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.

 

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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.

 

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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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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Digging up new potatoes and old memories…Stir fried new potatoes with fried onion

DSC_0402I have no clue why this dish is called Bihari bhujia not Pakistani bhujia as it’s eaten mostly in Pakistan. I am not even sure if it’s eaten in Bihar or not. I have been eyeing this recipe for a while but was not comfortable with the deep-fried onion part of it. I am very bad with deep-frying. Not everything comes out crispy, especially batter-fried stuff. They wilt in no time and so does my enthusiasm. A few weeks ago I made a kabab (recipe coming soon) which needed deep-fried onions (aka beresta in Persian). In the process, I finally figured out how to make the onions stay crisp. As a bonus, I also gathered enough courage to make this potato stir-fry (I used the new potatoes I harvested few weeks ago).

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In the neighborhood where I spent my childhood, potato picking was a yearly ritual. Our neighbor had a small plot of land in front of our house where he planted vegetables a few times a year. After school, I couldn’t wait to cross the tiny alleyway from our house to his field and start helping Joya jethu/Uncle Joya. As I was a tiny kid, I couldn’t help much physically but I think he appreciated my enthusiasm and energy. I used to get really excited when it was notun alu/new potato season. Of all the vegetables he grew, I found the potatoes especially exciting, although I don’t know exactly why. The moment Joya jethu dug up the potatoes, I would start taking them back to the basket, saving him a bit of effort I guess. The golden tubers hanging from the roots always made me happy in the anticipation that I might get a few of them to take home. After a hard day’s work, I would fold my frock to make a makeshift sack and Joya jethu would put a few potatoes in there. I would rush to Maa and she would make something simple with them, maybe aloor dum (potato curry with a dry gravy). The fresh-picked potatoes always tasted delicious.

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Anyway, more than two decades later, I harvested potatoes for the first time in the US a few days ago. It brought back so many memories. I am using my new potatoes sparingly. I want to eat them but keep them at the same time. I wanted to make something special with them. The stir-fried potato dish I am sharing with you today is very unique in taste. The beresta (fried onions) adds a smoky flavor to the dish. If you keep a box of beresta in the freezer, it will take just a few minutes to make it. I had them both with roti/paratha/flat bread and rice and daal, but with it tasted best with paratha. If you have to eat it with rice, try it with a slightly sour daal like aam daal.

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Recipe: (courtesy Madhur Jaffrey)

Ingredients:

Potatoes: around 2 pounds (best done with new potatoes)

Vegetable oil: ½ cup

Onion: one medium cut into very thin half rings

Dried round chilies: 15 nos. (any other variety of dried chilies will do as well)

Cumin seeds: 2 tsp.

Red chili powder/cayenne pepper: 1 tsp (or more if you like it hot)

Turmeric: 2 tsp.

Salt to taste

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  • Peel the potatoes and cut them into halves lengthwise (if you are using new potatoes, you can skip the peeling part. I didn’t peel them)
  • Put them in a bowl full of water.
  • Heat up the oil in a deep bottomed wok/kadai.
  • Bring the flame to medium high and then put the sliced onions. Do not overcrowd the wok as it will bring down the oil temp. down and the onions will not turn out to be crispy.
  • Drain the potatoes in a colander.
  • Keep frying the onions until dark reddish brown in color. Do not burn them. You might have to put the flame down a little bit if you see the onions are going dark very quickly.
  • Spread them on a paper towel for few seconds and then put them in a bowl. Do not keep the onions on the paper towel for a long time as they will soak the oil back from the towel and end up soggy (lesson learnt from experience).
  • Fry all the onions like this and reserve them to be used later.
  • Add the chilies in the same oil and fry them until they are one or two shades darker in color. Take them out from the oil and save them too.
  • Take out almost all the oil and keep a couple table spoons in the wok.
  • Add the cumin seeds and let them sizzle a little bit.
  • Add the sliced potatoes, turmeric, chili powder/cayenne pepper and saute them well on high heat for five minutes. Add salt.
  • Bring the heat to very low and then cover the pot. Let the potatoes cook for another 10-15 minutes. Stir once or twice in  between.
  • Once the potatoes are done, crumble the onions and the chilies and add them to the potatoes. Stir for another minute or two and serve hot. You can use the chilies whole as garnish as well for a milder taste.
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Pora aamer shorbot/ Aam panna/roasted mango drink:

