Vegetable chop-ped, the Bengali way or may be Bhejittebil chop

DSC_0315I almost forgot about the glorious Bengali evening snacking ritual of chop-muri (deep-fried croquettes and puffed rice) until my parents came to the US last month. My evening snack is pretty much limited to the yogurt-fruits-fruits-yogurt routine. In West Bengal, my home state in India, it was a completely different story, at least when I lived there. I would love to believe that this is still true, so the rapid change in snacking style from chop-muri at the local choper dokan (roadside tea stall) to falafel at the latest Western-style coffee shop is very upsetting for me. I know societies change and I should accept it, but it still upsets me. In my heart of hearts, I still hope that for many years to come, as the sun sets on my native Chandernagore, chop-muri finds its way into many home and the saucepan sits on the stove ready for the daily ritual of watching horrendously trashy, ill-produced and overdramatized Bengali serials before dinner.

The chop in West Bengal can come in a hundred different flavors, a few of which will be sold by every roadside choper dokan (chop shop).). There is a specific way of eating chop muri…you take a handful of muri, throw it in upwards into your mouth from a distance, bite into a green chili and then eat a small portion of your chop. Then, with your cheeks swollen with all of these, you start chewing with a vengeance. At first you can barely move your mouth. Then quickly the airy puffed rice vanishes and you are ready for your second portion. It’s not as gross as it sounds, but it’s not a dainty affair either.

The vendor sells the chops in a thonga (packets made out of old newspaper) and by the time they reach home, the packets have a typical oil-soaked look. The oil (actually dalda or vegetable shortening, pure saturated fat in case you were wondering) used to fry the chops is at least a couple of days old and almost black but still the chops came out super tasty. You can try cutting down on the carbs and fats some other time…but not while eating chop muri.

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My favorite chopper dokan food was singara (Bengali samosas) and then a few others tied closely for second. These were machher chop, bhejitebil chop and deemer chop (chop made with fish, vegetables and eggs, respectively). Although samosas have gained a prominent spot in Western culture, other chops didn’t quite make it. I really wish they did. Vegetable chops are best in winter when beets (or beet root, as Bengalis call it), carrots and peas are in season. Peanuts are mixed in to add a little bit of bite to the vegetables. This chop is supposed to be slightly sweet in taste with a crispy shell outside. Below is my mother’s vegetable chop recipe which is pretty close to the one from the roadside shops. Muri and green chillies can be found in your local Indian store.

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Recipe:

Here I am again with my Maa’s recipe and without any measurement. If I ask Maa for proportion, she will say “Oshab janina…chhobi tobi tolar dorkar nei…khaa toh” (I don’t know all these, you don’t need to take a picture, just eat it). So, no table spoon or tea spoon here…just eye ball it. J All she could say is, she used 2 large beet roots, two smallish potato and four small carrots. Peas are optional.

Ingredients:

Vegetables: Beet root, carrots and potato.

Spices: Roasted and ground together: Cumin, coriander, red chili, cinnamon, cardamom and cloves.

To make a paste or grated: Ginger

Turmeric powder

Salt

Green chilies

Raw peanuts

Cilantro (optional)

To fry:

Bread crumbs

Cornstarch

Baking powder

Oil for deep frying

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  • Peel and boil the vegetables. Do not over-boil them…they will be super mushy.
  • Drain and let them cool. Mash them together and try to make a smooth dough sort of thing.
  • Add everything above ‘to fry’ list. Mix well. My mother cooks the mixture on the stove top for a while just to make sure there is no extra moisture left (but this is optional).
  • Form balls or any other shape you like.
  • Make a batter with the cornstarch. Add a pinch of baking powder to it.
  • Dip the vegetable balls into it, coat nicely and roll them over the breadcrumbs.
  • Finish making all the balls.
  • Start heating up enough oil to deep fry the balls. You can start the oil while making the balls.
  • Deep fry them. Do not over crowd the pan while frying.
  • Once they are medium-darkish brown color, take them out and drain them on absorbent paper.
  • Enjoy them with puffed rice/mamra or Muri or just itself.DSC_0317

Please let me know if you do not understand anything in the recipe. Again, the whole thing happened on my absence, so no first hand knowledge. If you need any other information, I’ll try to get it from my Mother.

