Sali jardaloo murghi/chicken with apricot and fried potatoes and the Kissa-i-Sanjan

DSC_0705Approximately a thousand years ago, a tired and disheveled group of Zoroastrian refugees fled Islamic persecution in their native Persia and arrived in the Sindh region of Gujarat, India. Responding to their request for asylum, King Jadav Rana, the ruler of the tiny community where they landed, sent them a bowl filled to the brim with milk (a gentle hint that his kingdom was full and couldn’t accept refugees). In reply, the leader of the Persians dissolved a spoonful of sugar in the milk and sent it back to the king, suggesting that his small flock would dissolve like sugar in the milk and enrich the king’s community without straining its resources.

These refugees were the forefathers of India’s Parsi community. Although Persians were doing business with India from approximately 500 BC, the exact time of their arrival in India is controversial. The story above which describes the arrival and settling down of the Parsis in Gujarat is called the Qeṣṣa-ye Sanjān (The Story of Sanjān). Before Gujarat, they had briefly inhabited the Diu region of India, but soon afterwards their Dastur (leader) determined that their destiny lay elsewhere. They left Diu and after braving a life-threatening storm, they reached Gujarat. King Jadav Rana’s permission to the refugees to stay in his land came with afew caveats; they would have to learn and use only the local language, the women would have to wear sarees, and the use of weapons or conversion of any of the local people was strictly prohibited. The Dastur agreed to these conditions and hence the Parsis settled down in India, enriching India’s culture and contributing heavily toward our economy and prosperity.

DSC_0691Despite having lived on the Indian subcontinent for well over a thousand years, the Parsis remain a very distinct minority community. They speak their own dialect of the Gujarati language and follow rules which combine aspects of their ancient religion and their historical background as refugees. Their cuisine is also very distinct, again being a mix of Persian and Indian influences. Sali jardaloo murghi (Sali=potato, jardaloo=apricot, murghi=chicken) is a beautiful example of such intermixing. Being from Persia, they were quite used to using dried fruit and nuts in their food, which they introduced to Indian cuisine. This dish is at the same time familiar and different when compared to most “Indian” food items. I think it gives a nice twist to the everyday chicken curry.

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Recipe: (adapted from Madhur Jaffrey)

Ingredients:

Chicken, cut into bite sized pieces and skinned: 3lbs.

Freshly grated ginger: 2 tsp.

Finely crushed garlic: 1 tsp.

Dried apricots: 15-16 nos.

Vegetable oil: 4 tbsp. or a bit more

Onion: 2 medium sized, finely cut into half rings

Tomato puree/paste: 2tbsp. (you can use fresh tomatoes too) mixed with 1/2 cup water

Distilled white malt vinegar (or, regular white vinegar): 2 tbsp.

Turmeric: ½ tsp.

Sugar: 1 tbsp.

Salt to taste

To grind:

Hot dry red chili: 4 whole

Cinnamon stick, somewhat broken: 2 inches

Whole cumin seeds: 11/2 tsp.

Cardamom pods: 7 nos.

Cloves: 10 whole

For potato straws:

Salt: 1 tbsp.

Potato: One large peeled

Vegetable oil: enough to deep fry the potato straw

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  • Grind the spices ‘under to grind’ into a fine powder. ( I usually toast them a little bit)
  • Put the ginger-garlic paste, ground spices and one or two table spoon of oil and turmeric and massage everything well with the chicken. Leave it at room temp. for an hour (more will not hurt)
  • If you are using apricots which are very dry, soak them in hot water. The time will depend on how dry the apricots are. The ones I use here in the US, do not require soaking.
  • Once the meat is marinated, heat up the oil in a deep bottom pot. When the oil is hot, put the flame on medium and add the onions. Sauté them until they are reddish brown in color.
  • Add the marinated chicken and mix well. Sauté for another 5-10 minutes.
  • Add the tomato puree with the water, mix well again and add the salt and sugar.
  • Cover the pot and simmer the pot for another 10 minutes or until the chicken is almost cooked (add water if you want a bit of gravy, I do like have a bit of gravy)
  • Slip in the soaked/dried apricots and simmer again until the chicken is completely cooked.
  • Let the chicken sit for half n hour to an hour before you serve it.

