Shorbet Adas: A humble lentil soup from a conflict world

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As many of the ancient civilizations existed along major rivers such as the Nile, Tigris, Indus, Euphrates and Yellow River, commerce was often carried through the ports situated along the rivers. Gradually, as modes of transportation became more advanced, riverine trade was supplemented by sea and land routes and international commerce took a grander shape through the Silk Route. Gold, silver, copper, silk, bronze, gemstones, incense, ivory and wild beasts were heavily traded between countries, often through middlemen who made a good profit by linking the worlds of demand and supply while keeping the source a closely guarded secret.

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The Eastern Mediterranean coastal region which is modern day Palestine-Gaza, Lebanon and Northwest Syria was called Canaan (the Land of Purple) and later, Phoenicia. Before the Western world started producing silk, it was highly expensive and mainly imported from China, Asia Minor, Persia and Syria-Palestine regions. Among all the places producing silk, Phoenicians were known for their luxury goods and specifically for highly refined silk products. The port of Sidon in Phoenicia made a unique fabric by combining silk fibers with the local linen and then dyeing the final product with rare Tyrian purple dye, extracted from the shells of a tiny mollusk. On the other hand, weavers in Alexandria, another port in the same area, embellished their silk with golden embroidery. Apart from silk, Phoenicians were also known for their high quality cedar wood, used for building ships and for beautiful woodcarving structures, glazed earthenware, painted pottery, invaluable glasswork and metalwork. Beyond their highly valuable export goods, their geographical location also made countries in the Eastern Mediterranean pivotal points in the maritime trade. Palestine with two major ports, Alexandria and Antioch was very strategically located in between Syria and Egypt and served as a major connection between the Syria-Palestine coastal regions, Asia Minor and Rome. Palestinians were known as the ‘middlemen of the ancient world’; both for their commercial success, as well as for the cultural beliefs, myths and knowledge they spread to the countries that with whom they traded.

http://biologicalexceptions.blogspot.com/2013/08/life-is-elemental.html

It took 10,000 molluscs to make a gram of dye. The dye was more expensive than gold for its equivalent weight. http://biologicalexceptions.blogspot.com/2013/08/life-is-elemental.html

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What happened to the land of promise? What went so wrong for them, for them to have reached the point that they are at now? Did someone rip them off, or is it part of the natural evolution of nations? Whenever I think about this region, my mind wanders to the thought of caravans unloading valuable merchandise, silk being embroidered with golden threads by skilled hands, stained beautifully purple with Tyrian dye, and the air filled with a mixed aroma of spices and incense. A murmur of people talking in myriad different tongues and in general carrying on with life in a world where there were no ceasefires, no Iron Domes, no Qassam rockets, no bombing of historical monuments and no innocent kids dying. I refuse to see what that land has turned into now, I refuse to see more ruined buildings, roads stained red from blood and corpses lying around because there is no room left in the morgues, and the chaos from losing hope and life like no one cares. I refuse to accept it but who really cares. I guess no one. We are after all pretty disposable among a crowd of 7 billion similar animals.

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Shorabet adas is a common soup eaten in that part of the world. Countries in the region name it differently but it pretty much boils down to the basic lentil soup with some vegetables thrown in. I really hope they find peace and commonality just like this soup. Everything thrown in one pot with a beautiful result shared by everyone.

If you really liked this article, you might also want to read this one.

Recipe:

Ingredients:

Red lentils/masoor daal: 1 cup
Olive oil: 4 tbsp.
Yellow onion: ¾ cup to one cup finely chopped
Garlic: 3-4 fat cloves of garlic finely chopped or mashed with the back of a heavy knife/spoon
Celery stalk: ½ cup-3/4 cup
Carrots: ¾ cup
Butternut squash: ¾ cup cubed/chopped
Chicken stock/vegetable stock: 7-8 cups

Turmeric: 1 tsp.

