Harissa/Tunisian hot sauce

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There is a fancy French bakery chain close to where we live. I like to go there once in a while to taste their freshly baked baguettes and soups. On one side of the restaurant, they sell overpriced, fancy, organic, locally grown/made sauces, condiments, pasta and books. While waiting in line, I often look at the wall and glance through the bottles and jars. One day my eyes spotted a very different looking bottle with a fiery red, very un-French looking substance inside labeled harissa. I was very surprised to see that they were selling something so obviously not French in origin. I came home and asked my husband and to my surprise he was clueless too.

Knowing my curiosity for food, exotic spices and their history, I knew it would bug me for a while if I could not find a reason for harissa to be sold in a French store. When I came back home, I promptly googled and found the answer.

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Tunisia is the smallest country of the Maghreb region, with Algeria on one side and Libya on the other. It has a vast coastline on the Mediterranean Sea. Being a very fertile country and its convenient geographical location (only 100 miles from Italy by sea), Tunisia attracted many invaders in the past. Among many others, there were Italians, the Arabs, Spaniards, the Turks and lastly the French. Being a demographical melting pot, Tunisians eat a variety of foods which might surprise you if you do not know the history or the country’s background. You might end up eating French baguettes for breakfast, fresh pasta and spaghetti for lunch and Turkish pastry for dessert. The French invaded Tunisia in 1881 and ruled it until 1956 under the Treaty of Bardo. Although France didn’t confiscate any land or displace the monarch, and preserved the preexisting government structure, the French resident general remained the supreme authority.

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Usually when one country invades another, there is an exchange of culture in both directions. As the Tunisians acquired a taste for French cuisine, the French in turn grew fond of some of the Tunisian delicacies (which explains why I saw that bottle of harissa in the French bakery). The composition of harissa, which is a hot pepper sauce, can widely vary from region to region and country to country. Tunisia is the largest exporter of this bright red, fiery paste. Hot red peppers were originally native to South America but gained extreme popularity and spread like wildfire after the Spanish and the Portuguese invaded them and introduced them to Europe. Soon after, peppers crossed the Mediterranean Sea and travelled from Europe to northwest Africa, where they got blended and mixed with the native spices and beautiful concoctions were made.

Harissa, which can be quite hot even for my Indian tastes, has a very unique flavor palate that lends itself to a thousand uses. Spread it on a sandwich, drop a couple teaspoons in your soup or stew, mix it with mayonnaise or hummus to add a little edge to them or rub it on meat before grilling. Once you taste it, it may soon end up being you go-to hot sauce.

I cannot vouch that my recipe is as authentic as it can get, but at least I have used nothing but the basic spices to keep it simple and close to the original taste.

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Recipe:

Ingredients:

Dried Guajillo chilies: 4 nos.

Kashmiri chilies: 4 nos.

Dried Red hot chilies: 8 nos.

Caraway seeds: 1 tsp.

Cumin seeds: ½ tsp.

Coriander seeds: ½ tsp.

Lemon juice: one tablespoon or less (will depend on you)

Salt: ½ tsp.

Sugar: ½ tsp.

Olive oil: 1-2 tbsp.+ more to top off the paste while storing.

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  • Toast the dry chilies on a dry skillet for few minutes (optional). Break them into few pieces.
  • Soak them in enough hot water to cover all the chilies.
  • Dry roast the caraway, cumin and coriander seeds. Cool and then grind them to a fine powder.
  • Drain the chilies and discard all the seeds.
  • Put them in a spice grinder with the olive and blend them to a fine paste.
  • Add all other ingredients and blend them again.
  • Put the paste in a completely dry glass/non-reactive jar and top it off with olive oil. Every time you use it, replace the olive oil. The oil will keep the paste stay fresh longer.

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PS: You can use any chilies you have in the pantry and play with the ratio. The guajillo chilies give the sauce a nice smoky flavor, the Kashmiri chilies I used gave it a nice color and the heat came from the hot chilies. You can use any hot and smoky chilies you have or can buy.

You can also add a little bit of chopped cilantro or lemon zest to it. I haven’t but I think next time I surely will.

Adjust the seasoning according to your taste. It might need a little bit of tweaking.

