Tomato-Peyaj Posto/Tomatoes Cooked with Onions and Poppy Seed Paste

 

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Around 3500-5000 BC, the ancient Sumerians called it Hul Gil (which translates to ‘joy plant’). Ask any native of West Bengal, India and seven thousand years later they will still vouch for the “joy” part of the name (and go into raptures). On a hot summer afternoon, a pile of white rice, a generous serving of daal and a side of potatoes cooked with poppy-seed paste is essentially the Bengali shortcut to the highest of the Seven Heavens. The charmingly named bhaat-ghoom siesta (rice-nap in my native language) which shortly follows that meal is equally coveted. Indeed, the career-minded Dr. Sen often laments that in his Faustian pursuit of science, his psyche sustained too much damage for him to enjoy a true bhaatghoom anymore.

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Home-Grown Tomatoes

So what am I talking about? Papaver somniferum or the poppy seed plant is one of the oldest plants mentioned in written history (4000 BC). The Sumerians passed on their knowledge of growing poppies (and of the euphoric effects of the seeds) to the Assyrians, who in turn looped in the Egyptians. Kind of an ancient version of passing the crack pipe, I guess. Ancient pictographs show the Egyptians growing poppies, and dried poppy plants surrounded the sarcophagi of the great pharaohs as they lay waiting for the eternal afterlife. Later around 1300 BC, the poppy reached Europe via the Mediterranean Sea route. Due to a low-moderate content of morphine and codeine (the seeds do not contain these components but they are introduced as contamination while separating the seeds from the seed pods), poppy seeds, if consumed frequently and in a large quantity, can to induce some sleepiness (no doubt explaining Shurjo’s lost and lamented afternoon naps). Indeed, Somnos, the ancient Roman  god of sleep, held poppies in his right hand and gave the plant its scientific name (P. somniferum). After the fall of the Roman empire, Arab traders brought poppies to China and then to Asia. Contrary to its use in Bengali cuisine, the culture of eating the seeds as food was not really widespread. In Persian and Mughal kitchens, it was used as a sauce thickener.

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Photo Courtesy:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poppy_seed

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In more recent times, the British gave this neutral sauce thickener a distinctly non-neutral twist in its tail. China was originally a huge exporter of goods to Europe but hardly imported any European goods, which caused an international trade imbalance unacceptable to Napoleon’s “nation of shopkeepers”. As such, the British decided to fix this problem by exporting Indian opium to China. The Chinese had already been introduced to opium smoking by Portuguese and Dutch traders, but the British raised the use of this drug to the level of an epidemic by sending shiploads of opium and literally forcing the Chinese to buy their goods. It has to be among the great ironies of international trade that over two centuries later, China single-handedly destroyed the British steel industry (led by its Indian magnate Lakshmi Mittal) by dumping their own low-cost product on the world market. Three countries, two centuries, one lesson: karma is a bitch.

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Anyhow, enough about world history, time for Bengali stories. Opium poppies were mainly grown in the dry-arid areas of the Bengal Province of the British Raj (mostly the present-day states of West Bengal and Bihar). Acre upon acre of agricultural land was transformed into poppy fields, watered with the blood, sweat and tears of the Indian farmers, who essentially had a simple choice between growing poppies and being hung from the nearest tree by the local sahib landlord. At this tragic cost, a small mercy came from the piles of  seed pods left over after opium extraction. Ever willing to experiment with food, the Bengalis found out that the tiny poppy seeds (posto in my native language) make a very good, rather neutral but appetizing ingredient to include in their otherwise mundane diet. My fellow food history enthusiast Pritha Sen wrote a pretty comprehensive article on this quirk of history where she explains the historical background of poppy eating culture among Bengalis.

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Once India got its independence, Indian government clamped down on poppy cultivation and it became more regulated. The once abundant ingredient became scarce and prices shot through the sky. Soon, the ordinary middle class Bengali found this highly prized commodity beyond his reach for daily consumption. But, remember we are talking about an addictive substance here – even today, Bengalis stretch their wallet and keep it in their daily menu, even if that means cutting down on the fish or the meat.

