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.

 

Are we Durgas or Daminis? Does Durga eat Mangsher bhuna khichuri?

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Ya devi sarvabhuteshu, shanti rupena sangsthita

Ya devi sarvabhuteshu, shakti rupena sangsthita

Ya devi sarvabhuteshu, matri rupena sangsthita

Ya devi Sarva Bhooteshu Buddhi Roopena Samsthita

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She is preparing for her annual visit. Photo courtesy: Sanchari Sur

She is omnipresent as the symbol of peace, power, and intelligence. She is Gauri, who sheds light on our lives and she is Narayani who makes us conscious. We take refuge in her when in distress and she accomplishes all our objectives. She is Maa Durga, the universal mother. We bow our head to her and worship her power to fight against the evil.

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Maa Durga will be coming home soon with all her kids to visit her parents. She must be counting the days like we all do. She must be packing her bags, buying gifts and making sure she has everything in place before she leaves. She must have called her mother and given her a list of things she wants to eat while she is home. I cannot help but think that she must also be having a tough life dealing with all the craziness around her. Just handling Shiva, her clearly bipolar husband must be sufficient to keep her busy all the time. Ganesh, the lovely son with a big tummy must be constantly nagging her for food. And what do you do if you have two unmarried adult children at home? She must have tried a zillion times to convince her son Kartik and daughter Saraswati to get married and settle down. Poor Saraswati, being too highly educated acted against her as she thought too highly of herself. Being excessively handsome didn’t work well for Kartik either. Thank goodness, Lakshmi was there for her mother. Being the epitome of goodness (and also having found an excellent husband in Vishnu) she must have been be a huge relief to the much-hassled Durga.

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Photo courtesy: Sanchari Sur

But, she is Durga, the indestructible. She is Trinayani, and with her three eyes can easily keep an eye on everything around her. She is Durgatinashini who can eliminate any misfortune. She is Dashabhuja who with her ten hands can handle a thousand jobs simutaneously. Don’t we expect a lot from her? My troubles are not even a fraction of hers, but already I am dead tired. I really need eight more hands and two extra eyes to deal with all the things around me.  I really cannot handle life the way it is now. I can only dream of visiting home and my parents annually. I haven’t been home for a while (I mean quite a while) and I always wonder and ask my friends “Is India still the same? The way it used to be?”. The answer, unfortunately, is probably not. On one hand we are planning for Devi Durga’s annual visit and on the other hand we are blocking roads because a real-life Durga, someone’s mother or sister was raped and molested. Someone has killed another female baby because they will take chances with a male child who may turn out to be an Asura (demon) rather than a Durga. I can’t open the daily news anymore without having to read about rape, molestation and domestic violence against women. Maybe in the minds of a certain section of Indian males, mortal women do not deserve to be treated as Durgas. Are we going to fight with these demons all our life but fail? Are our real life Asuras so destructive and powerful that they are invincible? Maybe not, as I read somewhere that divine power is slow but efficient. I believe one day we will all unite and with our divine power kill the demons. Their abode is already known- they reside in the darker recesses of our own minds. We can all celebrate a very real Durga Puja in our lives then.

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Anyhow, being modern-day Durgas, we are also allowed to play with sociocultural rules a little bit, aren’t we?  So I have added a little bit of meat to the traditional khichuri served at Durga Puja. Go ahead and break this one taboo- you will be OK, Durga is a mother and she knows that her kids get hungry.

You can read more about Durga Puja here, my last year’s post.

Recipe:

It’s a festive dish and requires a little bit of patience and time. The end result is delicious, so why not? The recipe was given to me by my friend Mita di who is from Bangladesh and it’s a delicacy in her home. Originally it’s her mom’s recipe . I have tweaked it very little. If you do not want to break any rule, you can make this traditional khichuri.

Ingredients:

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Short grained fragrant rice (like kalijeera/gobindobhog/kamini atop/chinigura) or basmati rice: 1 cup. I used short grained rice but basmati will work fine too. The rice has to be fragrant.

Chicken (bone in preferred): 1 pound. Cut into medium pieces (you can use beef/mutton too, you just have to cook it longer)

Red lentils/masoor daal: 1/3 cup

Yellow lentils/mung daal: 1/3 cup

Yellow split peas/motor daal: 1/3 cup

Water: 3 cups.+1 cup

Onion: One large, one small

Garlic: 4-5 fat cloves

Ginger: 2” piece

Or, two table spoons of ginger garlic paste

Cinnamon: 2”X 2 pieces broken in one inch pieces

Cloves: 6-8 nos.

Cardamoms: 6-8 nos.

Bay leaves: 4 nos.

Turmeric: 1 tsp.

Red chili powder: 2 tsp.

Cashews: a handful

Oil: 6 tbsp.

Fresh green chilies: as per you taste (I use 3-4 depending how hot they are)

Sugar: one big pinch

Ghee/clarified butter: 1 tbsp. or less.