 

Plantain/knachkolar kofta made by Maa

No, I am not going to give you another lecture on the origin of koftas and how we adapted it. You already know it. Some years ago I used to live with a roommate who was a vegetarian. I wasn’t though, but I didn’t want to go through the trouble of making fish only for myself and also bothering my non-fish eating roommate. As I love vegetarian food, I used to cook mostly vegetables. One day I made knachkolar/plantain kofta curry. I tried it for the first time in my life. I didn’t go gaga over it, but for some reason my roommate really liked it. Plantain not being one of my favorite vegetables, it got wiped out from my memory after a while. Never made it again as I never craved for it.

DSC_0918A couple of months ago when I visited her, she said she still remembers my koftas. I was truly surprised. I would never have guessed. I totally forgot the recipe and even the taste of it. All I remember is that it didn’t taste excellent. But I promised her that I’ll make it and post it on my blog.

Couple of weeks ago when my Maa came to visit us, the first thing I asked her to make was knachkolar kofta. I know I do not have the patience to go through the entire process and I was guilty of postponing the whole thing for a long time. The whole cooking happened in my absence, so I do not have any first hand experience of how to cook it her way. Maa just told me the recipe and I am writing it. Trust me, Maa’s koftas tasted really good. I mean real real good. She made it very differently than I would have thought. As with any other koftas, they tasted way better after a day or two. We had it the day they were made and they were still a little hard inside. We had it again after a couple of days and they had absorbed all the goodness from the gravy and tasted awesome.

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It was a weekday and I didn’t have time to photograph this dish extensively. I’ll update this post if Maa makes it again and will surely post more photos.

As I said, I wasn’t at home when it was cooked, so cannot give you any proportion. Go with your instinct and experience.

Recipe:

Ingredients: 

To make the koftas:

Plantain: Try to get the Indian variety; if you cannot find them, use the American ones. Actually Maa made it with the American plantains and she said they were very hard.

Cumin-coriander powder

Crushed black pepper

Raisins a handful

Chopped green chili

A little bit of ginger paste

Oil

Salt (not too much as the koftas will be absorbing the salt from the gravy as well)

Little bit of garam masala (cardamom-cinnamon-cloves powdered together)

For the gravy:

Whole cardamom, cinnamon and cloves

Bay leaves

Whole dry red chili

Cashews

Poppy seeds

Garam masala powder

Turmeric

Cumin-coriander-red chili powder

Ginger paste

Green chili

Salt to taste

Oil

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Soak the cashews and the poppy seeds in the water for 10-15 minutes and then grind them to a paste.

Making the koftas:

  • Cut the plantains into one inch pieces and boil them until soft.
  • Drain the water and peel the skin (you can reserve the skin to make khosha bata, my Maa made it and it was very tasty)
  • Mash the plantains with the back of a spoon until very smooth. If your plantain is not very sticky, you can add boiled potato too.
  • Add all the spices (except raisins) and mix them with the mashed pulp. It should form a dough like consistency.
  • Form small balls and put 2 raisins inside them. Close the balls again or reshape them.
  • Once all the balls are made, deep/shallow fry them. Make sure you keep an eye on the heat/flame. The koftas might get burnt if the heat is too high. Roll them gently while frying for even browning or cooking.
  • Drain them on a paper towel/absorbent paper/cloth.

