Chhanar kofta/Cottage cheese balls in creamy gravy

I suspect that the Portuguese colonizers of Bengal had no idea that their simple curdled milk cheese (the precursor of modern-day chhana) would one day create culinary wonders far beyond their own cuisine. The Bengali’s love for chhana, (often wrongly called cottage cheese in America) is so versatile that we eat it in every possible form. Apart from the gazillion sondesh or desserts made from chhana, Bengalis came up with savory things as well. Chhanar kofta, a curry made with spongy balls of this delicate wonder, is one among the Bengali niramish (vegetarian) favorites.

When I think about chhanar kofta, it especially amazes me because neither chhana, nor koftas is a native Bengali food. Chhana which is a descendant of a Portuguese cheese and kofta which was brought to India by the Mughal or the Persian colonizers are now an integral part of our cuisine. Koftas were traditionally made with meat and are very common in Persian or Middle Eastern cuisine. They are mainly made with minced or ground meat, seasoned with spice and herbs and made into balls. As Bengali widows were strictly forbidden from meat, they created their own highly evolved and richly complex vegetarian cuisine to compensate for their deprivation. Indeed, some of the vegetarian dishes created by these supremely skilled culinary artisans of a bygone era are more than a match for their meaty counterparts. For example, with chhanar kofta, if you have a highly developed palate and can appreciate subtle tastes, it is almost orgasmic when the delicate flavor of the chhana titillates some of your taste buds while the complex spices in the rich gravy are tickling the others.

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That being said, I have committed culinary heresy by creating a version of chhanar kofta with garlic and onions, but I feel compelled to share this with you just because I am a food iconoclast. Bengalis consider onion and garlic as non-vegetarian ingredients and a true vegetarian dish should not include any of these. The recipe I am sharing below is the pure outcome of my mood and whim. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have added the garlic as it imparts a strong taste which kind of steals the subtlety of the delicate koftas. The gravy tasted delicious but somewhere I could feel the garlicky flavor saying hello. Dr. Sen, on the other hand, had no problem with it apart from saying he was glad his grandmother died before eating this, so I think it depends on the person. The recipe below includes the garlic but you are most welcome to omit it (indeed, I encourage you to do this.).

Recipe:

Ingredients:

Milk: 1 gallon

Lemon juice from two large lemons

Potato: 2-4 small/1 medium

Onion: 1 medium

Garlic: 1 clove (optional)

Ginger paste: 2 tbsp

Red chili powder/Cayenne pepper: ½ tbsp

Cumin powder: 2 tsp

Coriander powder: 2 tsp

Cashews: 5-7 nos., soaked in water fro 10-15 minutes and then ground to a fine paste.

Cream: 2 tbsp (optional)

Turmeric: ½ tsp

All purpose flour/maida/cornstarch: 1tbsp

Oil: 2-3 tbsp

Cilantro: A handful

Green chili: 2-3 nos. (optional)

Garam masala (cinnamon-cardamom-cloves powdered together): ½ tsp

Salt to taste

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  • Make the chhana as mentioned here and here.
  • Mix the ginger paste, turmeric, red chili powder together (also the garlic paste if you are using).
  • Boil the potatoes and drain them on a paper towel to get rid of the excess water.
  • Break the cheese lump; add cumin-coriander-red chili powder, salt to taste, finely chopped cilantro, all purpose flower/cornstarch and chopped green chili to it.
  • Add the boiled potatoes as well.
  • Mix the potatoes, chhana and spices together very well.
  • Knead the mixture with your palm very well until the dough becomes very smooth and you can form balls without any cracks in them. Keep them aside.
  • Heat up the oil in a big enough kadai/pot/pan so that you can fry the koftas without overcrowding them.
  • Drop in the koftas and fry them on medium heat until they are golden brown in color. Make sure the oil is not very hot. Drain them on paper towel.
  • In the same oil, add the finely chopped onion and sauté them until translucent.
  • Add the ginger-garlic-red chili powder-turmeric paste.
  • Cook the spice mix for several minutes.
  • Add the cashew paste and cook again until oil oozes out from the sides.
  • Add around a cup of luke-warm water and bring the gravy to a boil.
  • Once it starts boiling, simmer the gravy and let it cook for several more minutes until the gravy riches it’s desired consistency and taste.**
  • Add the cream and boil for 1-2 minutes.
  • Drop in the koftas and some chopped green chilis in the gravy and boil them on medium flame for five minutes.
  • Add garam masala powder and chopped cilantro and cover the pot.
  • Serve it after 5-10 minutes.

