Lasooni Murgh/Chicken cooked in a garlicky sauce: Cooking with the once forbidden meat

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Methi/Fenugreek seeds

Just as the chicken nuggets sold at McDonalds barely resemble real chicken, the modern chicken is about as different as can be from its ancestors. It might be a little bit of a stretch for the imagination, but you must believe me when I say that mighty dinosaurs are the forefathers of the humble bird you see today. Trust me on this one – I’m a zoologist. Of course, they didn’t just change in one jump – the immediate ancestor is the red jungle fowl, from which the chicken were domesticated by early humans. As wild fowls were inefficient flyers, domesticating them was much easier compared to other flying birds. Anyhow, the modern day chicken ultimately turned out to be a mix of several fowl species and it’s hard to pinpoint the actual lineage.

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Possibly explaining the continued love of Indians and Pakistanis for tandoori chicken, Lothal, which was a port city in the Indus Valley civilization is believed to be the birthplace of the domesticated chicken. Eventually, it traveled to eastwards to China and westward to the Mesopotamian civilization. The “royal bird of Meluhha” described in ancient Near Eastern texts around 2000 B.C. most likely refers to chicken, which although commonplace today, at that point was still an exotic bird imported from Indus Valley.

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Would you believe that people once bred chickens but didn’t even think about eating them? Although it’s now a staple protein the world over, chickens were not originally domesticated to be used as an edible meat. Instead, they were mainly used for divination and cock fights. Anyhow, they were the essential compromise candidate in Indian cuisine because both Hindus (who would die before eating beef) and Muslims (for whom pork is an even bigger no-no) settled on the tender white flesh of the poor chickens. But this took a while, and up until fairly recently chickens were considered inedible by Indians irrespective of religion. Among many possible reasons, one theory goes that chickens were scavengers and grazed the ground for mostly insects, worms and seeds, and were hence considered dirty animals. It was forbidden to the Hindus so recently that even Dr. Sen’s grandfather had to hide and eat it with friends in the mid-1930’s.  Although duck, geese, pigeons and other wild fowls were mentioned in Mughal cuisine, chickens were excluded from Akbar’s inventory. As such, it’s somewhat hard to know when exactly the “forbidden” chicken left the cockfighting ring and entered the domestic kitchens in India. In a fatal role reversal for the poor birds, the Egyptians are thought to bred them only for the eggs, but the Indians took the meat and ran with it.

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This Lasooni curry is a very simple chicken curry made with few ingredients. It’s loaded with garlic and truly justifies its name (lasoon or lehsan is garlic in Hindi). As garlic is considered to be heat-inducing by Ayurvedic principles, this dish is perfect for winter menus. The kasuri methi or dried fenugreek leaves give it a smoky touch with a very slight hint of bitterness. The yogurt balances the garlic and the bitterness taste and gives the gravy a mildly tangy taste and velvety body. Best served with hot rotis/fulkas, but eating it with rice is not a bad option either.

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Dried Fenugreek leaves on the left

Recipe:

This recipe is tweaked from here.

Chicken: 1.7 lbs (that’s what I had in the freezer)

Garlic: 3-4 fat garlic cloves, minced very finely or make a paste of it

Dahi/Yogurt: ½ cup

Methi/Fenugreek seeds: 1 tsp.

Dry red chillies: 2-3

Kasoori methi/Dried fenugreek leaves: a big pinch

Tejpatta/Bay leaves: 2

Green chilies: 4-5 (depending on how hot you want your chicken)

Turmeric: 1 heaped tsp.