Making the gravy:

  • Heat up the oil and add the whole cardamom, cinnamon and cloves.
  • Once they sizzle, add the bay leaves and the whole dry red chilies. Let them release the aroma.
  • Mix the cumin-coriander-red chili-turmeric powder with the ginger paste and add it to the oil. Cook it until oil separates.
  • Add the cashew-poppy seed paste and sauté them again for few minutes. You can replace the cashew poppy seed paste with melon seed paste. Or add cashew paste but not poppy seeds. It’s upto you.
  • Once the spice paste looks well cooked, add warm water and few slit green chilies and bring it to a boil.
  • Lower the heat to a medium high and let the gravy get cooked.
  • Once the gravy is done and reaches it’s desired consistency, add the garam masala powder and cover the pot.
  • Arrange the koftas on a tray and pour the gravy over it. Let the koftas soak the gravy for several hours before you serve.

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An ode to the Hindu widows with mulo chnechki/stir fried grated radish

DSC_0704You can probably do anything in the name of religion. The Hindu religion is no exception and among others Hindu widows especially became the victims of religious discrimination. They were not allowed to attend any auspicious event even in their own family They had to fast several times of the year and even when they could eat, it was only vegetarian food and that to with absurd restrictions on high-protein lentils. For the rest of their lives, the only clothing allowed to them was a piece of white cotton fabric. Having incurred the intangible but very real stigma of daring to outlive their husbands, it became their inescapable societal and religious responsibility to attain purity through sacrifice and deprivation. Contemporary social reformers have suggested that the actual purpose of these dietary prohibitions was to shorten the lifespan of these unfortunate women through chronic malnutrition. Of course, a convenient early death meant that her husband’s property had one less claimant. The unbelievably cruel aspect of the whole business is that often it would be her own sons and daughters-in-law waiting like vultures for her death. One really does get amazed at how cruel human beings can be.

With time, things changed little bit. After becoming widows, my thakuma and didima (paternal and maternal grandmother, respectively) both ate non-vegetarian food but still wore white cotton saaris. They neither had to fast on every ambubachi (the three day period in the Bengali month Ashar that, according to the almanac, marks the beginning of the rainy season) nor were they forbidden from eating masoor daal (red lentils). Despite this relative liberalization, overall they still lived a simple life and resisted every temptation to transgress the puritanical rules of socially imposed purity.

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Within the confines of their wretched existence, Hindu widows nevertheless found ways to keep going. As we all know, necessity is the mother of invention. Having faced centuries of dietary restrictions and being denied all animal (and some plant) proteins, these resourceful ladies responded by creating a mouthwatering array of vegetarian dishes which continue to be cherished as delicacies today. So, the common misconception in some parts of India that fish-loving Bengalis are unappreciative of vegetarian cuisine is completely wrong. On the contrary, the culinary legacy of many generations of unfortunate widows persists in our many Bengali vegetarian delicacies that have outlived the unfortunate historical circumstances of their creation.  Of course, not being free from inane societal strictures, we have cynically adapted many of these dishes to add non-vegetarian ingredients. For example, the same dish that widows of yore would have cooked with bori (sundried lentil) is now often cooked with shrimp or fish heads.

Mulo chhnechki (dry stir-fried grated radish) is one such dish where you can add either shrimp or fried and crushed bori according to your liking. Its best eaten in winter, when radishes are in season and taste sweet and crunchy.

Recipe:

Ingredients:

Radishes: three 10-12” pieces (the white long variety)

Coconut: ½ cup grated

Cumin seeds: 1 tsp.

Cumin powder: 2 tsp.

Whole red dry chili: 2nos.

Bay leaves (preferably the Indian kind): 2 nos.

Turmeric powder: ½ tsp.

Red chili powder: 1 tsp.

Ginger paste: 1 tsbp.

Oil (mustard or any other oil): 2 tbsp. (or oil 1 tbsp+ghee 1tbsp.)

Lentils drops/bori: 8-10 (optional)

Cilantro: a handful

Garam masala (cinnamon+cardamom+cloves ground): ½ tsp.