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** Do not make the gravy too thick or concentrated, the koftas usually soak up a lot of liquid. I usually put the koftas on the serving plate and then pour the gravy over it and let them soak for 10 minutes and serve. You can keep the gravy and the koftas separate and mix them a little before serving. If you put them together in the fridge, you’ll end up with no gravy and falling apart koftas the next day.

Chirer pithe/Flattened rice dumplings in sugar syrup

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I know I am way too late for Sankranti (last day of the Bengali month Poush and also a harvest festival) but we can never be too late for a delicious pithe (a type of Bengali dessert).  Victim of some unknown inhibition, when I lived with my parents I learned only a small fraction of the many kinds of pithe my Maa makes. Many years later, now I am not afraid of cooking difficult things but pithe remains of those things which are on my to-do list but never materialized. I wish I had learnt them while I was in India, but then hindsight is always golden and I took everything for granted back in those days.

DSC_0404Without going into too much detail, let’s go straight to the recipe. Truly speaking there is as such no detailed recipe. I saw the link for this recipe a long time ago and made it only once. When I wanted to recreate the recipe last week and tried to find the link again, I realized that the web page was gone. Alas! My memories are now as fleeting as they are digital, and I am a slave of silicon wafers and spinning disks that may hold recipes one second and pornography the next! But, I was determined to make pithe even though the only source I had was my memory which is not very reliable. I kind of used my best guess and the outcome has not been too bad. I am not claiming it’s as good as the ones my Maa made, but you know what? I like it… I like the simple and easy way of making it. I didn’t have the time and energy to grind rice and then make the traditional ones, but something is better than nothing. So, if you want to hold onto your traditions but don’t want to spend the entire day making puli-pithe or patishapta, this recipe can be your friend. Try it out next time you crave for something sweet. You don’t need an auspicious day to make it because it’s a modern-day pithe and doesn’t mind if Sankranti was yesterday.

DSC_0384Recipe:

Ingredients:

Cheera/flattened rice: 2 cups, Grated mewa/Khowa kheer/Milk solids: 2 cups+4 tbsp extra for filling, Sugar: 2 cups, Water: 2 cups, Cardamom: 2 pods, Freshly grated coconut: around 1/4 cup, Mewa: ¼ cup, Raisins: 12-14 nos., A pinch of salt, Oil for deep frying.

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  • Wash the flattened rice very briefly and then drain the water.
  • Add the sugar to the water and bring the mixture to a boil in a deep heavy bottom pot. Break the cardamom pods a little bit and add them to the boiling syrup. Boil the mixture until it reduces to a medium-thick consistency. Do not make the syrup very thick; it won’t penetrate the rice balls.
  • Add the grated mewa/khowa/milk solids to the soaked chire/flattened rice and a pinch of salt and mix very well. It should form dough like consistency. If the dough is crumbly or dry, add milk to it (the ratio of chire to mewa is 1:1).
  • Shape them into lemon sized balls.

The filling:

  • Mix around 3-4 tbsp mewa and 3-4 tbsp coconut together to prepare for the filling (If you want, you can cook the coconut and the mewa mixture on low flame, but it’s optional. I didn’t). I didn’t measure the filling amount, so it’s an approximation. You might need a little more or less of coconut or mewa.
  • Put your thumb into the balls and create a small hole.
  • Put a little bit of grated coconut-mewa mixture, one/two raisins and then close the hole.
  • Press the ball with your palm and flatten the ball a little bit (optional).