Mustard oil/White oil: 2 tbsp. (I use mustard oil by default in my Indian cooking unless there’s a reason not to. But feel free to use your favorite oil)

Water: I cup boiling hot

Salt to taste

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Kasoori Methi/Dried Fenugreek Leaves

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  • Wash and drain the chicken completely.
  • Heat up the oil in a deep, heavy-bottomed wok/kadai.
  • Turn the heat really low and add the methi seeds. Allow the seeds to sizzle until the seeds turn a shade darker. It will flavor the oil very nicely.
  • Take out more than half the methi seeds, otherwise you’ll be biting on a bitter seed very frequently.
  • Add the dried red chillies and the bay leaves and allow them to sizzle a little bit as well.
  • Add the garlic and sauté the garlic in the oil for a minute or so to infuse the oil with garlic flavor. As there are very few spices, you want to make sure that the oil is loaded with the flavors. But don’t let the garlic burn, it sould take a light golden brown color.
  • Add the drained chicken pieces, sprinkle the turmeric and sauté on medium-high heat for several minutes, coating them with the oil.
  • Turn the heat low or put the pot on a cold burner and then add the yogurt. Make sure the yogurt is in room temperature and well beaten. This step is crucial because it will prevent the gravy from turning into granules. You want velvety-silky-smooth gravy.
  • Stir the whole thing several times to bring up the temperature of yogurt so that you can return the pot to the original burner.
  • Keep sautéing/turning the chickens on medium high heat.
  • The meat might release a lot of water. In that case keep sautéing until oil releases from the sides.
  • Add the kasoori methi and sauté for a minute.
  • Add water and salt and bring it to a boil. Add the green chillies spilt halfway through. Keep boiling on low-medium heat until you get a smooth gravy and the raw taste of the yogurt/spices are gone. Check for salt and add more if needed.
  • Make sure you have a lot more gravy than you prefer because the chicken is going to soak up almost half the liquid.
  • Let the whole thing rest for 15-20 minutes. This step is very necessary because it will make the chicken absorb the gravy and the gravy will reach its desired consistency. Reheat a little bit before serving.
  • I like mine with lots of gravy to soak up my rotis and eat the gravy with a spoon. It’s very refreshing on a cold winter night. If you wish, you can adjust the consistency according to your liking.

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Qorma Lawand (braised Afghan chicken), the very best friend for your still-warm naan-e-Afghani

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.

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My brother and I few years ago

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.

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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.

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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.

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Recipe:

Ingredients

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

Cloves: 3-4

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

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  • 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.
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The final outcome

Mind a simple chicken curry recipe?

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We have currified the world…literally. There is no continent left behind (yes, Antarctica too) that does not have its own version of this multilayered, adaptable food. I am not going to give you a Curry 101 class here or tell you if it really came from the Tamil word ‘kari’ or not. Before I came to the USA, I was like a hermit crab; sheltered in my own narrow world and pretty much isolated from anything which did not directly affect my life. The only world news I found exciting was the whereabouts of Osama Bin Laden. But to be true, he was almost our neighbor, not really ‘phoren affairs’, as the Bengalis would say.

After I moved here, my horizons broadened with a speed that literally left me breathless. To revert to a food analogy, you know the feeling when you put one spoon of that delicious curry in your mouth and a million flavors burst almost immediately? It happened to me too, I mean in terms of ‘phoren affairs’. But the bulk of my broadening knowledge base, unlike that of my polymath husband, was still mostly related to cuisines of the world. I was fascinated to see people adopting recipes and making their own versions and curry was no exception.

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“Curry”, that universal tag we put on almost every Indian dish is truly versatile. Thank goodness someone came up with that term. Otherwise we Indians would have to write five sentences to explain it. I find it very interesting to see how food travels and adapts and I don’t think anything else comes close to curry and its travel story. If you go to the West Indies, you’ll find Indo-Caribbean curries cooked by the immigrant Indians who traveled there during the British Raj during the 18th and 19th centuries to work as laborers in the sugarcane fields. Japan got the first taste of curry around the same time and there, you’ll find karē raisu which is curry served over rice. If you are in Indonesia, you are well advised not to leave the country without eating Rendang or Kari Ayam. Thailand has a whole spectrum of curries, whether red, yellow, green or Massaman, all equally delicious. Malaysia will greet you with vibrant reddish-orange gravy with chunks of meat and coconut milk in it. The Burmese have their own versions, some of them remarkably similar to Indian curries. The Chinese adopted it to suit their palate and it is now appearing on American-Chinese menus. The French who colonized parts of India like Pondicherry, have also carried their interpretation back with them in the form of  ‘Vadouvan’,  a spice mix with roots in Madras curry powder but has non-Indian spices like thyme and rosemary in it.  ’ I use it to cook chicken and fish and love the slightly unusual flavor profile added by the European spices. The Danish, who went to India wishing to colonize us, went back petty soon and took back curry with them. The ‘Boller i karry’ is Madras curry powder cooked in a cream sauce with pork meatballs. I made it once but it’s too rich and creamy for my taste. I am planning to modify it to suit my taste (thus making “circumnavigation curry”, which went from India to Denmark and back to India). Currywurst in Germany is as popular as hotdogs in the US. They even made a museum for it (and I am NOT kidding).

