Kedgeree might be the best way to repurpose your leftovers

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Food and language are, in my opinion, more susceptible to changes than most other things (and India is probably the prime example when it comes to outside influences on both). Central Asian invaders brought with them the culture of kabobs and we added our spices to them. Sometimes we added gravy to the kabobs to suit our palate. The Portuguese brought a whole new collection of vegetables and we made them our own. They are now so ingrained in our cuisine that half of us don’t even realize that they were not native Indian vegetables. The British Raj left its footprint on quite a few things, some we still cherish while others have taken the backseat. Kedgeree is a delicious example from the latter category. While we still spend hours watching cricket, we hardly cook kedgeree, which was a staple in British kitchens.

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Back in the day when refrigeration was almost impossible, leftovers made it to the kitchen the next morning and got converted into something else for breakfast. Every country has recipes to make use of leftovers. The most common way of re-using leftover rice from dinner for Bengalis is to add water to it and let it ferment slightly overnight to make panta bhaat (fermented rice) which is fabulous with deep fried fritters on the side in the hellish heat of a Bengali summer. But the British had a different idea to use either the leftover rice and or fish from last night’s dinner. Kedgeree (which originally got its name from khichdi or khichuri) is far from the rice-and-lentils original  eaten almost all over India. Although Indians prefer their khichdis to be vegetarian, the Bangladeshis spice it up with meat. But the British decided to give it a completely different twist. They omitted the lentils, added fish instead and anglicized the name to kedgeree. I’m not going to take a puritanical stand here – I have happily embraced the British take on khichdi, because it’s delicious.

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During one of our recent long drives, Dr. Sen and I had a long and extremely heated discussion about ‘authenticity.’ Until recently, I was more rigid when it came to food (or anything else under the sky) or cooking anything Bengali or even Indian. I followed recipes so militantly to the point that I brought a grinding stone from India to make my dishes taste as my mother’s. I’m still very proud of my decision. But like many of my viewpoints toward life, this has changed too and that too quite unknowingly. I started experimenting more but am still cautious not to let things go too far from what I knew was “authentic”. Gradually I pushed my boundaries and added this and taken out that, with more confidence. Although I’m still far from being an experimental cook like Dr. Sen, I’m more accepting to changes and variations. My kedgeree is no way authentic and is loosely based on a recipe from Jamie Oliver. Tell you what – since he’s a British chef, that alone probably makes my recipe authentic. There is a little difference, though – unlike the old days, my kedgeree was not made to use the leftovers, it was made to recreate a bit of history. I just love doing things like this.

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Recipe:

Cooked basmati rice: 3 cups (I went with my judgement and might have added a little more or less. You can play around with the quantity. The recipe is very flexible and you can change the proportion of any of the ingredients)

Curry powder (brand may vary): 1-2 tbsp. (will greatly depend on the brand. You’ll need less of it if the powder is strong. Start with less and then add later if you want more flavor)

Onion, finely chopped: 1 cup

Boiled eggs: 5

Chopped green chili: per taste

Ginger, fresh, finely chopped: 1 tbsp.

Cod fillet (or any white-flaky fish): 1lb

Oil: 2-3 tbsp.

Cilantro: 1/2 cup

Lemon: half/one whole, depending on the size and how tart you want your kedgeree to be

Salt to taste

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  1. Start by boiling enough water to cook the rice. When the water has boiled, add salt to it and then add the rice. Add generous amount of salt because the rice will swell and absorb a lot of salt. I usually don’t soak the rice for a long time because they tend to break. You can soak the rice if it works for you.
  2. Once the rice is cooked (but still has a bite), drain the water and spread the rice to let the steam escape. Fluff the rice periodically to avoid overcooking it. I usually cook the rice the day before and refrigerate it to make my life easy while cooking the kedgeree. A day old rice also holds up better and doesn’t break easily while cooking.
  3. Cut the fish fillet into 3-4-inch-long pieces and season with salt and pepper. Keep them aside for several minutes.
  4. In a large enough pot (don’t skimp on the container size because you don’t want to cramp everything there), add the oil and heat it up.
  5. Add the fish and cook it through. Don’t overcook the fish as it will get chewy. Once cooked, remove them from oil and keep them warm (if possible, wrap them in a foil).
  6. Add a little bit more oil to the pot if needed.
  7. Add the chopped onions to the oil and sauté them until translucent on medium-high heat.
  8. Add the curry powder and a little bit of water to avoid burning the spices. Lower the heat as you sauté the spices.
  9. Slice the eggs in four (lengthwise) and keep them aside.
  10. Add the cooked rice to the pot and gently toss and turn to evenly mix the spices with the rice. If you want it to look speckled, don’t mix it thoroughly. Check for salt. Add more if needed.
  11. Roughly break the fish with your hand into smaller pieces and add them to the rice. Add the eggs too. Gently fluff everything without mushing the rice.
  12. Add the finely chopped cilantro and chopped green chilies and sprinkle a generous amount of lemon juice on it. Cover the pot with a lid and very gently shake it to make everything mix evenly.
  13. Before serving, crack some freshly ground black peppers on it.