Aampora_bottle_glassIt’s not poila boishakh (start of the lunar Bengali year) but this aam-porar shorbot takes me back to my childhood memories of that day. On poila boishakh every store opens a new account book (haal khata) to record the coming year’s sales. At the same time, they balance and close the previous year’s books. Regular customers are invited to stop by and treated to sweet and savory snacks (no doubt softening their minds before they are politely asked to pay their remaining debts to the storekeepers, which is a big help to the book-keeper who has to tally the credits and debits before the day is done). I don’t know much about the state of this custom nowadays, but when I was a kid, it was a pretty big deal. We got invitations from several different stores ranging from neighborhood grocers to cycle stands. To many of you cycle stands might be a new term, but not to people who used to or still commute daily from the suburb to the city for work or to school. These unique establishments were essentially valet-assisted bicycle garages right next to the suburban (or “local”) train stations. We parked our bicycles there and boarded the trains. There was a monthly rate which was cheaper than the daily rate. It was amazing how they knew almost every customer and their time of commute. They would park the bikes according to your time of arrival so that they don’t have to go through the entire lot to find your bike when you came to claim it. They used to get a little pissed off if you arrive at a different time than your usual time (if you had to do this, they preferred advance notice). This made sense, as you broke routine, they literally had to move hundreds of cycles packed like sardines in order of approximate return time to extricate yours.

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Bicycle stand next to Chandannagar station. Photo courtesy: Ramkrishna Basak

Photo1439When I was a kid, there were only a couple of cycle stands next to the station. Among them was Khan Cycle Stand, a large and pioneering establishment where my Baba used to park his bicycle every day. Being a veteran customer, he got the ‘haal khata’ invitation every year. Poila boishakh is usually around April 15th, when the summer has started showing its furious temper. I was an only child for a long time and used to accompany Baba to the stores. Among many other poila boishakh memories, the one which sticks in my mind like yesterday is the taste of the aam-porar shorbot served at Khan Cycle Stand every year. We never had aam-porar shorbot at home. Poila baisakh was the only day we had it and it tasted like heaven. After so many years, I wanted to recreate the aam-porar shorbot at home. I wish I could do it on Poila boishakh, but life in the United States does not always allow for such indulgences. I don’t think I can recreate the exact taste of that particular shorbot, but it tasted very good. Nostalgia always makes things taste better anyway. So, here you go, a small sip from a glass full of my childhood memories.

Aam_porar_shorbotThere is as such no exact measurement. I am giving you the recipe and you can adjust your portion.

 All you need is a couple of green mangoes, black salt, roasted cumin-coriander-red chili powder and sugar. Oh! And few ice cubes if you want it to be chilled.

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DSC_0125Roast the mangoes on open fire, either on stove top or on charcoal. Roasting it in the oven might not give you the best result but if you cannot make it any other way, go for the oven. Roast the mangoes until the entire skin changes color becomes almost yellowish and feels mushy when touched. Cool it off and peel the skin. Scrape off the pulp and keep it in a container. I scraped it with a spoon. It gets really messy but it’s well worth the mess. You can keep the pulp in the refrigerator for few weeks if there is no water and the container is tightly closed.

 Aampora_bottleWhen you want to prepare the drink, take a couple tablespoon of the pulp, add water, sugar and the black salt and give it a good stir. Check for seasoning. Keep it in the fridge for 15-20 minutes or more to chill the drink. Take it out, add the roasted powder, few ice cubes and drink it. If you use ice cold water, you can avoid the chilling part. Trust me, it tastes heavenly on a hot summer day.

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Neechey Chacha ki dukan…..Upar Madhu ki pakwaan/slow cooked curried potatoes

DSC_6800My life has been crazy for the last few daysmonths. But sometimes (read most of the time), when I am very tired and sleepy, my mind drifts away to different worlds, which are often clear and blurry at the same time…the fancy way to say this would be that I enter a trancelike halfway state between the worlds. The other world I am thinking about today is my college hostel, the one place in my life which I am yet to figure out if I loved, hated or both. Both the feelings are pretty strong when I think about those days. But anyway, I will talk about my hostel in another post.

