Cooking with one of the most ancient domesticated vegetables: Lau-Tetor Daal/ Moong Lentils cooked with Bottle Gourd and Bitter Gourd

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I had very little hope when I started my Google search for “bottle gourd” and didn’t expect very many things written about this C-list celebrity vegetable. But I was pleasantly surprised and learned quite a few things about it.

Bottle gourd (also called lauki, lau or ghiya in India) is one of the most ancient domesticated vegetables and sits right next to dogs in terms of two of the most ancient domesticated species. A native plant of Africa, it migrated first to Asia and then to the Americas, most likely through ocean currents. The wild variety of bottle gourd was not initially used as a food source. The dried skin was instead used as containers and like a ladle to scoop out things long before our ancestors invented pottery. The hollow fruits were also used as musical instruments (indeed, I own two of these myself).

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Bottle gourd from my garden

Domestication usually takes a long time, sometimes hundreds of years (ask Dr. Sen, he has a violent opinion on this). It can inadvertently alter the species, both genetically and morphologically. The geographical location, the sheltered existence, the controlled temperature, the lack of environmental competition, are a few of the zillion reasons which can alter the species being domesticated. Among many other things, the wild variety of bottle gourd had a much thinner skin compared to the current domesticated edible variety. Like many other vegetables, these gourds also traveled hundreds of miles across the ocean and reached a different country (or sometimes continent), and upon finding land again, the thin skin/rind made the dispersion of seeds easier. But once humans started domesticating the gourds, the need for natural seed dispersion disappeared and the rind gradually grew thicker to adapt to the domesticated environment. Over centuries, it grew so thick that the modern day Bengalis decided to make use of that outcome and a wonderful delicacy showed up on the Bengali vegetarian menu, i.e lau-er khosha bhaja (stir fried bottle gourd rind).

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Bitter gourd from my garden as well

An easily digestible vegetable, bottle gourd is eaten almost all over India. But as is their wont, Bengalis decided to go beyond the usual norm and eat almost all parts of the fruit and the plant itself. It will take several blog posts for me to cover the entire gamut of recipes Bengalis use to cook this humble and rather neutral vegetable. They stir fry the rind with whole poppy seeds, cook the leaves and stems with other vegetables and fish heads, wrap spice-coated fish or shrimp in the tender leaves and steam them or add the chopped fruit to lentils. Think I’m done? No way at all. We also make a bitter curry by combining bottle gourds with bitter gourds (karela), a “West Bengal special” by adding poppy seed paste, mix it up with sun-dried lentil dumplings, tiny shrimp or fried fish heads or make a dry-ish curry with mung lentils. The list is literally endless but all of them are equally delicious. While I cook all of these, a few are my personal favorites and the bottle gourd cooked with mung lentils (lau-muger daal) is one of them. Like most Bengali standards, it can be cooked in different ways; I cook it like my Maa does, which is what you’ll find here. I’ll try to post a few other recipes before the summer is gone (and with it, my treasured supply of home-grown laukis).

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The recipe below is an approximation and can be altered. Also, the photos of the daal were taken hastily and I promise I’ll post some nice ones later.

Ingredients:

Mung lentils: 2/3 cup

Bottle gourd: 8-10 cubes (peeled and cut approximately into 2” pieces)

Bitter gourd/Karela: One medium (4-5 inches long), cut into thin slices. It’s hard to quantify the karela here because it will depend on the bitterness of the karela or how bitter you like your daal to be. So adjust accordingly.

Radhuni/Pnach phoron/methi: 1 tsp. (I use radhuni but it’s hard to find it in the US. My next preferred spices is methi for this daal and in absolute pinch, add pnach phoron)

Ginger: one inch piece, ground into a paste

Dry red chilies: 2-3 nos.

Bay leaf/Tej patta: 2-3 nos.