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Qorma Lawand (braised Afghan chicken), the very best friend for your still-warm naan-e-Afghani

I was sitting teary-eyed in New Delhi Station, waiting for the Rajdhani Express, waiting to say goodbye to my brother and unsure when I would see him again. I was travelling alone and was sitting in the side lower berth, my favorite seat in Indian trains, because I love looking outside through the big side-windows.

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My brother and I few years ago

The rest of my compartment was full with a group of burly Afghan men of varied age. They were talking in a language which I couldn’t understand at all. Most of them were wearing the traditional afghan shirts and pants and all of them were wearing sneakers. They were piling up colorful area rugs and carpets on the floor. I realized that they must be businessmen taking the rugs from Delhi to Calcutta to sell.  Finally the train started rolling and tears streamed down my cheeks faster as well as I was leaving my little brother behind in Delhi. The Afghan men were looking at me…probably with curiosity but I started feeling a little uncomfortable. I had read enough horror stories and watched YouTube videos of men harassing women in Indian trains. To make myself comfortable, I spread the bedsheet on the seat, put the pillow on my back, leaned my back on it and stared outside through the dusty glass window…still missing my brother and crying uncontrollably.

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After a while, a middle-aged Afghan man came to me and said in broken English, “Sister, one of our brothers is in the next coupe, would you exchange your seat with him so he can travel with us?” Instantly, my heart melted for reasons that I still find hard to understand. There was something in his voice or maybe it was just the way he said it. Whatever might be the reason, I just could not refuse him his request. When I started gathering my stuff, the man immediately took everything from my hands very gently and said “sister, you go and sit there, I’ll bring all your stuff to you.” I was embarrassed but again humbled by his hospitality. He took most of my luggage while I walked behind with a couple of small things. He even spread the bed sheet for me and put everything the way it was in my previous seat. Although technically I was the one who had done him a favor, I was left touched by his genuine warmth and gratitude.

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I spent another twelve hours in that train and never once felt slightly threatened. It was something in that man’s behavior that made me feel secure. I even left my purse in my seat when I went to the bathroom, ignoring my mother’s rambling before I boarded the train, “take your valuables with you all the time, don’t talk to strangers and don’t eat anything from a fellow passenger.” A simple gesture can change our attitude so much. Being naturally curious, I was itching to walk up to them and start a conversation, but I failed to do so. As a Bengali, I was always fascinated with kabuliwalas (people from Kabul) and wanted to know about their lives and their food. But I hesitated to talk to them, I don’t know why. Anyhow, before I knew it, the train arrived at Howrah Station, which was the last stop and I lost my chance forever. I still regret my decision now, but my hope is that someday again, while tearing pieces from a freshly baked naan-e Afghani and dipping them in the bright green soupy gravy of qorma lawand, I’ll be able to listen to their stories. For now, I’ll keep my imaginations of Afghanistan going.

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Recipe:

Ingredients

Chicken: close to 3 lbs

Yogurt: ½ cup

Turmeric: ½ tsp.

Cilantro, finely chopped: ½ cup

Bay leaves: 2

Cinnamon: 2 inches, broken into one inch pieces

Cloves: 3-4

Cardamom (green): 2

Green chili: 8-10

Mustard/vegetable oil: 2 tbsp.

Nutmeg powder: ¼ tsp.

Mace powder (optional): ¼ tsp.

White pepper powder: 1 tsp.

Ginger: 2 inch piece ground to a paste (preferably freshly ground)

Garlic: 4 fat cloves ground to a paste (you can grind the ginger and garlic together)