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Daliar khichuri/Cracked wheat and lentil porridge and the 1959 food movement

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Duniyata bhai ajab karkhana

Kei ba khaye khiri khechiri, kahar pete uda kana

[What a crazy theatre this world is! Some enjoy delicious food while others starve wrapping a wet rag around the belly (to minimize the pain of hunger): http://www.mcrg.ac.in/PP25.pdf]

My mother was around five years old then but she still clearly remembers those times like yesterday. From her earliest childhood, she loved eating khichuri. Even now, she is a big fan of this humble but nutritious and delicious dish. Knowing the extreme financial hardship both my parents faced as children, whenever I hear their childhood stories I am doubly grateful for how easy my life has been compared to theirs. As part of the many stories I heard growing up, my Maa often talked about a famine when she was a kid. However, as far as my knowledge went, there was no ‘real’ famine during the 1950s in West Bengal. The closest one was in 1943, caused by a devastating combination of crop failures in 1942, war-induced shortages and the heartless refusal of Winston Churchill to allow the US and Canada to ship humanitarian wheat supplies to the starving masses of undivided Bengal. After some research, I realized that the famine my mother referred to was most likely a rice crisis artificially created by rice mill owners and food hoarders, members of the rural upper class who formed the backbone of the Bengal Congress party then in power at the state level. DSC_0646 As she remembers it, there was a langarkhana/free kitchen in her neighborhood which distributed dahliar khichuri (a cracked wheat and lentil dish) and milor ruti/breads made from milo flour. Rice prices reached a level that put this staple right out of the common man’s budget, although rampant black marketeering ensured that the rich still ate well.  With her own eyes, she saw people sneaking into the neighborhood at night to sell rice illegally. People used to come up with innovative ways to sell rice in the black market. They made long narrow tubes made of fabric and then filled them with rice, wrapped them around their bodies and then put on regular clothes to transport the rice to the black market. While the richer racketeers probably gorged themselves in the midst of widespread starvation deaths, their street agents were often caught and beaten badly by the police. DSC_0658 Needless to say, the artificial crisis didn’t affect the rich people. They could afford to buy rice but the middle and working classes suffered the most. A shortage of rice and devastating hunger (to my simple mother, the same as famine) spread like a cancer throughout rural Bengal. My mother was a little girl at the time, probably unable to grasp the true extent of the suffering around her. While her own family made just enough money to avoid the demon of starvation, their neighbors in the lower-middle class neighborhood of refugees from East Bengal were saved only by the free communal kitchens. Coming back to the beginning of my story, she used to wait eagerly with her tiny bowl for her neighbor aunt to come back from the langarkhana and give her a small share of daaliar khichuri. She loved it so much, fifty years later she still remembers the taste of it like yesterday. DSC_0598 Hunger, that most primal of animal sensations, ultimately drew hundreds of thousands to a mass demonstration on the Calcutta maidan, shaking the very roots of the post-colonial establishment in West Bengal. Eighty people were killed by the police that day, even more shocking because not a single shot was fired. The protest was organized under the aegis of the ‘Committee to Combat Famine’, primarily an initiative of the undivided Communist Party of India, so different from the pitiful farce that is communism in modern India. That day’s protest was the herald of the 1959 food movement was a turning point in the history of class struggle of West Bengal. Recipe: Ingredients: Cracked wheat/Dalia: 1 cup Masoor daal/red lentil, mung daal/yellow lentils and motor daal/split pea lentils: ½ cup each Ginger: two inch piece Cumin powder: 1-2 tsp. Red chili powder/cayenne (optional): ½ tsp. Turmeric: 1 tsp. or a little less Whole cumin seeds: one tsp. Bay leaves: 1 nos. Whole dried red chili: 2 nos. Mustard/any oil: one tbsp. Ripe tomato: one, medium Water: 6 cups Salt to taste (I start with four teas spoon) Sugar: one tsp. Garam masala (grind equal quantities of clove, cardamom and cinnamon to a fine powder): 2 tsp. Clarified butter/ghee (optional): per taste DSC_0592 Optional vegetables (You may or may not add the vegetables. There are no hard and fast rules. Vegetables make the khichuri more delicious and healthy, but if you don’t have them handy, leave them out): Cauliflower: few medium florets Green beans: 8-10 no. cut into one inch long pieces Carrot: 2 medium Peas: ½ cup Potato: one/two medium Bell pepper: One (any color, I like the red one) If you have squash, zucchini or broccoli handy, add them as well. More vegetables will not hurt, only make the porridge taste better and more wholesome. DSC_0604