Cumin: couple tea spoons, lightly roasted and ground to a fine powder

Cilantro/parsley (traditional is parsley): a handful chopped fine

Aleppo pepper/chili flakes: to taste

Few wedges of lemon
Salt to taste

  • Wash the lentils, drain and set aside.
  • Heat up two tablespoon of olive oil and add the garlic. Let the garlic sizzle very gently in the oil to flavor the oil. Do not burn the garlic.
  • Add the onions and sauté them until translucent.
  • Add the chopped carrots, squash and celery. Sauté until fragrant.
  • Add the lentils and then sauté them well while mixing everything.
  • Add the turmeric, salt and the chicken stock (I usually warm up the stock in the microwave). Mix everything well.
  • Bring the whole soup to boil and then reduce the flame to medium.
  • Once the lentils and the vegetables are cooked, turn the heat off.
  • Let the soup cool down a bit and then blend everything to a smooth puree.
  • Bring the whole thing back on the stove top and adjust the consistency. If it’s too thick, add more stock/water. Reduce it if it’s too thin. Adjust seasoning too.
  • Serve in individual bowls, drizzled with olive oil, pepper flakes, parsley/cilantro, cumin powder and lemon wedges.
  • The best way to eat it is with toasted pita or any Arabic bread.

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Keemar doi bora/Meat balls in spiced yogurt and a tribute to Tagore on his birth anniversary

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If you know any Bengali, you know that we are too proud of our ‘kalchaar’ (read culture). We pay good attention to cultural education apart from the traditional ‘going to school and reading our books as a routine’ education. If you listen to too much Bollywood music as a kid, you stand the deadly risk of being branded ‘unkalchaarred’ (read uncultured).

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Maybe Bengalis subconsciously compensate for their physical laziness by being very intellectually active (or at least attempting to)?  I heard it many times when I introduced myself to a non-Bengali: “Oh, Bengali, from the land of Tagore, eh? Very cultural community.” Hence, by the virtue of being a Bengali, I became a part of a very cultural community.

When it comes to Bengali culture, no one messes with the Old Man. He is the be all and end all of our very own Bengali existence. He overshadows every nook and cranny of our culture. I really don’t know how we existed before he was born. In case you are curious to know who the Old Man is (Bongs might have guessed it already), I am referring Rabindranath Tagore. In one of the true ironies of our land, the greatest poet of the Bengali language usually signed his name using the Anglicized version of Thakur, the original family name. Anyhow, as a people, we eat sleep and breathe his literary and musical creations.

My Dad was raised almost as an orphan and my Maa in a refugee family, so, they did not have the luxury of being exposed to Tagore’s works at an early age. Naturally, they were unable to transfer any such interest to me. No Gitobitaan (anthology of lyrics to Tagore songs) adorned our bookshelf and the tape recorders didn’t play melodious Rabindra Sangeet (songs written and composed by Tagore himself). Having studied in a Catholic school, Jesus was more important than any Hindu gods and goddesses, forget about the mere mortals. They did not care much. Again, I did not get a lot of chance to be touched by him.

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I learnt to appreciate his songs only much later into my adulthood. I still know only a very few songs of his but they are very dear to my heart. I appreciate his art, his knowledge and his immense quality of being very versatile. He is like an ocean of knowledge. He probably deserves the name and fame Bengalis swear by. Being a rare unkalchaarred Bengali, I am probably unable to appreciate him in his entirety, but here is a poem which touches my heart every time I read it:

“Bohu din dhore bohu kros dure

Bohu byay kori bohu desh ghure

Dekhite giyechi parbotmala

Dekhite giyechi sindhu.

Dekha hoy nai chokkhu meliya

Ghar hote sudhu dui paa feliya

Ekti dhaner shiser upore

Ekti shishir bindu.”

Across many a year and distant sands,

I squandered my wealth in exotic lands,

Viewing majestic mountain peaks and the vastness of the ocean.

Alas! Ere my travels were my eyes not keen?

For out my own doorstep, lay yet unseen

A dewdrop sparkling perched atop a golden paddy kernel.

(translated by Shurjo Kumar Sen)

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Keemar doi bora is a very unusual recipe and belongs to the Thakurbari (Tagore family). I adapted this from a book written by Purnima Thakur, who married into the Tagore family and inherited a cookbook from one of the ladies of the Tagore household. The cookbook is like a treasure to me.

