Kedgeree might be the best way to repurpose your leftovers

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Food and language are, in my opinion, more susceptible to changes than most other things (and India is probably the prime example when it comes to outside influences on both). Central Asian invaders brought with them the culture of kabobs and we added our spices to them. Sometimes we added gravy to the kabobs to suit our palate. The Portuguese brought a whole new collection of vegetables and we made them our own. They are now so ingrained in our cuisine that half of us don’t even realize that they were not native Indian vegetables. The British Raj left its footprint on quite a few things, some we still cherish while others have taken the backseat. Kedgeree is a delicious example from the latter category. While we still spend hours watching cricket, we hardly cook kedgeree, which was a staple in British kitchens.

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Back in the days when refrigeration was almost impossible, leftovers made it to the kitchen the next morning and got converted into something else for breakfast. Every country has recipes to make use of leftovers. The most common way of re-using leftover rice from dinner for Bengalis is to add water to it and let it ferment slightly overnight to make panta bhaat (fermented rice) which is fabulous with deep fried fritters on the side in the hellish heat of a Bengali summer. But the British had a different idea to use either the leftover rice and or fish from last night’s dinner. Kedgeree (which originally got its name from khichdi or khichuri) is far from the rice-and-lentils originally  eaten almost all over India. Although Indians prefer their khichdis to be vegetarian, the Bangladeshis spice it up with meat. But the British decided to give it a completely different twist. They omitted the lentils, added fish instead and anglicized the name to kedgeree. I’m not going to take a puritanical stand here – I have happily embraced the British take on khichdi, because it’s delicious.

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During one of our recent long drives, Dr. Sen and I had a long and extremely heated discussion about ‘authenticity.’ Until recently, I was more rigid when it came to food (or anything else under the sky) or cooking anything Bengali or even Indian. I followed recipes so militantly to the point that I brought a grinding stone from India to make my dishes taste as my mother’s. I’m still very proud of my decision. But like many of my viewpoints toward life, this has changed too and that too quite unknowingly. I started experimenting more but am still cautious not to let things go too far from what I knew was “authentic”. Gradually I pushed my boundaries and added this and taken out that, with more confidence. Although I’m still far from being an experimental cook like Dr. Sen, I’m more accepting to changes and variations. My kedgeree is no way authentic and is loosely based on a recipe from Jamie Oliver. Tell you what – since he’s a British chef, that alone probably makes my recipe authentic. There is a little difference, though – unlike the old days, my kedgeree was not made to use the leftovers, it was made to recreate a bit of history. I just love doing things like this.

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Recipe:

Cooked basmati rice: 3 cups (I went with my judgement and might have added a little more or less. You can play around with the quantity. The recipe is very flexible and you can change the proportion of any of the ingredients)

Curry powder (brand may vary): 1-2 tbsp. (will greatly depend on the brand. You’ll need less of it if the powder is strong. Start with less and then add later if you want more flavor)

Onion, finely chopped: 1 cup

Boiled eggs: 5

Chopped green chili: per taste

Ginger, fresh, finely chopped: 1 tbsp.

Cod fillet (or any white-flaky fish): 1lb

Oil: 2-3 tbsp.

Cilantro: 1/2 cup

Lemon: half/one whole, depending on the size and how tart you want your kedgeree to be

Salt to taste

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  1. Start by boiling enough water to cook the rice. When the water has boiled, add salt to it and then add the rice. Add generous amount of salt because the rice will swell and absorb a lot of salt. I usually don’t soak the rice for a long time because they tend to break. You can soak the rice if it works for you.
  2. Once the rice is cooked (but still has a bite), drain the water and spread the rice to let the steam escape. Fluff the rice periodically to avoid overcooking it. I usually cook the rice the day before and refrigerate it to make my life easy while cooking the kedgeree. A day old rice also holds up better and doesn’t break easily while cooking.
  3. Cut the fish fillet into 3-4-inch-long pieces and season with salt and pepper. Keep them aside for several minutes.
  4. In a large enough pot (don’t skimp on the container size because you don’t want to cramp everything there), add the oil and heat it up.
  5. Add the fish and cook it through. Don’t overcook the fish as it will get chewy. Once cooked, remove them from oil and keep them warm (if possible, wrap them in a foil).
  6. Add a little bit more oil to the pot if needed.
  7. Add the chopped onions to the oil and sauté them until translucent on medium-high heat.
  8. Add the curry powder and a little bit of water to avoid burning the spices. Lower the heat as you sauté the spices.
  9. Slice the eggs in four (lengthwise) and keep them aside.
  10. Add the cooked rice to the pot and gently toss and turn to evenly mix the spices with the rice. If you want it to look speckled, don’t mix it thoroughly. Check for salt. Add more if needed.
  11. Roughly break the fish with your hand into smaller pieces and add them to the rice. Add the eggs too. Gently fluff everything without mushing the rice.
  12. Add the finely chopped cilantro and chopped green chilies and sprinkle a generous amount of lemon juice on it. Cover the pot with a lid and very gently shake it to make everything mix evenly.
  13. Before serving, crack some freshly ground black peppers on it.

