Vegetable chop-ped, the Bengali way or may be Bhejittebil chop

DSC_0315I almost forgot about the glorious Bengali evening snacking ritual of chop-muri (deep-fried croquettes and puffed rice) until my parents came to the US last month. My evening snack is pretty much limited to the yogurt-fruits-fruits-yogurt routine. In West Bengal, my home state in India, it was a completely different story, at least when I lived there. I would love to believe that this is still true, so the rapid change in snacking style from chop-muri at the local choper dokan (roadside tea stall) to falafel at the latest Western-style coffee shop is very upsetting for me. I know societies change and I should accept it, but it still upsets me. In my heart of hearts, I still hope that for many years to come, as the sun sets on my native Chandernagore, chop-muri finds its way into many home and the saucepan sits on the stove ready for the daily ritual of watching horrendously trashy, ill-produced and overdramatized Bengali serials before dinner.

The chop in West Bengal can come in a hundred different flavors, a few of which will be sold by every roadside choper dokan (chop shop).). There is a specific way of eating chop muri…you take a handful of muri, throw it in upwards into your mouth from a distance, bite into a green chili and then eat a small portion of your chop. Then, with your cheeks swollen with all of these, you start chewing with a vengeance. At first you can barely move your mouth. Then quickly the airy puffed rice vanishes and you are ready for your second portion. It’s not as gross as it sounds, but it’s not a dainty affair either.

The vendor sells the chops in a thonga (packets made out of old newspaper) and by the time they reach home, the packets have a typical oil-soaked look. The oil (actually dalda or vegetable shortening, pure saturated fat in case you were wondering) used to fry the chops is at least a couple of days old and almost black but still the chops came out super tasty. You can try cutting down on the carbs and fats some other time…but not while eating chop muri.

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My favorite chopper dokan food was singara (Bengali samosas) and then a few others tied closely for second. These were machher chop, bhejitebil chop and deemer chop (chop made with fish, vegetables and eggs, respectively). Although samosas have gained a prominent spot in Western culture, other chops didn’t quite make it. I really wish they did. Vegetable chops are best in winter when beets (or beet root, as Bengalis call it), carrots and peas are in season. Peanuts are mixed in to add a little bit of bite to the vegetables. This chop is supposed to be slightly sweet in taste with a crispy shell outside. Below is my mother’s vegetable chop recipe which is pretty close to the one from the roadside shops. Muri and green chillies can be found in your local Indian store.

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Recipe:

Here I am again with my Maa’s recipe and without any measurement. If I ask Maa for proportion, she will say “Oshab janina…chhobi tobi tolar dorkar nei…khaa toh” (I don’t know all these, you don’t need to take a picture, just eat it). So, no table spoon or tea spoon here…just eye ball it. J All she could say is, she used 2 large beet roots, two smallish potato and four small carrots. Peas are optional.

Ingredients:

Vegetables: Beet root, carrots and potato.

Spices: Roasted and ground together: Cumin, coriander, red chili, cinnamon, cardamom and cloves.

To make a paste or grated: Ginger

Turmeric powder

Salt

Green chilies

Raw peanuts

Cilantro (optional)

To fry:

Bread crumbs

Cornstarch

Baking powder

Oil for deep frying

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  • Peel and boil the vegetables. Do not over-boil them…they will be super mushy.
  • Drain and let them cool. Mash them together and try to make a smooth dough sort of thing.
  • Add everything above ‘to fry’ list. Mix well. My mother cooks the mixture on the stove top for a while just to make sure there is no extra moisture left (but this is optional).
  • Form balls or any other shape you like.
  • Make a batter with the cornstarch. Add a pinch of baking powder to it.
  • Dip the vegetable balls into it, coat nicely and roll them over the breadcrumbs.
  • Finish making all the balls.
  • Start heating up enough oil to deep fry the balls. You can start the oil while making the balls.
  • Deep fry them. Do not over crowd the pan while frying.
  • Once they are medium-darkish brown color, take them out and drain them on absorbent paper.
  • Enjoy them with puffed rice/mamra or Muri or just itself.DSC_0317

Please let me know if you do not understand anything in the recipe. Again, the whole thing happened on my absence, so no first hand knowledge. If you need any other information, I’ll try to get it from my Mother.