Sugar: 1 small pinch

Green chili pepper: 3-4 nos. (depending on your tolerance)

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  • Grate the mulo/radish very fine. I grate it in a food processor.
  • Sprinkle salt (around a tsp.) and let it sit for 15-20 mns.
  • Heat up the oil and fry the bori to a light brown color. Take them out and drain them on a paper towel.
  • Temper the oil with the whole cumin seeds. Let them sizzle a little bit.
  • Add the bay leaves and the dry red chili. Sauté for few seconds until turn a shade darker.
  • Mix the ginger-red chili-cumin powder.
  • Add the grated coconut to the oil and sauté it as well. You can smell sautéed coconut.
  • Add the ginger-red chili-cumin powder paste and sauté until oil oozes out.
  • Squeeze all the water out of the radish and add them to the spice paste. Sprinkle the turmeric powder, mix well and stir frequently to incorporate all the spices for several more minutes. Keep it on medium flame.
  • Cover the pot and let the radish get cooked.
  • Remove the cover and stir for few more minutes. Taste a little bit and check it tastes cooked.
  • Add a pinch of sugar, garam masala powder, ghee, chopped green chili and cilantro and cover the pot for 5 minutes.
  • Crush the boris over it just before serving. 

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Variation:  instead of boris, you can add shrimp to the dish as well. Marinate small shrimps with turmeric and salt for few minutes. Shallow fry them and keep them aside. Add the shrimps when the radish is almost cooked and let the flavors mix with each other. You can skip both and it still taste good.

 

Labra/A vegetable mishmash

Despite its simple name, labra is a surprisingly complex Bengali delicacy of mixed vegetables cooked till they are almost inseparable. I know, it doesn’t sound appetizing but eaten with khichuri on an overcast monsoon day, its pure bliss.

DSC_0729Bengalis can be very picky with the names and the specifications of things they cook and eat. A ghonto is different from a chachchori, which in turn is different from labra which is again different from a pnachmeshali.  Then again, how can I forget chhNyachra (which in a non-culinary context literally means a mean and inferior person)? These dishes are all essentially vegetables cooked with spices but with a little tweaks that make each one quite unique. For example, a chachchori is a drier preparation whereas a ghonto is a wet mishmash (no gravy though, just moist). The name ghonto or ghnyat came from the Bengali word ghnata, which means mixing vigorously. Ghonto can be either made with one or many vegetables and ‘usually’ incorporates bori or bora (lentil dumplings, sundried or fried, respectively). Ther are non-vegetarian versions of ghonto too, like murighonto made with fish heads. Labra is a mishmash too but is always made with multiple vegetables, and pnachphoron (Bengali five spice) is a must in the phoron or tempering used for cooking it (some will disagree). Chhnyachra contains machher muro/knata (fish heads or bones) and is mainly made with pnui shaak (Malabar spinach). The vegetables here are cut in rectangular shapes rather than cubes. Somewhere I read that the name chachchori or chorchori came from the sound produced while cooking it. At one point in the cooking process, the vegetables make a typical spluttering/charring sound like “chor chor”, hence the name. In chachchori, oil is added liberally and the vegetables are also fried a little in the beginning. You can definitely identify the individual ingredients here but in a ghonto or a labra they somewhat lose their identity and surrender to the cook’s aggression. The vegetables are also cut a little smaller for a chachchori than in a labra.

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Every family has their own recipes for almost all of the above mentioned names. But, there are certain key ingredients which will be there no matter who is making it. In the case of labra, these are pumpkin, potato, eggplant and some leafy vegetables (like cabbage, spinach or cauliflower leaves). The rest is up to the cook’s whim. Labra is quite flexible and you can put many types of vegetables into the mix…specially if there is something screaming for attention from the dark corners of your fridge.

Without going too deep into the semantics, lets dig into the labra before it gets too complicated. I had a hard time taking the picture. It’s hard to make labra look beautiful or appetizing. Trust me; in this case the picture is NOT worth a thousand words.

DSC_0727How I cook it:

Ingredients:

Potato: 1 medium or 2 small cubed

Sweet potato: 1 small cubed

Eggplant: 1 small cubed

Green beans/yard long beans/string beans/French beans: 1 cup chopped into 1” pieces

Cabbage: ½ of one small cabbage cut into thick strips

Leaves and stems of one cauliflower, chopped into approx. 1” pieces

Pumpkin: 2 cups, peeled and cubed

Spinach: 1 small bunch chopped into big pieces (optional)

Radish: 1 cup cubed

Ginger: grated or paste, 1 tbsp.

