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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Lakshmi pujo te narkol naru/celebration of Lakshmi puja with coconut balls

In Bengali there is a saying “baaro mashe tyaro parbon” (13 festivals in 12 months) and it’s more than true. We have way more than 13 festivals in a year. But the biggest one is Durga puja, followed by Lakshmi Puja and Kali Puja. Early to late autumn is the festive season for Bengalis. Lakshmi is considered to be the goddess of fortune and will be worshipped on the full moon of the autumn called Lakshmi purnima (purnima=full moon).

In Bengali culture, food is an integral part of any religious ritual, so Lakshmi puja is no exception. Being the goddess of fortune, she is offered rice, cooked and uncooked. Rice was the main agricultural product during the ancient times in Bengal and was probably considered to be a measurement of fortune.

The footprints of Goddess Lakshmi at my parent’s place this year

Every year we celebrated kojagori lakshmi puja at my parents place. Some years we had enough money to have a big idol, some years just a tiny one. I was never religious but Lakshmi puja was and still is very special to me. The preparation started the day before the actual puja with coconut grating. I was the designated coconut grinder. The sweetened product was then transferred to me to make balls which are called naru. Maa cooked the coconut with either gur (molasses) or sugar and made either gurer naru or chinir naru. I gulped down a few as soon as they came to shape. It was so much fun.

The traditional coconut grater (narkol korani) and the freshly grated coconut

On the day of the puja, Baba (my father) used to go to the market to buy the fruits and the idol. I used to always nag and ask for a goddess with a real saari and hair on her (I mean a real fabric sari rather than a painted one, and black fiber for hair rather than paint). I used to eagerly wait for Baba to come home and un-wrap the idol. Sometimes the unwrapping made me happy, sometimes sad. I was the person who did the alpana (traditional Bengali floor painting) as well. The paint was made from rice dust dissolved in water to make a paste. I held a cotton ball or sometimes a piece of fabric in between my fingers and squeezed the paste and drew the alpana around the idol. I was always asked to draw a pair of footsteps on our doorstep and then one foot at a time to the idol. The footsteps had to make sense, no random steps were allowed. The meaning was to bring goddess Lakshmi at home for good fortune. Next to the footsteps, I drew ears of un-husked rice or dhaner chhora. These two were mandatory. The alpanas were spontaneous and no prior design was available. You can see a little bit here too.

Painted unhusked rice ears/dhaner chhora alpona

Painted footprint of Goddess Lakshmi/Lakhkhir paa alpona

The puja used start at some auspicious time and was done buy a purohit (Brahmin priest). The Sanskrit slokas made no sense to me and all I was interested in the khichuri (rice and lentils cooked together) and prasad (fruits and sweets offered to the goddess) served after the puja. Maa read the panchali (the recital of the mythical story of goddess Lakshmi) in the evening and that was the final part of the puja. It’s been more than 6 years I have been home during Lakshmi puja but the memories are still fresh and alive. If I close my eyes, I can still hear my Maa reading the panchali, the aroma of the dhup (incense stick), dhuno (a kind of sweet smelling agar) and chandan (sandalwood).

I made some narkol naru as a memory of those days and hope all of you have a great festive season.

Recipe:

Ingredients:

  • Freshly grated coconut: 2 cups
  • Sugar: 2 cups
  • Cardamom seeds from two pods, coarsely ground

How to cook:

  • Mix the grated coconut and the sugar thoroughly with hand.
  • Transfer them to a clean wok/kadai, sprinkle the cardamom powder.
  • Cook it on low heat and stir constantly.
  • The temperature is very important here. If you cook it on high heat, the coconut will be dry and crumbly and it will be impossible to form balls.
  • Cook them for several minutes and stir constantly. It will look like a sticky paste and the sugar will start oozing out.
  • After 10-15 minutes (depending on how much coconut you are cooking), wet your palm and try to grab a small portion and see if you can form balls from the coconut paste. If you can, take it off the heat and keep it covered. Form balls from the mixture. The narus are approximately ¾” diameter. You can make them smaller or larger, doesn’t really matter.
  • If you cannot form balls (they are too moist/sticky), cook for few more minutes checking it in between.

Notes: If the coconut is very dry, add a couple or few spoons of milk, it will help the coconut stay moist. You can add kheer/mewa/milk solid and the texture will be smoother in that case.