Arooq/Minced chicken fritters from the Bohra communtiy

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Every so often I learn about a “new” community in the melting pot that is India. My newest fascination is with the Bohra Muslims. The Bohra community is something of an outlier, not fitting any of the standard uneducated Indian’s stereotypes of Muslims being underprivileged, poor, sexist and uneducated. I’ll elaborate on other aspects that make them unique further into the article. At least at first sight, they appear to be liberal and progressive compared to many other Muslim sects. Significantly, in the face of widespread resentment against “regular” Muslims, they have managed to maintain an amicable relationship with the Hindu majority in Gujarat. From wearing colorful rida rather than the austere black burkha to educating their kids in secular institutions, the Bohras of India have subtly but firmly managed to keep themselves separate from other Muslim sects.

The Bohra community also has a unique ancestry, being a sub-sect of Ismaili Shias who emigrated from Yemen. The Muslim communities in Gujarat have different origins, histories, dialects, cultures and even religious beliefs. Some came for trade; some accompanied invading armies, some sought employment. Even others, like the Bohra Muslims came to India fleeing religious persecution in their native land for their acceptance of At-Tayyeb Abul-Qasim as Imam instead of his uncle Al-Hafiz. Supporters of Tayyeb came to be known as Tayyibi Ismailis. Later, Tayyibi Muslims came to be known as Bohras which is believed to originate from the Gujarati word for ‘trader’.

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The original Ismailis Bohras went through several splits forming smaller sub-groups. The Dawoodi Bohras are the largest of these, composed of those who supported Dawood Burhanuddin ibn Qutb Shah during a power struggle in the sixteenth century. They are a tightly knit community and are governed solely by their Dai, who is the absolute supreme leader of the community. Indeed, each and every action from a marriage to owning a business is subject to his personal permission. Bohras believe that this strict enforcement keeps them united, helps them to live a ‘pure Bohra life’ and helps the community to thrive even under the threatened circumstances of being a minority Muslim community in a predominantly Hindu nation.

Anyway, like some other minority communities in India (such as the Jews, Persians, African and Armenians), Bohras too have an invisible fence drawn around them. They have acquired some intermixed cultural traits, yet retain their strong community structure. There cuisine is very unique with Persian, Middle Eastern and Guajarati influences. Although there is no restriction on its consumption, beef is not a popular meat; instead they prefer chicken and lamb. Arooq is a specialty of the Dawoodi Bohras. These can be eaten as a snack with a cilantro and mint chutney/ketchup/hot n sour tomato sauce or with plain rice and daal. Or they can be tucked into a roti with some greens (just like the traditional falafel wraps).

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Arooq recipe (adapted from Madhur Jaffrey)

Ingredients:

Minced/ground chicken breast, boneless: 1 lb.

Turmeric: 1/8 tsp.

Red chili powder/cayenne powder: ¼ tsp (add more if you like)

Hot green chili/habanero: ½ tsp. (again, if you like more, feel free to add it)

Black pepper, freshly ground:

All purpose flour: 2 tbsp.

Eggs: 2 beaten

Ginger: one inch sized, very finely minced.

Cilantro: as per your taste (finely chopped)

Scallion/green onion: 2 sprigs, finely chopped (only the green part)

Salt to taste

Vegetable oil for deep frying

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  • Add everything together except the oil and the eggs. Mix well.
  • Add the eggs and mix again.
  • Refrigerate the mix covered for at least an hour (more will not hurt).
  • Take it out of the refrigerator and let it come to room temperature.
  • Heat up the oil in a deep bottom wok/kadai.
  • Bring the heat to medium and add around 1 tbsp. of the mixture to the oil. Add more and let them get cooked and turn into golden brown in color.
  • Keep stirring while they are sizzling in the oil for even cooking and browning.
  • Rain them on an absorbent paper and serve immediately.

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Mug-mushurer daal/Mixed lentil soup with butternut squash

DSC_0293In between sessions of intense research, my nerdy husband often takes a break (from the experiments, not from the nerdiness) and Googles random stuff. Some of these things are so random that he comes up with results even more inconclusive than his scientific data. For example, he knew the words Sagina Mahato but had no clue about what they might mean (it’s a Bengali movie made in the 70s). Then he realized that he knows the word khagina but again had no clue about it. Isn’t it random? He will always say “Google is your friend” or sometimes if I ask him something and he is not in a mood to answer, he’ll say “GIYF”, which infuriates me. Anyway, from “sagina” his neurotic brain went to “khagina”, which he Googled and for a change came up with something beautiful, which was a recipe for anda/egg-bhurji aka khagina on Shayma Saadat’s blog spicespoon.com. He liked the recipe (and was blown away by the looks of the blogger) and sent the link to me.