Onion very finely chopped: 1/2 cup

Salt to taste

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  • Wash the chicken pieces well and drain the water.
  • Heat up the oil and add the bay leaves, cinnamons, cardamoms and cloves. Turn the heat to medium and let the whole spices sizzle a little bit.
  • Once the spices leave a nice aroma, add the chopped onion (keep the heat to medium or else the onions will burn and make the gravy bitter). Sauté the onion for five minutes and then add the ginger-garlic paste.
  • Sauté everything for another five minutes or until the raw smell of the spices is almost gone.
  • Add the chicken and turmeric and mix everything well. Keep stirring the whole thing for several more minutes. The meat will release water. You can turn up the heat to medium high to dry out the water a little bit.
  • Either turn the heat very low or remove the container from the heat. Beat the yogurt very well to make it smooth/lump free and add it to the chicken. Mix everything well again and bring the pot back to the burner if you’ve removed it. Or, turn the heat back to medium. This is a very crucial step as high heat can curdle the yogurt and make the gravy grainy/lumpy.
  • Keep stirring the whole thing, coating the meat pieces well with the yogurt and the spice paste. After a few minutes, you’ll see oil oozing out from the sides.
  • Add half cup hot water, salt to taste and 4-6 green chilies, split halfway through (you’ve to alter the number of green chilies according to your taste). Give it one good mix and bring the flame to high.
  • Once the gravy comes to a boil, lower the heat to medium again and cover the pot.
  • Cook it until the chicken is almost done. (I said almost because you might have to adjust the gravy. If the chicken is already cooked and you boil it further, the chicken will fall apart and get messy).
  • If the gravy looks too thin, boil and adjust the amount. If it looks dry, add more hot water and boil it until it reaches the desired consistency.
  • Add the nutmeg+mace+pepper powders, chopped cilantro and few more green chili split halfway through.
  • Boil for another minute or two and let it sit for ten minutes. The chicken will soak more gravy and the flavor will be complete.
  • Serve it preferably with either Indian roti or naan. It doesn’t taste very well with rice; at least I like it more with rotis.
  • Also, I like the gravy to be on the thin side (not watery though) because I like to dip my rotis in it. You can make a thicker gravy if you want.
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The final outcome

Delhi belly (part I) and my quest for Daulat ki chaat

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Delhi or “Dilli” as we lovingly call it, is a melting pot of a city that never fails to amaze me, a place where cultures converge and contrast in a kaleidoscopic way. I’ve been to Delhi many times, from the age of five to thirty five. Every time I went there, I had a different agenda and a different experience.

This time I arrived in Delhi with a single overriding culinary objective: to explore Old Delhi’s street food. Of course, the other big reason was to meet my brother who helped me to stay motivated. With an upset stomach, I was a little hesitant to start right away. Instead, I kept one day to look around, scanning for things I should or should not eat. There is no better place to explore and gorge on street food than the Chandni Chowk area in Old Delhi. For foodies who also love history (like me), this unique collection of alleys is truly no less than paradise on earth.

The things that I decided to try next time.

The things that I decided to try next time.

The first day was spent with my friends and brother; the day next was for myself, well most of it. It was a Monday morning and the whole city was busy saying goodbye to Mr. Obama, my US neighbor who had followed me to India being a big fan of my cooking. But I was determined not to let him slow me down. Armed only with my camera and a hungry stomach, I started my culinary journey for the day. The moment I came out of the Chandni Chowk metro station, I was excited, puzzled and anxious at the same time. Anyone with half a brain would have understood that I was not from the city (or even a resident Indian anymore). But I pretended to be a Hindi-speaking local (which, given my Bengali accent  must have made me look like a fool) and started bargaining for the rickshaw fare. I was successful; at least I think I was. As soon as the rickshaw-wallah agreed to take me to the Jama Masjid area, I hopped on his rickshaw and my eyes started scanning all around me. It was crowded, well extremely crowded and with utter chaos reigning hand-in-hand with supreme organization as they can do only in India. I loved it. It was a chaos I had looked forward to for three long years. I had the luxury to enjoy it because I don’t have to deal with it every day. I don’t have to push through the carts, hawkers, rickshaws or being deafened by the noise, survive a stampede and then go to work.

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With a serpentine motion, the rickshaw-wallah was pedaling through tiny, congested lanes and bi-lanes. And then all of a sudden, I screamed…”roko,roko!” (stop, stop!) and before even he realized what had happened, I jumped off his rickshaw. I had spotted “daulat ki chaat” which I was frantically looking for, being sold by the roadside. I asked him to wait for me and rushed to the chaat-wallah. I was overjoyed and excited. I asked him for one serving, to which he replied “kam mitha ya zyada mitha?” (do I want it to be very sweet or less sweet?) Not being a very sweet toothed person, I said “kam” (less). The vendor very delicately scooped out a few spoons full of foamy cream into a paper bowl, lined with silvery foil, crumbled something (khoya/milk solid mixed with sugar I think) on top of it and stuck a spoon into it.Quickly, using my phone camera, I took a few pictures of him, his cart and the chaat. I was in a hurry as I had kept the rickshaw-wallah waiting on a very busy lane with people honking behind him. Before I ran away, I asked him his name which turned out to be Prabesh Kumar. That’s all I had time to ask. The moment I jumped back in the rickshaw, very apprehensively I took a spoon full of that foam with a little bit of the crumble and put it into my mouth. I was worried –would I be disappointed, let down after this quest which had brought me all the way from Calcutta to Delhi? Well, I should have spared myself the anxiety. It immediately melted in the warmth of my mouth. It was delicate. It was slightly cool, not refrigerated coldness but a naturally cool taste (I know I am not making much sense but you have to experience the chaat to know what I am talking about) and then the occasional bite of the crumble adding the perfect sweetness and crunch. It was literally heaven in my mouth.