 

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Plantain/knachkolar kofta made by Maa

No, I am not going to give you another lecture on the origin of koftas and how we adapted it. You already know it. Some years ago I used to live with a roommate who was a vegetarian. I wasn’t though, but I didn’t want to go through the trouble of making fish only for myself and also bothering my non-fish eating roommate. As I love vegetarian food, I used to cook mostly vegetables. One day I made knachkolar/plantain kofta curry. I tried it for the first time in my life. I didn’t go gaga over it, but for some reason my roommate really liked it. Plantain not being one of my favorite vegetables, it got wiped out from my memory after a while. Never made it again as I never craved for it.

DSC_0918A couple of months ago when I visited her, she said she still remembers my koftas. I was truly surprised. I would never have guessed. I totally forgot the recipe and even the taste of it. All I remember is that it didn’t taste excellent. But I promised her that I’ll make it and post it on my blog.

Couple of weeks ago when my Maa came to visit us, the first thing I asked her to make was knachkolar kofta. I know I do not have the patience to go through the entire process and I was guilty of postponing the whole thing for a long time. The whole cooking happened in my absence, so I do not have any first hand experience of how to cook it her way. Maa just told me the recipe and I am writing it. Trust me, Maa’s koftas tasted really good. I mean real real good. She made it very differently than I would have thought. As with any other koftas, they tasted way better after a day or two. We had it the day they were made and they were still a little hard inside. We had it again after a couple of days and they had absorbed all the goodness from the gravy and tasted awesome.

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It was a weekday and I didn’t have time to photograph this dish extensively. I’ll update this post if Maa makes it again and will surely post more photos.

As I said, I wasn’t at home when it was cooked, so cannot give you any proportion. Go with your instinct and experience.

Recipe:

Ingredients: 

To make the koftas:

Plantain: Try to get the Indian variety; if you cannot find them, use the American ones. Actually Maa made it with the American plantains and she said they were very hard.

Cumin-coriander powder

Crushed black pepper

Raisins a handful

Chopped green chili

A little bit of ginger paste

Oil

Salt (not too much as the koftas will be absorbing the salt from the gravy as well)

Little bit of garam masala (cardamom-cinnamon-cloves powdered together)

For the gravy:

Whole cardamom, cinnamon and cloves

Bay leaves

Whole dry red chili

Cashews

Poppy seeds

Garam masala powder

Turmeric

Cumin-coriander-red chili powder

Ginger paste

Green chili

Salt to taste

Oil

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Soak the cashews and the poppy seeds in the water for 10-15 minutes and then grind them to a paste.

Making the koftas:

  • Cut the plantains into one inch pieces and boil them until soft.
  • Drain the water and peel the skin (you can reserve the skin to make khosha bata, my Maa made it and it was very tasty)
  • Mash the plantains with the back of a spoon until very smooth. If your plantain is not very sticky, you can add boiled potato too.
  • Add all the spices (except raisins) and mix them with the mashed pulp. It should form a dough like consistency.
  • Form small balls and put 2 raisins inside them. Close the balls again or reshape them.
  • Once all the balls are made, deep/shallow fry them. Make sure you keep an eye on the heat/flame. The koftas might get burnt if the heat is too high. Roll them gently while frying for even browning or cooking.
  • Drain them on a paper towel/absorbent paper/cloth.

Making the gravy:

  • Heat up the oil and add the whole cardamom, cinnamon and cloves.
  • Once they sizzle, add the bay leaves and the whole dry red chilies. Let them release the aroma.
  • Mix the cumin-coriander-red chili-turmeric powder with the ginger paste and add it to the oil. Cook it until oil separates.
  • Add the cashew-poppy seed paste and sauté them again for few minutes. You can replace the cashew poppy seed paste with melon seed paste. Or add cashew paste but not poppy seeds. It’s upto you.
  • Once the spice paste looks well cooked, add warm water and few slit green chilies and bring it to a boil.
  • Lower the heat to a medium high and let the gravy get cooked.
  • Once the gravy is done and reaches it’s desired consistency, add the garam masala powder and cover the pot.
  • Arrange the koftas on a tray and pour the gravy over it. Let the koftas soak the gravy for several hours before you serve.