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Making the potato straws:(if you are not in mood to make the potato straws, just go and buy some ready made straws from the stores. Recently I have seen dehydrated potato straws which can be fried at home…how convenient is that?)

  • Fill a large bowl with cold water and add the salt to it.
  • Put the grater on the bowl and grate the potatoes with a coarse setting/blade.
  • Once the potatoes fall in the water, separate the grated potatoes with your hands.
  • Heat enough oil to fry the straws.
  • Once the oil is hot enough, bring the flame to medium, take a small handful of potatoes, squeeze the water out as much as possible and drop them in the oil.
  • Immediately separate the straws with a spoon. Don’t put a lot as it will bring the oil temperature down and make the potatoes soggy. Fry in small batches.
  • Once all of it is fried, drain them on an absorbent paper until used.
  • Before you serve the chicken, heat it up gently and spread the straws on the chicken. Serve immediately.
  • Goes best with white rice.
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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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Vegetable chop-ped, the Bengali way or may be Bhejittebil chop

DSC_0315I almost forgot about the glorious Bengali evening snacking ritual of chop-muri (deep-fried croquettes and puffed rice) until my parents came to the US last month. My evening snack is pretty much limited to the yogurt-fruits-fruits-yogurt routine. In West Bengal, my home state in India, it was a completely different story, at least when I lived there. I would love to believe that this is still true, so the rapid change in snacking style from chop-muri at the local choper dokan (roadside tea stall) to falafel at the latest Western-style coffee shop is very upsetting for me. I know societies change and I should accept it, but it still upsets me. In my heart of hearts, I still hope that for many years to come, as the sun sets on my native Chandernagore, chop-muri finds its way into many home and the saucepan sits on the stove ready for the daily ritual of watching horrendously trashy, ill-produced and overdramatized Bengali serials before dinner.

The chop in West Bengal can come in a hundred different flavors, a few of which will be sold by every roadside choper dokan (chop shop).). There is a specific way of eating chop muri…you take a handful of muri, throw it in upwards into your mouth from a distance, bite into a green chili and then eat a small portion of your chop. Then, with your cheeks swollen with all of these, you start chewing with a vengeance. At first you can barely move your mouth. Then quickly the airy puffed rice vanishes and you are ready for your second portion. It’s not as gross as it sounds, but it’s not a dainty affair either.

The vendor sells the chops in a thonga (packets made out of old newspaper) and by the time they reach home, the packets have a typical oil-soaked look. The oil (actually dalda or vegetable shortening, pure saturated fat in case you were wondering) used to fry the chops is at least a couple of days old and almost black but still the chops came out super tasty. You can try cutting down on the carbs and fats some other time…but not while eating chop muri.

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My favorite chopper dokan food was singara (Bengali samosas) and then a few others tied closely for second. These were machher chop, bhejitebil chop and deemer chop (chop made with fish, vegetables and eggs, respectively). Although samosas have gained a prominent spot in Western culture, other chops didn’t quite make it. I really wish they did. Vegetable chops are best in winter when beets (or beet root, as Bengalis call it), carrots and peas are in season. Peanuts are mixed in to add a little bit of bite to the vegetables. This chop is supposed to be slightly sweet in taste with a crispy shell outside. Below is my mother’s vegetable chop recipe which is pretty close to the one from the roadside shops. Muri and green chillies can be found in your local Indian store.

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Recipe:

Here I am again with my Maa’s recipe and without any measurement. If I ask Maa for proportion, she will say “Oshab janina…chhobi tobi tolar dorkar nei…khaa toh” (I don’t know all these, you don’t need to take a picture, just eat it). So, no table spoon or tea spoon here…just eye ball it. J All she could say is, she used 2 large beet roots, two smallish potato and four small carrots. Peas are optional.

Ingredients:

Vegetables: Beet root, carrots and potato.