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Missing monsoon………

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Photo courtesy: Shameek Kumar Ghosh

Rain soaked Calcutta                          Photo courtesy: Shameek Kumar Ghosh

The darken sky thick it blows

Troubled with storms & big with showers

No colorful gleam of light appears

But nature pours forth all her tears

(originally written by Benjamin Hodges, 1792, here reproduced from the book  Spice, by Marjorie Shaffer)

The pouring rain Photo courtesy: Shameek Kumar Ghosh

The pouring rain
Photo courtesy: Shameek Kumar Ghosh

Monsoon….the most beautiful name a season can have. But really, the monsoon in India is more than a season, it’s an experience. It brings with it a lot of things…fun, fear, rage, silence, anger, devastation and relief at the same time. On my commute to work in Bethesda, MD when I hear the local weather forecasters make doomsday predictions about two inches of rain, I allow myself a little chuckle about one man’s meat being another man’s poison and my mind goes back to late summer afternoons in my small hometown. After many days and weeks of scorching heat, the gaping mother earth is waiting for some relief. The fields are cracked and wide open and the farmers are waiting eagerly for the rain to moisten the fields. And then, just when another power cut is about to make you lose all hope that summer will ever end, hope appears on the horizon. You know that monsoon is coming when the afternoon turns pitch dark and silent for a while and then the sky crackles with bright silver lightning and deafening thunder. The first few rain drops hit the parched soil, releasing the unmistakable fragrance we Bengalis call “sNoda gandho” that rain outside of India has never been able to recreate for me.

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The first few rain drops
Photo courtesy: Sanjukta Roy

Soon these first drops will be followed by torrential downpours, as if someone is pouring millions of gallons of water down from the sky. Everything becomes a blur. Sometimes the rain lasts for days, the consequence being overflowing rivers, ponds and lakes. As a kid, monsoon was fun…pure fun as long as there was no school. I used to visit my mama-baari (maternal uncle’s house) very often. During heavy rainy days, they neighborhood ponds used to overflow and we were up and out for catching fish with my cousins and neighborhood kids. All we had was either a gamcha (thin traditional Indian towel) or a chhNera kapor (piece of a used cloth). We used them as makeshift nets to catch the fish. The poor fish, confused by the overflowing of their home ponds, used to literally be on the streets, very helpless and with no clue where they were going. We, the greedy people used to stand there waiting for the ponds to overflow and the fish to come wiggling helplessly to our nets. No, we didn’t get the big carps like rui or katla, they were too big to succumb to the rain. Mostly they were small fish like pnuti, lyata or koi, which was probably in accordance with the laws of nature as we were too small to catch large fish anyway. Believe me, the joy of catching a fish this way is a hundred times greater than buying it from the market. It was almost like a festival. People of all ages would be on the street with a makeshift net and running all around to try their luck. All rain-soaked, happy, overjoyed, relieved and excited.

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Washed away
Photo courtesy: Sanjukta Roy

Anyhow, life moves on but some things never change. Here I am two decades later, in a suburban neighborhood in the US with no overflowing rivers or ponds but still waiting eagerly for a day which somewhat looks and feels like monsoon. My fish comes from Bangla Bazaar, frozen and wrapped in clear plastic. But, as I love to daydream, for today I am back in my hometown eating bhaat and machher jhol (fish curry) made with fish freshly caught with a gamchaa on a rainy monsoon day.

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Recipe:

Ingredients:

Fish steak: Preferably rui/Tilapia will do as well 5-6 pieces

Whole cumin seeds: 2 tbsp.

Whole coriander seeds: 1 tbsp.

Turmeric: 2 tsp.

Whole dried red chili: 3-4 nos. (depending on how hot you want)

Green chili: 2 nos.

