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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Childhood, nostalgia and very berry sherbet

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In general, children in my little corner of the world didn’t grow up with abundance; in particular, the kind of childhood treats that my husband often took for granted growing up were few and far between for us. To put it another way, treats were indeed treats, rather than something which we could buy whenever we wanted. To us, chocolate was something to crave for several weeks (if not months) before we could get a bite of it. I never ever had a chance to eat the whole bar of chocolate as a kid. It was saved for several days, so I could enjoy it one precious cube at a time. After eating one cube, I would wrap the rest of the candy bar up neatly with the golden foil and save it for later. The same general procedure applied for ice creams – you could not just gobble up a whole cup of ice cream – you ate a few spoons and back it went into the freezer.

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During summer (which was pretty much two thirds of a year), we had ice cream-walahs in our para (neighborhood) who would come pulling their wooden carts, shouting “ice cream” “ice cream”. On the infrequent occasion that we had enough money to buy one, we ran with our life to catch him. They were cheap, super cheap but they did not feel cheap back then. I memorized all the flavors, colors and tastes. My favorite ones were orange and coconut. I can still feel the coconutty taste in my mouth, and I used to lick the orange ice cream as hard as possible so that my tongue took on the color completely. I would then go to Maa and to my friends and stick my tongue out at them.

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Anyhow, such were the simple joys of my childhood life. Happiness was an easy thing to achieve. The demands were simple (although they seemed huge back then) and when they were met, it felt like heaven. Life has moved on, moved far away from the simple joys that only children can know. Now, if I think about those ice creams, I think about carcinogens in the food coloring, diarrhea, calorie, hygiene and what not. Except the nostalgia, there is nothing happy. I became cynical. Whenever I buy food in the US, I actually don’t buy food anymore; it’s more like a chemistry field trip for me. Going through the list of chemicals, looking at the serving size and the calories, calories from fats, dietary fibers 3% vs 30%, artificial flavors vs. natural ones, hormone injection, homogenized or pasteurized, local or California-grown, artificial color, preservatives and organic or inorganic and the list is frustrating. I feel like I am losing the fun of eating. It’s so complicated. I wish I was uneducated and couldn’t read those labels. I wish I didn’t know what recombinant bovine growth hormones do to you, or that the red color in my “all-natural” strawberry ice cream is not from the strawberries but from beetroot extract.

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Finally, my cynical brain has also started refusing to appreciate store-bought frozen yogurts. They taste chemical-y. They definitely do not taste fresh. I still eat them once in a while but the craving is gone. I still crave for frozen yogurt and ice cream in summer but not the ones from chains with neon lights and toppings from cans or bottles. After hesitating for a year, I finally gave up and bought an ice-cream maker to pamper my cynical brain. To put in it, I picked berries from the local orchard, deep red raspberries, purple blueberries, blackberries, juicy, sweet and slight tangy. I never knew that delicious, additive-free ice creams, sherbets and frozen yogurts are so absurdly easy to make! If I close my eyes and let my mind wander a bit, I can almost see myself waiting for the long-lost ice-cream man, and even my cynical brain is happy once again.
PS: sherbet is a compromise between a sorbet and an ice cream. It’s creamier than a sorbet but less so than an ice cream.

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Recipe:

Ingredients:
Mixed berry: 4 cups (I used: Strawberry and Blackberry one cup each and two cups of raspberry). You can choose any combination. You can make it with one type of berry as well.
Sugar: 1-2 cups depending on how sweet/sour your berries are.
Salt: one pinch
Flavored vodka: 2 tablespoon (optional). I used lemon mint flavored. You can use flavored liqueur too.
Mint leaves: 6-8 depending on the size. If they are big leaves, use 4-5-ish.
Milk: 2 cups (I used whole milk). If you choose to use 2% milk, your sherbet will have more crystals. DO NOT use fat free milk, there is no point wasting the effort.
Lemon juice: 1 table spoon.