DSC_6810The memory which suddenly came to my half-awake brain is of the tiny little store stuck in the wall right next to our hostel. We used to call it Chacha-r dokan (Uncle’s store). It was really a tiny store…I mean teeny-tiny. Chacha was a devout Muslim with a white beard, pretty bulky, with a big tummy and a very soft, polite nature. He was like a messiah to us girls who were almost in a prison, so disgustingly strict was our hostel. He used to sell anything a girl could need in her college-hostel life. From sanitary napkins to science notebooks, you name it, he had it. It was like a tiny and more efficient version of Walmart. My college days, to put it delicately, were NOT associated with an excess of money. Chacha was the person who was my go to person if I needed some cash to see me through particularly barren stretches of that already harsh desert. He didn’t even know my name. It was all trust. All I would say was “Chacha, paanch sao rupiya udhar milega? Kaal-parsu waapas de denge” (Uncle, can I borrow Rs.500/- from you? I’ll return it in a day or two). I didn’t do that every day though…only when I really needed it. He gave me the money and I returned it on time. Every time. I think when we were in our third year, Chacha stopped coming to the store and his son took over the business. He was the nicest person I have ever seen as a shopkeeper but we all missed Chacha. I used to keep asking his son if Chacha will come to the store anytime or not. He never did and sometime later he passed away. Chacha‘s son moved on in his life, as we did with ours, and the store was closed for good after couple of years. I don’t know exactly why, when or how but that tiny store and Chacha became part of an everlasting and fuzzily pleasant memory.

DSC_6809Like my other posts, this story will not follow a recipe or a food which is related to the above story. It’s not related to any food; it’s a part of my life and a cherished memory. But don’t worry; I have something to share which is ‘food’…for real. A potato curry known by us Bengalis as “alur dawm” and by similar-sounding names (like dum alu which literally means slow cooked potatoes) in other Indian languages. There are a million varieties but this one is my friend Madhu’s. She got the recipe from somewhere and then tweaked it to suit her taste (as she does for most things :P).  I follow her recipe to the T and I love it every time I dig into this “alur dawm

Recipe:

Ingredients:

Baby potatoes: 10-12 nos. or regular potatoes (4-5) cut into four

Tomato: One big, fat and ripe

Green chili: As per your taste

Red chili powder: 2 tsp. or more/less

Ginger paste: 2 tbsp.

Bay leaves: 2 nos.

Pnachphoron/Bengali five spice: 1 tsp. +1/2 tsp.

Whole jeera/cumin: ½ tsp.

Whole dhania/coriander: ½ tsp.

Dried red chilies: 2-3 nos.

Turmeric: 1 tsp.

Cilantro: a handful

Salt to taste

Oil: few table spoons

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  • Poke the baby potatoes with a fork and boil them in salted water. Do not overcook them, they will fall apart. Once cooked, peel the skin.
  • While the potatoes are cooking, dry roast ½ tsp. each of pnachphoron, jeera, coriander and two dry red chilies. Once cooled, grind them to a fine powder.
  • Heat up the oil and add the cooked potatoes, shallow fry them until they are golden brown in color. You can add turmeric at this point but entirely optional.
  • Drain them on an absorbent paper.
  • In the same oil add pnachphoron, two dry red chilies and the bay leaves. Let them sizzle a little bit and then add the tomatoes. You can finely chop the tomato or mash them with your hand.
  • Add the ginger paste, red chili powder and turmeric and few chopped green chilies as well.
  • Cook them until oil separates.
  • Add the potatoes back to the spice paste and coat them very well. Cook for few minutes.
  • Add just enough water to cover the potatoes, add salt, mix and then cover the pot.
  • Let the potatoes cook on low-medium heat for 10-15 minutes.
  • Uncover and check for seasoning. If the water is completely absorbed, add more luke warm water. Remember, the potatoes will quickly absorb all the water and the curry will end up with no gravy. If you like it that way, it should be fine, or else leave a little bit more gravy than you want.
  • Add the chopped cilantro and few more chopped green chilies if you want, give it a good stir and then turn off the flame.
  • Add the roasted spice powder, mix again and then cover the pot. As my friend Madhu said “let the aromas soak in”.
  • Goes best with luchi/puri. I have eaten it with methi paratha and it tasted very good. But methi parathas have a very strong taste, so it was sort of masking the flavor of the alur dawm. Next time I’ll eat it with luchi/puri for sure.