Turmeric (optional): 1 tsp. (in some household the daal is cooked without turmeric in it but I prefer my daal to have some color)

Green chilies: few

Mustard oil: couple tablespoons

Salt to taste

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  • Dry roast the daal very lightly, taking care of not to over-roast or burn them. You can skip this step as some people prefer to cook it with unroasted daal.
  • Start boiling some water in a deep bottom pan.
  • Wash the daal with couple changes of water and add them to the boiling water. Add turmeric powder if using.
  • Once the daal is half-cooked, stir it with a whisk or traditional daaler kata. Do not make daal mushy.
  • Add the lauki pieces to the daal. Let the laukis and the daal get completely cooked. Do not overcook either of them.
  • In a separate pan, heat up the oil to a smoking point but don’t burn it. Add the karela slices and shallow fry them. Drain the oil and add them to the daal.
  • Add salt to taste and boil the daal for couple more minutes to incorporate the flavors.
  • Add the ginger paste and keep the flame on medium for the daal to have a gentle boil. Do not boil the daal for a long time after adding the ginger paste. You want the fresh ginger taste to be there.
  • Reheat the leftover mustard oil and add the radhuni/methi/pnach phoron, red chilies and bay leaves to it in the mentioned order. Once the spices are well roasted and you can smell a nice aroma, add the spices with the oil in the daal.
  • Immediately cover the daal to trap the aroma.
  • You can also add the daal to the oil (my Maa does it this way).
  • Serve the daal with fried eggplants (begun bhaja) and plain white rice.

PS: If you do not like the bitter taste in your daal, you can skip the karela and cook the daal like I mentioned above. Use jeera as a tempering spice in that case.

 

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A woman is incomplete if she is not a mother?

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I am at a junction where it’s almost inevitable that I am facing multiple questions about my thoughts and future plans of having kids. Doesn’t matter if I say the same thing again and again, some people are unstoppable. They are very perplexed if I say “no I don’t have any plans and I might not want to have kids ever in my life”. They try to convince me by saying “oh, now it’s fine, but you’ll be very lonely when you are old”, “you might regret later”, “Oh no, why?” “you are already old, don’t be stupid, do it before it’s too late”. Really? How do they know I’ll be very lonely, how do they know I’ll regret later? Am I in a rush to keep up with the social guidelines?

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Did I grow up with the sole purpose to get married in my twenties, have kids in my thirties and then be a mother forever until I die? That’s the social norm and I better abide by it. I should not deprive my parents from having the joy of being grandparents. What about me? I might not be capable of bringing up a kid to be a good human being with good values and principles. What if I decide to take that responsibility and then fail miserably? Giving birth to a child is no big deal but caring for a child is not everybody’s task. I have heard a zillion times that “it will automatically happen, don’t worry, it happens to everybody”. No, it does not happen to everybody. I have seen many, many mothers and fathers failing miserably to raise a kid. I am not saying they did it intentionally but they had no clue what they were doing. They just had a kid or many because that’s what you are supposed to do. I don’t think I am ready yet. I might not feel like I am ready ever in my life or it might be just tomorrow. Who knows?

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Our society sees married women without kids as incomplete, they look down upon them. They look at them with pity and if you are lucky enough, with sympathy if they know that you tried your best but couldn’t have a kid. As if they have wasted their womanhood. I see many of my friends, colleagues, relatives and neighbors being lost in the ocean of motherhood, completely losing their identity as a person. They look like they waited all their life to be mothers and only mothers. I know I’ll be showered with criticism for not being sensible enough to understand the greatness of motherhood because I am not a mother. That’s completely wrong. We deify mothers, we see them as super humans, we demand them to be more than just a woman. We expect them to absorb pain and suffering because they are the mothers. The women also take pride in their godly role.

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Don’t get me wrong, I am all for mothers, all the great mothers (and also the not so great ones) who feed us, nurture us, take care of us. To me, my mother is also my lifeline, the very basis of my existence but in the process she forgot to have a life of her own. She gave all her life to be a good mother (and also a good wife). She is still not done. It’s a lifelong exam and you have to try your best to do your best. I am not that brave and not yet ready to start that journey and I will choose to be incomplete for now.

This daal is a humble everyday daal just like my mother. Nothing extraordinary but still special. It’s simple yet delicious. This is my mother’s recipe with a little bit of my tweaking, just like I am almost my mother’s replica with a bit of tweaking.