My ancestors being from riverine East Bengal where the opium poppy was never a big crop, I was never a big fan of posto but am gradually beginning to appreciate its subtle, complex taste. Dr. Sen on the other hand is quite fond of potatoes cooked with posto (maybe as it was the only thing one of his favorite ex-girlfriends knew how to make). I still have reservations against some of the posto-dishes which other Bengalis go gaga over but this tomato-peyaj posto is lip-smackingly delicious.

You’ll find a very similar post I wrote a while ago on the history of posto but I thought I needed to be more expansive and write a bit more about it.

The original recipe belongs to my namesake who write her blog at eCurry. You’ll find her original recipe here.

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Recipe:

Ingredients

Tomato (preferably very ripe): ½ kg/1.2 lbs.

White poppy seeds/posto/khuskhus: 1 tbsp.

Dry red chillies: 2 nos.

Turmeric: ½ tsp.

Sugar: to taste

Green chillies: 2 nos. (adjust according to taste)

Onion, chopped: 1/3 cup

Mustard oil: 2 tbsp.

  • Soak the poppy seeds and the dry red chillies in water for 15-20 minutes.
  • Chop the tomatoes.
  • Drain the water and grind them together to a fine paste (I used my grinding stone but if you do not have one, make sure you grind it really smooth. The texture will be very different if the seeds are still grainy)
  • Heat up one table spoon of mustard oil (don’t let it burn, you want that mustard flavor to be with you) and add the chopped onions.
  • Sauté them until translucent and then add the tomatoes and turmeric powder.
  • Cook the tomatoes until it becomes thick and sauce-y.
  • Add the poppy seed paste and salt. Cook until oil starts leaving the pan.
  • Check for seasoning and add salt (if it needs more) and sugar to taste. If my tomatoes are not very tart, I usually skip the sugar.
  • Take it off the fire and add chopped green chillies to it. Mix it lightly.
  • Drizzle another table spoon of raw mustard oil over it and serve it with white rice. Serving it any other way would be a blasphemy.

 

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.

 

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.

Narkol kumri/Pumpkin (butternut squash) with coconut

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Who wants their food to stick to the cooking pot? I guess no one, except me and a few others who have tasted the caramelized flavor that is unique to small amounts of “burn” on “non-non-stick” cookware. The shelves in the supermarket are stacked with ‘non-stick’ cookware of every shape and size. We want to cook with as less oil as possible and take refuge in the nonstick pots and pans. We use them so much that I am sure we even manage to partially Teflon-coat our stomach lining. Dr. Sen, at least, has eaten all the Teflon from the über-flimsy nonstick utensils he bought from Walmart during his grad school days. We all did that, bought cheap nonstick to save money. Once I heard one of my friends say “I have stopped frying fish in the nonstick pan and fry it in an aluminum pan instead. The fish sticks to the nonstick pan.” When I asked her to clarify her sentence thinking she is contradicting her point, she said “oh! the nonstick is not nonstick anymore, the coating is gone long ago”. I laughed.

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Unlike many of you, I find nonstick cookware pretty useless unless I am shallow frying fish or making omelets. Every time I went to India, I brought back one small and one large nonstick kadai (Indian style wok). They were very easy to use but I didn’t like them much. I had to be careful while cooking in them. Couldn’t heat them up really high, had to use wood or plastic spatulas and then my gravies never had that deep reddish-brown color like my Maa. My onions never caramelized the way I wanted and they never, ever became crisp. I blamed my inadequate cooking skills and lack of experience.

One time, my mother-in-law was here and she mentioned that “tor ei nonstick korai te kichhutei ranna-r rong ashena” (your nonstick pot is not giving the gravy the right color). Voilà…..maybe my pale curries were not my fault? After she left, I went to my local Indian grocery store and bought myself an aluminum kadai. The first time I cooked in it, it created magic. I still remember I posted a picture on Facebook saying that I fell in love with it. It brought out the right texture I craved for so many years to so many dishes. It added that extra crispiness, that subtle burnt flavor, that deep caramelized color and that freedom of using any type of spoon I wanted to use. I can scratch its bottom like I am unearthing a stone-age fossil and still be fine with it. I can make the daal pora and finally get the pora taste. The narkol kumri has that caramelized taste and the chhnyachra (a mixed vegetable dish cooked with fish heads) has that perfect texture.