DSC_0299It was love at first sight. I loved her blog and after reading couple of her stories and recipes, I loved it even more. A very funny thing happened when I saw the khagina recipe on her blog. A few months ago I had almost nothing at home to eat, only leftover daal in the fridge. Usually I fry an egg to eat with the daal, but this time I made a bhurji instead, and threw in a few random things to mix with the egg. To my surprise, it was almost the exact same recipe written on her blog. How could it be possible? I didn’t even know the name khagina, never Googled it and nor had I seen the egg-bhurji recipe on the internet. I am very surprised and have no clue how to explain it. Maybe it’s a true coincidence. The day I made the bhurji, my husband liked it very much and found it very unusual. I never made it again and had no plan to make it in near future. It was a makeshift recipe for no-food-in-the-fridge days. I didn’t anticipate that my husband’s random Google searches would link me to back to my haphazardly constructed anda-bhurji in this strange way. Life is full of surprises.

DSC_0311I was browsing around trying to find something easy and quick to try from her blog. Finally I found this daal and decided to try it. I love daal and try to cook it every possible way. I liked the recipe soon after I read it. I liked the story behind it even more. It’s beautiful and I can literally visualize the story. If you read the recipe, please read the story….it will make the daal taste even better.

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Recipe: (adapted from Shayma Saadat of Spicespoon and my mother’s recipe)

I have used both cumin and Bengali five spice as seasoning and both of them taste equally good. So, feel free to use any of them.

Ingredients:

Mushur daal/masoor daal//red lentils: ½ cup

Mug daal/yellow lentils: ½ cup

Onion:  2 tbsp. finely chopped

Turmeric: ½ tsp.

Garlic: 2 cloves

Tomato: One medium, ripe and juicy, finely chopped

Cilantro: a handful, finely chopped

Jeera/whole cumin seeds/panchphoron/Bengali five spice: 11/2 tsp.

Butternut squash/pumpkin: 8-10 nos. cut into ¾-1 inch cubes (optional)

Green chilis: 2-3 nos., slit length wise (optional)

Dried red chilies: 2 nos.

Mustard or any other oil: 1 tbsp.

Salt to taste

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  • Wash the lentils with several changes of water and then drain.
  • Start boiling enough water to cook the lentils in a deep bottom pot.
  • Once the water starts boiling, add the lentils. Let the whole thing come to a boil again.
  • Turn the heat to medium.
  • While boiling the daal, spoon off any scum arising on the top of the lentils.
  • Add turmeric and let the lentils get almost cooked.
  • Mix the lentils with a whisk until they form a uniform consistency.
  • Add the chopped tomatoes. Let the tomatoes get cooked.
  • Add the butternut squash (if using) and boil for several more minutes until the squash is completely cooked and the soup reaches its desired consistency. Add water if the soup looks too thick by now. Add the green chillies too.
  • Add salt and mix well.
  • In a separate pan, heat up the oil. Once hot, turn the heat to low and add the garlic. Let the garlic infuse the oil.
  • Turn the heat to medium and then add the jeera/cumin/Bengali five spice next and let them sizzle a bit.
  • Follow with the dried chilies and let it go one shade darker.
  • Add the chopped onion and sauté it for few minutes. Once you get a nice aroma of all the sautéed spices, add the whole thing to the boiling daal.
  • Quickly cover the pot and turn the heat to low. Let it be like this for 5-10 more minutes.
  • Add lots of chopped cilantro and serve with plain rice.
  • Definitely sprinkle a generous amount of lemon juice while eating.
  • Goes well with a side salad.

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The paradise and its cuisine: Marzwangan korma/Lamb with Kashmiri red chillies

DSC_0147Like an emerald pendant on a pearl-studded necklace, the green valley of Kashmir is surrounded by the snow-covered mighty Himalayas. Apart from its breathtakingly pretty landscapes, Kashmir has many other remarkable attractions such as friendly people, excellent pashmina shawls, the world’s best saffron and a mouthwateringly unique cuisine. Unfortunately, except for Kashmiri dum aloo (stuffed potatoes coked in gravy) or rogan josh (meat cooked with aromatic spices), the treasures of Kashmiri cuisine are largely unknown in the rest of India – I have no clue why though.