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Recipe:

Ingredients:

Red lentils/musur daal: ¾ cup

Water: around 2-3 cups (doesn’t really matter, you can always add or reduce the water)

Turmeric: ½ tsp.

Radhuni seeds/wild celery seeds**: a little more than ½ tsp.

Dry red chili whole: 2-3 nos.

Mustard oil/olive oil: 2tsp.+ 2tsp.

Shallots (small)/small onions: 10-12 nos., peeled. (I usually use small onions)

Or, Regular red onions: half of a small onion, thinly sliced or finely chopped.

Salt to taste

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  • In a deep bottom medium pot bring the water to a boil.
  • Wash the red lentils and add it to the boiling water. Let it come to a boil again. Once it starts boiling, bring the flame to medium (the water should still be in a rolling boil).
  • Periodically remove the white scums (foamy substance).
  • Once there is no more scum on the top, add the turmeric powder and mix with a spoon.
  • Let the lentils get almost cooked and then whisk it with a hand whisk. Do not whisk it vigorously and you don’t need any fancy electrical whisk too.
  • Add salt and let it boil for few more minutes.
  • While the daal is boiling, heat up two teaspoons of oil in a frying pan. Add the shallots or the small onions and bring the flame to medium. Shallow fry them until there are multiple brown spots on them. Slow and shallow frying will make them sweet and a bit smoky in taste.
  • Add the onions to the almost cooked boiling daal and gently boil it for another five minutes or until the daal is completely cooked and reaches your desired consistency. You can add more hot water here if the daal looks very thick or boil it vigorously if it looks very thin.

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Seasoning/tadka/phoron:

  • In another small deep ladle or pot add the rest of the two teaspoons of oil and slowly heat it up. Don’t let it burn.
  • Once the oil is hot, bring the flame to medium low and add the radhuni seeds. Let them sizzle, it will take around a minute (slowly sizzling the seeds will flavor the oil).
  • Add the dry red chilies and let them come to a shade darker.
  • Pour the seasoning into the daal and immediately cover the pot with a lid and turn off the gas/flame.
  • Keep it covered for 5 minutes and then serve it with plain white rice and lime wedges (not lemon). You can eat it as a soup too.

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Variation:

*Instead of adding slow roasted onions, you can deep fry the thinly sliced onions, crumble them and add them add the end.

* You can skip the slow roasting part and add the radhuni seeds, followed by the red chilies and then finely chopped regular red onions and slowly fry them until a little brown. Make sure that the spices do not get burnt. You can skip the onions altogether but that will steal the taste.

** Radhuni is a very special spice mainly used by the Bengali community in India. It is called wild celery seeds in English but do not confuse it with celery seeds. If you do not have access (which is very likely) to radhuni, grab a Bengali friend to provide you some or use anise seeds instead. I have never used anise seeds for this soup but they are the closest in terms of taste.

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Shrikhand and choosing your poison

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Recently I have been struggling to lose some weight. Maybe someday have that perfectly flat tummy which TV, movies and ads have seared into my brain as being the ideal female form. I eat ‘healthy’, I exercise – but I still gain weight. May be the air is bad. Who knows? While trying to lose weight, the first food group which we consider BAD is always the good old carbs. Everyone I talk to says “Oh no, you are eating half a cup of white rice with dinner? No way can you lose weight. Is that white sugar? OMG, God help you”.

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I can do many things to lose weight but I cannot live without white rice for dinner. I need it at least three to four days a week. And if eating half a cup of cooked rice makes me fat, I am ready to be fat. At least, I do not consume processed sugar every day. Although I add sugar to my tea only twice a week, my husband adds sugar to his tea everyday (but is still managing to lose weight). Being the person who decides mostly what is to be consumed every day, I decided to replace the good old bad white sugar with “raw cane sugar which happens to be brown”. As we know, everything brown should be good, right? Brown rice, brown bread, brown grains, brown sugar syrup, brown skin? Looks like I was wrong. Here is why.