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Recipe:

Ingredients:

Mutton or chicken keema (minced mutton or chicken meat): 1 lbs.

Onion: one medium to large, finely chopped.

Green chilies/jalapenos: 3-4 or to taste

Yogurt: as much as you want

Black salt/any salt to taste

Cilantro: to garnish

Ginger: couple table spoon, very finely chopped

Sugar to taste

Oil to deep fry the meat balls

Potatoes: two medium or

One egg and two teaspoons of corn starch

Dry roast and grind to a fine powder:

Cumin: one teaspoon

Coriander: one teaspoon

Dry red chilies: 2-4 nos.

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  • Boil the meat along with a cup of water or even less. Do not add a lot of water in the beginning; you can always add it later. The meat will also release water. If you are using chicken keema, skip the boiling part.
  • Boil the potatoes. Do not overcook them. Just boiled should be fine.
  • Cool the keema if boiling and then mix with the boiled potatoes. With your hands or in a food processor, mas them very well. It should be lump free. If you are not using boiled potatoes, beat one egg and add it to the keema along with two teaspoons of cornstarch.
  • Add chopped onions and the chopped green chilies. Mix them well with the keema. Add salt to taste.
  • Oil your palms and form one inch balls.
  • Heat up oil in a deep bottom kadai/wok/pot and once the oil is hot, turn it down a bit.
  • Deep fry the balls turning them periodically to avoid burning and for even coloring. If the oil is too hot, they burn. They should have a deep brown color but not blackish brown. They will go a shade darker even after you take them out of the oil.
  • Drain them on an absorbent paper. Let them come to room temperature.
  • Beat up the yogurt with black salt (or regular salt) and sugar to taste. Add the finely chopped ginger. If you do not like to bite on raw ginger, skip it. The amount will vary according to your liking. Start with a small pinch and then add more if you like it.
  • Add the bhaja moshla/roasted spice powder to taste and sprinkle some finely chopped cilantro.
  • Drop the balls in the yogurt and serve.

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PS: Avoid eating them while frying. If you want, you can add cumin coriander powder or any spice or your liking to the meat balls.

 

 

 

 

 

Dahi vada/lentil dumplings in spiced yogurt: bringing street food home

Dahi_vadaEveryday, I used to take a bus from outside Howrah Station to go to college. Soon after the bus crossed Howrah Bridge, the next four or five miles from Burrabazar to Dalhousie were flooded with commuters, hawkers, buses, cars – if you are from Calcutta you know what I mean. People running and trying to reach their destination, bus conductors screaming for more passengers, people running to catch the bus, coolies carrying huge baskets on their heads, office goers eating breakfast on the footpath as if no one was watching them. But in reality, someone watched them every day and that someone was me. I always preferred a window seat in the bus if I had a chance. The window was my portal to the world outside the bus.

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Greedily, I peeked outside the bus window at the people eating hurriedly on the streets outside Writer’s Building. The sheer variety amazed me – ranging from biryani topped with an egg and potato, bread toasted on the hot griddle and then coated with a fried egg, huge deep fried puris served with ghugni to colorful fruits laid on a basket like a work of art to make fruit salad. I would have given anything to eat there, but being perpetually late and running for my life, I never had a chance to stop.

To me it might have been just a hankering, but for many, those street food stalls were lifesavers. People used to commute to Calcutta for work from far away, six days a week. Some people left the house even before dawn, some had odd working hours and some had late night shifts. They didn’t have the luxury of a full breakfast before leaving for work or eating home-cooked delicious dinners. The food stalls of Calcutta were where they ate their regular meals. More than   just snacks, many of these sold lunch and dinner items, designed to provide sustenance on a budget. If you ever get a chance, go to the office para (office neighborhood) – you’ll be more than surprised to see the spread. Starting form freshly made fulkas  (Indian flat bread) to Chinese dumplings to colonially influenced chop-cutlet, you name it, and they have it. Street food does not mean that it has to be prepared on the street. Often the vendors would bring their wares already cooked and then reheat it before serving. Sometimes they were halfway prepped and would be completed (usually by frying) in response to your order.