Frying:

  • Heat up the oil and deep fry the balls on medium high heat until golden brown in color. Be very careful, if the oil is too hot, they will burn from outside and remain uncooked from inside.
  • Drain them on an absorbent paper.
  • Drop them into the sugar syrup and simmer them for 10-15 minutes.
  • Take the sugar syrup container out of the heat and let the balls soak in the syrup for several hours.
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You can omit the filling part completely and it still tastes great. You can put only coconut/mewa/raisin as a filling. I had all of them and that’s the reason I put everything together. 

I told you, it’s easy 🙂

Dalcha/Curried lentils with lamb and it’s origin

I’ve only been to Hyderabad for a very short time but it still amazed me. It’s a very old city with a rich history and a mix of cultures. The city’s two major populations are very contrasting in nature, one being Telegu-speaking Hindus and the other Urdu-speaking Muslims. Although the majority of the people are Hindus, there is still a very significant Muslim population in the ‘old city’, a legacy of the long-standing Muslim dynasty that ruled over the erstwhile Hyderabad state until 1948.

DSC_0282During the medieval times, the Muslim rulers (originally from Samarkand in central Asia) were fascinated by the rich regional cuisine and couldn’t resist incorporating local dishes into their own cuisine. Being voraciously carnivorous, they modified recipes which were originally vegetarian to satiate their meat-loving taste buds. Dalcha, which falls right into this category, is a delicious concoction of meat and lentils cooked together. As the Muslims were familiar with red lentils (masoor daal) and split chickpeas (chana daal), they used these to make their dalcha, but essentially borrowed the recipe of a local delicacy called sambar (pigeon pea lentil soup with vegetables), of course adding meat which would be unthinkable in the original dish.

Another Muslim delicacy that I haven’t had the opportunity to taste is haleem, but people who’ve eaten my dalcha and also had haleem before, say that they taste similar. I am yet to try making haleem, hopefully soon I can convince myself that it’s doable and cook it. Dalcha is very rich and flavorful and eaten mostly with naan or any other Indian flat bread. I have made it both with goat meat/mutton and lamb and both tasted equally good. I have tried modifying it and instead of adding the traditional fried curry leaf tadka (seasoning), I added Bengali garam masala and ghee (Indian clarified butter) at the end. I must say the tadka makes a big difference in the taste. I liked both varities but the curry leaf tadka is the traditional one.

I am sending this recipe to My legume love affair 55 (MLLA55) from Susan’s The well seasoned-cook. I am so glad to announce that I was the proud winner of the last month’s MLLA54. I cannot express how happy I am as this the first award for my baby blog (only four months old).

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I have borrowed the recipe from Madhur Jaffrey’s cookbook and attaching the recipe directly from her book.

Dalcha

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I realized that it might be a little difficult for some people to read it from the scanned page. In that case please see the written recipe below. The procedure might differ a little bit but it’s almost the same. I wrote the way I made it. Both will work.

Dalcha recipe:

Ingredients:

Red lentils/masoor daal: 1 ½ cups

Turmeric powder: ½ tsp

Vegetable oil: 4 tbsp

Cinnamon: 1 ½ inces.

Cardamom: 6 whole

Onion: 1 medium, cut into thin half sized

Lamb shoulder: ½ lb

Tamarind: 2 tbsp tamarind pulp or 3 tbsp lemon juice

Ginger grated: 1tsp

Garlic crushed/finely chopped: 1 tsp

Red chili powder/cayenne pepper: ½-1 tsp

Seasoning:

Ghee (Indian clarified butter)/vegetable oil: 2 tbsp

Whole cumin seeds: ½ tsp.

Dried red chili (whole): 1-2 nos.

Fresh curry leaves: 8-10 nos.