Pnach phoron/Bengali five spice: 1 tsp.

Turmeric: ½ tsp

Sugar: ½ tsp

Mustard oil: 1 tbsp.

Salt: to taste

  • As I have mentioned, cube all the vegetables mentioned in the ingredient list and cut them almost equal in size.
  • Heat up the oil, let it smoke and then bring the flame to medium.
  • Add the five spice and let it release the aroma.
  • Add the vegetables (except the cabbage and the spinach) and give them a good mix. Sauté them for few minutes followed by the leafy vegetables.
  • Cook them on medium flame for several minutes and then cover the pot.
  • After 10 minutes or so, mix them again and then add ginger, salt and sugar to taste. Mix well.
  • Cover and cook until the vegetables are well done.
  • Uncover and mix the vegetables and break some of the potatoes to have the ‘makha makha’ consistency (you know what I mean. The closest I can get is the mixed well consistency) and the flavors to marry well.

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I do not add any water. If you see the vegetables are dry and sticking to the pot, add 1/3-1/2 cup of water (not more).

You can increase the amount of sugar to your liking. Ginger paste is optional but it does give the labra a nice flavor. You can add the cauliflower florets as well. I did not.

You can skip the cauliflower stems and leaves if not available. Spinach is optional as well. Replace butternut squash if you cannot find pumpkin. Some people add zucchini, and squash too.

Disclaimer: My definitions might differ from many people’s view. Bengali cuisine is ever evolving like any other cuisine and there is no rule set in stone. I would love to hear other people’s view as well.

Some more here and here.

Cosmopolitan Calcutta (part 2) and tomato farci/stuffed tomato:

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For all its faults, Calcutta has a very long history of being cosmopolitan. Long before the modern wave of globalization, Calcutta was a city full of immigrants. As I have mentioned before, Armenians were among the first communities to settle down in the city. Soon after them came the Jews, Chinese, Portuguese and the British. Fascinatingly, the Jewish migration to Calcutta can be pinpointed down to one person, a man named Shalom Cohen who came from Aleppo, Syria in 1799. He brought with him a group of servants including a shohet (a certified kosher butcher). Other Jews who followed Cohen were mainly from Baghdad and the community came to be known as Baghdadis. Some of the Jewish families hired Muslims cooks (many of whom were from the same village in Midnapore, a district in West Bengal, India) who ironically acquired the designation “Jewish cook”.

Mahashas or stuffed vegetables were a favorite among the Jews of Calcutta. Indeed, they stuffed almost any vegetable which can be scooped and stuffed. Tomato farci is a mash up between an Armenian dolma and a Jewish Mahasha. It is found in many Middle Eastern countries and was brought to Calcutta by the Baghdadi Jews. There were many similar ingredients used for cooking between the Bengalis and the Baghdadi Jews. Being a community of gourmands and also somewhat liberal in their tastes, Bengalis didn’t miss the chance to modify some of the Jewish recipes to create something which would suite their own palate.

Tomato farcis were usually stuffed with minced meat, leftover roast or even curried meats. Fish and vegetable stuffing was not common, but not unheard of either. Being a voracious fish eater, I am a fan of the fish-stuffed version. It tastes best if you can spend the time to prepare the filling from fresh fish but the canned tuna stuffing is not too far behind, especially if you buy good quality canned fish.

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On an unrelated note: Apart from many other things which were brought by the Jewish immigrants, the hand-pulled rickshaws still found in Calcutta were originally brought by a Jew named Salah Abraham Baqaal.