  • Toast the dalia and the mung daals separately until you get a nutty aroma. Keep the flame low medium and stir frequently.
  • Once cooled, mix all the lentils and the wheat and wash them with several changes of water. Drain the water.
  • Grate the ginger finely and mix the red chili, turmeric and cumin powder together to make a paste.
  • Heat up the oil in a pressure cooker or in a deep heavy bottom pot.
  • Add the whole cumin seeds, bay leaves and dried whole red chilies. Let them turn a shade darker. You will smell the aroma of the spices.
  • Add the spice paste and sauté them for few minutes.
  • Add the chopped tomato and mix it well with the spices. Cook the spice paste for few more minutes.
  • Add all the vegetables except peas. Mix them well with spices. Cook them for a minute or two.
  • Add the wheat and lentils and again give it a good mix. Cook it for few more minutes.
  • Meanwhile heat up the water.
  • Once the entire thing is nicely coated and the raw taste of the spice paste is gone, add the water, salt and sugar. Mix them well. Add the peas.
  • If you are using a pressure cooker, put on the lid, bring the flame to medium and wait for one whistle. Turn off the heat and let the pressure release normally.
  • If using a heavy pot or slow cooker, cover and let it cook for another 20-25 minutes. Check in between to make sure it’s not sticking to the pot. I have never cooked it in a regular pot/slow cooker. You might have to adjust the time.
  • Check the consistency and seasoning. You might need a little bit warm water to loosen the porridge. Add the garam masala powder and the ghee, mix and cover it for five more minutes.
  • Serve with pakoras, papad or Indian pickles. You can eat it by itself as it is delicious by itself.
  • The vegetables will end up broken into a mush, that’s fine. They will add flavor to the porridge.

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Murgh malai tikka kabab and the origin of kababs

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Historically in the Middle East, lamb has been the meat of choice. Evidence shows that it has been consumed since 3000 BC. Indeed, in many ancient literatures of the Middle East, “meat” meant lamb – when other animals were consumed they were specifically named. The most prized meat came from fat-tailed sheep and was the preserve of the rich and wealthy. About the only others could enjoy this luxury were the nomadic pastors, who fried their meat in the delicately flavored tail fat (or less desirably, just in any lamb fat). Such nomads may have been the inventors of some forms of the shallow-fried kabob (for my American friends: these do exist) , as the word kabab in Arabic itself means “to fry” or “to burn” which is almost equivalent to the modern-day technique of either grilling the meat on open flame or shallow frying them.

When talking about kabab, it is impossible not to think of Turkey. Istanbul, the capital of Turkey might also be the capital of kababs. Constantinople, as Istanbul was known before modern times, was a city of the Byzantine Empire and was conquered by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II in 1453. During the 15th and 16th centuries, the Ottoman Empire was among the largest in the world. Founded by Turkish tribes in Anatolia, it reached its peak during the ruling of Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-66), when its influence was felt from Southeastern Europe to the Middle East. During this imperial expansion, the Ottoman army was treated ruthlessly and was forced to live in camp for months at a stretch. One theory holds that the soldiers hunted local animals as a way of adding to their diet and grilled their meat on open flame using their swords as skewers, giving birth to the modern-day concept of skewered kababs.

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Although India was not a part of the Ottoman Empire, we inherited the kabab culture probably from the Afghan invaders of north India in the 13th and 14th centuries. In India, the specialized cooks for kababs are called kababiyas. There are numerous kinds of kababs starting from lightly seasoned to heavy on spice, from chunks of chewy meat grilled to seared perfection to melt-in-the-mouth galauti kababs made with meat paste for a toothless old nawab. Indian kababs have a very distinct taste compared to their Middle Eastern or Central Asian cousins as they are infused with spices native to India and are made following specialized recipes perfected in the royal kitchens of the Mughal Empire by legendary families of kababiyas.

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Murgh malai tikka kabab is one such kabab which is an Indian kabab with a very distinct taste. Murgh is chicken and malai is cream. The name can be interpreted in two different ways, one being that the chicken cubes are marinated with cream along with other ingredients; alternatively, that the kabab itself is soft and creamy when eaten immediately after cooking. I have adapted the recipe from here and made slight changes. These kababs are best eaten by themselves with a dash of chat masala (or black salt and lemon juice) and an onion- cucumber salad on the side. You can also tuck them in pita bread and make a wrap, or just eat them with any green salad too.

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Recipe:

Ingredients:

Chicken breast: 1 lb.

Cardamom powder: 1 pinch

Grated sharp cheddar cheese: 2-3 tbsp.

Cilantro: loosely a handful copped

Corn flour:  1 tbsp.

Sour cream: 2 tbsp.

Ginger garlic paste: 1 tsp.

Green chilies: 1-2 nos.

