‘Shil katao….shil katao’…….it was not so rare when I was a kid. It literally meant ‘have your grinding stone chiseled’. A man used to carry a small fabric or leather bag on his shoulder and go from one neighborhood to another saying the same thing again and again. In the bag, there used to be two simple things, his instruments to chisel the stones. The moment he got a call from my Maa, he will come and sit down on the floor to start the process. As a kid, I was fascinated to see him carving the stone with his skilled hands. It was a unique sound when the metal chisel used to strike the stone. You have to be really careful while carving because a little bit more pressure can break the stone. Within a few minutes, the shil nora (grinding stone) was beautifully carved with a pattern. The most common was a fish pattern on the top of the flat stone and then followed by some other random pattern. It was a basic and must have equipment in a Bengali household even not too long ago.
Everyday my Maa used to grind her spices on that grinding stone (she still does). She used a small piece of a palm tree bark as a scraper to scrape off the spice paste from the shil. Whenever she ground her spices and move the nora/mortar back and forth on the shil/flat stone, her bangles hit one another and made a distinct sound. After one spice was ground to a paste, she will take a little bit of water and wipe the shil to follow with her next spice. You have to know the order in which the spices are ground. For example, you start with the bland/subtle spices first and then follow by the more pungent ones. If you have to grind anything bitter, it should be the last.
With the rapid urbanization and people with their crazy busy schedule, the shil nora is rapidly getting replaced by mixer-grinder-blender and what not. I cannot ‘convince’ anybody that a shorshe or posto bata (ground mustard or poppy seed) is best done with a shil nora unless you have the taste buds to realize it by yourself. The second time I went to India, I brought a mini shil nora for my US kitchen. I use it more often than any other kitchen gadget. It is not a difficult task for me. For some reason I have learned how to grind spice in a shil nora from an early age. I cannot recall how I learnt it but am very glad that I did. It is a prized possession in a land where everything is premade and ground and packed in a jar. Some people might be thinking that I am such a crazy woman and some will understand. I know it was a crazy decision but it helped me to recreate many dishes my Maa used to make. I cannot imagine grinding mustard or poppy in a mixer grinder….to me it’s never the same. I am not that skilled to bring the exact same taste when I try it with a modern gadget. I have tried but failed.
I am sharing an Oriya recipe (from the state of Orissa, India) recipe with the stone ground mustard seed paste. I have modified the recipe to my liking, so it’s not an authentic Chingudi Besara. You are most welcome to do it with the mixer-grinder-magic bullet or whatever you use to grind your spice, just grind it very smooth. Here you can find a beautiful post if you do not have a shil nora. I like the creamy consistency of the stone ground mustard and the soft creamy flesh of the shrimp when steamed. I know it’s a luxury to do it my way, so go for the convenience and you will not be disappointed. How can you go wrong with the pungent mustard and the pink fleshy shrimp combination?
I always get excited when I open the stainless steel container once the shrimp has been cooked. The moment I open the container, the mustard-y aroma and the slight hint of heat from the green chili will gush out and tickle my nose and I start drooling immediately. I have made this dish both with head on and headless shrimps, but nothing can beat the head on shrimp. The orange-i fluid that oozes out of the brain is a heavenly bliss which I cannot afford to miss.
Note: I was surprised to know that there is a kind of grinding stone which is similar but distinct from a traditional Bengali shil nora. I was talking to my friend Bonny about shil nora (my only friend whom I can bore with my endless food talk) and she mentioned about her mother’s shil nora which need not be chiseled. It’s made out of ‘Bele pathor’/sand stone which is a different type of stone than the one used in the traditional shil nora.
Head on shrimp: 10 big ones or 12-15 smaller ones
Brown/black mustard seeds: 2 tbsp.
Mustard oil: 1 tbsp.
Turmeric powder: ½ tsp.
Green chili (hotter the better): 4-5 nos.
Yogurt: 2/3 cup
Garlic: 3 big cloves, very finely minced
Curry leaves: one sprig
Cumin seeds: 1 tsp.
Mustard seeds: 1 tsp.
Dry red chilies: 2 nos.
Sugar: ½ tsp.
Salt to taste
- Soak the mustard seeds for around 15-20 minutes. If you can soak it in luke warm water, it might be better (I don’t always do that though)
- De vein and de shell the shrimps. Take the eye part out and remove the legs and the tentacles (the long thread like things). Wash them well but not so well that the goodness inside their head gets washed away.
- Coat them with turmeric and salt and marinate them 10-15 mns.
- Grind the mustard seeds with couple green chilis to a smooth paste. Add ¼ tsp of turmeric and required salt to the paste and mix it very well. Go low on salt because you have already marinated the shrimps with salt.
- Beat the yogurt into a smooth paste. Add the mustard-turmeric paste to it. Add one table spoon mustard oil and the garlic and mix well. (I strain my mustard paste after grinding because I like the smooth creamy taste/texture and it’s easy on stomach too. I dilute the paste a little bit to help with the straining).
- Take a stainless steel container or any other type of container which you can use for steaming. Put the shrimp and the mustard-yogurt-turmeric-salt-garlic paste, ½ table spoon of mustard oil, three-four slit green chili in the container. Add the sugar. Coat the shrimps well with the paste and close the container.
- Take a pressure cooker or any other tight lid container and put the shrimp container in there. Fill the larger container with container ¾ the way of the smaller container. You can read a better description here from Sandeepa.
- Put it on high flame for five minutes and turn the heat to medium and cook it for 15 minutes. DO NOT put the pressure on if you are using a pressure cooker.
- Take it off the flame and open the pressure cooker very carefully.
- Take the container out (be cautious) and let it cool for few minutes before you open it. Open the container and mix the content very gently.
- The shrimp should be very creamy in texture. It’s should taste and feel different than the stove top cooked shrimp. Somehow the steaming makes the shrimp very soft and creamy.
- Serve hot with steaming hot rice.
- Take any pot/pan and add the mustard seed-yogurt-oil mixture.
- Heat the mixture very very slowly (if you cook it on high heat, the yogurt will curdle)
- Gradually turn the heat to medium high and let it come to a gentle boil. Boil it for another 10 minutes. Taste it, the raw yogurt taste should be gone. If not, cook it for few more minutes.
- Add the shrimp and mix well with the gravy. Add the sugar and few slit green chilies. Let the whole thing cook for another five minutes or until the shrimps are just done. DO NOT overcook the shrimp. They will be hard and chewy.
- Check for seasoning and adjust accordingly.
- Heat up the remaining one tablespoon of oil and add the mustard seeds.
- When they start dancing, add the cumin seeds. Let the sizzle a bit.
- Add the curry leaves and dry red chilies. Let them be crisp and turn a shade darker.
- Add the seasoning to the shrimp and cover the pot immediately.
- Let the whole thing stand for at least 15 minutes. The flavor will marry each other and the taste will be complete.
PS: My chingudi besara takes a red/orange hue because of the orange stuff inside their heads. If you are not a big shrimp head fan, cook without them and the color will be more yellowish. You can throw in a couple of heads and then take them out once the chingri is cooked. That way the flavor will be there but you don’t have to deal with shrimp heads.
If you are unsure about the freshness of your shrimp, then sauté them a little bit in one tablespoon of oil. Do not cook for a long time. Just let them turn light pink. Use the oil, it’s loaded with shrimp flavor.