Recipe:

Ingredients:

Vine ripened firm tomatoes: 10-12 (the number will vary with size)

Onion: 1medium

Oil: 1-2 tbsp

Canned tuna: 2

Ginger-garlic paste: 1 tbsp

Red chili powder/cayenne powder: 1 tbsp

Coriander-cumin powder: 1 tsp each

Garam masala (green cardamom+cinnamon+cloves powdered together): ½ tsp

Bread crumb (optional): 2 tbsp

Cilantro: 1 handful

Green chilies: 3-4, chopped

Salt to taste

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  • Cut a slice from the top of the tomatoes. Keep them aside.

  • Scoop the inside of the tomatoes.

  • Line a plate with a paper towel and keep the tomatoes upside down to drain the liquid from the tomatoes.

  • Meanwhile heat the oil in a pot.

  • Chop the onion and add it to the hot oil. Saute for few minutes until translucent.

  • Add the ginger-garlic paste, cumin-coriander powder and red chili powder.

  • Cook the spice mix for few minutes.

  • Add the canned tuna and break the fish with the back of the spoon.

  • Mix the spice and the tuna well.

  • Cook it for several minutes until the fishy smell is not too strong.

  • Check for salt. If needed, add salt to taste.

  • Add the chopped green chili, the bread crumb and the chopped cilantro.

  • Mix well and then add the garam masala.

  • Give it a good stir one more time and then cover it for few minutes.

  • Turn the oven on to 350F.

  • Let it cool.

  • Oil the tomatoes on the outside and stuff the tomatoes with the stuffing. Do not over stuff them but do not keep empty space inside. The tomatoes will collapse while baking.

  • Put the top back and stick either a green chili or a toothpick to keep the top in place.

  • Place the tomatoes in a cookie sheet or any oven proof flat tray and bake them for 10-15 minutes.

  • Over baking will make the tomatoes soggy and they will fall apart.

  • You can replace the fish with minced meat of any kind and proceed with the same procedure.

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Stir fried carrot or shredded carrot salad?

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The food found in any Indian kitchen used to vary according to the season. All through summer we ate endless dishes made with potol (pointed gourd) and right when we got sick of them the fresh creamy white cauliflowers appeared. But then, these in turn overstayed their welcome. As the market got saturated with cauliflowers, I remember the vegetable vendors throwing them away or giving them away for free at the end of the day. BUT…we liked it that way. We had sudden cravings for something in one season but had to wait for months to get it (because it only grew in another season), but when it came, it was worth the wait, because Nature cannot be messed with. The only analogy I can think of is a fine wine in your cellar that you know will improve with aging in the bottle, so you just bite your teeth and drink a beer till the craving goes away. My Maa didn’t dump a handful of dhonepata (cilantro) in almost everything as we do in the US, simply because it wasn’t available all year long. The wonders of Nature made even the summer heat almost tolerable, as we knew that juicy, ripe mangoes would soon show up in the grocery bags. Eating plump, juicy komla lebu (tangerines/clementines) while soaking up the winter sunshine on our terrace was a ritual by itself. Like most other vegetables, carrots were seasonal as well. However, carrots never really found widespread acceptance in the kitchens of Bengal. The only thing my mother used them for was a winter salad prepared with finely chopped carrots, beets, cucumbers and onions. This tasted so refreshing and appetizing that even my father, who never entered the kitchen otherwise, would volunteer to chop the vegetables whenever he knew it was going to be made. Later my Maa started adding carrots to pnach mishali torkari (Bengali-style mixed vegetables) or daliar khichuri (cracked wheat porridge).

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The times they are a’ changin, and you can now find most vegetables throughout the year if you live in a city or even in a prosperous small town. They don’t taste as good, but at least your menu no longer need be restricted just because it is summer and you are craving for fulkopir dalna (cauliflower curry).