Street_vendor_3Although street food in India largely varies from one place to another depending on the local ingredients, there are certain things likely to be found in most cities. Chaat being the number one ubiquitous street food found all over the country can widely vary in terms of ingredients and taste. On the other hand, dahi vada is very similar in taste across the country with a little bit of tweaking here and there. The basics will always be the same, with the condiments being a little different based on whether you are in North India or South India. It is very feeling and healthy, and can be eaten as a snack or a main meal. Served throughout the year, it’s a staple in many restaurants, on the streets and in the homes of a myriad families.

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Recipe:

Ingredients:

Urad daal/split, husked black gram: 1 cup

Fennel seeds: 2 tsp.

Yogurt/Dahi: 2-3 cups

Tamarind Chutney: As much as you like

Chat masala (found in the Indian store): to taste

Black salt: to taste

Red chili powder: to taste (optional)

Boondi/fried chickpea flour balls (available in the Indian stores): to taste (optional)

Coriander: a handful, finely chopped

Oil: enough to deep fry the dumplings

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  • Wash the lentils with several changes of water and then soak the lentils in enough water overnight or for 3-4 hours. Keep at least one-two inches of water above the lentils as the lentils will expand.
  • Drain the lentils and then grind them in a food processor with very little to almost no water. Do not grind them to a smooth paste. Keep the paste a little grainy…just a little.
  • Add the fennels seeds and a little bit of salt to the batter and whip the batter very well. The whipping will incorporate air in the batter and will make the balls fluffy.
  • Take a small bowl with water and drop a tiny portion of the batter in the water. If the batter floats on the top immediately, you know the batter is ready. Or else, whip it further.
  • Heat a deep bottom pot with enough oil it to deep fry the balls. Again, drop a small portion and if the batter starts sizzling vigorously, you know your oil is ready.
  • Either with your hand or with a spoon take out around a table spoon and a half of the batter and drop it in the oil. Put few more in the oil like this. Do not overcrowd the oil as it will bring the oil temp down and make the balls soak more oil.
  • Fry the dumpling on medium high heat and turn them occasionally to evenly fry all the sides. DO NOT over-fry them.
  • Keep a deep bowl on the side with luke warm water.
  • Once the balls are fried, drain them on a paper towel and then drop them into the luke warm water.
  • Soak the balls in there for 30 minutes and then squeeze them in between your palms and keep them in a separate platter. Do not press them too hard, they might break and fall apart.
  • Whip up the yogurt lightly and add salt to it. Taste it. Add the tamarind chutney and all the powders and taste again.
  • Soak the lentil balls in the spiced yogurt for almost an hour or more in the fridge.
  • Just before serving, add the chopped cilantro and the boondi.

DSC_0821You can add salt to the yogurt and soak the balls in it. Keep it chilled. Serve all the other condiments along with it while serving. People can add them according to their own taste.

Tamarind chutney

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“Jadi hao sujon, tNetul patay nawjon”

Literal translation: “If you are a good person, nine of you can stand together on a tamarind leaf”

Actual meaning: “Nothing is going be too little to share if you are a friend”

If you are not a Bengali, you probably have no clue what this means. But if you are familiar with a tamarind leaf, maybe the English translation makes sense –  the reference is to the tightly packed leaflets of the tamarind leaf. Tamarind is so ubiquitous in India that I always assumed it is native to the subcontinent. Indeed, the scientific name, Tamarindus indica would suggest so, although I found out I was quite wrong.

From time immemorial, Africa and Asia have been connected by commerce. Traders were attracted to ivory, gold and slaves in Africa while spices and precious stones from the Orient. Tamarind, native to Africa, might have been introduced to India or South East Asia through such trading. Exactly when this happened is a topic of debate, with some saying it came around 2000 BC; others argue that it came much later with Portuguese sailors who stopped by the Cape of Good Hope on their way to Asia.

