Celebrated holi with tilanno/rice and toasted sesame seed pudding made by Maa

DSC_0981Who doesn’t know about holi? It’s the most exciting festival to me. It’s very well known all over the world now. It’s a festival of color and love. It breaks the boundaries of poor and rich, known and unknown, friend and foe. Westerners or anyone who is not familiar with the occasion might get intimidated by the thought of it. But to us Indians, it’s just fun. We don’t get scared by unknown people approaching us with a bucket of colored water. We smear red-blue-yellow-green abir on each other. Faces become psychedelic canvases, to the extent that we cannot recognize people even our next door neighbors.

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This is exactly how we look like.

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Maa at ISKCON ground

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Holi is also the first festival of spring, heralding the advent of the season. In Bengal (where I am from) it’s also known as ‘doljatra’ or ‘basanta utsav’ (literally, spring festival). In my region, the night of the full moon is celebrated by burning dry leaves and woods. It’s called “nera pora” (burning of the bald guy). I have no idea why the name though. The purpose was to burn all the dead and dry leaves and start the spring with fresh and green. A childhood memory that sticks is of roasting potatoes in the fire and then eating them with a sprinkling of salt. It tasted heavenly. All the kids from the neighborhood gathered around the fire, we played, danced and then waited eagerly for the potatoes to be roasted. We used to chant a poem:

“Aaj amader near pora,

Kaal amader dol,

Phete gyalo, phete gyalo

Kaali raamer dhol.

Bawlo hori bole, hori bole,

Bawlo hori bole

Phete gyalo, phete gyalo

Kaali raamer dhol…

Bawlo hori bole”

I am not even going to translate the poem; it makes no sense in English if I do so. The only lines that make sense are “today is near pora and tomorrow is holi”…that’s it.

Holi brings back so many childhood memories. Wearing the clothes which you will not mind throwing away, cleaning and brushing vigorously to remove horrendously toxic colors off our skin all through the afternoon, drinking sidhdhi (a drink made from cannabis leaves) and going to the neighbors house to sprinkle a little bit of aabir (powdered paint) on the elderly people’s feet and asking for their blessings…the list goes on.

This year my parents are with me, so I have something very special to share. It’s called tilanno (til=sesame and anno=rice). It’s basically rice pudding with toasted sesame seeds. It’s very fragrant and delicate. I loved, loved and loved it, so did my friends and my husband (who does not have a sweet tooth but appreciated the delicacy of the flavor).

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Recipe:

Ingredients:

Whole milk: ½ gallon

Atap rice (preferred)/any small grain rice: ½ cup

Sesame seeds: ½ cup (more or less according to your preference)

Cashew nut powder: 2 tbsp

Mewa/khoa kheer/milk powder: 2 tbsp. (optional)

Sugar: to taste (you can mix half n half sugar and gur/jaggery)

A tiny pinch of salt

  • Start boiling the milk. Keep stirring constantly on medium high heat.
  • Wash the rice with several changes of water and soak them for minimum 30 minutes. Drain the water. Let the rice become completely air dry.
  • Grind the rice to a coarse powder (do not make a fine paste, say half broken kind of)
  • Toast the sesame seed to a shade or two darker. You will get the nice toasted sesame aroma.
  • Let it cool down and then pulse it to a coarse powder as well. Do not make a fine powder.
  • Add the rice to the milk and let it get cooked. Add sugar and salt. Stir frequently.
  • Once the whole thing comes to almost the desired consistency, add cashew nut powder and mewa/milk powder/khoa kheer and the ground sesame seed powder. Stir and turn off the heat.
  • Let it cool down and then refrigerate it.
  • Sprinkle some whole toasted sesame seeds on top of it.
  • Serve chilled.

If you add gur/jaggery, add it at the end and then turn off the heat, otherwise the milk might get curdled.

The whole thing will be much thicker after it cools down, so keep it a little more liquidy and it will come to a thicker consistency after it cools down. If you se ethat it became too thick, add a little bit of luke warm milk.

I am sending this recipe to Sukanya of saffronstreaks who is guest hosting for Jagruti.

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Note: The name ‘Holi’ came from the name ‘Holika’ who was a demoness and the sister of the demon ‘Hiranyakashipu’ (a mythical character). You can read the Wiki article here and know more about the festival. Long story short, the festival is the celebration of good over evil (as most Hindu festivals are), symbolized by the dahan or cremation of Holika and the salvation of Prahlad (son of Hiranyakashipu).  Funnily, Holi lost its religious side a long time ago. Everyone plays holi now…doesn’t matter who you are.