Garlic: 2 cloves, cut into thin slices (I didn’t use it in the seasoning)

 

  • Wash the lentils with several changes of water and then bring to a boil with around 3 cups of water. Add turmeric powder while boiling. Boil until the lentils are tender.
  • While the lentil is boiling, cook the meat. In a separate heavy bottom pot, add the cinnamon and the cardamom. Stir for few seconds until they release a nice aroma.
  • Add the sliced onions and sauté them until light brown.
  • Add the crushed ginger-garlic and the red chili powder/cayenne pepper.
  • Cook the spice mix on medium heat until oil oozes out from the spice.
  • Add the meat and cook it for few more minutes and coat the meat with the spices really well.
  • Add around ¾ cup of luke warm water, cover the pan and let the meat cook on medium flame (slightly covered).
  • Once the lentil is cooked, add salt, tamarind pulp and ½ tsp. of chili powder. Mash the lentils with a wooden stirrer or spoon well to make it smooth.
  • When the meat is tender, add the seasoned lentil and cook for few more minutes.
  • Heat up the ghee/oil (I used ghee), when hot, add the whole cumin seeds.
  • When the cumin seeds darken a bit brown, add the dry red chilis and the curry leaves.
  • After few seconds, add the sliced garlic and let them brown a little bit.
  • Pour the seasoning over the lentil-meat mixture and cover the pan.
  • You can add the seasoning right before serving the dish.

Cosmopolitan Calcutta (part 2) and tomato farci/stuffed tomato:

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For all its faults, Calcutta has a very long history of being cosmopolitan. Long before the modern wave of globalization, Calcutta was a city full of immigrants. As I have mentioned before, Armenians were among the first communities to settle down in the city. Soon after them came the Jews, Chinese, Portuguese and the British. Fascinatingly, the Jewish migration to Calcutta can be pinpointed down to one person, a man named Shalom Cohen who came from Aleppo, Syria in 1799. He brought with him a group of servants including a shohet (a certified kosher butcher). Other Jews who followed Cohen were mainly from Baghdad and the community came to be known as Baghdadis. Some of the Jewish families hired Muslims cooks (many of whom were from the same village in Midnapore, a district in West Bengal, India) who ironically acquired the designation “Jewish cook”.

Mahashas or stuffed vegetables were a favorite among the Jews of Calcutta. Indeed, they stuffed almost any vegetable which can be scooped and stuffed. Tomato farci is a mash up between an Armenian dolma and a Jewish Mahasha. It is found in many Middle Eastern countries and was brought to Calcutta by the Baghdadi Jews. There were many similar ingredients used for cooking between the Bengalis and the Baghdadi Jews. Being a community of gourmands and also somewhat liberal in their tastes, Bengalis didn’t miss the chance to modify some of the Jewish recipes to create something which would suite their own palate.

Tomato farcis were usually stuffed with minced meat, leftover roast or even curried meats. Fish and vegetable stuffing was not common, but not unheard of either. Being a voracious fish eater, I am a fan of the fish-stuffed version. It tastes best if you can spend the time to prepare the filling from fresh fish but the canned tuna stuffing is not too far behind, especially if you buy good quality canned fish.

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On an unrelated note: Apart from many other things which were brought by the Jewish immigrants, the hand-pulled rickshaws still found in Calcutta were originally brought by a Jew named Salah Abraham Baqaal.

Recipe:

Ingredients:

Vine ripened firm tomatoes: 10-12 (the number will vary with size)

Onion: 1medium

Oil: 1-2 tbsp

Canned tuna: 2

Ginger-garlic paste: 1 tbsp

Red chili powder/cayenne powder: 1 tbsp

Coriander-cumin powder: 1 tsp each

Garam masala (green cardamom+cinnamon+cloves powdered together): ½ tsp

Bread crumb (optional): 2 tbsp

Cilantro: 1 handful

Green chilies: 3-4, chopped

Salt to taste

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  • Cut a slice from the top of the tomatoes. Keep them aside.

  • Scoop the inside of the tomatoes.

  • Line a plate with a paper towel and keep the tomatoes upside down to drain the liquid from the tomatoes.

  • Meanwhile heat the oil in a pot.