 

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Since then, I have been hooked forever. I hate the nonstick kadais. I am sure you all cook brilliant dishes in your nonstick pots and pans but I failed. I ended up with “close enough but not like my Maa” taste every time. I am still completely not there but in the right direction. You can cook this in any pot you want, it will taste good but to make it perfect, go for a non-nonstick pot, you won’t regret it. You can either grate the pumpkin or chop it up fine. If you grate it before cooking, it will retain a texture and so that’s the best way to cook it. It takes less time to cook and retains some of the texture. I did not have the time to grate and that’s why I ended up with a mashed puree-like end product. If you manage to cut them julienned (maybe with your food processor) , you can avoid grating altogether.

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Recipe:

My husband and I are not big fans of sweet taste in the savory things. We avoid adding sugar if not necessary. This curry has a sweet taste. The sweetness comes from the pumpkin and the coconut. No added sugar. We both love it even if it’s sweet. The occasional biting of the green chilis breaks the sweet monotony as well.

Ingredients:

Butternut squash/Pumpkin: around 1lb/500grms. (without skin)

Mustard oil: 1-11/2 tbsp.

Turmeric: 1/2 tsp.

Whole cumin seeds: 1/2 tsp.

Bay leaves: 2 nos.

Dry Red chilies: 2 nos.

Ghee/clarified butter: 1 tsp.

Coconut: 1/3 cup grated (nothing like freshly grated but frozen will work as well)

Green chilies: 2-3 nos. depending on how hot they are or how hot you want the curry, chopped.

Either take one teaspoon or a little bit more of roasted cumin-coriander and red chili powder or use them separately to make up the volume. Roasting the spices are optional.

Bengali garam masala:

Cloves: 2

Cinnamon: 1/2″ piece

Cardamom: one

Grind the above three ingredients to a fine paste or powder.

Salt to taste

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  • Heat the oil in  heavy bottom non-nonstick pan (preferred). Do not let the oil smoke, it will take away all the mustard flavor from it.
  • Reduce the flame and let the oil come to medium temperature.
  • Add the whole cumin, bay leaves and the red chilies. Saute them for a minute ow two until they release a nice aroma. Take the fried chilies out of the oil.
  • Add the chopped/cubed/julienned/grated pumpkin/squash in the oil. add the turmeric and then coat everything in oil and turmeric. Keep sauteing every after half a minute for few more minutes until you see light brown spots on them.
  • Cover it withe tight lid for five minutes (if grated) or more (if chopped). Do not add any water as the pumpkin will release their own juices.
  • Add the cumin-coriander-red chili powder, salt and the grated coconut. Give everything a good mix and let it cook. At this point it will depend on how you cut the pumpkin. It will take longer if the pieces are bigger. use your judgement and cook until it caramelizes a little bit at the bottom or the spices are nicely incorporated with the pumpkin mash.
  • Taste for seasoning and adjust accordingly.
  • Add the garam masala and drizzle the ghee. Add the chopped green chilies and mix everything one more time.
  • Cover and let the flavors to incorporate.
  • Serve with plain white rice.

Another version (non-veg):

Skip the garam masala and the ghee and add tiny shrimps instead. We love the non-veg version more. First, coat the de-veined and beheaded shrimps with salt and turmeric and then quickly shallow fry them. Cook the curry in the same oil you cooked the shrimp, it will add an extra layer of shrimp-y flavor. Add the shrimps while adding the coconut.

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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.

 

 

Shorbet Adas: A humble lentil soup from a conflict world

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recipe:

Ingredients:

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

Turmeric: 1 tsp.