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A modern day Holika waiting to be burnt.

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Bhaja mug daal/roasted mung daal and the Bengali wedding

DSC_0857Indian weddings in general are overwhelming. Sometimes fun, sometimes extremely frustrating. The thing which bothers me is the wastefulness of it. Many things are done based on blind observance of ritual without any semblance of rationality. Nobody knows why but still they get done. The Brahmin priest pretty much has the final say in determining the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’. Of course the parents on either side can chime in, but who’s going to risk their own daughter’s or son’s marriage? In a Hindu Bengali wedding, you are supposed to offer rice, vegetables and fruit to fourteen generations of your forefathers. When my dad asked our family priest of how much rice he should buy, the priest said “one kilogram” for each forefather. Are you kidding? Isn’t it outright robbing? Who among my ancestors had that appetite? Of course, the priest takes it all home anyway after the wedding, so my forefathers would have gone hungry anyway.

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Floor painting: Fish is considered to be a sign of fertility and hence the design.

Among other nonsensical things in the wedding process, there is something way funnier than the rest and that is the pointy Bengali groom hat or topor. It’s the most ridiculous thing I have ever seen a human being wearing. No one looks good in it. It’s one size fits all in theory and in reality one size fits none. It’s annoying, period. Thank goodness I wasn’t supposed to wear any such funny thing. That hat should be eliminated from the whole wedding process. I am sure there are people who would love it, but sorry, stay away from me. I severely doubt your fashion sense (I am not a fashion icon but you don’t have to be one to dislike that hat – my husband, the single most unfashionable man I know, hates it even more than me). 

The groom with the funny hat

The groom with the funny hat

BUT, not all things are bad in a Bengali wedding. When it comes to food, we are the best. No argument please. We Bengalis can beat anyone. If you ask me, I love the lunch menu more than the dinner menu…almost always. The dinner kind of gets iffy sometimes. With lachcha paratha (layered flatbread) and Kashmiri dum aloo paired with pathar mangsho and tomato chutney, I get all confused. During lunch it’s all pure Bengali…to be precise it’s delicious. The bhaja muger daal with lomba begun bhaja (moong lentils and fried eggplant), machher jhol (fish curry), chatni, papor (pappadam), mishti doi (sweet yougurt)…pure bliss. I am drooling. The memories are gradually fading but I don’t want them to fade away completely. A staple on the menu of the many biye baari (wedding ceremonies) that I’ve gone to, (believe it or not, including my own), this bhaja moong daal is something which I’ll cherish forever.

Recipe:

Ingredients:

Yellow husked mung daal/mung lentils: ½ cup

Ginger: around 1” piece

Green chilies: 2-3 nos.

Turmeric: ½ tsp.

Sugar: ½ tsp.

Salt to taste

Tadka/phoron/seasoning:

Cumin seeds: ½ tsp.

Bay leaves: 2 small

Whole dry red chilies: 2 nos.

Ghee/oil: ½ tsbp. DSC_0864

  • Roast the lentils in a heavy bottom pan on medium low heat. Stir very frequently. Try not to burn the lentils. It takes a little bit of patience but well worth it. Roast it until the lentils change to a darker shade and release a nice aroma of roasted lentils.
  • Cool and wash with two-three changes of water.
  • Boil 1 ½ cups of water in a pot. Once the water starts boiling, add the washed daal. Bring to a boil and lower the flame to medium. Add turmeric.
  • Take the white foamy stuff off as it starts coming to the top of the boiling daal.
  • You can either chop the ginger fine or grind it to a paste. Add the ginger to the daal when it’s half cooked.
  • Stir the daal either with a wooden lentil stirrer (daaler kNata) or any other spoon. Do not make it a mush. You should be able to see the grain a little bit. I do not like thick mushy daal.
  • Add the green sugar and salt to taste once the daal is completely done.
  • In a separate pan, heat up the ghee (preferred) or any other oil and add the jeera/cumin seeds. Let them sizzle a little bit and then add the bay leaves and red chilies. Let them release the aroma and darken a little bit.
  • Immediately add the seasoning to the boiling daal and cover the pot. Turn off the heat as well.
  • Uncover right before serving and mix the seasoning well with the daal.

DSC_0868Note: You can pressure cook the daal if you want. I don’t because I cannot control the consistency of the lentils. It always ends up being too cooked. It’s my limitation but if you can control it, go ahead and cook it in whichever way is convenient for you.

Adjust the water according to your liking. Some people like it very thick, some light, so it’s up to you. I like it medium thick for mung daal.