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The British need a paragraph of their own I guess. You don’t merely put them along with a bunch of other countries when it comes to curry. They have organizations to keep the curry tradition alive and to make sure no one adulterates the recipes and their authenticity. After almost two centuries, when the British decided to leave us alone and finally mind their own business, among the things they could not leave behind were the Kohinoor diamond and curry powder (Veeraswamy’s and Bolst’s were the two most popular brands).  Decades later, maybe still suffering subconsciously from a nostalgia for their erstwhile colony, they chose chicken tikka masala (nothing but chicken morsels cooked in a creamy curry gravy) as their national dish. Many generations of Indians have suffered from a bad British colonial hangover; as such, it is poetic justice that we got our own back at them….in curry form.

I am not going to talk about the curries in the Indian subcontinent because I’ll need to write a book before I feel like I’ve said enough. India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, all cook curries in one form or the other. But if you have eaten curries from these countries, you’ll know that they are very different with an underlying similarity to them. The ‘tarkari’ in Nepal is very different from the curry in Pakistan which most likely has an onion-garlic base. The taste of curry in Bangladesh will depend on whether it is cooked by a Hindu or a Muslim. The Muslims will cook like the Pakistanis with onions and garlic while the Hindus will try to avoid them as much as possible. The South Indian will more likely have curry leaves and tamarind in it compared to a Gujarati (west of India) curry with a chickpea flour taste. The Parsis will put apricot and fried potato sticks in it. The Bengalis will make light curries to aid their famously delicate digestion but the Nagas (North East India) will add a dash of bhut jolokia (ghost pepper) which is supposed to make dead men come alive.*******

To counter the information overload I just made you go through, I present now a basic curry recipe with no out-of-the-world ingredients. A simple, humble and everyday curry. Eat it with bread, naan, roti or rice…it will be delicious every time.

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Recipe:

Ingredients:

Chicken: around 3lbs. (bone in, skinless) cut into medium pieces

Ginger-garlic paste: 2-3 tbsp. (or, grind 3” fresh ginger piece with 4-5 cloves of garlic to a smooth paste)

Tomato: One small

Tomato paste: 1 tbsp. (optional but if you use it, you’ll get the vibrant rich color)

Onion: One cup, finely minced

Turmeric: 1 tsp.

Bay leaves: 2

Sugar: 2 tsp.

Red chili powder: 1 tbsp. (adjust according to your taste)

Green chilies: few, split length (again, adjust to your taste)

Cinnamon: 2” piece broken into two

Cardamom: 2, slightly bruised with a heavy spoon or back of a knife

Cloves: 3

Mustard oil (preferably)/any neutral oil: 2-3 tbsp.

Salt to taste

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  • Heat up the oil in a heavy bottom wok/kadai or pan. If you are using mustard oil, do not let it smoke or burn; gradually heat it to get rid of the raw smell.
  • Add the sugar and let it caramelize. Keep an eye on it, sugar gets burnt very quickly.
  • Add the cinnamon, cardamom, cloves and the bay leaves. Let them sizzle a bit and release the aroma.
  • Add the onion and sauté them on medium heat. Medium heat makes the onion caramelize beautifully and brings out the sweetness.
  • Once the onions are nicely brown, add the ginger-garlic paste, red chili powder and turmeric. Sauté the paste until oil leaves from the side. If you think that the spice paste is sticking to the pot, sprinkle a little bit of water.
  • Add the tomato and the tomato paste (if using) and again cook the whole thing until the tomato gets mushy and the paste becomes deep reddish brown is color.
  • Add the chicken and cook on medium high heat until chicken is no longer translucent and again oil starts leaving the pan. (I usually smell the spoon to check if there is any raw smell from the spices or not).
  • Add a cup of warm water and salt and mix everything well. If you are using regular chicken, cover and let it cook on medium heat. If you are using organic free range chicken, no need to cover it. The free range chicken will be more than half cooked while sauteing. You can cook it uncovered. (if you think you need more gravy, add another half cup water)
  • After 15-20 minutes, check if the meat is cooked or not and also the seasoning.
  • Add the green chilies and let it rest (covered) for 15-20 minutes before serving.
  • This curry goes well with either roti/naan or rice.