 

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To my surprise, when I did my research to find out which sugar is less evil than the other, I found that as with the world around me, there are a lot of grey zones in the world of sugar. Turns out that white sugar is mostly glucose which is the simplest form of sugar and is readily/quickly absorbed by the body. It also has a high glycemic index and is unquestionably bad for diabetic people. So, okay, granted: white sugar is not so good for you. But what about the ‘natural sweeteners’? Looks like they are not as good as I thought. After much reading and comparing them upto three decimal points in terms of calorie and nutrition, my conclusion is, none of them is more superior than the other. Maple syrup might be the best bet but the better grades are very cost prohibitive (and my husband, being a horrible food snob, will not touch anything other than Grade A Light Amber). Agave might seem like a good choice as it has very low glycemic index but on the other hand it has a very high fructose index and can be worse for you in the long term. Brown sugar and honey are very flavorful but not much in terms of nutrition. You have to take gallons of them to get the nutritional value.

 

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Long story short: If you are NOT eating a huge amount of sugar every day, it really doesn’t matter which one you use. I keep a bottle of honey and maple syrup at home to flavor my tea and yogurt, but they give me the same calories. I like the complex flavor of honey and maple syrup. I like agave but stay away from it due to its high fructose content. If you really want the “best” sugar, try date molasses (khejur gur in Bengali) – it’s loaded with nutrients!

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Recently, I am hooked on Srikhand, which is a very traditional Indian dessert made with yogurt and flavored with saffron and cardamom. I flavor the yogurt with honey as I like the flavor of honey and yogurt together. You are more than welcome to use any sugar of your choice. This is very kid-friendly but do not use raw honey for kids under one as there is a threat of infant botulism.

 

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Recipe:
Ingredients:
Whole milk yogurt (please): 2-3 cups
One cardamom, seeds removed and crushed finely. You can toss the shell or use it in your tea.
A pinch of saffron
One-two table spoon of milk
Honey/maple syrup to taste (you can add sugar too)
Fruit of your choice
Nuts of your choice
• Place cheesecloth or a fine cotton/muslin on a strainer over a bowl. Put the yogurt in the cloth and cover it. Keep it in the refrigerator and let it drain for at least overnight or couple of days.
• After a day or two, the day you want to eat it, heat up the milk a little bit. Toast the saffron a little bit, crush it with a mortar pestle or with you finger and add it to the warm milk. Cover for 15-30 minutes.
•  Add the cardamom powder and the saffron to the yogurt and mix nicely. I whip it a little bit with a spoon to give it a fluffy texture.
• Keep it in the refrigerator or serve it with a drizzle of your sweetener and chopped fruits.
• Add the chopped nuts while serving (optional)
• You can add powdered sugar to your yogurt too instead of honey or maple syrup.
Sometimes I skip the saffron/cardamom part and zest some lemon and orange to it. Sometimes just honey or maple syrup and nuts. It’s a very flexible recipe and you can tweak it to your convenience.

Here is another recipe from my favorite blogger Lakshmi. She can make anything look beautiful. I loved the saffron hue in the yogurt.

 

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Tok daal/Mango and lentil soup

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Every year I miss Poila Boishakh, the festival of the New Year according to the Bengali lunar calendar. Poila Boishakh is the first day of the month Boishakh (approximately in the first week of April), but the summer is already scorching hot during the day. If you were lucky, there might be a slight breeze in the evening, cooling you down just a bit so you could wear your new clothes. A charming custom was that if you were a regular customer at any local store, on this day the shopkeeper would invite you to stop by and have a small snack (more here). In this way, the relationship was elevated above the purely commercial level in a way my local Wal-Mart manager would probably not understand.