Goan pork vindaloo and the spice connection

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Who would have thought that spices can change the whole world? Personally, I never did. But that doesn’t say a whole lot. Spices were very precious and not only used in cooking, but also as medicines. The Spanish and the Potuguese were the first to set out on pioneering voyages to the Indies to find spices at their source rather than as astronomically expensive commodities that oriental traders brought to their countries in small amounts. It’s a different story that Columbus ended up exactly on the opposite side of the globe. All I can say is that he was much better than what I am now, after 521 years and WITH a GPS attached to my car. When my GPS says “head southwest toward such n such street”…I am like “Southwest?” I have no idea which way is Southwest.

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After Columbus came back from America claiming to have found the Indies and got a royal rap on his knuckles from the Spanish throne, it was Vasco Da Gama’s turn to take a shot at it but luckily for him he chose a different route, starting on 8th July 1497 from Lisbon, Portugal and reaching Calicut on 20th May 1498 via the Cape of Good Hope. Calicut back then was the main port for the global spice trade, although the main cargo was black pepper, the so-called “king of spices”. The discovery of India acted as a catalyst for a whole new era of world history. It opened up a route to reach India from Europe. Blood was shed, ships were drowned, seamen died from scurvy but that didn’t stop the Europeans from coming to India.

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After many years, Portugal attacked Goa and took hold of the whole island. Goa remained a Portuguese colony from 1510 to 1987 when it returned to being Indian territory. Needless to say, 500 years of Portuguese rule led to a very different population and culture in Goa compared to the rest of India. Among other things, their food was highly influenced by the Portuguese. The Goanese food item most commonly known (or rather, stereotyped) in the West is vindaloo. You’ll get hundred different varieties of the vindaloo often with tastes so removed from the original that a Goanese might ask which continent the dish came from.

DSC_0745The vindaloo comes from the Portuguese Carne de Vinha d’ Alhos, that is, pork with wine and garlic. As wine was not readily available in India, it was substituted with palm vinegar and Kashmiri chilies. It does not contain tomato. A vindaloo is not supposed to be fiery hot and does not contain aloo (potato), as is commonly assumed. I have tried to stay as close possible to the authentic one. Any recipe can have variations I must stress that just as my husband has no place in my kitchen, tomatoes and potatoes have no place in a vindaloo.

Recipe:

Ingredients:

Pork shoulder: 4 lbs

Onion: One large chopped fine

Kashmiri chilies: around 12-15 nos.

Garlic pods: 3 big fat ones/ 4-6 small ones

Ginger paste: 1 ½ tbsp

Red wine vinegar/regular white vinegar: 1/3 cup

Turmeric: 1 tsp.

Red chili powder (the hot variety)/Cayenne pepper: 1 tbsp.

Salt to taste

Oil: 2 tbsp

To be roasted:

Whole cumin seeds: 2 tsp.

Black peppercorn: 1/2 tbsp.

Cinnamon: 2” piece

Cloves: 4-6 nos.

Fennel seeds: 1 tsp.

Black mustard seeds: 1 tsp

Bay leaves: 2 nos.

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  • Roast the spices under ‘to be roasted’ list in a dry skillet.
  • Soak the Kashmiri chilies in vinegar for 2-4 hours.
  • Grind the chilies with the roasted spices along with the vinegar. You should not need water while grinding, but if needed, add a little bit of water (just enough to help the blender motor).
  • Make a paste with the ginger and garlic.
  • Marinate the meat with the red chili powder-turmeric-chili-spice-ginger-garlic paste for 6 hours-overnight. Mix the meat once or twice while marinating.
  • Heat up the oil and add the onion.
  • Sauté until translucent.
  • Add the meat and cook on medium flame until all the moisture is absorbed and oil starts oozing out.
  • Add enough hot water to cover the meat. Add salt to taste, mix it well and cover the pot with a heavy lid.
  • Turn down the flame to medium low. Cook covered until the meat is cooked and it reaches the desired consistency.

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Cook’s note: If you do not find whole Kashmiri red chilies, add Kashmiri red chili powder or paprika to the vinegar and let it soak for an hour or so. Then mix it with the roasted spices and grind.

Vindaloo is like pickled pork, it tastes better after a day or two in the fridge. Served best with plain white rice.

I buy the pork shoulder with a little bit of fat in them. Otherwise pork gets dry very quickly while cooking. If you buy lean pork, add a little bit more oil.

Try to pat dry the pork pieces a little bit in the beginning to avoid the release of water from the meat while cooking.