Meat tenderizer or raw papaya paste: 1/4 – tsp. (if you do not have ready-made meat tenderizer, use papaya paste as mentioned or mash up half (or even less) a kiwi and add it to the meat. Just  like the papain in papaya, actinidin in kiwi acts as a natural enzyme and breaks down the meat tendons/fibers. Do not tempt to use more of any of the meat tenderizer, it will make your meat a mush and the kababs will not hold its shape)

Oil: 1 tbsp.

Black/white pepper powder: 1 pinch

Salt: to taste

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  • Cut the chicken breast into bite sized pieces and wash them well. Drain them and then pat them very well to get rid of excess moisture.
  • Grind the green chilies and cilantro together with little to no water.
  • Marinate the chicken with all the ingredients and keep it in the fridge overnight.
  • Take them out of the fridge well ahead of their cooking and let them come to room temperature.
  • Set the oven to broil or the highest possible setting in your oven. If you can fire a charcoal grill, nothing like it.
  • Put the meat in the skewers leaving a little bit of space in between. (If you are using wooden skewers, soak them in water for half-n-hour to an hour. Take them out of the water and let them dry out before putting the meat in. Otherwise the skewers will burn. If using metal skewers, brush oil on the skewers before putting the meat in).
  • Brush oil over the meat and arrange the skewers on a cooling rack or a baking tray.
  • Place the rack/tray around six inches below the hot wire or six inches above if using a charcoal fire. (I place the skewers on a perforated sheet/cooling rack to allow the marinade to drip)
  • Grill the meat for approximately 8-10 minutes each side (I go 8 minutes on one side and then 5-6 minutes the other). The cooking time will greatly vary depending on the size of the meat cubes, oven setting and quality of the meat. So, keep an eye on them, do NOT overcook them. They will become dry.
  • Serve them immediately.

If you are using organic free range chicken, you can skip the meat tenderizer or papaya paste.

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Hooked on Haleem (or maybe Khichda)?

DSC_0349Almost around the time when the sun is preparing to call it a day, fires will be lit up and gigantic aluminum cauldrons will be placed on the flame. It’s an all-male business on the sidewalks of Park Circus, Calcutta during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Soon, the cauldrons will be filled with soaked wheat and three to four different kinds of lentils, to be cooked together for hours. Men of different ages with their sleeves rolled up will be seen for the next several hours engaging in variety of cooking acts that resemble workouts, from stirring the pots with huge ladles as tall as themselves to cutting up mountains of meat into bite-sized pieces. Every time I passed by those simmering cauldrons, my nostrils were filled with mixed aroma of meat, aromatic spices and lentils. In separate cauldrons, at least ten different spices could be seen being thrown in to cook a korma which would later that evening be mixed with the simmering wheat and lentil stew and then simmered overnight to prepare the final product called haleem.

DSC_0450Although Hyderabad is the most famous place for its haleem, Calcutta haleem has its own fan followers too (including my husband who traveled all over the city hunting down the best vendors). Different versions of haleem are eaten in Pakistan, the Middle East and in Bangladesh. The Bohras of Gujarat call it khichda, which although very similar version to haleem is less spicy. Another haleem derivative is harees, a meat-and-wheat stew cooked with aromatic spices eaten in Middle eastern countries. The Arabic word halem/halim means gentle, forbearing, patient and slow to anger. I have never seen a food named so correctly. It requires lots and lots of patience to cook. You cannot even pound the meat like an angry person; you have to be slow and patient. 

DSC_0321Haleem was traditionally eaten during the month of Ramadan (ninth month of Islamic calendar when Muslims meticulously fast from sunrise to sunset), but now you can buy it all winter long in many of the Muslim restaurants In Calcutta. It is believed that during the rule of the Nizams in Hyderabad, it was mainly a food for royals and their nobles. But over the centuries, haleem became a food for everybody and a symbol of sharing and community togetherness during the time of hardship and sacrifice. In hindsight, this trend towards culinary egalitarianism is not surprising, as even ordinary families could afford to buy the small amount of meat needed to cook haleem, compared to the extravagance of, say for example, sikandari raan.

HaleemAs this was the first time I made haleem, I took the traditional approach of mashing the wheat and lentil mixture with a ‘daal ghotni’(wooden stirrer) but if you have a hand blender, go right ahead and use it. But remember, preparing haleem needs time and patience (although the results are well worth the effort). It can be eaten both as a main meal or as breakfast; an added bonus is that it freezes very well.

Recipe:

Ingredients:

Goat meat or mutton: 1 lb/500grms. cut into bite sized pieces (with bones)

Haleem wheat (sold in the Indian/Pakistani groceries): ¾ cup

¼ cup each of mung (yellow lentils), masoor (orange/red lentils), chana (split Bengal gram lentil) and urad (split black gram lentil) daal.