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The word tamarind came from the Arabic word “tamr-hindī” or ‘Indian date’. Arab traders crossing the Persian Gulf brought tamarind back with them, and introduced it to Iran, Egypt and other Persian countries. After the Portuguese took over the trade in the African coast, the trading and exchange of tamarind took an industrial structure. Like so many other things, tamarind was introduced to Europe and South/Central America by Portuguese and Spanish traders. Particularly in South America, tamarind became wildly popular, to the extent that Santa Clara, a city in Cuba declared tamarind as their official tree (as the council of elders had decided to found the city after meeting under a tamarind tree).

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In India, tamarind has been used for ages, be it in candy form, in chutneys, in soups, curries or as an Ayurvedic medicine. It is an indispensable ingredient in cuisines of South Indian states. Maybe due to its strong and unique taste, tamarind found diverse uses across the world. It is used in Worcestershire sauce in the UK, as a refreshing summer drink in India and in the Middle East, as street-side candies in South America and in curries and sauces in South Asia. Apart from the pods, the leaves and the flowers are eaten as a salad in Burma. Due to its high vitamin C content, during the Age of Sail, tamarind was carried by the sailors as a preventative measure against scurvy. According to Ayurveda, tamarind dissolved in water with raw sugar is believed to protect the body from heat. The southern part of India being much hotter than rest of the country, tamarind consumption is more of a staple than a mere condiment.

This sweet, sour and a somewhat spicy chutney is very versatile and can be used in many ways. Use it as a dip for your deep-fried indulgences, use it in salads, add it to beaten yogurt to make a chaat, or just lick it off  your fingers like I do.

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Recipe: (adapted from Manjula’s recipe)

Ingredients:

Tamarind, seeded or buy the seedless packet: ½ lb.

Sugar: 2 cups (more if you like it very sweet and also the amount of sugar will depend on the tartness of your tamarind)

Cumin seeds: ½ tbsp.

Coriander seeds: ½ tbsp.

Dry red chili: 3-4 nos.

Salt: start with one table spoon and then adjust

Black salt: to taste

Black pepper: 1 tsp.

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  • Break the tamarind into small pieces and soak in one cup of hot water for one hour.
  • Mash it into a pulp and strain, pressing the tamarind into the strainer to remove all the pulp.
  • Add the sugar and the salt (regular).
  • Add another half a cup or one cup of water and then boil it for 10-15 minutes.
  • Add all the dry spices and the black salt. Cook it for one or two minutes.
  • Check for seasoning and adjust accordingly.
  • Let it cool and the put it into a clean dry jar.
  • Refrigerate it once completely cooled.
  • It stays in the fridge for few months if handled properly.

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Keep it a little bit more liquid-y than you want your chutney’s final consistency at the end. It will thicken gradually while cooling.

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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Muhammara/Roasted red pepper and walnut spread and a giveaway

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How little I know about the world around me. Although I have heard it mentioned for all the wrong reasons, I didn’t even know that Aleppo (or Haleb, its original Arabic name) is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in human civilization, and was the western terminus of the fabled Silk Route. Although I have never been there, if I close my eyes, I can almost see a town bustling with traders from all around the world and their myriad valuables. Silks from China, spices from India, pottery form Istanbul, dates from Persia, interspersed with piles of the famous local olives and the sound of vigorous haggling in a hundred different languages. Delicately spiced hot tea is being poured into tiny cups, traders are nibbling on mezze and saffron-tinged desserts are being eyed while succulent kabobs are eagerly devoured.  Knowingly and unknowingly, humans are exchanging social, cultural and religious beliefs while ostensibly engaged in the mere barter of merchandise. History is being written and diversity created.

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Unfortunately, my mind is jolted to the present and I open my eyes to look at the Google search on ‘Aleppo, Syria’ on the computer screen in front of me. What I see is best left unseen. Ruined buildings, wounded children, bombings, rape, destruction and sadness litter the screen. What happened to the beautiful city of a thousand caravans? Why are they destroying something so precious? Something which is impossible for anyone to recreate? There is probably no answer. At least I cannot find any answer. When I read that Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez, and his equally brutal uncle, Rifaat, intentionally kept Aleppo’s main highway opened for the Syrians to see the devastation wrought when their forces butchered tens of thousands of the locals in 1982, I was shocked. How can people destroy something their own, something invaluable, something so priceless? I would think people would do the opposite, guard their national treasures with their lives. But again, I might be in some naïve wonderland.