Salt to taste

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  • Soak the split peas in water for about an hour and then drain.
  • Dry roast the mung daals very lightly until fragrant and then wash several times, drain.
  • Wash the rice several times and then soak it in water for 15-20 minutes. Drain and let it be a bit dry.
  • Wash the masoor daal and drain it as well.
  • Heat up 2 tbsp. oil in a wok or deep pan. Turn the heat to medium and add 2 one inch cinnamons, three cloves, three cardamoms and let them sizzle in oil a little bit. Add the bay leaves and let it sauté in the oil a little bit too.
  • Slice the large onion real thin and sauté the onions with the whole spices until the onions turn a little brownish.
  • Add the ginger garlic paste (if you are using fresh ginger and garlic, make a paste of them), chili powder and sauté the spices in the oil very oil. The spices should not have any raw smell.
  • Add the chicken (make sure they are patted dry), the turmeric and mix everything well.
  • Cook it on medium flame until oil starts leaving the edge of the container.
  • Add a cup of water (hot), salt and bring the meat to a boil. Reduce the flame to medium and cover the meat. Cook it until the meat is tender and reduce the sauce. The sauce should cling to the meat, not soupy.
  • While the meat is cooking, heat up three tablespoon of oil in a separate pot which can hold all the rice, lentils and meat.
  • Once the oil is hot, add the rest of the whole spices (cloves, cardamom and cinnamon) and the two bay leaves. Reduce the flame to medium and let them release the fragrance.
  • Add the small onion (very thinly sliced as well) and sauté until light brown.
  • Add the rice and sauté the rice in the oil until a bit transparent.
  • Add the daals and mix them well with the rice and again sauté them for couple minutes.
  • Add three cups of boiling/hot water and bring the water to a rolling boil again.
  • Add the meat with all the sauce/gravy, mix very well, add two tsp. or so salt, the sugar and the cashews and give it a gentle stir. Just enough to mix everything uniformly.
  • Reduce the flame to low and cover the pot. Let the whole thing cook for 10-15 more minutes.
  • Check in between to check if the rice is cooked or not and also for seasoning.
  • Once the rice is cooked, turn the heat off and keep it covered for another ten minutes. The excess water (if any) will be absorbed by this time.
  • Open the lid and fluff up the rice very gently and add the ghee and chopped green chilies. Cover for few more minutes and then serve with a side of salad.

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The texture will be dry (bhuna=dry) unlike a traditional khicuri which is more moist.

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The modern day Durga praying to the Goddess.

The modern day Durga praying to the Goddess. Photo courtesy: Sanchari Sur

Many modern day Durgas. Photo courtesy: Sanchari Sur

Many modern day Durgas. Photo courtesy: Sanchari Sur

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

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

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

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

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

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Recipe:

Ingredients:

Urad daal/split, husked black gram: 1 cup

Fennel seeds: 2 tsp.

Yogurt/Dahi: 2-3 cups

Tamarind Chutney: As much as you like

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

Black salt: to taste

Red chili powder: to taste (optional)

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

Coriander: a handful, finely chopped

Oil: enough to deep fry the dumplings

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

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

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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Falafels/Chickpea fritters

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A thought has been bugging me for a while, are we losing the balance? Losing balance to live a healthy yet happy life? Probably yes. As I write about food, I’ll keep it food related. After I came to this country (USA), it took me a while to adjust to the abundance and wastage and also the culture of fried chicken and humongous portions at restaurants. I wasn’t used to it. I have seen my Maa saving every last grain, not because we were poor, but because she thought it’s wrong to waste food. She didn’t pour a gallon of oil in her pot to cook something. She knew how to make food taste good without soaking it in oil. I couldn’t be like her. Rather to put in another way, I am not there yet. We Indians eat a lot of fried food, but when I was growing up, we were taught to live in moderation. It’s called ‘Bengali middle class culture’, rather ‘Indian middle class culture’. People were not super thin like the malnourished fashion models who have unfortunately become the stereotype of female beauty. Bengalis were proud of their ‘bhNuri’/potbellies and didn’t mind at all being a little on the heavier side of the weighing scale. I don’t know if it was right or wrong, may be neither right, nor wrong.

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Now things are rapidly changing. I can see two distinct mentalities, both being far from the reality. One section of society is willing to accept anorexia to achieve the Victoria’s Secret look while another is breaking the weighing scale. Some people freak out even if they hear the sound “deep frying”; others indulging with saturated fat almost in every bite they eat. I suppose both extremes have always existed but the number of people at either end seems to be increasing. I am seeing people going to such an extreme that they see everything unhealthy. They lose the fun of eating good food. Being suspicious of every grain they consume, or do not consume. On the other hand some people seem to have lost all semblance of self-control and are completely comfortable with their extreme obesity.