Kalojeere/onion seeds/kalonji/black cumin seeds: ½ tsp

Potato: 2 small

Pointed gourd/potol/parwal: 3-4 nos. If you get hold of the bigger one, 2 will be good)

Ridge gourd/Jhinge: one 12” piece or smaller

Eggplant/begun: optional: few pieces

Mustard or any other oil (Bengalis cannot cook without mustard oil)

Salt to taste

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  • Soak the cumin-coriander seeds along with the dry red chili in water for ½ n hour. Grind it to a fine paste. If you feel lazy, just mix the powders with water (the taste will never be the same but still be good)
  • Marinate the fish with salt a I tsp. of turmeric powder for 15-20 minutes.
  • Cut the vegetable in almost equal sizes (very important)
  • Heat few table spoons of oil and shallow fry the vegetables. Do not deep fry them.
  • In the same oil add the fish pieces and shallow fry them as well. Take them out and keep them aside.
  • Again in the same oil add the kalojjere and slit green chilis. Saute them for few seconds (do not burn them, keep the flame medium).
  • Add the spice paste and ½ tsp. of turmeric.
  • Cook the spice paste until oil leaves the side of the pan.
  • Add water and put the flame on high. Add salt (be careful, the gravy will reduce in volume, so adjust the salt later)
  • When the gravy comes to a rolling boil, put the flame on medium high. Let it boil for several minutes.
  • Put the vegetables and the fish.
  • Cover for several more minutes until the fish and the vegetables are cooked.
  • Uncover and let it boil if you want less liquid in the gravy. The consistency should be thin, but how thin will depend on your taste.

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Ilisher tel jhol/a light flavorful hilsa fish curry to satiate our greed

Ilish maachh….just the name is enough to make me start drooling. Most Bengalis including me, my family, and my neighbors have a Freudian obsession with this fish. Unfortunately, in a few years, this beautiful silvery creature is likely to be found not glistening over crushed ice at your local fishmonger, but in the history books your children will read at school. The reason – greed. Simple, unadulterated human greed. I feel we are becoming both exponentially greedier and less considerate about nature. We want everything, all the time. I’ve heard people say “If I can afford it, why shouldn’t I eat hilsa in November?”. Well, you can now, but not for too long, you idiot.

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Tenualosa ilisha or the beloved ilish, as we call it in Bengali, is a very special fish. It is anadromous, meaning they live their adult life in the sea and come to the fresh water/river to hatch eggs. Once they lay the eggs, they go back to the sea again. The duality of its lifestyle, involving both saltwater and freshwater diets, is what gives hilsa its distinct flavor and taste, which really has no close approximation in other fishes (shut up, those of you about to talk about shad).

Overfishing and even more cruelly, harvesting of juveniles, is killing hilsa populations as I write this article. Can you believe that it’s now very hard to find a mature hilsa weighing more than 1kg in Kolkata? When I came to the US just six years ago, I often saw hilsa which were several kilograms in weight. Now even in the US (where we get the premium specimens, even if they are frozen) it’s hard to find a big enough fish. The taste is not that great either. Due to overfishing and bad water management by governmental authorities in the Ganges and Padma rivers that form their freshwater habitat, hilsa are moving more and more toward the undisturbed waters near Burma. Fishermen are left with little choice and are following the fish to their new homes, so it’s not like the hilsa has had any time to recover. Consequently, hilsa from the Padma are almost extinct (some would say these were the prime ones) and the ones from the Ganges are threatened too.

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Traditionally we were not supposed to eat hilsa before late February or early March (more here). The first hilsa fish was offered to the goddess Saraswati and then eaten to start the season. Now, who cares? Traditions are for idiots and poor people who cannot buy hilsa in winter. Unfortunately, soon it will vanish from the plates of the wealthy too and all we will be left with the memories and the stories of what was once an absolutely fundamental component of Bengali existence.

On the weekend of Saraswati Puja, I wanted to make hilsa curry too. I was so disappointed to see the sizes of the available fish that it forced me to think about the future of hilsa and the nature of human greed and short-sightedness.

DSC_0667Recipe:

Ingredients:

Hilsa fish: 4-6 medium to large pieces/steaks

Eggplant: 10-12 two inch long rectangular pieces

Black mustard seeds: 1 tbsp.

Green chili: 3-5 nos.

Turmeric: 2 tsp.

Mustard oil: 1 tbsp.

Kalojeera/Nigella seeds: 1 tsp.