  • Chop the onion and add it to the hot oil. Saute for few minutes until translucent.

  • Add the ginger-garlic paste, cumin-coriander powder and red chili powder.

  • Cook the spice mix for few minutes.

  • Add the canned tuna and break the fish with the back of the spoon.

  • Mix the spice and the tuna well.

  • Cook it for several minutes until the fishy smell is not too strong.

  • Check for salt. If needed, add salt to taste.

  • Add the chopped green chili, the bread crumb and the chopped cilantro.

  • Mix well and then add the garam masala.

  • Give it a good stir one more time and then cover it for few minutes.

  • Turn the oven on to 350F.

  • Let it cool.

  • Oil the tomatoes on the outside and stuff the tomatoes with the stuffing. Do not over stuff them but do not keep empty space inside. The tomatoes will collapse while baking.

  • Put the top back and stick either a green chili or a toothpick to keep the top in place.

  • Place the tomatoes in a cookie sheet or any oven proof flat tray and bake them for 10-15 minutes.

  • Over baking will make the tomatoes soggy and they will fall apart.

  • You can replace the fish with minced meat of any kind and proceed with the same procedure.

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Split pea lentil soup with turnip/radish (mulo diye motor daal)

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Daal-roti or daal-bhaat (lentils and rice/bread) are to Indians as meat and potatoes are for an American from the Midwest. Every household has a recipe for daal and it can be cooked in several different ways, the basic one being boiling it with turmeric and salt and then adding the tadka/chhownk/baghaar (tempered seasoning) to it. During the early days of the British Raj, when our erstwhile rulers took thousands of Indian people, mostly from South and some from the North and East as cheap labor to their Caribbean colonies, the migrants took whatever they could with them to survive in a foreign land. Being a staple in their native land, lentils were among the first things they packed. However, after their stocks were exhausted, they found that food items from India were very expensive to buy in their new land. Only the rich could afford them. Gradually they started modifying their recipes to cook with whatever was available locally. After several generations of these migrant workers had lived and cooked in their new land, their dishes gradually became foreign cousins of their Indian versions.

Among the lentils, motor daal (split pea lentils) were widely available in both Africa and the Caribbean. You will find many recipes there which are very similar to Indian daal. In Trinidad, Guyana, Malaysia and Burma, motor daal is cooked in a similar manner to sambar in India. In Malaysia yellow split pea sambar is made with vegetables and then enriched with ground nuts. In Burma the same daal is  given a different twist with  tomatoes and okra. In South Africa they add yogurt and butter to it but tastes like a rich sambar which is again made from yellow split peas.

Motor daal/yellow split peas

Motor daal/yellow split peas

Motor daal is not very common in Bengali cuisine. It is cooked less often than moong daal (yellow lentil) or musur daal (red lentil). When it was cooked at all, it often had seasonal vegetables added (as I’ve described before, Indian cuisine used to be very seasonally oriented and you added things according to what was growing in its natural season). The recipe is my mother’s and was mainly made in winter, when  crisp white mulo (radish) and dhonepata (cilantro) are at their best. Eaten quite simply with rice and a pickle, it tastes just divine .

Recipe:

Motor daal: 1 cup

Mulo/radish or turnip:1/1/2 cup cubed

Jeera/cumin seeds: 1 tsp

Bay leaf: 2 nos.

Dhonepata/cilantro: a handful

Turmeric: ½ tsp

Green chili: 2-3 nos.

Dry red chili: 2 nos.

Salt to taste

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  • Wash the daal with several changes of water and then boil with enough water with the turmeric.
  • Chop the turnip or the radish into ¾” sized cubes and cook it in the microwave for 8-10 minutes and then drain the water.
  • Add the radishes to daal when the daal is ¾ done.
  • Add the green chilies as well.
  • Add salt to taste. Boil until the daal is cooked. Check the salt and adjust it accordingly.
  • The daal should not be a mush or retain the structure completely. It should be sort of half and half. Half broken you can say.
  • Heat up the oil and add the cumin seeds to it. Once they darken a little bit, add the bay leaves and the dried red chilies.
  • Once all of them darken, add the seasoning to the daal and immediately cover the pot to retain the flavor.
  • Add freshly chopped cilantro before you serve (it’s a must).

