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.

 

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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The vanishing grain from our kids’ plates: Kaoner chaaler payesh/Millet pudding and wish you all a Happy Diwali

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Every day, it was the same routine without exception. The school bell rang and there was no sign of me. My mother screamed her heart out while calling my nickname: “Tumpaaaa…….Tumpaaaaa….” with no response from me. Suddenly one of our neighbor aunts would say “Didi, Tumpa is hiding here”. I heard my Maa calling my name but always pretended that I didn’t. Sooner or later she would come and drag me home, often spanking my butt on the way back. She would wash my dirty feet, put fresh clothes on me, give me my aluminum suitcase and send me to the local school. The school was a ‘paathshala’ which literally means a place to study (mainly for underprivileged kids). There were two rooms with only 10-12 students in each room. One year was spent in the classroom next to the pond and the next year students were promoted to the other room, that’s pretty much all there was to it. There was no graduation ceremony, no chairs, no table, nothing. We took our own individual floor mats (aashon) everyday to sit on. It was more of a fun place than an actual education. All the kids there were way below the poverty level. There was only one girl whom I still clearly remember who was from a middle-class (not rich) family, she was one of the teachers’ daughters. She looked very different from the rest of us and wore nicer clothes.

Once every week it was special for me because we were given midday snacks. One week it was boiled and salted Bengal gram and the next week it would be followed by two slices of plain white bread. Every week I looked forward to that day. I still remember the taste, I can still feel the pieces of bread in my hands. I always feared that if I went home with the food, I might have to share them with Maa, so I stopped midway while going home and finished all of it (in retrospect, how selfish of me). I formed tiny balls from the inside of the white breads and then ate them one at a time, which was my own little game with myself. White bread was rare in my house. I am sure other kids were also looked forward to those days as bread other than Indian rotis were a luxury to them and the concept of free food was exciting.

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India, being a developing country, many kids go to bed hungry. They simply cannot afford to go to school and are probably too malnourished anyhow. To address the problem, the Indian government started a midday meal scheme. Unfortunately, the scheme is suffering as the demon of corruption is grabbing it with all its power and trying to paralyze the system. As the focus was on nutritionally balanced food, different whole grains were incorporated into the meals. Millet being a cheap source of healthy carbohydrates and fiber was served in different forms. Apart from the corruption issue, there is another big problem coming into play. As the West is becoming more and more aware of the health benefits of ancient grains, like many other countries, India is exporting a substantial amount of millet to the west. Coupled with the export issue, millet is also considered to be inferior compared to rice and wheat in India, so farmers refuse to grow them. They don’t profit as much as they do growing and selling rice or wheat. Hence, the problem of foodgrain availability is increasing, midday meals are encountering hurdles and kids for whom these meals were the sole incentive to go to school are dropping out in thousands. For many of these kids, that midday meal is their only meal of the day, but ironically that is also being taken away. Knowingly or unknowingly we are contributing to a larger problem but there is so little we can do about it.

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Kaoner chaal also known as foxtail millet is one such ancient grain that has almost dropped off the modern Indian food radar. It’s highly nutritious and a cheaper, healthier alternative to rice and wheat. The close relative found in the US is barnyard millet (or Sama ka Chawal/Vrat ka Chawal as it is known in India). You should try the pudding recipe below before this grain too becomes affordable only for the rich. It’s delicious and taste similar yet different to a regular rice pudding.

Recipe:

Ingredients:

Evaporated milk: one 18 fl.oz. can/354 ml.

Whole milk: Same amount as evaporated milk/18fl oz.

Brown sugar: (can be substituted by gur/jaggery) ¾ cup (start with ½ cup and gradually increase according to your taste)

Kaoner chaal/Foxtail millet/barnyard millet: ½ cup

Cardamom: 2 nos.

Bay leaves: 2 nos.

Salt: One tiny pinch

Cashews: a small handful, somewhat broken.

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  • Wash the millet several times and then soak it in water.
  • Mix the evaporated milk and the whole milk and start boiling it. (you can use all whole milk or substitute with half n half too). Once the milk comes to a boil, reduce the flame to medium. Add the bay leaves and the cardamom (break them slightly). Keep stirring frequently otherwise the milk will stick to the bottom. Keep an eye on the milk to avoid boiling over.
  • Once the milk is reduced to almost half, drain the millets and then add them to the milk. Mix well and let it cook on medium flame.
  • After the millets are properly cooked, add the sugar and the salt. Let the sugar melt and taste. If you need more sugar, add more. Add the broken cashews and turn off the heat.

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PS: The millets soak a substantial amount of liquid, so keep it a bit more liquidy than you want. If it thickens too much after cooling, boil a little bit of milk and add it to the pudding. The pudding will taste a little bit more sweet when at room temp., so add sugar accordingly.

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

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

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

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

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

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Recipe:

Ingredients:

Urad daal/split, husked black gram: 1 cup

Fennel seeds: 2 tsp.

Yogurt/Dahi: 2-3 cups

Tamarind Chutney: As much as you like

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

Black salt: to taste

Red chili powder: to taste (optional)

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

Coriander: a handful, finely chopped

Oil: enough to deep fry the dumplings

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

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

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

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Duniyata bhai ajab karkhana

Kei ba khaye khiri khechiri, kahar pete uda kana

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

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

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

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