Salt to taste

  • Soak the mustard seeds in water for 10-15 minutes and then grind to a smooth paste with one green chili.
  • Coat the fish with generous amount of turmeric and salt. Leave them for 15-20 mns.
  • Heat up the oil (leave around 2 tsp of oil)
  • Very lightly fry the fish steaks. If you have access to the fresh fish, leave the frying part. It tastes best if not fried. Keep them aside.
  • Add Nigella seeds and 2 slit green chilies to the same oil.
  • Once you get the nice aroma of the nigella seeds and the green chilies, add 1 cup of water.
  • Bring the water to a boil. Add salt and turmeric powder.
  • After few minutes of boiling, add the fish pieces. Let the fish get ¾ cooked, uncovered.
  • Add the eggplant pieces.
  • Boil the gravy for few more minutes to cook the eggplants.
  • Add the rest of the green chilies and the mustard paste.
  • Bring to a boil and turn off the heat.
  • Add several drops of raw mustard oil before serving.

DSC_0662This is NOT like hilsa fish in mustard paste/shorshe bata diye ilisher jhal. It’s much lighter in consistency and more delicate to taste. Try not to cook the gravy for a long time once you add the mustard paste. It will take the fresh pungent taste away from the mustard. You can omit the eggplant if you don’t like it.

I don’t think any fish can replace the taste of hilsa. BUT, if it’s not available, you can try shad, mackerel or salmon. Salmon being an anadromous fish as well, a very good quality salmon might be the closest alternative.

Best served with steaming white rice (preferably gobindobhog chaal or kalijeera rice).

Marvelous mackerel

Mackarel_1I can’t talk enough about the Bengali’s love of fish. Fish is more than a food item for them…it’s more like a philosophy. You can even take Rabindranath Tagore out of some Bengalis, but not fish (forgive me for saying this). I don’t blame them. What do you do when you have innumerable rivers running all over your state and then the Bay of Bengal as your southern border? You end up being a fish eating-fish dreaming-fish talking community. A weakness for large carp even led the Bengali Brahmins to trade their place in the rigid Puranic hierarchy of Hinduism for the right to eat fish.

Fish is such an important part of our life that it has became integrated into culture in ways totally separate from food. I was reading The Calcutta Kitchen by Udit Sorkhel and Simon Parks, where they list the many piscine axioms that have become commonplace in the Bengali language. For example, a person with a darker personality or nature would be called “gobhir jawler mach” or “deepwater fish”, and someone who is being very diplomatic would be called “dhori mach na chhui pani” or “can catch the fish without touching the water”. The newly married bride upon her first arrival at her in-laws house will face the  challenge of trying to grip a live a lyata  fish (Channa punctatus). As this fish is very slimy and slippery, the idiom is that if you succeed in capturing it, you will be able to run the household with a stable hand. I could go on, but you get the sense; Bengalis have an intimate relationship with fish. We came up with a zillion way to cook and eat them, but when it comes to the most favorite ones, it’s always mustard and fish cooked together.Anyone who is familiar with Bengal will know that the Bengali’s’ love for mustard is as strong as it is for fish and rice.

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Here’s a very simple recipe, the outcome  of which is disproportionately mouthwatering. It also makes a very quick weekday dinner. For very severely homesick Bengali, this may even be a poor man’s version of shorshe ilish. Although mackerel is less oily and tasty  than a good mature hilsa, the flesh is buttery and white and it’s a fine fish in it’s own right.

Recipe:

Mackerel steak: 5-6 pcs.

Brown mustard: 1 tbsp.

Poppy seeds (white): 1-2 tsp.

Green chili: 4-6 nos. (depending on how hot you want)

Mustard oil: 1 tbsp.

Turmeric powder: ¼ tsp.

Salt to taste

  • Clean the fish well, drain and keep it aside. Use a microwave safe bowl with a lid.
  • Soak the mustard and the poppy seeds in lukewarm water for 15-20 minutes.
  • Grind the mustard and the poppy seeds with 2-3 green chillies to a smooth paste.
  • Add turmeric and salt to the paste and mix well.
  • Add the paste to the fish, add the mustard oil and coat the fish really well.
  • Throw in some slit green chili and cover the dish with a lid.
  • Microwave for 4 minutes, remove the lid and turn the fish pieces.
  • Microwave for 2-3 more minutes or until the fish is cooked through.

Do not add a lot of turmeric powder. It takes 7-8 minutes to cook the fish. If you add a lot of turmeric, it will give you a raw turmeric smell.

If your mustard paste is very thick in consistency, add a table spoon or so water to it, otherwise the fish will end up very dry.