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

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

Aleppo pepper/chili flakes: to taste

Few wedges of lemon
Salt to taste

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

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Mug-mushurer daal/Mixed lentil soup with butternut squash

DSC_0293In between sessions of intense research, my nerdy husband often takes a break (from the experiments, not from the nerdiness) and Googles random stuff. Some of these things are so random that he comes up with results even more inconclusive than his scientific data. For example, he knew the words Sagina Mahato but had no clue about what they might mean (it’s a Bengali movie made in the 70s). Then he realized that he knows the word khagina but again had no clue about it. Isn’t it random? He will always say “Google is your friend” or sometimes if I ask him something and he is not in a mood to answer, he’ll say “GIYF”, which infuriates me. Anyway, from “sagina” his neurotic brain went to “khagina”, which he Googled and for a change came up with something beautiful, which was a recipe for anda/egg-bhurji aka khagina on Shayma Saadat’s blog spicespoon.com. He liked the recipe (and was blown away by the looks of the blogger) and sent the link to me.

DSC_0299It was love at first sight. I loved her blog and after reading couple of her stories and recipes, I loved it even more. A very funny thing happened when I saw the khagina recipe on her blog. A few months ago I had almost nothing at home to eat, only leftover daal in the fridge. Usually I fry an egg to eat with the daal, but this time I made a bhurji instead, and threw in a few random things to mix with the egg. To my surprise, it was almost the exact same recipe written on her blog. How could it be possible? I didn’t even know the name khagina, never Googled it and nor had I seen the egg-bhurji recipe on the internet. I am very surprised and have no clue how to explain it. Maybe it’s a true coincidence. The day I made the bhurji, my husband liked it very much and found it very unusual. I never made it again and had no plan to make it in near future. It was a makeshift recipe for no-food-in-the-fridge days. I didn’t anticipate that my husband’s random Google searches would link me to back to my haphazardly constructed anda-bhurji in this strange way. Life is full of surprises.

DSC_0311I was browsing around trying to find something easy and quick to try from her blog. Finally I found this daal and decided to try it. I love daal and try to cook it every possible way. I liked the recipe soon after I read it. I liked the story behind it even more. It’s beautiful and I can literally visualize the story. If you read the recipe, please read the story….it will make the daal taste even better.

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Recipe: (adapted from Shayma Saadat of Spicespoon and my mother’s recipe)

I have used both cumin and Bengali five spice as seasoning and both of them taste equally good. So, feel free to use any of them.

Ingredients:

Mushur daal/masoor daal//red lentils: ½ cup

Mug daal/yellow lentils: ½ cup

Onion:  2 tbsp. finely chopped

Turmeric: ½ tsp.

Garlic: 2 cloves

Tomato: One medium, ripe and juicy, finely chopped

Cilantro: a handful, finely chopped

Jeera/whole cumin seeds/panchphoron/Bengali five spice: 11/2 tsp.

Butternut squash/pumpkin: 8-10 nos. cut into ¾-1 inch cubes (optional)

Green chilis: 2-3 nos., slit length wise (optional)

Dried red chilies: 2 nos.

Mustard or any other oil: 1 tbsp.

Salt to taste

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  • Wash the lentils with several changes of water and then drain.
  • Start boiling enough water to cook the lentils in a deep bottom pot.
  • Once the water starts boiling, add the lentils. Let the whole thing come to a boil again.
  • Turn the heat to medium.
  • While boiling the daal, spoon off any scum arising on the top of the lentils.
  • Add turmeric and let the lentils get almost cooked.
  • Mix the lentils with a whisk until they form a uniform consistency.
  • Add the chopped tomatoes. Let the tomatoes get cooked.
  • Add the butternut squash (if using) and boil for several more minutes until the squash is completely cooked and the soup reaches its desired consistency. Add water if the soup looks too thick by now. Add the green chillies too.
  • Add salt and mix well.
  • In a separate pan, heat up the oil. Once hot, turn the heat to low and add the garlic. Let the garlic infuse the oil.
  • Turn the heat to medium and then add the jeera/cumin/Bengali five spice next and let them sizzle a bit.
  • Follow with the dried chilies and let it go one shade darker.
  • Add the chopped onion and sauté it for few minutes. Once you get a nice aroma of all the sautéed spices, add the whole thing to the boiling daal.
  • Quickly cover the pot and turn the heat to low. Let it be like this for 5-10 more minutes.
  • Add lots of chopped cilantro and serve with plain rice.
  • Definitely sprinkle a generous amount of lemon juice while eating.
  • Goes well with a side salad.

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