You can adjust the chilies or the chili powder according to your preference. Vindaloo as I said should not be very hot. It should be a little bit hot and tangy.

The pork can be substituted with lamb if you do not eat pork.

Ilisher tel jhol/a light flavorful hilsa fish curry to satiate our greed

Ilish maachh….just the name is enough to make me start drooling. Most Bengalis including me, my family, and my neighbors have a Freudian obsession with this fish. Unfortunately, in a few years, this beautiful silvery creature is likely to be found not glistening over crushed ice at your local fishmonger, but in the history books your children will read at school. The reason – greed. Simple, unadulterated human greed. I feel we are becoming both exponentially greedier and less considerate about nature. We want everything, all the time. I’ve heard people say “If I can afford it, why shouldn’t I eat hilsa in November?”. Well, you can now, but not for too long, you idiot.

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Tenualosa ilisha or the beloved ilish, as we call it in Bengali, is a very special fish. It is anadromous, meaning they live their adult life in the sea and come to the fresh water/river to hatch eggs. Once they lay the eggs, they go back to the sea again. The duality of its lifestyle, involving both saltwater and freshwater diets, is what gives hilsa its distinct flavor and taste, which really has no close approximation in other fishes (shut up, those of you about to talk about shad).

Overfishing and even more cruelly, harvesting of juveniles, is killing hilsa populations as I write this article. Can you believe that it’s now very hard to find a mature hilsa weighing more than 1kg in Kolkata? When I came to the US just six years ago, I often saw hilsa which were several kilograms in weight. Now even in the US (where we get the premium specimens, even if they are frozen) it’s hard to find a big enough fish. The taste is not that great either. Due to overfishing and bad water management by governmental authorities in the Ganges and Padma rivers that form their freshwater habitat, hilsa are moving more and more toward the undisturbed waters near Burma. Fishermen are left with little choice and are following the fish to their new homes, so it’s not like the hilsa has had any time to recover. Consequently, hilsa from the Padma are almost extinct (some would say these were the prime ones) and the ones from the Ganges are threatened too.

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Traditionally we were not supposed to eat hilsa before late February or early March (more here). The first hilsa fish was offered to the goddess Saraswati and then eaten to start the season. Now, who cares? Traditions are for idiots and poor people who cannot buy hilsa in winter. Unfortunately, soon it will vanish from the plates of the wealthy too and all we will be left with the memories and the stories of what was once an absolutely fundamental component of Bengali existence.

On the weekend of Saraswati Puja, I wanted to make hilsa curry too. I was so disappointed to see the sizes of the available fish that it forced me to think about the future of hilsa and the nature of human greed and short-sightedness.

DSC_0667Recipe:

Ingredients:

Hilsa fish: 4-6 medium to large pieces/steaks

Eggplant: 10-12 two inch long rectangular pieces

Black mustard seeds: 1 tbsp.

Green chili: 3-5 nos.

Turmeric: 2 tsp.

Mustard oil: 1 tbsp.

Kalojeera/Nigella seeds: 1 tsp.

Salt to taste

  • Soak the mustard seeds in water for 10-15 minutes and then grind to a smooth paste with one green chili.
  • Coat the fish with generous amount of turmeric and salt. Leave them for 15-20 mns.
  • Heat up the oil (leave around 2 tsp of oil)
  • Very lightly fry the fish steaks. If you have access to the fresh fish, leave the frying part. It tastes best if not fried. Keep them aside.
  • Add Nigella seeds and 2 slit green chilies to the same oil.
  • Once you get the nice aroma of the nigella seeds and the green chilies, add 1 cup of water.
  • Bring the water to a boil. Add salt and turmeric powder.
  • After few minutes of boiling, add the fish pieces. Let the fish get ¾ cooked, uncovered.
  • Add the eggplant pieces.
  • Boil the gravy for few more minutes to cook the eggplants.
  • Add the rest of the green chilies and the mustard paste.
  • Bring to a boil and turn off the heat.
  • Add several drops of raw mustard oil before serving.

DSC_0662This is NOT like hilsa fish in mustard paste/shorshe bata diye ilisher jhal. It’s much lighter in consistency and more delicate to taste. Try not to cook the gravy for a long time once you add the mustard paste. It will take the fresh pungent taste away from the mustard. You can omit the eggplant if you don’t like it.

I don’t think any fish can replace the taste of hilsa. BUT, if it’s not available, you can try shad, mackerel or salmon. Salmon being an anadromous fish as well, a very good quality salmon might be the closest alternative.

Best served with steaming white rice (preferably gobindobhog chaal or kalijeera rice).