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An ode to the Hindu widows with mulo chnechki/stir fried grated radish

DSC_0704You can probably do anything in the name of religion. The Hindu religion is no exception and among others Hindu widows especially became the victims of religious discrimination. They were not allowed to attend any auspicious event even in their own family They had to fast several times of the year and even when they could eat, it was only vegetarian food and that to with absurd restrictions on high-protein lentils. For the rest of their lives, the only clothing allowed to them was a piece of white cotton fabric. Having incurred the intangible but very real stigma of daring to outlive their husbands, it became their inescapable societal and religious responsibility to attain purity through sacrifice and deprivation. Contemporary social reformers have suggested that the actual purpose of these dietary prohibitions was to shorten the lifespan of these unfortunate women through chronic malnutrition. Of course, a convenient early death meant that her husband’s property had one less claimant. The unbelievably cruel aspect of the whole business is that often it would be her own sons and daughters-in-law waiting like vultures for her death. One really does get amazed at how cruel human beings can be.

With time, things changed little bit. After becoming widows, my thakuma and didima (paternal and maternal grandmother, respectively) both ate non-vegetarian food but still wore white cotton saaris. They neither had to fast on every ambubachi (the three day period in the Bengali month Ashar that, according to the almanac, marks the beginning of the rainy season) nor were they forbidden from eating masoor daal (red lentils). Despite this relative liberalization, overall they still lived a simple life and resisted every temptation to transgress the puritanical rules of socially imposed purity.

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Within the confines of their wretched existence, Hindu widows nevertheless found ways to keep going. As we all know, necessity is the mother of invention. Having faced centuries of dietary restrictions and being denied all animal (and some plant) proteins, these resourceful ladies responded by creating a mouthwatering array of vegetarian dishes which continue to be cherished as delicacies today. So, the common misconception in some parts of India that fish-loving Bengalis are unappreciative of vegetarian cuisine is completely wrong. On the contrary, the culinary legacy of many generations of unfortunate widows persists in our many Bengali vegetarian delicacies that have outlived the unfortunate historical circumstances of their creation.  Of course, not being free from inane societal strictures, we have cynically adapted many of these dishes to add non-vegetarian ingredients. For example, the same dish that widows of yore would have cooked with bori (sundried lentil) is now often cooked with shrimp or fish heads.

Mulo chhnechki (dry stir-fried grated radish) is one such dish where you can add either shrimp or fried and crushed bori according to your liking. Its best eaten in winter, when radishes are in season and taste sweet and crunchy.

Recipe:

Ingredients:

Radishes: three 10-12” pieces (the white long variety)

Coconut: ½ cup grated

Cumin seeds: 1 tsp.

Cumin powder: 2 tsp.

Whole red dry chili: 2nos.

Bay leaves (preferably the Indian kind): 2 nos.

Turmeric powder: ½ tsp.

Red chili powder: 1 tsp.

Ginger paste: 1 tsbp.

Oil (mustard or any other oil): 2 tbsp. (or oil 1 tbsp+ghee 1tbsp.)

Lentils drops/bori: 8-10 (optional)

Cilantro: a handful

Garam masala (cinnamon+cardamom+cloves ground): ½ tsp.

Sugar: 1 small pinch

Green chili pepper: 3-4 nos. (depending on your tolerance)

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  • Grate the mulo/radish very fine. I grate it in a food processor.
  • Sprinkle salt (around a tsp.) and let it sit for 15-20 mns.
  • Heat up the oil and fry the bori to a light brown color. Take them out and drain them on a paper towel.
  • Temper the oil with the whole cumin seeds. Let them sizzle a little bit.
  • Add the bay leaves and the dry red chili. Sauté for few seconds until turn a shade darker.
  • Mix the ginger-red chili-cumin powder.
  • Add the grated coconut to the oil and sauté it as well. You can smell sautéed coconut.
  • Add the ginger-red chili-cumin powder paste and sauté until oil oozes out.
  • Squeeze all the water out of the radish and add them to the spice paste. Sprinkle the turmeric powder, mix well and stir frequently to incorporate all the spices for several more minutes. Keep it on medium flame.
  • Cover the pot and let the radish get cooked.
  • Remove the cover and stir for few more minutes. Taste a little bit and check it tastes cooked.
  • Add a pinch of sugar, garam masala powder, ghee, chopped green chili and cilantro and cover the pot for 5 minutes.
  • Crush the boris over it just before serving. 

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Variation:  instead of boris, you can add shrimp to the dish as well. Marinate small shrimps with turmeric and salt for few minutes. Shallow fry them and keep them aside. Add the shrimps when the radish is almost cooked and let the flavors mix with each other. You can skip both and it still taste good.