I love vegetables and am looking around for interesting vegetarian recipes. I’m learning how to cook vegetables I never grew up eating. Some of them I’ve never even seen before. Everything is on your finger tips now, just type in the name on Google, hit Enter and recipes with mouthwatering pictures will compete for your attention. A few years ago, one fine morning I was Googling something when I came across Harini’s blog. It’s a beautiful blog with vegan recipes and wonderful stories. She was hosting a monthly mingle for Meeta of What’s for lunch Honey, and the topic was “vegetarian soups”. I was very interested in participating but wasn’t sure if I could because I wasn’t a blogger back then. I wrote to Harini and she sent me a warm welcoming reply accepting my request. I got some appreciation for both the picture and the soup I had made and readers of Harini’s blog suggested that I should start my own. It took me three years to convince myself that I could do this, but now I’m enjoying it enormously.

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The reason I mentioned Harini’s name is because this carrot recipe is from her blog. It looked so refreshing and easy that I couldn’t stop myself from cooking it. This is one from a long list of things I want to cook from other people’s blogs. Hope to try many more in the future and share the results with you.

I am re-writing her recipe in terms of text but not content. You can see her post here and read the original recipe.

Ingredients:

Split, husked, mung beans (Mung daal): 1/4 cup, soaked for at least an hour, and drained
Carrots (Gaajar), fresh, plump and juicy: 6 large ones, grated in medium sized grater
Green chilies, slit vertically – 2, or more, if you like some heat **( I have added few more green chilis and it tasted really good. The sweetness of the carrot and the slight heat from the green chili married together nicely)
Coconut, freshly grated: 1/4 cup
Lemon, ripe, medium sized: 1, juiced (About a tbsp.)
Salt to taste

Seasoning (Tadka/baghar)

Mustard oil/any oil: 1 tsp.
Mustard seeds: 1 tsp.
Husked, black gram daal (urad daal): 1 tsp.
Curry leaves: 1 sprig
Sesame seeds, white: 1 tsp.

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Soaked mung daal in the front

Method:

  • Scrub lightly, wash and dry carrots.
  • Do not peel. Maximum sweetness in carrots is right under the skin and when you peel you discard the best portion.
  • Grate and set aside. Do not use a fine grater or cheese grater. We need the final dish to have a “bite” to it so use a medium sized grater.
  • Heat oil. When hot enough, add mustard seeds and black gram daal.
  • When the seeds splutter and daal turns pink add the curry leaves and slit green chilies.
  • As soon as the curry leaves are crisp, add the carrots. Stir fry to mix well.
  • Cover and cook for 4-8 minutes depending on how you like your carrots – 4 minutes for very crunchy).
  • Add the mung beans, sprinkle sesame seeds, and coconut and stir fry on low heat till mixed well. Take off the fire. Squeeze the lemon and stir to let the juice distribute.

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Cosmopolitan Calcutta and the origin of potoler dolma/stuffed pointed gourd

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Part one:

Crossing Howrah Bridge was an everyday affair for many of us who commuted daily to Calcutta from the suburbs. The moment you came to the other side of river Ganges, (the place is called Burrabazar) which is the business hub of Calcutta, the whole scenario used to change. The traffic on Brabourne Road (the main road which runs through the area) was hellish but I used to always look outside from the bus window and be amazed with the place. You can literally look into the overcrowded streets and see history appearing and gradually fading at the same time.

During the eighteenth century this was the place where the Armenian, Jewish, Greek and Arab traders used to carry out their business. In every pocket of Brabourne road, you will find the remnants of the communities which made their way to the city via a different route, reason, and circumstance and integrated themselves and became a part of Calcutta.

Busy Howrah bridge

Busy Howrah bridge

Among the foreigners, the first were the Armenians who came from what was then Persia (now mostly Iran) and built themselves a wooden church (the city’s first) on Portuguese Church Street, currently known as Armenian Street. They predate British and were the first Christians to settle down in Calcutta. The wooden chapel was replaced by the Holy Church of Nazareth in 1722. In fact, there is still a functional ferry station known as Armenian Ghat close to the church. Like many Armenians, Arathoon Stephen was sent to Calcutta almost penny less but made his way to be one of the most successful hoteliers in the city. The Grand Hotel (now the Oberoi Grand) was founded by Stephen on the site of the old Theatre Royal, and it remains a historic icon of the city, even if somewhat inaccessible to most of its residents.

