I exercise – but I still gain weight. May be the air is bad. Who knows? While trying to lose weight, the first food group which we consider BAD is always the good old carbs. Everyone I talk to says “Oh no, you are eating half a cup of white rice with dinner? No way can you lose weight. Is that white sugar? OMG, God help you”.

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I can do many things to lose weight but I cannot live without white rice for dinner. I need it at least three to four days a week. And if eating half a cup of cooked rice makes me fat, I am ready to be fat. At least, I do not consume processed sugar every day. Although I add sugar to my tea only twice a week, my husband adds sugar to his tea everyday (but is still managing to lose weight). Being the person who decides mostly what is to be consumed every day, I decided to replace the good old bad white sugar with “raw cane sugar which happens to be brown”. As we know, everything brown should be good, right? Brown rice, brown bread, brown grains, brown sugar syrup, brown skin? Looks like I was wrong. Here is why.

 

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To my surprise, when I did my research to find out which sugar is less evil than the other, I found that as with the world around me, there are a lot of grey zones in the world of sugar. Turns out that white sugar is mostly glucose which is the simplest form of sugar and is readily/quickly absorbed by the body. It also has a high glycemic index and is unquestionably bad for diabetic people. So, okay, granted: white sugar is not so good for you. But what about the ‘natural sweeteners’? Looks like they are not as good as I thought. After much reading and comparing them upto three decimal points in terms of calorie and nutrition, my conclusion is, none of them is more superior than the other. Maple syrup might be the best bet but the better grades are very cost prohibitive (and my husband, being a horrible food snob, will not touch anything other than Grade A Light Amber). Agave might seem like a good choice as it has very low glycemic index but on the other hand it has a very high fructose index and can be worse for you in the long term. Brown sugar and honey are very flavorful but not much in terms of nutrition. You have to take gallons of them to get the nutritional value.

 

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Long story short: If you are NOT eating a huge amount of sugar every day, it really doesn’t matter which one you use. I keep a bottle of honey and maple syrup at home to flavor my tea and yogurt, but they give me the same calories. I like the complex flavor of honey and maple syrup. I like agave but stay away from it due to its high fructose content. If you really want the “best” sugar, try date molasses (khejur gur in Bengali) – it’s loaded with nutrients!

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Recently, I am hooked on Srikhand, which is a very traditional Indian dessert made with yogurt and flavored with saffron and cardamom. I flavor the yogurt with honey as I like the flavor of honey and yogurt together. You are more than welcome to use any sugar of your choice. This is very kid-friendly but do not use raw honey for kids under one as there is a threat of infant botulism.

 

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Recipe:
Ingredients:
Whole milk yogurt (please): 2-3 cups
One cardamom, seeds removed and crushed finely. You can toss the shell or use it in your tea.
A pinch of saffron
One-two table spoon of milk
Honey/maple syrup to taste (you can add sugar too)
Fruit of your choice
Nuts of your choice
• Place cheesecloth or a fine cotton/muslin on a strainer over a bowl. Put the yogurt in the cloth and cover it. Keep it in the refrigerator and let it drain for at least overnight or couple of days.
• After a day or two, the day you want to eat it, heat up the milk a little bit. Toast the saffron a little bit, crush it with a mortar pestle or with you finger and add it to the warm milk. Cover for 15-30 minutes.
•  Add the cardamom powder and the saffron to the yogurt and mix nicely. I whip it a little bit with a spoon to give it a fluffy texture.
• Keep it in the refrigerator or serve it with a drizzle of your sweetener and chopped fruits.
• Add the chopped nuts while serving (optional)
• You can add powdered sugar to your yogurt too instead of honey or maple syrup.
Sometimes I skip the saffron/cardamom part and zest some lemon and orange to it. Sometimes just honey or maple syrup and nuts. It’s a very flexible recipe and you can tweak it to your convenience.

Here is another recipe from my favorite blogger Lakshmi. She can make anything look beautiful. I loved the saffron hue in the yogurt.