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Although I am nowhere close to my “ideal weight” (read model like), I do try to maintain a middle path. I don’t want stick thin legs and skinny arms. I also do not want to go XXXL. I believe in moderation. It’s ok to indulge yourself with deep fried food like these super delicious falafels if you crave them occasionally. Eating ice cream and skipping the gym once in a while is not going to kill you. The perfectly flat tummy you are trying to achieve is going to rob half of the happiness from your life. So, people, find the happy medium. Whole grains and bacon, gluten-free and artificially flavored, GMO and organic, fast food lovers and locavores, farm-raised or Wal-Mart bought can all be on the same plate…but just in the right amounts.

Recipe:

As I didn’t grow up eating falafel, I have no secret family recipe. I have adapted (rather followed it religiously) the recipe from here. I am copy-pasting the original recipe only with one or two minor changes. Go to the link if you want to see step by step pictures. It’s a no-fail recipe if you follow it carefully. It’s also a crowd pleaser and very easy to make.

Ingredients:

  • 1 pound (about 2 cups) dry chickpeas/garbanzo beans
  • 1 small onion, roughly chopped
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
  • 3-5 cloves garlic (I prefer roasted)
  • 1” piece of fresh ginger, roughly chopped
  • 3-4 green chili peppers
  • 1 1/2 tbsp flour
  • 1 3/4 tsp salt
  • 2 tsp cumin
  • 1 tsp ground coriander
  • 1/4 tsp black pepper
  • 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
  • Pinch of ground cardamom
  • Vegetable oil for frying (grapeseed, canola, and peanut oil work well)

Falafel

  • Pour the chickpeas into a large bowl and cover them by about 3 inches of cold water. Let them soak overnight. They will double in size as they soak – you will have between 4 and 5 cups of beans after soaking.
  • Drain and rinse the garbanzo beans well. Pour them into your food processor along with the chopped onion, garlic cloves, ginger, green chilies, parsley, flour, salt, cumin, ground coriander, black pepper, cayenne pepper, and cardamom.
  • Pulse all ingredients together until a rough, coarse meal forms. Scrape the sides of the processor periodically and push the mixture down the sides. Process till the mixture is somewhere between the texture of couscous and a paste. You want the mixture to hold together, and a more paste-like consistency will help with that… but don’t overprocess, you don’t want it turning into hummus!
  • Once the mixture reaches the desired consistency, pour it out into a bowl and use a fork to stir; this will make the texture more even throughout. Remove any large chickpea chunks that the processor missed.
  • Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1-2 hours.
  • Note: Some people like to add baking soda to the mix to lighten up the texture inside of the falafel balls. I don’t usually add it, since the falafel is generally pretty fluffy on its own. If you would like to add it, dissolve 2 tsp of baking soda in 1 tbsp of water and mix it into the falafel mixture after it has been refrigerated.
  • Fill a skillet with vegetable oil to a depth of 1 ½ inches. I prefer to use cooking oil with a high smoke point, like grapeseed. Heat the oil slowly over medium heat. Meanwhile, form falafel mixture into round balls or slider-shaped patties using wet hands or a falafel scoop. I usually use about 2 tbsp of mixture per falafel. You can make them smaller or larger depending on your personal preference. The balls will stick together loosely at first, but will bind nicely once they begin to fry.

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Note: if the balls won’t hold together, place the mixture back in the processor again and continue processing to make it more paste-like. Keep in mind that the balls will be delicate at first; if you can get them into the hot oil, they will bind together and stick. If they still won’t hold together, you can try adding 2-3 tbsp of flour to the mixture. If they still won’t hold, add 1-2 eggs to the mix. This should fix any issues you are having.

  • Before frying my first batch of falafel, I like to fry a test one in the center of the pan. If the oil is at the right temperature, it will take 2-3 minutes per side to brown (5-6 minutes total). If it browns faster than that, your oil is too hot and your falafels will not be fully cooked in the center. Cool the oil down slightly and try again. When the oil is at the right temperature, fry the falafels in batches of 5-6 at a time till golden brown on both sides.
  • Once the falafels are fried, remove them from the oil using a slotted spoon.
  • Let them drain on paper towels. Serve the falafels fresh and hot; they go best with a plate of hummus and topped with creamy tahini sauce. You can also stuff them into a pita.

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Troubleshooting: If your falafel is too hard/too crunchy on the outside, there are two possible reasons– 1) you didn’t process the mixture enough– return the chickpea mixture to the processor to make it more paste-like. 2) the chickpeas you used were old. Try buying a fresher batch of dried chickpeas next time.

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

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

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

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

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Ghugni recipe (cooked by Maa):

Not in a mood for savory? Try this.

Ingredients:

Chickpeas/yellow peas: 1 cup

Onion: 1 large, half finely chopped and half paste

Ginge paste: 2 tbsp

Red chili powder: 1 tsp.

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

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

Turmeric: ½ tsp

Tomato: 1 small

Oil: 1 ½ tbsp

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

Garnish:

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Green chili: 2-3 nos.

Cilantro: a handful chopped fine

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

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

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

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

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