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• Blend the berries along with the milk and one cup of sugar to a smooth paste.
• Strain the puree through a sieve and discard the seeds and any solid chunk of the fruit.
• Taste for sweetness. If needed, add more sugar.
• Chop the mint leaves finely.
• Add the salt, the lemon juice, mint leaves and the vodka/liqueur and give it a good stir.
• Chill the mixture in the fridge for at least half n hour.
• Churn it in your ice cream maker according to manufacturer’s instruction (usually 20-25 minutes).
• Freeze it in a shallow freezer box for several hours-overnight. Mine was frozen overnight.

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Peach galette: one of summer’s blessings

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Summer, that lovely time around here when I feel alive and awake. The long days keep me energetic and active. The bright daylight awakens my soul. I plan my days outdoors as much as possible. I try to eat the freshest possible  local fruits and vegetables whenever I can, before I’m  again forced to eat something grown in California which traveled across the country half ripe based on an approximation that it would reach stores in some poor apology of ripeness. I go to farmers markets, sit outside at restaurants and ride my bike with my bike-crazy husband. There is nothing more invigorating than being in the sun.

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Almost every week, I make a trip to the local orchard and pick my own fruit. Its great fun, and the fruits and berries are delicious. I buy my peaches either from there or from the local farm stands. The golden peaches ooze with juiciness and show off their bright orange flesh when in season and perfectly ripe. Both Dr. Sen and I are big fans of cooked peaches (even more than the uncooked ones). Even more so than other fruits, peaches taste doubly delicious when cooked. If you are not in a mood to prepare an elaborate dessert, just smear the pan with butter and roast the peaches with a little bit of brown sugar (or without) until caramelized. Eat them with vanilla ice cream. If you are in a mood to make something little elaborate, make a galette. The rustic galette is pretty idiot-proof. Being an idiot when it comes to baking, it was pretty easy for me. It needs very few ingredients and taste delicious. The best part is, you can tweak it according to your taste. Don’t like peaches? Add blueberries, raspberries, apples, plums or pears. Don’t like saffron? Use vanilla essence instead. Don’t like cream? Just skip it. It’s very versatile and the margin for error is very forgiving.

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Recipe: (Inspired from Kulsum’s post)

Ingredients:

Puff pastry dough: one sheet (store bought, frozen), thawed according to package instruction

Ripe peaches: three medium to large

Brown sugar: two table spoon or more if the peaches aren’t sweet enough

Ricotta cheese: 1/3 cup

Pistachio-almond: soaked and then chopped finely, 1/3 cup (you can use any other nuts)

Saffron: if using good quality saffron, then one tiny pinch (may be three-four strands)

One egg/butter melted 2 tbsp.

Parchment paper

Flour to dust the parchment paper

Milk: 2 tbsp.
Cardamom: 2 pods, shell removed and seeds ground.

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  • Soak the saffron in one-two tablespoon warm milk for 15-20 minutes.
  • Slice the peaches evenly into thin slices and then mix with the sugar. Keep them refrigerated for ½ hour-1 hour.
  • Sprinkle all-purpose flour on the parchment paper and roll out the pastry sheet. Mine fell apart while unfolding and I had to knead it again a bit and then I rolled it out to ¼” thickness.
  • Put the sheet with the parchment paper on a baking sheet.
  • Mix the saffron and the cardamom powder
    with the cream very well.
  • Spread the cheese on the pastry sheet leaving one inch border space.
  • Layer the peaches on the cream in alternate fashion (shown in the picture)
  • Fold the sides leaving most of the peaches uncovered.
  • Keep the entire thing in the fridge for an hour or two (overnight works well too) until chilled.
  • Preheat the oven to 375-400C.
  • Beat the egg or use the butter.
  • Take the galette out of the fridge, sprinkle the nuts on it, brush either a little bit of beaten egg or melted butter on the sheet (the border only) and then bake it for 45-an hour and 15 minutes. The time will vary from oven to oven. You will know it’s done when the pastry sheet will be golden brown in color.
  • I usually take it out after 40 minutes and brush it with egg once more.
  • Let it cool on a wire rack for 10-20 minutes.
  • Serve it with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.

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If you want to eat it by itself, add two tablespoon of sugar in the cheese

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.