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Daulat’ which is literally translated to wealth and ‘chaat’ is a common word to describe a type of savory street food. So, if translated, it is a street food for the wealthy, but it’s not savory, rather delicately sweet. No one knows why is it called that way and where did it originate? I guess it’s called daulat ki chaat because it is made with an expensive ingredient, milk cream, and requires hours preparing it. So, only the wealthy could afford to make it or eat it. May be during the ancient times, the wealthy people had servants who painstakingly stirred the milk all evening to scoop out the cream and then hand churn it all night to make it frothy and airy? Who knows? But if you are in Delhi during winter, please hunt down a vendor and give it a try. My brother, who was on his own food quest a few lanes away from me, tried it and fell in love with it too. I spotted a few more vendors along my way to the Jama Masjid. So daulat ki chaat might not be as elusive as I thought it was.

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While savoring my chaat, I asked my rickshaw-wallah if he had ever tasted daulat ki chaat, but to my surprise, he said no. How can you be in the lanes and bi-lanes everyday pulling rickshaw and not taste the best thing Chandni Chowk can offer? Few months later, Dr. Sen thought about it and his take on it is that the twenty rupees it cost was not a trivial expense to him. But back then, I was on a high and had forgotten that my India and his are probably very different. Forging ahead on my quest food nirvana, I moved on to my next target, which was Ram ladoo (story to be continued in my blog post, so stay tuned).

To read more about Daulat ki Chaat, please read this beautiful article from Eat and Dust. It inspired me to go o that memorable rickshaw ride…..

Of delightful ruins and village temples

A guest post from my husband:

This is Calcutta, my home and yet not so much my home anymore. Everyone around me is genuinely happy to see me back after almost two years. At the same time, everyone has at least five agendas in which I play a role of some sort. One of these, they will share with me; two, they will share with others in my “network”; the final two are secrets that no one will know but them. My own agenda is even worse; it fills a whole clipboard and is full of morally ambiguous but tantalizing items, ranging from the completely harmless to the potentially devastating. Like most things Indian, none of these agendas, mine or of others, exist in isolation. Indeed, they are all not only connected but even intertwined. As you can imagine, the permutations and combinations are a mathematician’s or systems biologist’s paradise.

The thing is, I was always legendarily bad at math. So I have resorted to forcing my own, rather simplistic linear regression frameworks to model a system that even complex quadratic equations would be hard pressed to solve. Whether this will work, I have no clue. I don’t really think it will. But it is the only way I know to deal with things anymore, having been away for over a decade. If you ever had the mistaken impression that “lonely” is a negative word, let me correct you in no uncertain terms. The only way I survive (and indeed enjoy) my immediate surroundings on these kaleidoscopic trips home is by literally treating myself (as in an ice cream treat) to generous helpings of loneliness.

Quoting here a beautiful couplet by Ram Niwas Awasthi, one of the vanished poets of Hindi literature:

bheer mein rehta hoon main viraane ke sahare / jaise koi mandir ho kisi gaon ke kinare

(I can live in this crowd because I have my ruins / like the little temple just beyond the village) 

And so, wherever I go in this maddening crowd, I carry my little portable ruins with me, and like the little temple observing the villagers it knows and loves so well, but from just outside the village itself, I sit in the shade of my cherished ruins and watch the heartwarming charades around me. If this makes you jealous, I do not blame you.

And now, speaking of ruins, a lovely picture of an old house taken on a random road trip (or should I say boat trip) to the Sunderbans. Far past it’s prime, completely beyond repair but still beautiful. Just like my Calcutta.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Recipe: (adapted from Food52)

Ingredients:

Vanilla-Bourbon Ice Cream

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

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

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

Mind a simple chicken curry recipe?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Recipe:

Ingredients:

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

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

Tomato: One small

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

Onion: One cup, finely minced

Turmeric: 1 tsp.

Bay leaves: 2

Sugar: 2 tsp.

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

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

Cinnamon: 2” piece broken into two

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

Cloves: 3

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

Salt to taste

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

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

Narkol kumri/Pumpkin (butternut squash) with coconut

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

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

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

 

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

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Recipe:

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

Ingredients:

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

Mustard oil: 1-11/2 tbsp.

Turmeric: 1/2 tsp.

Whole cumin seeds: 1/2 tsp.

Bay leaves: 2 nos.

Dry Red chilies: 2 nos.

Ghee/clarified butter: 1 tsp.

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

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

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

Bengali garam masala:

Cloves: 2

Cinnamon: 1/2″ piece

Cardamom: one

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

Salt to taste

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

Another version (non-veg):

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

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