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PS: You can add a pinch of sugar if you want. I don’t but some people like a hint of sweetness in their daal.

Last time when I went to the Asian supermarket, I saw something very strange. It looked like turnip but not the usual turnip I am used to. I brought it home and ate a slice of it to get the taste. It’s tasted very mulo-like and added it to the daal. Traditionally it is made with the regular radish. The only difference I found that the turnip I bought was less stinky than the mulo which might be a bonus for many people.

Turnip

Turnip

You can eat it with either roti (Indian flat bread) or rice. I had it with sun dried tomato focaccia and it tasted wonderful.

Marvelous mackerel

Mackarel_1I can’t talk enough about the Bengali’s love of fish. Fish is more than a food item for them…it’s more like a philosophy. You can even take Rabindranath Tagore out of some Bengalis, but not fish (forgive me for saying this). I don’t blame them. What do you do when you have innumerable rivers running all over your state and then the Bay of Bengal as your southern border? You end up being a fish eating-fish dreaming-fish talking community. A weakness for large carp even led the Bengali Brahmins to trade their place in the rigid Puranic hierarchy of Hinduism for the right to eat fish.

Fish is such an important part of our life that it has became integrated into culture in ways totally separate from food. I was reading The Calcutta Kitchen by Udit Sorkhel and Simon Parks, where they list the many piscine axioms that have become commonplace in the Bengali language. For example, a person with a darker personality or nature would be called “gobhir jawler mach” or “deepwater fish”, and someone who is being very diplomatic would be called “dhori mach na chhui pani” or “can catch the fish without touching the water”. The newly married bride upon her first arrival at her in-laws house will face the  challenge of trying to grip a live a lyata  fish (Channa punctatus). As this fish is very slimy and slippery, the idiom is that if you succeed in capturing it, you will be able to run the household with a stable hand. I could go on, but you get the sense; Bengalis have an intimate relationship with fish. We came up with a zillion way to cook and eat them, but when it comes to the most favorite ones, it’s always mustard and fish cooked together.Anyone who is familiar with Bengal will know that the Bengali’s’ love for mustard is as strong as it is for fish and rice.

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Here’s a very simple recipe, the outcome  of which is disproportionately mouthwatering. It also makes a very quick weekday dinner. For very severely homesick Bengali, this may even be a poor man’s version of shorshe ilish. Although mackerel is less oily and tasty  than a good mature hilsa, the flesh is buttery and white and it’s a fine fish in it’s own right.

Recipe:

Mackerel steak: 5-6 pcs.

Brown mustard: 1 tbsp.

Poppy seeds (white): 1-2 tsp.

Green chili: 4-6 nos. (depending on how hot you want)

Mustard oil: 1 tbsp.

Turmeric powder: ¼ tsp.

Salt to taste

  • Clean the fish well, drain and keep it aside. Use a microwave safe bowl with a lid.
  • Soak the mustard and the poppy seeds in lukewarm water for 15-20 minutes.
  • Grind the mustard and the poppy seeds with 2-3 green chillies to a smooth paste.
  • Add turmeric and salt to the paste and mix well.
  • Add the paste to the fish, add the mustard oil and coat the fish really well.
  • Throw in some slit green chili and cover the dish with a lid.
  • Microwave for 4 minutes, remove the lid and turn the fish pieces.
  • Microwave for 2-3 more minutes or until the fish is cooked through.

Do not add a lot of turmeric powder. It takes 7-8 minutes to cook the fish. If you add a lot of turmeric, it will give you a raw turmeric smell.

If your mustard paste is very thick in consistency, add a table spoon or so water to it, otherwise the fish will end up very dry.

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The recipe and the idea of cooking Mackerel in this way was shared by my dear friend Madhu.