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Every year during my childhood, I went to various places from a shoe store to the grocer to the jewelry store with Baba. The icing on the cake was if any of the shopkeepers gave me a Maaza (a very popular mango juice drink in India) or a glass of raw mango sherbet/Aam panna. We invariably came back home with boxes of sweetmeats and Bengali calendars given by the stores (usually with a Hindu god or goddess on them). The moment we got back home, I’ll literally jump on those boxes and sort through the sweets I wanted to eat. I didn’t give anyone any choice. I would choose mine and then Baba and Maa would have theirs. The story became slightly different when my brother started voicing his opinions though. We would keep the boxes in the refrigerator and eat one or two every day. I would unroll each and every calendar and sort through them as well (I really liked the ones with a glossy finish). If a calendar happened to be in English, I would save it for my room. The glossy ones were usually given by the bigger stores and to the chosen customers. There would be goddess Durga on one with a different weapon in each of her ten arms, while Lakshmi would be showering her blessings on another. The “modern” stores were more secular and would sometimes put the Eiffel tower or the Taj Mahal on their calendars. On Poila Boisakh, we always took down the calendars from previous years and put the new ones on the wall. One went in the bedroom, one in the living room, one in my room and one with a God or Goddess went to my Maa’s prayer room. The rest were distributed.

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As Poila Boishakh was a day off for all of us, we used to have lunch at home. We ate simple things because it was hard to digest an elaborate or super spicy, greasy meal when the temperature outside was close to 40C. Among other things on the menu, tok daal (sour lentil soup) was a must. Green mangoes were abundant in the market during that time, and as Ayurveda holds that they have a cooling effect on the stomach, the tok daal with green mango slices was a regular in our house throughout summer. Making tok daal either on the Sankranti (the last day of the year) or on the New Year day is a tradition from my Dida’s (maternal grandma) time. When I called my Maa a couple of days ago and said we will have a small get together at my place and I will cook daal, Maa said “ki daal banabi, tok daal?” (What are you making, the sour lentil soup?). After that, there was no going back: I had to cook it right away.

Recipe:

Ingredients:

Musur daal/Red lentils: ½ cup

Green mango (has to be very sour): ½ of a big one or one small (depending on how sour you want it and how sour the mango is), chopped into ½ inch pieces.

Water: 3 cups

Turmeric: ½ tsp.

Mustard oil(any other oil will do too but not optimum): ½ tbsp.

Sugar: one pinch

Black mustard seeds: 1 tsp.

Dry red chilies: 3-4

Salt to taste

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  • Start boiling the water in a deep bottom pot.
  • Once the water comes to a full boil, add the daal (rinsed of course)
  • Let the daal come to a boil too.
  • Once it starts boiling, reduce the flame to medium.
  • Remove the scum from the top periodically.
  • Once there is no more scum forming, add the turmeric. Give it a mix.
  • Let it boil for several more minutes until almost cooked.
  • Whisk it very nicely to make a homogenous soup. Do not whisk it to so much that the daal loses all it’s texture.
  • Add the chopped mangoes and let the daal boil for several more minutes or until ta mangoes are completely cooked.
  • Mash one or two pieces to add the sour flavor to the daal. Add salt and sugar and mix everything well.
  • In a separate small pot heat up ½ tablespoon of mustard oil (any other oil if you do not have mustard oil) on medium heat. Add the black mustard seeds.
  • In a few minutes, the seeds will splutter and start dancing around. Add the dry red chilies and let them go a shade darker. You will get a nice aroma.
  • Add this seasoning/tadka to the boiling daal and immediately cover the pot. Switch off the flame too.
  • Let the pot covered for 5 minutes and then uncover and mix the tadka with the daal.
  • Serve it with plain white rice.

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Optional: Add few curry leaves once the mustard seeds start dancing followed by the dry chilies. Or, follow this seasoning.

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

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Duniyata bhai ajab karkhana

Kei ba khaye khiri khechiri, kahar pete uda kana

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

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

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

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Hooked on Haleem (or maybe Khichda)?

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

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

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

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

Recipe:

Ingredients:

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

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

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

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Tomato: One medium, chopped

Onion: one medium, finely chopped

Ginger: 2 inch piece, grated

Garlic: 3 big clove, mashed

Or,

Ginger-garlic paste: 2 tbsp.

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

Green chilies: 3-5 nos.

Turmeric: 3 tsp.

Oil: 2 tbsp.

Garam masala: 2 tsp.

Cumin powder: 1 tbsp.

Coriander powder: 1 tbsp.

Cumin seeds: ½ tbsp..

Clarified butter or ghee: 2 tbsp.

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

Salt to taste

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To garnish:

Handful of cilantro finely chopped

Green chilies: few, finely chopped

Roasted cumin and coriander powder: few tbsp.