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Apart from a rich history and a storybook landscape of monuments, mosques, churches, wooden wheels and aqueducts, Aleppo’s Souk (Bazaar or marketplace) is a world by itself, being the heart and soul of the trade in precious stones, metals, silk, spices, textiles and olives. With the historical Silk Road being replaced by modern trade routes, the digging of Suez Canal, Turkey occupying the northern part of Aleppo the city’s heart and soul slowly bled out. The final coup de grace was dealt by the recent war and all that is left now is a ‘dead city’.

Anyway, as my husband says, a million dictators cannot rob a country of its beautiful culinary heritage. The dip Muhammara (Moo-hamm-mra) is a specialty from the regions surrounding Aleppo. In fact a crucial ingredient for this dip is the Aleppo pepper which is very different from any other chili pepper I know. It’s hard for me to describe but I’ll try. It has a smoky flavor, oily and flaky texture and moderate heat with a mild sweetness in the background. It’s like mixing cayenne with ancho chilies and paprika at the same time but still not quite there (you know what I am trying to say, right?).

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I am doing a giveaway and will be sending one lucky winner a small pack of Aleppo pepper, a bottle of pomegranate molasses and a beautiful platter from Anthropologie. Aleppo pepper is very hard to find now due to the war so don’t think that the tiny amount in the packet is because I am mean – it’s sold that way. All you have do is write down few words on how you like to see the world in 2014. Unfortunately, I can only ship the prize to the US as it will contain food items. I will accept entries until January 30th, 2013.

Recipe:

Ingredients:

Roasted red pepper paste: around 2/3 cup (if you do not have access to the red pepper paste shown in the picture, roast 3 red bell peppers on the stove top or in the oven. The taste will be very different but it will still taste good. This pepper paste is available in any Mediterranean grocery store or online)

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Walnut: 2/3 cup

Bread crumb: 1/3 cup

Garlic: 2 medium cloves

Cumin: 1 tsp. toasted and coarsely ground

Pomegranate molasses: 1 tbsp.

Lemon juice: 1 tbsp. or less

Zest from ½ a lemon

Olive oil 1/3 cup

Sugar to taste

Aleppo pepper (can be substituted with regular chili pepper flakes): 1 tbsp (more or less preferred)

Salt to taste

Muhammara

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  • Toast the walnuts to a dark brown color. Let it cool. Rub them loosely to get rid of some of the skin.
  • Toast the bread crumb until you get a toasted bread aroma. Let it cool too.
  • In a food processor add all the ingredients and pulse it to a homogeneous mixture. I added a couple of tablespoon of water to help the processor blade. It helps to bring the paste to a manageable consistency too.
  • Taste for seasoning and adjust accordingly.
  • Serve it with warm pita bread or crusty regular bread.

 

Curried (chick)peas/ghugni: Happy Diwali/Dipabolir shubhechcha and a journey down the memory lane

DSC_1340Being a small-town girl, I had to commute everyday to Calcutta for work. It might be a frightening thought to those who are not used to that kind of travel, but it was fun to many of us. We took the same train every day and became like friends and family. The hour-long train ride use to be really fun and exciting. Trust me, every morning I used to look forward to the morning commute. In the evening it wasn’t that enjoyable. Everybody was already tired from the day’s work, the Calcutta heat and traffic and sometimes if you were unfortunate enough, the added hassle of an aborodh (mass protest by blocking public transport, a Bengali specialty which can last for hours). But, if you were lucky, you got to catch the train you wanted, the heat wasn’t too bad and your daily passenger friends not once but twice a day.