Spices: Roasted and ground together: Cumin, coriander, red chili, cinnamon, cardamom and cloves.

To make a paste or grated: Ginger

Turmeric powder

Salt

Green chilies

Raw peanuts

Cilantro (optional)

To fry:

Bread crumbs

Cornstarch

Baking powder

Oil for deep frying

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  • Peel and boil the vegetables. Do not over-boil them…they will be super mushy.
  • Drain and let them cool. Mash them together and try to make a smooth dough sort of thing.
  • Add everything above ‘to fry’ list. Mix well. My mother cooks the mixture on the stove top for a while just to make sure there is no extra moisture left (but this is optional).
  • Form balls or any other shape you like.
  • Make a batter with the cornstarch. Add a pinch of baking powder to it.
  • Dip the vegetable balls into it, coat nicely and roll them over the breadcrumbs.
  • Finish making all the balls.
  • Start heating up enough oil to deep fry the balls. You can start the oil while making the balls.
  • Deep fry them. Do not over crowd the pan while frying.
  • Once they are medium-darkish brown color, take them out and drain them on absorbent paper.
  • Enjoy them with puffed rice/mamra or Muri or just itself.DSC_0317

Please let me know if you do not understand anything in the recipe. Again, the whole thing happened on my absence, so no first hand knowledge. If you need any other information, I’ll try to get it from my Mother.

 

Durga puja palon pnepe-mangsho diye/celebrating Durga puja with mutton cooked with papaya

I grew up in a family which was best described as middle class tending to lower middle class. In fact the only thing that qualified us as belonging to the GIMC (Great Indian Middle Class) was that my father had a government job with Indian Railways. Even so, sometimes we had a hard time making ends meet. Throughout my childhood and my growing up years, eating meat was a luxury. My father is a foodie and believes in quality than quantity. He used to buy the best fish or meat that was within his budget. I still remember that when I was a kid, every Saturday (my father’s day off) he used to buy 250 grams of chicken. We were allowed a fixed amount during lunch. When my brother was born and I grew up, the amount went up to 500 grams and that’s it. I loved a piece of kosha mangsho (meat cooked without adding water) before maa added water to the meat. I can still hear the warning “ekhon ek piece kheye niley dupure kintu ek piece kawm pabey” (if you eat one piece now, you’ll get one piece less for lunch). I agreed but everytime my maa would sacrifice her piece and give it to me.

Times have changed and I can eat meat everyday for all three meals if I want to. The irony is I lost the appetite for meat. I hardly crave for it anymore. Occasionally I would crave for a particular type of meat but that’s pretty rare.

My husband was from a comfortable middle class family (although I like to tease him and say upper middle class) and never saw any such crises. But his life of comfort too changed when his parents sent him to a Hindu missionary school when he was 10 years old. Needless to say, the food wasn’t great and the amounts were limited. So, on special days when they used to get meat, they would be jumping up and down in anticipation. On some days if they were lucky enough, they used to get the pnepe (papaya) which was left at the bottom of the serving bowl. It was more precious than the meat. It had absorbed all the flavors of the gravy. Time has changed for him too. He doesn’t crave for meat anymore as well. Once in a while he will ask for a patla mangsher jhol (a light mutton curry with watery gravy) and we both like it. I came up with a mangsher jhol recipe based entirely on experimentation. I make it with a light touch and add papaya and peppercorn to it. The papaya makes the meat meltingly tender and allows my husband to get over the trauma of the boy next to him getting the only piece in the bucket and not sharing with him (at boarding school). In this way, this recipe is a connection between my husband’s childhood and mine, so naturally it’s very special to us. Usually, we both overeat whenever I make this.

Bengalis will be celebrating Durga Puja for the next few days and it’s a celebration of the victory of Good over Evil. In the midst of your revelry, stop and spare a thought for those who will lie hungry on a hard pavement while the madding crowds around them indulge and preen.

Ingredients:

Pnepe/papaya: 1 small (grate the papaya to make 2 tbsp. paste)

Mutton with bone: 2 lbs.