Beresta/fried onions: around a cup

Lemon wedges: one per person minimum

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

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

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

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

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

OR,

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tadka (optional):

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

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

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Serving suggestion:

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

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

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 Beresta or fried onions:

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

Arooq/Minced chicken fritters from the Bohra communtiy

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Every so often I learn about a “new” community in the melting pot that is India. My newest fascination is with the Bohra Muslims. The Bohra community is something of an outlier, not fitting any of the standard uneducated Indian’s stereotypes of Muslims being underprivileged, poor, sexist and uneducated. I’ll elaborate on other aspects that make them unique further into the article. At least at first sight, they appear to be liberal and progressive compared to many other Muslim sects. Significantly, in the face of widespread resentment against “regular” Muslims, they have managed to maintain an amicable relationship with the Hindu majority in Gujarat. From wearing colorful rida rather than the austere black burkha to educating their kids in secular institutions, the Bohras of India have subtly but firmly managed to keep themselves separate from other Muslim sects.

The Bohra community also has a unique ancestry, being a sub-sect of Ismaili Shias who emigrated from Yemen. The Muslim communities in Gujarat have different origins, histories, dialects, cultures and even religious beliefs. Some came for trade; some accompanied invading armies, some sought employment. Even others, like the Bohra Muslims came to India fleeing religious persecution in their native land for their acceptance of At-Tayyeb Abul-Qasim as Imam instead of his uncle Al-Hafiz. Supporters of Tayyeb came to be known as Tayyibi Ismailis. Later, Tayyibi Muslims came to be known as Bohras which is believed to originate from the Gujarati word for ‘trader’.

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The original Ismailis Bohras went through several splits forming smaller sub-groups. The Dawoodi Bohras are the largest of these, composed of those who supported Dawood Burhanuddin ibn Qutb Shah during a power struggle in the sixteenth century. They are a tightly knit community and are governed solely by their Dai, who is the absolute supreme leader of the community. Indeed, each and every action from a marriage to owning a business is subject to his personal permission. Bohras believe that this strict enforcement keeps them united, helps them to live a ‘pure Bohra life’ and helps the community to thrive even under the threatened circumstances of being a minority Muslim community in a predominantly Hindu nation.

Anyway, like some other minority communities in India (such as the Jews, Persians, African and Armenians), Bohras too have an invisible fence drawn around them. They have acquired some intermixed cultural traits, yet retain their strong community structure. There cuisine is very unique with Persian, Middle Eastern and Guajarati influences. Although there is no restriction on its consumption, beef is not a popular meat; instead they prefer chicken and lamb. Arooq is a specialty of the Dawoodi Bohras. These can be eaten as a snack with a cilantro and mint chutney/ketchup/hot n sour tomato sauce or with plain rice and daal. Or they can be tucked into a roti with some greens (just like the traditional falafel wraps).

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Arooq recipe (adapted from Madhur Jaffrey)

Ingredients:

Minced/ground chicken breast, boneless: 1 lb.

Turmeric: 1/8 tsp.

Red chili powder/cayenne powder: ¼ tsp (add more if you like)

Hot green chili/habanero: ½ tsp. (again, if you like more, feel free to add it)

Black pepper, freshly ground:

All purpose flour: 2 tbsp.

Eggs: 2 beaten

Ginger: one inch sized, very finely minced.

Cilantro: as per your taste (finely chopped)

Scallion/green onion: 2 sprigs, finely chopped (only the green part)

Salt to taste

Vegetable oil for deep frying

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  • Add everything together except the oil and the eggs. Mix well.
  • Add the eggs and mix again.
  • Refrigerate the mix covered for at least an hour (more will not hurt).
  • Take it out of the refrigerator and let it come to room temperature.
  • Heat up the oil in a deep bottom wok/kadai.
  • Bring the heat to medium and add around 1 tbsp. of the mixture to the oil. Add more and let them get cooked and turn into golden brown in color.
  • Keep stirring while they are sizzling in the oil for even cooking and browning.
  • Rain them on an absorbent paper and serve immediately.

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