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****** I have generalized the curry for few communities but tried to give you the most common way they cook it. They are not the only method they use and no way I am claiming to be an authority on how everyone cook curries.  Please feel free to share any information or opinion.

A Bengali’s Chingudi Besara/Shrimp with ground mustard and yogurt:

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‘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.

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My grinding stone

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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Recipe:

Ingredients:

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

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  • 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).

First method:

  • 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.

Second method:

  • 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.

 

The tadka/seasoning:

  • 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.

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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.

 

 

Beresta chicken/chicken with fried onions

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I didn’t pay attention to what we eat and do not eat while I was in India. All I knew was that Hindus don’t eat beef and Muslims don’t eat pork. In any case, I never had the chance to eat these “forbidden” meats for almost my entire life back home. After I met my omnivorous boyfriend (who is now my husband), I started exploring beef and pork. They were still not my primary choices; I can almost count the number of times I ate them before moving to the US.. Stateside, I faced the usual questions many, many times – “Are you vegetarian?” “Do you eat meat?” “Do you eat beef?” “What about pork?” I don’t blame them. We Indians are tricky when it comes to eating habits and food taboos.

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Food eaten in India is as varied as it can get. At a broader level, culinary choices are largely dictated by religion, although even within each religion it gets really complicated because there is no “one rule fits all” concept. Although eating beef was not a taboo in ancient India, Hindus are forbidden to eat beef and consider cows to be sacred. The prevalent hypothesis posits that the ban on cow slaughter reflects the dependence of the contemporary agrarian community on cows for their ability to till the soil, pull carts and produce cow dung for use as manure. The pre-Aryan concept of ‘ahimsa’ (non-violence) practiced by Buddhists and Jains may also have influenced the Hindus at some point. Also, cows were the main source for milk, which by analogy with motherhood gave them the elevated status of ‘gomata’ (go=cows; mata=mother). By extension, in Hindu society, cow slaughter carried the unimaginable stigma of effective matricide. The incipient taboo was greatly reinforced by the Muslim invasion of India. As Muslims ate beef without compunction, from the Hindu viewpoint, it came to be strongly associated with the “other” religion, completing its banishment from even marginally observant households. Indeed, even today only very liberal/Westernized/atheistic/depraved families (such as my in-laws; not saying which of the four they are) would routinely serve beef at their table. This of course does not mean that the younger generation does not eat it on the sly, as I did at Olypub with my boyfriend. He of course, ate mainly beef, primarily as it was cheap and he was perennially broke.

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Apart from beef, for many Hindus, meat and fish are considered to be Rajasic (stimulating the baser emotions of passion and excitement) or Tamasic (indifferent, dull and depressing) and are thus prohibited from consumption. Adding to the confusion, while chicken and pork were taboo (as the respective animals are scavengers), often eating goat or lamb was not prohibited. Eating pork is still a no-no for most of the Hindus but chicken has gained immense popularity. It has lost all its taboo and indeed, become the primary animal protein for the growing middle class.

This chicken recipe is very different as it uses beresta/fried onions as the flavoring base. The chicken gets a fiery red color from the fried onions and caramelized sugar. A little bit of extra effort will give you a beautiful robust flavor of smoky, sweet, caramelized onions.