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The recipe and the idea of cooking Mackerel in this way was shared by my dear friend Madhu.

kNakrol kumro diye ilish/Hilsa with pumpkin and teasle gourd

This is my first post and I am so excited. Couldn’t sleep well last night and was thinking about what to write and how to start and all those not-so-important things. It took me some time to decide the topic of my first post. Finally I decided to start with a fish post to match with the name of my blog. I love the aroma of different spices and love eating fish.

In Bengali, there is a proverb saying “machhe bhate Bangali“, which roughly translates to “fish and rice make a Bengali “. This is mostly true. As some of you know, Bengal is situated on the bank of the river Ganges and we have the Bay of Bengal to our south. Rice is the principal food crop in West Bengal. This translates to a humid and riverine geography, and thus to abundances of fish and rice, which explains why Bengalis are so fond of both. Being far away from home, I miss the comfort food and specially the seasonal variety of different vegetables and fishes. I miss ‘kaalboishakhi jhor’ (late summer afternoon tropical thunderstorm…the English name doesn’t do justice to the actual storm though) and the monsoon season in general. I miss the complete darkness before the storm and then pouring rain and thunder. Monsoon means another thing for the fish loving Bengalis, the arrival in the markets of the elusive ilish machh (hilsa fish). I miss crispy fried hilsa fish (and the leftover oil, green chilis and steaming hot govindabhog rice (a delicate and expensive variety of short-grained rice which has a nice aroma)). In Bengal, seasonal fruits, vegetables and fishes are often tightly linked with specific religious festivals and rituals. When I was a kid, plums (kul in Bengali) were not supposed to be eaten until the day of Saraswati puja, which is in early spring. On that day, the goddess was also offered a pair of choice hilsa fish. Long before “sustainable” became a buzzword, the purpose of such associations was to prevent fruits being harvested before they were ripened and to allow the fish to lay eggs throughout their reproductive season. Now things have changed. We have the luxury of eating almost everything throughout the year. That kind of spoils the fun of waiting all year long to get something.

 

Photo source 123rf.com

I never grew up eating this particular preparation of ilish machh. I came to know about it from my mother-in-law, who in turn got this recipe from her mother-in-law who was originally from Bikrampur in Bangladesh. I hate kakrol (teasle gourd), hate the absolute taste of it. On the other hand my husband loves it. The jhol tastes really good. I usually eat the fish and the pumpkin. It is very unusual for me, never thought of adding pumpkin and teasle gourd to a hilsa jhol. I took these pictures a long time ago, so couldn’t document everything. Next time when I’ll make it, I’ll try to add few more pictures.

The recipe:

Ingredients:

Hilsa fish: 6-8 pieces

Pumpkin: 1/4th of a medium sized pumpkin

Teasle gourd: 2-3 medium sized

Mustard oil: 1/2 cup ( you don’t need all of it, so don’t worry)

Kalonji/Kalojeere: 1/2 tsp.

Milk: 2 tbsp

Green chilis: 4-5 nos.

Turmeric: 1/3 tsp.

Salt to taste

How to cook:

  • Coat the descaled fishes with turmeric and salt. Keep them aside for 10-15 minutes.
  • Cut the pumpking into 2″/1″ pieces and the cut the teasle gourds into four. I do not get fresh teasle gourds here, so I use frozen.
  • Heat up 2 tbsp. mustard oil. Let it smoke and then bring down the flame to medium. Add the pumpkin pieces and suate them a little bit. Take them out and drain on a paper towel.
  • Add the teasle gourd and do the same.
  • In the same oil, add the fish pieces and shallow fry them. If you have access to fresh hilsa, the less frying is better. I use frozen and fry them a little more (just in case). Keep them aside.
  • Add the kalonji in the same oil and wait for the nice aroma.
  • Add 2-3 green chilis. Saute them for few seconds and then take them out as weel. Leave the kalonji in the oil.
  • Add 2 cups of water and then add turmeric. Let it boil for few minutes and then add salt.
  • Add the fishes back with the gourds. Let it boil for several minutes.
  • When the fishes are almost cooked, add the pumkin.
  • When the pumpkins are completely cooked, add the sauted green chilis back with 2-3 more fresh slit green chilis.
  • Mis 2 tbsp. of milk with one tbsp. of mustard oil, add this mixture and then boil for 1-2 mniues.
  • Turn the heat off and serve it with hot rice.

PS. I added the pumpkin with the gourd and the fish and they were overcooked. You can see mushy pumpkins in the pictures. My monther-in-law adds red chili powder-turmeric paste in the oil, cooks it for a minute and then adds water. I skip that part as I like the fresh green chili taste better. You can add that step if you want.