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Maybe through a combination of its topographical detachment (a valley surrounded on all sides by very high mountains) and demography (two different religions with contrasting food habits), the Valley of Kashmir developed its own and very distinctive cuisine. Hindu Kashmiris are primarily Brahmins (the priestly class, also known as Kashmiri Pandits) and do not eat onions and garlic (as these tamasic ingredients are supposed to awaken the baser emotions of lust, anger and passion). Although meat and fish is abhorred by Brahmins in most parts of India (in keeping with the age-old tradition of vegetarianism in Hinduism), Kashmiri (and Bengali Brahmins) found their way to keep meat and fish as part of their diet.

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However, unlike the other chicken-loving non-vegetarians of North India, Kashmiri Pandits prefer lamb as their primary meat source (beef of course is strictly prohibited). Two distinct styles of cooking meat have evolved in Kashmir, one being a richly colored red gravy flavored with fennel and Kashmiri chilies (among other spices) while the other is yakhni, a thin, lightly spiced, whitish yogurt-based gravy. Contrary to the Muslim cooking style where onions and garlic are used in abundance, Kashmiri Pandits use hing/asafetida as a substitute for adding that extra layer of flavor to their non-vegetarian dishes that cannot come from the meat alone. Indeed, this constitutes the hallmark difference between the cuisines of Hindu and Muslim Kashmir.

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Marzwangan korma is a dish which is cooked with very few ingredients, but all of them are very aromatic. My husband says it smells like a subtle perfume (in a good way, unlike some foods which smell overpoweringly of rosewater or cinnamon). The moment you start cooking this dish, the kitchen will fill with a complex and enticing mix of smells. This is one of my favorite meat recipes as it doesn’t require any long marinades or grinding of ginger and garlic. Don’t be fooled by the fiery red color, it’s not half as spicy as it looks. The beautiful color comes from the bright red Kashmiri chili powder. Like the part of our planet that it comes from, it may appear violent but it is actually quite peace-loving 😉

Recipe: (Adapted from Madhur Jaffrey)

Find a similar Bengali meat curry here.

Ingredients:

Bone in lamb/goat meat, cut into 11/2 inch cubes: 3 lbs.

Red chili/Cayenne powder: ½-1 tsp.

Kashmiri chili powder/paprika: 1-3 tbsp.

Asafetida: 1/3 tsp. (optional)

Ground fennel seeds: 1 tsp.

Turmeric powder: ½ tsp.

Tamarind: one small walnut sized ball

Ground ginger/ginger powder: ½ tsp.

Vegetable/mustard oil: 4-5 tbsp.

Cinnamon sticks (preferably the Indian variety): 11/2 inches

Cardamom pods (green): 3 whole

Cloves: 3-4 nos.

Salt to taste

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  • Soak the tamarind ball in warm water for 15-20 minutes. Longer won’t hurt.
  • Heat up half the oil and once hot, add the cinnamons, cardamoms and the cloves.
  • Once you get the nice aroma, add the meat pieces. Sauté the meat pieces well (until few  brown spots appear)
  • Add three cups warm water to the meat and bring it to a boil.
  • Cover the pot and let the meat cook on medium heat.
  • Once the meat is 2/3 cooked, strain the meat and reserve the stock.
  • In a small bowl mix the red chili powder, Kashmiri chili powder, turmeric, ginger powder and fennel powder with a little bit of water to make a smooth paste.
  • Heat up rest of the oil on medium heat and add the asafetida.
  • Few seconds later add the spice paste to the oil as well.
  • Squeeze the tamarind ball to make a paste. Discard any pulp or seed. Add the tamarind paste to the spice paste.
  • Sauté the spice mix until oil starts leaving the pan.
  • Add the meat and mix everything very well.  .
  • Cook for another five minutes or so and then add the stock to the meat.
  • Bring to a boil and cook it until the meat is completely cooked and the gravy reaches its desired consistency.
  • Serve with plain rice and with a simple green vegetable.

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Bidding a fond goodbye to Calcutta’s Jewish community with Shakshuka

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Ezra Street, Zachariah Street, the Beth El synagogue and the Maghen David synagogue are all evidence of a once-glorious but quickly fading community – the Calcutta Jews. It’s like sitting next to the river and waiting for the sun to set. The only difference is that with a real sunset, the sun will rise again the next day. Once a thriving community of several thousand, I read yesterday that the community now numbers less than thirty. The founder was Shalom Cohen in 1798 and among the more recent members was David Nahoum, whose passing in 2013 removes what for many of us was the only direct contact with a member of this proud community. For generations of Calcuttans, David (or his brother Norman before him) were familiar sights behind the counter at Nahoum’s Bakery, that ancient temple dedicate to the gods of pastries, fudge and patties. Just as a martini is not a martini until it has an olive in it, no New Market shopping trip was complete unless it included a stop at Nahoum’s. It’s almost as if his passing is emblematic of the impending erasure of the formerly thriving Jewish community in Calcutta.