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Recipe:

Adapted from Alpana Habib

Ingredients:
Good quality chicken (if possible organic and free range): around 3 lbs. cut into bite sized pieces.
Onion: one large or, caramelized onion 2/3-1 cup. (adjust the number of onions to have around 2/3 cup of fried onions)
Yogurt: around ½ cup
Red chili powder: one tablespoon or more if you want it hotter (also it will depend on how hot the chili powder is) mixed with a little bit of water to make a paste.
Mustard oil/any other oil: 2tbsp. (you’ll need more oil to fry the onions, around half a cup)
Bay leaves: 2 nos.
Cardamoms: 3-4 nos. (smash them with a heavy spoon just enough to break them a little bit)
Garlic paste: 1-2 tbsp.
Sugar: one tbsp.
Cinnamon: 2 inches stick broken into one inch pieces

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• Marinate the chicken with the yogurt and garlic paste for an hour.
• In the meantime, heat up around ½ cup of oil. Bring the flame to medium high to medium.
• Thinly slice the onion and fry the onions in the hot oil until golden brown. Do not make the oil too hot, it will burn the onion. Carefully stir the onion while frying to evenly color them. Slow frying will make the onion very sweet and smoky.
• Drain the fried onions on an absorbent paper.
• Take out all the oil leaving only one-two tablespoons.
• Add the sugar and let it caramelize. Keep an eye on it, it’s very easy to burn sugar and it will taste bitter.
• Once the sugar is caramelized, add the red chili paste and stir frequently.
• Drop in the cardamoms and the cinnamons and let them release the aroma.
• Turn the flame to low or take the pan out of the flame and then add the marinated chicken.
• Stir everything together very well or else the yogurt will curdle.
• Salt and again mix everything well.
• Add one third of the beresta (fried onions), mix nicely and then cover the pot.
• After around 10 minutes, uncover the pot, add another third of the beresta, mix well and cover the pot again for around ten minutes. Check the meat too.
• Uncover the pot, give everything a good stir and check if the meat is done or not. Check for seasoning too.
• Add the rest of the beresta, five-six green chilies slit length wise and then cover the pot again. Turn off the flame. Let the pan covered for 10-15 minutes (or more) and then serve with either bread or rice.

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** I did not add any water. The chicken and the yogurt released enough water to make a nice gravy. If you think you do not have enough gravy, add little bit of water while adding the second batch of beresta.
**If you let the chicken sit for at least half n hour, the meat will soak the gravy a little bit and the flavors will mix very nicely.

 

Sali jardaloo murghi/chicken with apricot and fried potatoes and the Kissa-i-Sanjan

DSC_0705Approximately a thousand years ago, a tired and disheveled group of Zoroastrian refugees fled Islamic persecution in their native Persia and arrived in the Sindh region of Gujarat, India. Responding to their request for asylum, King Jadav Rana, the ruler of the tiny community where they landed, sent them a bowl filled to the brim with milk (a gentle hint that his kingdom was full and couldn’t accept refugees). In reply, the leader of the Persians dissolved a spoonful of sugar in the milk and sent it back to the king, suggesting that his small flock would dissolve like sugar in the milk and enrich the king’s community without straining its resources.

These refugees were the forefathers of India’s Parsi community. Although Persians were doing business with India from approximately 500 BC, the exact time of their arrival in India is controversial. The story above which describes the arrival and settling down of the Parsis in Gujarat is called the Qeṣṣa-ye Sanjān (The Story of Sanjān). Before Gujarat, they had briefly inhabited the Diu region of India, but soon afterwards their Dastur (leader) determined that their destiny lay elsewhere. They left Diu and after braving a life-threatening storm, they reached Gujarat. King Jadav Rana’s permission to the refugees to stay in his land came with afew caveats; they would have to learn and use only the local language, the women would have to wear sarees, and the use of weapons or conversion of any of the local people was strictly prohibited. The Dastur agreed to these conditions and hence the Parsis settled down in India, enriching India’s culture and contributing heavily toward our economy and prosperity.

DSC_0691Despite having lived on the Indian subcontinent for well over a thousand years, the Parsis remain a very distinct minority community. They speak their own dialect of the Gujarati language and follow rules which combine aspects of their ancient religion and their historical background as refugees. Their cuisine is also very distinct, again being a mix of Persian and Indian influences. Sali jardaloo murghi (Sali=potato, jardaloo=apricot, murghi=chicken) is a beautiful example of such intermixing. Being from Persia, they were quite used to using dried fruit and nuts in their food, which they introduced to Indian cuisine. This dish is at the same time familiar and different when compared to most “Indian” food items. I think it gives a nice twist to the everyday chicken curry.