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On the train, entertainment also came from itinerant vendors who sold everything starting from food to underwear. If you were a daily passenger, you could pay in installments, all on trust. Someone knew someone and that someone knew someone else who knew the vendor who then extended credit without question. Amazingly, it always worked out. Among the zillion vendors, some were my favorites. These were usually the ones who sold food, jewelry or clothes. There was one old man we called ‘ghugni dadu’ (elderly man who sells curried chickpeas) who used to board the returning train two stations before my town. He carried his daily batch of ghugni in a large aluminum hnari (pot) with a loose-fitting lid. It was freshly made every day and would still be hot when I was going home on the evening train. On the top of the lid, he would put all the accompaniments like chopped onion, cilantro, green chilis, tamarind water, black salt, roasted spices (bhaja moshla) and red chili powder. Even the thought of it still tickles my taste buds so many years later. As I had very little time left on the train and used to be starving, I looked for him eagerly and the moment I saw him, I would literally shout from the other side of the compartment to get the first serving.

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Till date, his ghugni was the best I ever had. It was really a mush, a clump of overcooked motor (yellow peas) dumped on a shaal-patar baati (bowls made from Shal leaves), but it was just delicious. Try as I might, I’ll probably never reproduce the same ghugni that dadu sold on that hot crowded train in my air-conditioned US kitchen, even with freshly ground spices and best ingredients available. I can only close my eyes while eating the ghugni below and pretend I’m on the 8.45pm Bandel local train with dadu about to climb on at Bhadreswar.

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Ghugni recipe (cooked by Maa):

Not in a mood for savory? Try this.

Ingredients:

Chickpeas/yellow peas: 1 cup

Onion: 1 large, half finely chopped and half paste

Ginge paste: 2 tbsp

Red chili powder: 1 tsp.

Coriander and cumin whole: 1 tbsp each (grind them to a paste)

You can use cumin and coriander powder as well. Just mix the powders along with the red chili powder with the ginger paste and leave them for few minutes.

Turmeric: ½ tsp

Tomato: 1 small

Oil: 1 ½ tbsp

Garam masala (clove-cinnamon-cardamom ground together): 1 tsp

Garnish:

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Green chili: 2-3 nos.

Cilantro: a handful chopped fine

Tamarind water/lemon juice: as needed (soak a lemon size tamarind in water for few minutes and them squeeze the juice out of it. Discard the pulp)

Chat masala/roasted coriander-cumin powder: as needed (dry roast 1 tbsp. each of whole coriander and cumin and one dry red chili. Cool and then grind them to a fine powder)

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  • Drain the chickpeas and wash them with two-three changes of water. Drain again.
  • If you are using dry yellow peas, soak them with three cups of water and leave them overnight. Drain the water and use it the next day
  • Mix the cumin-coriander-red chili powder together, add it to the ginger-garlic paste and mix together.
  • Finely chop the tomato and try to reserve the juice as much as possible.
  • Heat up the oil in a pan, add the chopped onion and the onion paste and sauté them until translucent.
  •  Add the ginger-coriander-cumin-red chili paste and sauté for few more minutes.
  • Add the tomato and turmeric powder and cook the paste for several minutes until oil leaves the side of the pan.
  • Add the yellow peas and cook in the spice paste for few more minutes. The masala/spice paste should get rid of the raw taste/smell.
  • Add around three cups of water and salt to taste.
  • Mix well and transfer the content to a pressure cooker.
  • Turn the heat to medium and let it whistle once. Turn off the heat and let the steam come out naturally. Uncover and check for seasoning. If the peas are not cooked yet, boil them until cooked.
  • If using a regular pot, let the whole thing come to a boil and then turn the heat to medium. Cover the pot until the peas are cooked.
  • If you are using canned chickpeas, do not add the chickpeas to the spice paste. Instead add water to the spice paste and let it come to a boil.
  • Boil it for several minutes until the raw taste of the spices are gone.
  • Add the chickpeas and stir gently.
  • Cook them for another 5-10 minutes.
  • Check for salt.
  • When done, add the garam masala powder and cover the pan.

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Serving suggestion: Top the chickpeas with little bit of chopped cilantro, finely chopped onion and few chopped green chili (skip it if you are not a fan of hot peppers). Drizzle a little bit of either lemon juice or tamarind water. Sprinkle a little bit of chat masala/roasted coriander-cumin powder and serve. The toppings serve an essential part of the dish, but if you do not have everything in hand, just sprinkle a dash of lemon juice and throw in a little bit of chopped cilantro and it will still taste great.

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