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religious performance at the Holy Church of Nazareth
Photo courtesy bbb.co.uk

On one hand, Armenians always maintained their identity but at the same time they have also managed to integrate with the Bengali culture. They celebrate their Christmas lunch on January 6th at Burra club (the Armenian Club on Park Street) with a mixed menu of cabbage dolma, fish kalia and cauliflower bhaji. During the old times, every Armenian family grew a grape vine in their house, not for the grapes themselves, but for harvesting the leaves to make dolmas (meat and rice wrapped in grape leaves). Later the grape leaves were substituted with the cabbage leaves, their staple sturgeon made way for Indian Hilsa and many of other traditional ingredients were replaced with available Indian equivalents. The Armenians being a hospitable community invited Bengalis for Christmas lunches and shared and exchanged recipes. Soon, the food-loving Bengalis started experimenting with Armenian recipes and came out with something which is a fusion between the two. Not to mention, potoler dolma is one of them. The Armenian dolma and the Jewish mahashas (stuffed vegetables) are the forerunners of the mach potoler dolma (pointed gourd stuffed with minced fish).

Potoler dolma recipe:

Ingredients:

Potol/pointed gourd: 10-12 no.

Coconut: 1 cup

Shrimp: 10-12 medium. Coat them with salt and turmeric, lightly shallow fry them

Oil (mustard or any oil): 1 tbsp

Poppy seeds: 1 1/2 tbsp

Turmeric: 1/2 tsp

Whole dried red chili: 2 nos.

Green chili (the hotter the better): few

Salt to taste

Potol_1

Pointed gourd

Potoler dolma_3

Potoler dolma_7

  • Soak the poppy seeds in luke warm water for 15-20 minutes and then grind it to a smooth paste with green chilis. The amount of green chilis will vary according to your taste. I like the dolma on the hotter side (hot crazy hot though), so I add generous amount of green chilies. Once the paste is made, add turmeric to it and mix well.
  • Chop the shrimps and mix with the grated coconut.
  • Scrape off the skin of the wax gourds. I have peeled them in an alternate fashion but the better way would be the scraping.
  • Cut a small portion from the top and save the top and use it in a mixed vegetable curry.
  • Scoop out the inside of the gourds with the back of a spoon. Be careful, you do not want to put too much pressure as they might break.
  • If you are using big potols, you can use the inside flesh for stuffing. I had miniature ones and didn’t bother to save it. All I had was seeds and a little bit of soft flesh.
  • Shallow fry the unstuffed potol…just a little bit. I haven’t done it before stuffing them and learnt my lessons. It was harder to shallow fry them later as the stuffing was coming out a little bit.
  • In the same oil, add the coconut and the chopped shrimp mixture just enough to get rid of the raw coconut taste away. If you overcook them, they will be dry. I added a pinch of salt and turmeric to it. The shrimps are already cooked, so you don’t need to cook the stuffing for a long time.
  • Once the potols are cool enough to handle, take a little bit of the stuffing and stuff them generously. Push the stuffing gently with your fingers to make them tight. If the stuffing is not well stuffed, it might come out while cooking.
  • Add a little bit more oil and let it smoke.
  • Add two-three dried red chili and let them turn to a darker shade.
  • Add the stuffed potols and sauté them for a minute or two and then add the poppy seed paste.
  • Coat the potols well with the poppy seed paste, add salt, mix once more and then cook them covered. Do not add a lot of salt. You can always add it later if needed.
  • Turn the potols once half way while cooking and then cover and cook again until the potols are cooked.
  • The poppy seed paste should coat the vegetables but should not have a runny gravy.

Potoler dolma_10

The recipe I have shared is not the traditional potoler dolma, which is stuffed mainly with fish or minced meat. However, as necessity is mother of invention, this version was made up with the available ingredients in my fridge, and although shrimp stuffed dolma is not very common, it came out quite nice.

Few more potoler dolma recipes here, here and here.