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Recipe: (adapted from Madhur Jaffrey)

Ingredients:

Chicken, cut into bite sized pieces and skinned: 3lbs.

Freshly grated ginger: 2 tsp.

Finely crushed garlic: 1 tsp.

Dried apricots: 15-16 nos.

Vegetable oil: 4 tbsp. or a bit more

Onion: 2 medium sized, finely cut into half rings

Tomato puree/paste: 2tbsp. (you can use fresh tomatoes too) mixed with 1/2 cup water

Distilled white malt vinegar (or, regular white vinegar): 2 tbsp.

Turmeric: ½ tsp.

Sugar: 1 tbsp.

Salt to taste

To grind:

Hot dry red chili: 4 whole

Cinnamon stick, somewhat broken: 2 inches

Whole cumin seeds: 11/2 tsp.

Cardamom pods: 7 nos.

Cloves: 10 whole

For potato straws:

Salt: 1 tbsp.

Potato: One large peeled

Vegetable oil: enough to deep fry the potato straw

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  • Grind the spices ‘under to grind’ into a fine powder. ( I usually toast them a little bit)
  • Put the ginger-garlic paste, ground spices and one or two table spoon of oil and turmeric and massage everything well with the chicken. Leave it at room temp. for an hour (more will not hurt)
  • If you are using apricots which are very dry, soak them in hot water. The time will depend on how dry the apricots are. The ones I use here in the US, do not require soaking.
  • Once the meat is marinated, heat up the oil in a deep bottom pot. When the oil is hot, put the flame on medium and add the onions. Sauté them until they are reddish brown in color.
  • Add the marinated chicken and mix well. Sauté for another 5-10 minutes.
  • Add the tomato puree with the water, mix well again and add the salt and sugar.
  • Cover the pot and simmer the pot for another 10 minutes or until the chicken is almost cooked (add water if you want a bit of gravy, I do like have a bit of gravy)
  • Slip in the soaked/dried apricots and simmer again until the chicken is completely cooked.
  • Let the chicken sit for half n hour to an hour before you serve it.

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Making the potato straws:(if you are not in mood to make the potato straws, just go and buy some ready made straws from the stores. Recently I have seen dehydrated potato straws which can be fried at home…how convenient is that?)

  • Fill a large bowl with cold water and add the salt to it.
  • Put the grater on the bowl and grate the potatoes with a coarse setting/blade.
  • Once the potatoes fall in the water, separate the grated potatoes with your hands.
  • Heat enough oil to fry the straws.
  • Once the oil is hot enough, bring the flame to medium, take a small handful of potatoes, squeeze the water out as much as possible and drop them in the oil.
  • Immediately separate the straws with a spoon. Don’t put a lot as it will bring the oil temperature down and make the potatoes soggy. Fry in small batches.
  • Once all of it is fried, drain them on an absorbent paper until used.
  • Before you serve the chicken, heat it up gently and spread the straws on the chicken. Serve immediately.
  • Goes best with white rice.

Food and the Gods: Vegetarian meat curry/Niramish mangsho

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My labmate was very shocked when he heard on the news channel that a truck full of onions was looted in India recently (in fact there was a full-blown national onion crisis). I don’t blame him….in a country like America where abundance is the norm, looting an onion truck sounds absurd. I was surprised when my husband said that during Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana, people regularly looted ice trucks. So, people can get shocked or surprised with things they are not used to otherwise.

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In India, especially in Bengal, meat is cooked mostly with onion and garlic. Naturally I was surprised when I heard about the vegetarian meat curry for the first time. I’m not talking about plant protein-based meat substitutes which are commonly used in America. This is real meat, so to call this dish “vegetarian meat curry” is an absolute oxymoron. But, Bengali food and the rites and rituals of Bengali domestic life are full of such oxymorons. We consider onions and garlic as non-vegetarian but meat prepared in a certain way vegetarian.

