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.

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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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Hooked on Haleem (or maybe Khichda)?

DSC_0349Almost around the time when the sun is preparing to call it a day, fires will be lit up and gigantic aluminum cauldrons will be placed on the flame. It’s an all-male business on the sidewalks of Park Circus, Calcutta during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Soon, the cauldrons will be filled with soaked wheat and three to four different kinds of lentils, to be cooked together for hours. Men of different ages with their sleeves rolled up will be seen for the next several hours engaging in variety of cooking acts that resemble workouts, from stirring the pots with huge ladles as tall as themselves to cutting up mountains of meat into bite-sized pieces. Every time I passed by those simmering cauldrons, my nostrils were filled with mixed aroma of meat, aromatic spices and lentils. In separate cauldrons, at least ten different spices could be seen being thrown in to cook a korma which would later that evening be mixed with the simmering wheat and lentil stew and then simmered overnight to prepare the final product called haleem.

DSC_0450Although Hyderabad is the most famous place for its haleem, Calcutta haleem has its own fan followers too (including my husband who traveled all over the city hunting down the best vendors). Different versions of haleem are eaten in Pakistan, the Middle East and in Bangladesh. The Bohras of Gujarat call it khichda, which although very similar version to haleem is less spicy. Another haleem derivative is harees, a meat-and-wheat stew cooked with aromatic spices eaten in Middle eastern countries. The Arabic word halem/halim means gentle, forbearing, patient and slow to anger. I have never seen a food named so correctly. It requires lots and lots of patience to cook. You cannot even pound the meat like an angry person; you have to be slow and patient. 

DSC_0321Haleem was traditionally eaten during the month of Ramadan (ninth month of Islamic calendar when Muslims meticulously fast from sunrise to sunset), but now you can buy it all winter long in many of the Muslim restaurants In Calcutta. It is believed that during the rule of the Nizams in Hyderabad, it was mainly a food for royals and their nobles. But over the centuries, haleem became a food for everybody and a symbol of sharing and community togetherness during the time of hardship and sacrifice. In hindsight, this trend towards culinary egalitarianism is not surprising, as even ordinary families could afford to buy the small amount of meat needed to cook haleem, compared to the extravagance of, say for example, sikandari raan.

HaleemAs this was the first time I made haleem, I took the traditional approach of mashing the wheat and lentil mixture with a ‘daal ghotni’(wooden stirrer) but if you have a hand blender, go right ahead and use it. But remember, preparing haleem needs time and patience (although the results are well worth the effort). It can be eaten both as a main meal or as breakfast; an added bonus is that it freezes very well.

Recipe:

Ingredients:

Goat meat or mutton: 1 lb/500grms. cut into bite sized pieces (with bones)

Haleem wheat (sold in the Indian/Pakistani groceries): ¾ cup

¼ cup each of mung (yellow lentils), masoor (orange/red lentils), chana (split Bengal gram lentil) and urad (split black gram lentil) daal.

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Tomato: One medium, chopped

Onion: one medium, finely chopped

Ginger: 2 inch piece, grated

Garlic: 3 big clove, mashed

Or,

Ginger-garlic paste: 2 tbsp.

Red chili powder: one tbsp.. or more if you like your haleem to be spicy

Green chilies: 3-5 nos.

Turmeric: 3 tsp.

Oil: 2 tbsp.

Garam masala: 2 tsp.

Cumin powder: 1 tbsp.

Coriander powder: 1 tbsp.

Cumin seeds: ½ tbsp..

Clarified butter or ghee: 2 tbsp.

Water: 8 cups (more or less depending on the consistency you want)

Salt to taste

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To garnish:

Handful of cilantro finely chopped

Green chilies: few, finely chopped

Roasted cumin and coriander powder: few tbsp.

Beresta/fried onions: around a cup

Lemon wedges: one per person minimum

·         Wash the haleem wheat and soak them the previous night in ample water.

·         Soak the daal separately in enough water for 3-4 hours the next day.

·         Put a big stock pot on the stove top and fill it with around 4 cups of water. Cover it with a lid and let it come to a boil.

·         Add the haleem wheat (drain them before) and let it come to a boil again. Once it comes to a boil, put the flame on medium, add one teaspoon of turmeric and let the wheat get cooked.

·         Put a separate container with another 4 cups of water and let it come to a boil. Once boiling, add all the daal (drain them before adding). Let it come to a boil again. Once it comes to a boil, add one teaspoon of turmeric and put the flame on medium and let the daals get cooked.

OR,

·         Put the wheat and the daals with two tea spoons of turmeric and 6-8 cups of water in a pressure cooker and cook for two whistles. Let the pressure release naturally.

 

·         Heat up oil in a separate deep bottom kadai or wok. Once hot, add the onions and sauté them until translucent. Do not brown the onions.

·         Add the meat to the kadai and keep stirring them to get rid of the moisture in the meat.

·         Add the ginger-garlic, green chili, red chili powder, one teaspoon of turmeric and tomato and keep cooking. The entire thing will come together and the spice will coat the meat very well. Keep cooking until oil leaves the spice paste.

·         Add salt, garam masala and cumin coriander powder. Cook for 5-10 more minutes and then add around a cup of boiling water to the meat. If you know that your meat releases a lot of water, add ½ cup water.

·         Transfer the meat to a pressure cooker and cook it to one whistle. Let the steam come off naturally.

·         Open the lid and taste for seasoning and see if the meat is properly cooked or not.

·         Take the meats out of the gravy and let them cool down so that you can handle it. Pull the meat out of the bones and separate the muscles/threads with your fingers.

·         Discard the bones and put the meat back to the gravy.

·         If you do not have a pressure cooker, you can use the same pot and cook it covered until the meat is cooked. It will take longer.

·         Keep stirring the daals and the wheat with the wooden stirrer or a regular ladle. Keep mashing the daals. It will reach a creamy thick consistency.

·         Once the daal and the meat is ready, mix everything together. Let it cool down a little bit so that it’s safe to handle  and then with a hand held blender (or any blender you have), blend everything in small batches.

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Tadka (optional):

·         Once everything is nicely mixed and comes to a consistency you want, turn the heat to low and let it cook for 5-10 more minutes.

·         Heat up the ghee in a separate pot/pan and add the whole cumin seeds. Let it come to a shade darker and then add the ghee and the cumin seeds on the haleem and cover immediately with a lid. Let the spices infuse the haleem for few more minutes.

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Serving suggestion:

The haleem tastes incomplete without the garnish, so please don’t skip them.

While serving, add a little bit of the garnishing ingredients on the top of the haleem except the lemon. Sprinkle a generous amount of lemon and eat. Or, you can put the haleem with the garnishing ingredients on the side. People can add it according to their taste.

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 Beresta or fried onions:

  • Slice a red onion very finely in semi circles.
  • Heat up enough oil in a deep bottom pot to deep fry the onions.
  • Once the oil is hot, put the flame to medium high. Do not keep it smoking hot, the onions will burn immediately.
  • Separate the rings and put a small batch on onion in the hot oil.
  • Stir continuously and cook it until they are brown. Do not wait until they are deep brown. The onions will reach a shade darker after you pull them out of the oil.
  • Put them on an absorbent paper to soak the excess oil.
  • Fry the whole onion like this.
  • The fried onion stays well in an airtight container for several days to weeks.
  • If you are feeling lazy to fry them, buy them pre-fried or just add raw onions.