I suspect that the Portuguese colonizers of Bengal had no idea that their simple curdled milk cheese (the precursor of modern-day chhana) would one day create culinary wonders far beyond their own cuisine. The Bengali’s love for chhana, (often wrongly called cottage cheese in America) is so versatile that we eat it in every possible form. Apart from the gazillion sondesh or desserts made from chhana, Bengalis came up with savory things as well. Chhanar kofta, a curry made with spongy balls of this delicate wonder, is one among the Bengali niramish (vegetarian) favorites.
When I think about chhanar kofta, it especially amazes me because neither chhana, nor koftas is a native Bengali food. Chhana which is a descendant of a Portuguese cheese and kofta which was brought to India by the Mughal or the Persian colonizers are now an integral part of our cuisine. Koftas were traditionally made with meat and are very common in Persian or Middle Eastern cuisine. They are mainly made with minced or ground meat, seasoned with spice and herbs and made into balls. As Bengali widows were strictly forbidden from meat, they created their own highly evolved and richly complex vegetarian cuisine to compensate for their deprivation. Indeed, some of the vegetarian dishes created by these supremely skilled culinary artisans of a bygone era are more than a match for their meaty counterparts. For example, with chhanar kofta, if you have a highly developed palate and can appreciate subtle tastes, it is almost orgasmic when the delicate flavor of the chhana titillates some of your taste buds while the complex spices in the rich gravy are tickling the others.
That being said, I have committed culinary heresy by creating a version of chhanar kofta with garlic and onions, but I feel compelled to share this with you just because I am a food iconoclast. Bengalis consider onion and garlic as non-vegetarian ingredients and a true vegetarian dish should not include any of these. The recipe I am sharing below is the pure outcome of my mood and whim. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have added the garlic as it imparts a strong taste which kind of steals the subtlety of the delicate koftas. The gravy tasted delicious but somewhere I could feel the garlicky flavor saying hello. Dr. Sen, on the other hand, had no problem with it apart from saying he was glad his grandmother died before eating this, so I think it depends on the person. The recipe below includes the garlic but you are most welcome to omit it (indeed, I encourage you to do this.).
Milk: 1 gallon
Lemon juice from two large lemons
Potato: 2-4 small/1 medium
Onion: 1 medium
Garlic: 1 clove (optional)
Ginger paste: 2 tbsp
Red chili powder/Cayenne pepper: ½ tbsp
Cumin powder: 2 tsp
Coriander powder: 2 tsp
Cashews: 5-7 nos., soaked in water fro 10-15 minutes and then ground to a fine paste.
Cream: 2 tbsp (optional)
Turmeric: ½ tsp
All purpose flour/maida/cornstarch: 1tbsp
Oil: 2-3 tbsp
Cilantro: A handful
Green chili: 2-3 nos. (optional)
Garam masala (cinnamon-cardamom-cloves powdered together): ½ tsp
Salt to taste
- Make the chhana as mentioned here and here.
- Mix the ginger paste, turmeric, red chili powder together (also the garlic paste if you are using).
- Boil the potatoes and drain them on a paper towel to get rid of the excess water.
- Break the cheese lump; add cumin-coriander-red chili powder, salt to taste, finely chopped cilantro, all purpose flower/cornstarch and chopped green chili to it.
- Add the boiled potatoes as well.
- Mix the potatoes, chhana and spices together very well.
- Knead the mixture with your palm very well until the dough becomes very smooth and you can form balls without any cracks in them. Keep them aside.
- Heat up the oil in a big enough kadai/pot/pan so that you can fry the koftas without overcrowding them.
- Drop in the koftas and fry them on medium heat until they are golden brown in color. Make sure the oil is not very hot. Drain them on paper towel.
- In the same oil, add the finely chopped onion and sauté them until translucent.
- Add the ginger-garlic-red chili powder-turmeric paste.
- Cook the spice mix for several minutes.
- Add the cashew paste and cook again until oil oozes out from the sides.
- Add around a cup of luke-warm water and bring the gravy to a boil.
- Once it starts boiling, simmer the gravy and let it cook for several more minutes until the gravy riches it’s desired consistency and taste.**
- Add the cream and boil for 1-2 minutes.
- Drop in the koftas and some chopped green chilis in the gravy and boil them on medium flame for five minutes.
- Add garam masala powder and chopped cilantro and cover the pot.
- Serve it after 5-10 minutes.
** Do not make the gravy too thick or concentrated, the koftas usually soak up a lot of liquid. I usually put the koftas on the serving plate and then pour the gravy over it and let them soak for 10 minutes and serve. You can keep the gravy and the koftas separate and mix them a little before serving. If you put them together in the fridge, you’ll end up with no gravy and falling apart koftas the next day.