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There is a background to almost every ritual. Likewise there is a background to the “vegetarian meat curry” name as well. In the Hindu religion, animal sacrifice was very common in the past. Although it is much less widely practiced now, it still exists in some parts of India. During Kaali puja (worshipping goddess Kaali), animal sacrifice was most common. The sacrificial meat (mostly goat) was then cooked and eaten as prasad (offering). While the meat was offered to the deity during the puja, it somehow lost its animal (and hence impure) origins and became “vegetarian meat”. Such is the power of true faith, I guess. But poor onions and garlic were considered beyond such magical purification and hence the vegetarian meat had to be cooked without these vegetables to retain its vegetarian quality (obviously there was a lack of rationalists in India around the time such rules were created). The meat was cooked and eaten on the ninth day of Durga puja (nabami). If I was there to write the rules, I would have offered onions and garlics as offering too to make it blessed. But unfortunately it was not written by me L but I’m not very upset as it still tastes delicious. I was a little anxious making it the vegetarian way for the first time but from now onwards, this will be the more common way of cooking mutton in our household. It is very easy to make which is a bonus. As onion and garlic are not used, it’s very flavorful but not overpoweringly rich. Durga puja is at our door step and the meat will be eaten with steaming hot plain rice to celebrate Devi Durga’s visit to her paternal house. Even my atheist husband becomes a shameless hypocrite around this time of the year and hovers around the kitchen when I cook this dish.

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Recipe:

There are many variations of this recipe. This is my version and I have adapted it from different recipes. I am not claiming it to be authentic and I do not think that there is any one authentic recipe as such.

Ingredients:

Goat meat/lamb: 5 lbs

Yogurt: 3 tbsp.

Ginger paste (preferably freshly made): 3-4 tbsp.

Cumin seeds whole: 2 tbsp.

Coriander seeds whole: 2 tbsp.

Whole green cardamom: 3 nos.

Cinnamon stick: 2 nos. (each around 11/2 inches long)

Cloves: 4-5 nos.

Turmeric powder: 1 tsp.

Whole dried red chili: 8-10 nos.

Asafetida/hing: ½ tsp.

Bay leaves: 2-3 nos.

Garam masala (Bengali style): 2 tsp.

Green chilies: 3-4 nos.

Sugar: 1 tsp.

Oil (preferably mustard, any other oil will work too): 3 tbsp.

Salt to taste

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Asafetida/Hing

  • Soak the whole cumin-coriander and dry red chilies in water for 30 minutes or so and then grind them together to a paste. If you do not have a wet grinder, dissolve the powdered spices in a little bit of water and let them soak for several minutes. To get the best flavor, you must grind them fresh.
  • Grind the ginger to a fine paste as well. Try to use freshly ground paste here as well.
  • Wash the meat well and then drain the water as much as possible. If time permits, pat them with a paper towel to absorb the excess moisture.
  • Take out the yogurt and let it sit at room temp.
  • Heat up the oil in a deep bottom wok/kadai and then add the sugar. Let the sugar caramelize. Do not stir.
  • Add the whole cardamom, cinnamon, cloves and bay leaves. Sauté them well until they leave a nice aroma.
  • Add the hing and let it sizzle for a minute.
  • Add the meat and lightly fry them in the seasoned oil for 5-10 minutes.
  • Add the ground spices and the ginger paste along with the turmeric.
  • Mix everything well and cook on medium high heat for 15-20 minutes. You will see the meat releasing a lot of water. Keep on cooking the meat until the water almost dries out. Make sure you don’t burn the spices.
  • Take the container out of the heat. Beat the yogurt well and add it to the meat. Mix well. Put the container back to the heat. Cook for another 5 minutes and then add around 2 cups of water.
  • Add salt, mix it well and then cover the pot.
  • Let it cook on very low flame for another half an hour or until the meat is completely cooked. Stir in between (every 10 minutes).
  • Uncover and check for salt. Add the Bengali garam masala (equal quantity of green cardamom, cinnamon and cloves) and few green chilies slit lengthwise.
  • Cover the pot for few minutes and then serve hot with steaming hot rice.

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