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Tomato: One medium, chopped

Onion: one medium, finely chopped

Ginger: 2 inch piece, grated

Garlic: 3 big clove, mashed

Or,

Ginger-garlic paste: 2 tbsp.

Red chili powder: one tbsp.. or more if you like your haleem to be spicy

Green chilies: 3-5 nos.

Turmeric: 3 tsp.

Oil: 2 tbsp.

Garam masala: 2 tsp.

Cumin powder: 1 tbsp.

Coriander powder: 1 tbsp.

Cumin seeds: ½ tbsp..

Clarified butter or ghee: 2 tbsp.

Water: 8 cups (more or less depending on the consistency you want)

Salt to taste

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To garnish:

Handful of cilantro finely chopped

Green chilies: few, finely chopped

Roasted cumin and coriander powder: few tbsp.

Beresta/fried onions: around a cup

Lemon wedges: one per person minimum

·         Wash the haleem wheat and soak them the previous night in ample water.

·         Soak the daal separately in enough water for 3-4 hours the next day.

·         Put a big stock pot on the stove top and fill it with around 4 cups of water. Cover it with a lid and let it come to a boil.

·         Add the haleem wheat (drain them before) and let it come to a boil again. Once it comes to a boil, put the flame on medium, add one teaspoon of turmeric and let the wheat get cooked.

·         Put a separate container with another 4 cups of water and let it come to a boil. Once boiling, add all the daal (drain them before adding). Let it come to a boil again. Once it comes to a boil, add one teaspoon of turmeric and put the flame on medium and let the daals get cooked.

OR,

·         Put the wheat and the daals with two tea spoons of turmeric and 6-8 cups of water in a pressure cooker and cook for two whistles. Let the pressure release naturally.

 

·         Heat up oil in a separate deep bottom kadai or wok. Once hot, add the onions and sauté them until translucent. Do not brown the onions.

·         Add the meat to the kadai and keep stirring them to get rid of the moisture in the meat.

·         Add the ginger-garlic, green chili, red chili powder, one teaspoon of turmeric and tomato and keep cooking. The entire thing will come together and the spice will coat the meat very well. Keep cooking until oil leaves the spice paste.

·         Add salt, garam masala and cumin coriander powder. Cook for 5-10 more minutes and then add around a cup of boiling water to the meat. If you know that your meat releases a lot of water, add ½ cup water.

·         Transfer the meat to a pressure cooker and cook it to one whistle. Let the steam come off naturally.

·         Open the lid and taste for seasoning and see if the meat is properly cooked or not.

·         Take the meats out of the gravy and let them cool down so that you can handle it. Pull the meat out of the bones and separate the muscles/threads with your fingers.

·         Discard the bones and put the meat back to the gravy.

·         If you do not have a pressure cooker, you can use the same pot and cook it covered until the meat is cooked. It will take longer.

·         Keep stirring the daals and the wheat with the wooden stirrer or a regular ladle. Keep mashing the daals. It will reach a creamy thick consistency.

·         Once the daal and the meat is ready, mix everything together. Let it cool down a little bit so that it’s safe to handle  and then with a hand held blender (or any blender you have), blend everything in small batches.

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Tadka (optional):

·         Once everything is nicely mixed and comes to a consistency you want, turn the heat to low and let it cook for 5-10 more minutes.

·         Heat up the ghee in a separate pot/pan and add the whole cumin seeds. Let it come to a shade darker and then add the ghee and the cumin seeds on the haleem and cover immediately with a lid. Let the spices infuse the haleem for few more minutes.

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Serving suggestion:

The haleem tastes incomplete without the garnish, so please don’t skip them.

While serving, add a little bit of the garnishing ingredients on the top of the haleem except the lemon. Sprinkle a generous amount of lemon and eat. Or, you can put the haleem with the garnishing ingredients on the side. People can add it according to their taste.

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 Beresta or fried onions:

  • Slice a red onion very finely in semi circles.
  • Heat up enough oil in a deep bottom pot to deep fry the onions.
  • Once the oil is hot, put the flame to medium high. Do not keep it smoking hot, the onions will burn immediately.
  • Separate the rings and put a small batch on onion in the hot oil.
  • Stir continuously and cook it until they are brown. Do not wait until they are deep brown. The onions will reach a shade darker after you pull them out of the oil.
  • Put them on an absorbent paper to soak the excess oil.
  • Fry the whole onion like this.
  • The fried onion stays well in an airtight container for several days to weeks.
  • If you are feeling lazy to fry them, buy them pre-fried or just add raw onions.