I was sitting teary-eyed in New Delhi Station, waiting for the Rajdhani Express, waiting to say goodbye to my brother and unsure when I would see him again. I was travelling alone and was sitting in the side lower berth, my favorite seat in Indian trains, because I love looking outside through the big side-windows.
The rest of my compartment was full with a group of burly Afghan men of varied age. They were talking in a language which I couldn’t understand at all. Most of them were wearing the traditional afghan shirts and pants and all of them were wearing sneakers. They were piling up colorful area rugs and carpets on the floor. I realized that they must be businessmen taking the rugs from Delhi to Calcutta to sell. Finally the train started rolling and tears streamed down my cheeks faster as well as I was leaving my little brother behind in Delhi. The Afghan men were looking at me…probably with curiosity but I started feeling a little uncomfortable. I had read enough horror stories and watched YouTube videos of men harassing women in Indian trains. To make myself comfortable, I spread the bedsheet on the seat, put the pillow on my back, leaned my back on it and stared outside through the dusty glass window…still missing my brother and crying uncontrollably.
After a while, a middle-aged Afghan man came to me and said in broken English, “Sister, one of our brothers is in the next coupe, would you exchange your seat with him so he can travel with us?” Instantly, my heart melted for reasons that I still find hard to understand. There was something in his voice or maybe it was just the way he said it. Whatever might be the reason, I just could not refuse him his request. When I started gathering my stuff, the man immediately took everything from my hands very gently and said “sister, you go and sit there, I’ll bring all your stuff to you.” I was embarrassed but again humbled by his hospitality. He took most of my luggage while I walked behind with a couple of small things. He even spread the bed sheet for me and put everything the way it was in my previous seat. Although technically I was the one who had done him a favor, I was left touched by his genuine warmth and gratitude.
I spent another twelve hours in that train and never once felt slightly threatened. It was something in that man’s behavior that made me feel secure. I even left my purse in my seat when I went to the bathroom, ignoring my mother’s rambling before I boarded the train, “take your valuables with you all the time, don’t talk to strangers and don’t eat anything from a fellow passenger.” A simple gesture can change our attitude so much. Being naturally curious, I was itching to walk up to them and start a conversation, but I failed to do so. As a Bengali, I was always fascinated with kabuliwalas (people from Kabul) and wanted to know about their lives and their food. But I hesitated to talk to them, I don’t know why. Anyhow, before I knew it, the train arrived at Howrah Station, which was the last stop and I lost my chance forever. I still regret my decision now, but my hope is that someday again, while tearing pieces from a freshly baked naan-e Afghani and dipping them in the bright green soupy gravy of qorma lawand, I’ll be able to listen to their stories. For now, I’ll keep my imaginations of Afghanistan going.
Chicken: close to 3 lbs
Yogurt: ½ cup
Turmeric: ½ tsp.
Cilantro, finely chopped: ½ cup
Bay leaves: 2
Cinnamon: 2 inches, broken into one inch pieces
Cardamom (green): 2
Green chili: 8-10
Mustard/vegetable oil: 2 tbsp.
Nutmeg powder: ¼ tsp.
Mace powder (optional): ¼ tsp.
White pepper powder: 1 tsp.
Ginger: 2 inch piece ground to a paste (preferably freshly ground)
Garlic: 4 fat cloves ground to a paste (you can grind the ginger and garlic together)
Onion very finely chopped: 1/2 cup
Salt to taste
- Wash the chicken pieces well and drain the water.
- Heat up the oil and add the bay leaves, cinnamons, cardamoms and cloves. Turn the heat to medium and let the whole spices sizzle a little bit.
- Once the spices leave a nice aroma, add the chopped onion (keep the heat to medium or else the onions will burn and make the gravy bitter). Sauté the onion for five minutes and then add the ginger-garlic paste.
- Sauté everything for another five minutes or until the raw smell of the spices is almost gone.
- Add the chicken and turmeric and mix everything well. Keep stirring the whole thing for several more minutes. The meat will release water. You can turn up the heat to medium high to dry out the water a little bit.
- Either turn the heat very low or remove the container from the heat. Beat the yogurt very well to make it smooth/lump free and add it to the chicken. Mix everything well again and bring the pot back to the burner if you’ve removed it. Or, turn the heat back to medium. This is a very crucial step as high heat can curdle the yogurt and make the gravy grainy/lumpy.
- Keep stirring the whole thing, coating the meat pieces well with the yogurt and the spice paste. After a few minutes, you’ll see oil oozing out from the sides.
- Add half cup hot water, salt to taste and 4-6 green chilies, split halfway through (you’ve to alter the number of green chilies according to your taste). Give it one good mix and bring the flame to high.
- Once the gravy comes to a boil, lower the heat to medium again and cover the pot.
- Cook it until the chicken is almost done. (I said almost because you might have to adjust the gravy. If the chicken is already cooked and you boil it further, the chicken will fall apart and get messy).
- If the gravy looks too thin, boil and adjust the amount. If it looks dry, add more hot water and boil it until it reaches the desired consistency.
- Add the nutmeg+mace+pepper powders, chopped cilantro and few more green chili split halfway through.
- Boil for another minute or two and let it sit for ten minutes. The chicken will soak more gravy and the flavor will be complete.
- Serve it preferably with either Indian roti or naan. It doesn’t taste very well with rice; at least I like it more with rotis.
- Also, I like the gravy to be on the thin side (not watery though) because I like to dip my rotis in it. You can make a thicker gravy if you want.