 

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Tok daal/Mango and lentil soup

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Every year I miss Poila Boishakh, the festival of the New Year according to the Bengali lunar calendar. Poila Boishakh is the first day of the month Boishakh (approximately in the first week of April), but the summer is already scorching hot during the day. If you were lucky, there might be a slight breeze in the evening, cooling you down just a bit so you could wear your new clothes. A charming custom was that if you were a regular customer at any local store, on this day the shopkeeper would invite you to stop by and have a small snack (more here). In this way, the relationship was elevated above the purely commercial level in a way my local Wal-Mart manager would probably not understand.

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Every year during my childhood, I went to various places from a shoe store to the grocer to the jewelry store with Baba. The icing on the cake was if any of the shopkeepers gave me a Maaza (a very popular mango juice drink in India) or a glass of raw mango sherbet/Aam panna. We invariably came back home with boxes of sweetmeats and Bengali calendars given by the stores (usually with a Hindu god or goddess on them). The moment we got back home, I’ll literally jump on those boxes and sort through the sweets I wanted to eat. I didn’t give anyone any choice. I would choose mine and then Baba and Maa would have theirs. The story became slightly different when my brother started voicing his opinions though. We would keep the boxes in the refrigerator and eat one or two every day. I would unroll each and every calendar and sort through them as well (I really liked the ones with a glossy finish). If a calendar happened to be in English, I would save it for my room. The glossy ones were usually given by the bigger stores and to the chosen customers. There would be goddess Durga on one with a different weapon in each of her ten arms, while Lakshmi would be showering her blessings on another. The “modern” stores were more secular and would sometimes put the Eiffel tower or the Taj Mahal on their calendars. On Poila Boisakh, we always took down the calendars from previous years and put the new ones on the wall. One went in the bedroom, one in the living room, one in my room and one with a God or Goddess went to my Maa’s prayer room. The rest were distributed.

Tokdaal

As Poila Boishakh was a day off for all of us, we used to have lunch at home. We ate simple things because it was hard to digest an elaborate or super spicy, greasy meal when the temperature outside was close to 40C. Among other things on the menu, tok daal (sour lentil soup) was a must. Green mangoes were abundant in the market during that time, and as Ayurveda holds that they have a cooling effect on the stomach, the tok daal with green mango slices was a regular in our house throughout summer. Making tok daal either on the Sankranti (the last day of the year) or on the New Year day is a tradition from my Dida’s (maternal grandma) time. When I called my Maa a couple of days ago and said we will have a small get together at my place and I will cook daal, Maa said “ki daal banabi, tok daal?” (What are you making, the sour lentil soup?). After that, there was no going back: I had to cook it right away.

Recipe:

Ingredients:

Musur daal/Red lentils: ½ cup

Green mango (has to be very sour): ½ of a big one or one small (depending on how sour you want it and how sour the mango is), chopped into ½ inch pieces.

Water: 3 cups

Turmeric: ½ tsp.

Mustard oil(any other oil will do too but not optimum): ½ tbsp.

Sugar: one pinch

Black mustard seeds: 1 tsp.

Dry red chilies: 3-4

Salt to taste

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  • Start boiling the water in a deep bottom pot.
  • Once the water comes to a full boil, add the daal (rinsed of course)
  • Let the daal come to a boil too.
  • Once it starts boiling, reduce the flame to medium.
  • Remove the scum from the top periodically.
  • Once there is no more scum forming, add the turmeric. Give it a mix.
  • Let it boil for several more minutes until almost cooked.
  • Whisk it very nicely to make a homogenous soup. Do not whisk it to so much that the daal loses all it’s texture.
  • Add the chopped mangoes and let the daal boil for several more minutes or until ta mangoes are completely cooked.
  • Mash one or two pieces to add the sour flavor to the daal. Add salt and sugar and mix everything well.
  • In a separate small pot heat up ½ tablespoon of mustard oil (any other oil if you do not have mustard oil) on medium heat. Add the black mustard seeds.
  • In a few minutes, the seeds will splutter and start dancing around. Add the dry red chilies and let them go a shade darker. You will get a nice aroma.
  • Add this seasoning/tadka to the boiling daal and immediately cover the pot. Switch off the flame too.
  • Let the pot covered for 5 minutes and then uncover and mix the tadka with the daal.
  • Serve it with plain white rice.

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Optional: Add few curry leaves once the mustard seeds start dancing followed by the dry chilies. Or, follow this seasoning.