DSC_0102With less than ten adult male members remaining, the minyan quorum required for Jewish religious rituals is no longer possible, and the synagogues are effectively obsolete already (although see here for a happy exception). The Maghen David (Star of David) synagogue is guarded by a Muslim (who got his job from his father), Nahoum’s bakery is maintained by faithful Bengali employees and the Jewish Girls School has no Jewish students (indeed, most of them are Muslims). Although it sounds like a perfect harmony of religions, in reality the story is a little different – this is simply a void left by the Jewish community being filled by local inhabitants, and religion is completely secondary.

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I always wondered what made a community once so glorious shrivel and die out so rapidly. Like most mass emigrations, it was probably a combination of multiple factors, in addition to the obvious attraction Indian Jews must have felt when the State of Israel was founded in 1948. During the British period in Indian history, Jews were successful merchants dealing in ivory, indigo, jewels and opium. After WWII, the British Empire in India was almost on the verge of losing control and India was getting close to its independence. During partition, the Hindu-Muslim riots didn’t affect the Jews much because they didn’t belong to any side – but that seclusion also kept them from being recognized as our own too. In fact, the Jewish community in Calcutta never assimilated with the native Bengalis and whether by design or circumstance, remained always in the ‘grey zone’, socially and culturally neither British nor native Indian. While there was never any anti-Semitism in India, it does seem like the Jews maintained their own invisible fence. Perhaps the native Indians were also responsible in some way – unfortunately I have no one to ask and there is limited research material available on the Internet. Anyhow, absent the lack of any lasting roots in India beyond trade and commerce, and unsure how they would be treated after India’s independence, soon after 1948 thousands of Calcutta Jews emigrated to Israel and a few other countries.

DSC_0114Anyway, like a good perfume, the bottle may be empty but the fragrance lingers for a long time afterwards. The Jews of Calcutta will live for ages to come through their foods like cheese samosas, aloo makhallah, matzoh bread, tomato farci, and Nahoum’s famous fruit cake. Speaking of Jewish food, shakshouka is a popular breakfast served in Israel (although it is not common in Calcutta). It can be eaten at lunch or an early dinner as well. It is a true one-skillet meal, best eaten with soft flat bread like pita. An unusual example of culinary peace in a troubled part of the planet, it is widely enjoyed in Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia (where its roots lie) and Morocco as well as in Israel. All the ingredients are kosher and it can be eaten during Passover.

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Do not forget the giveaway. It’s still on (until January 30th).

Recipe:

Ingredients:

Tomatoes (vine ripened if possible): 2 large, finely chopped

Red onion: One small finely chopped

One red or green bell pepper (I usually use red) finely chopped

Green chili/halapeno: 1 finely chopped

Garlic: 2 big cloves

Cumin powder: ½ tsp.

Coriander powder (optional): ½ tsp.

Turmeric powder: 1/3 tsp.

Red chili powder/cayenne powder: 1 tsp. (more or less if you prefer)

Cilantro: handful, finely chopped (if you want, you can use parsley instead)

Eggs: 4 nos.

Salt to taste

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  • Heat a heavy skillet on medium-high flame.
  • Add 1 tbsp. oil and let it get hot as well.
  • Add the garlic and let it sizzle. Do not let them turn dark brown.
  • Add the chopped onions and sauté them for few minutes. You don’t have to brown them.
  • Add the bell peppers and sauté again for a minute or two.
  • Add the tomatoes and the dry spices (cumin, coriander, chili powder, salt and turmeric).
  • Sauté the whole mixture for several minutes to get rid of the raw tomato taste. Do not make the mixture dry. It should be very wet and a gravy like consistency.
  • Break the eggs and drop in there one by one.
  • Cover the pan with a lid and let it cook on medium flame for few minutes. It will depend on personal preference. I like my yolks runny; my husband likes them a little set. What I do is, I drop one/two eggs a little earlier than mine and that helps to keep our choices.
  • Once done, sprinkle the chopped cilantro and green chilies and a little salt if needed.
  • Serve them hot with flat breads.
  • Traditionally it is eaten from the pot where it has been cooked but we serve it to individual plates.

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