Potato: 2 medium, cut into 4 pieces

Peppercorn (whole): 1 tbsp.

Turmeric powder: 1 tsp.

Bay leaf: 2 nos.

Cardamom: 2-3 nos.

Cinnamon: 3″ (broken into smaller pieces)

Cloves: 4-5 nos.

Tomato: 1 medium, chopped

Onion: one large, cut into half ring thin slices

Ginger-garlic paste: 2 tbsp

Red chili powder: 1 tsp.

Green chili: 3-5 nos.

Oil: 3 tbsp. (use 1 tbsp. to marinate the meat)

Water: As needed

Garam masala powder: 1 tsp.

Salt to taste

How to cook:

  • Wash and clean the meat. Drain as much water as possible. Add turmeric powder, ginger-garlic-red chili powder paste, mustard oil, grated papaya and mix them very well. Marinate overnight or minimum 4-6 hours. Take the meat out of the refrigerator (if marinating overnight) and let it come to almost room temperature. Mix few times while it comes to room temparature.
  • Peel and cut the papaya into big cubes and then wash them.
  • Cut the potatoes in half if they are medium. Cut them into four if they are big.
  • Heat up the oil in a pressure cooker. Add the bay leaves, peppercorn and the whole garam masala (cardamom, cinnamon and cloves). Sauté them for a while unless they start to release a nice aroma.
  • Add the sliced onion and let them sweat a little bit. You don’t have to cook them for long.
  • Follows the chopped tomato. Cook it until the tomatoes look mushy.
  • Add the meat and cook it for several minutes until all the liquid is absorbed.
  • Add the potato and cubed papaya and cook it for few more minutes.
  • Add lukewarm water and salt and mix them well.
  • Close the lid of the pressure cooker and put the weight on.
  • Put it on medium flame and wait for one whistle.
  • Let the pressure release by itself. The meat should be cooked by now. If not, you can cook it a little more (probably you don’t have to).
  • Add 3-4 green chilis and garam masala paste (make a paste of the powder with a little bit of water). Mix gently and cover the cooker for few minutes so that the flavor can marry together.
  • Serve it hot with steaming hot rice.
  • I like it sometimes with a wedge of lime but it’s your choice.

The color of the meat in the picture is a little deceptive. The oil and the chili powder are floating on the top and it looks red. The moment you stir it, it looks much lighter. It is not half as rich as regular Bengali mutton curry. Go easy on oil, the masalas and specially the red chili powder. The heat should come from the green chilis.

The mutton should be melt in the mouth. The papain (the digestive enzyme found in papaya) is a natural meat tenderizer and digests/breaks down the meat protein even before you start cooking it.

If you do not have a pressure cooker, don’t worry, you can do the whole cooking in a regular deep bottom pot or kadai. Keep the pot/kadai covered while the meat is cooking. Only it will take longer.

Trivia: Papaya was not a native Indian vegetable; it was introduced by the Portuguese.

Chapor Ghonto/Vegetable mishmash cooked with lentil patties

Chapor/Chapri

Not too long ago eating out in Calcutta was reserved for special occasions or weekends. Bengalis were quite unwilling to pay and eat traditional food, the common saying being “if I can make it at home, why should I pay for it and eat it outside?” So, restaurants served mostly Chinese, Mughlai or a few other cuisines. During my last visit to Calcutta, I was quite surprised to see the change. Now the mentality is more like “if I can pay for it and eat it without any sweat, why should I make it at home?” Seeing the eating-out culture, I thought that not far from now, kids will have no memories about home cooked comfort food cooked by their mothers. I am not saying that everybody does it but the urban population, which is always running after something or the other, is getting more and more inclined to avoiding simple home foods and cooking. Eating Bengali food in a restaurant is very fashionable now. You can find a Bengali restaurant in almost every neighborhood in Calcutta. Some have managed to acquire fame and some are still struggling.

Before I visited Calcutta couple of years ago, I Googled the menu of a very popular Bengali restaurant and my jaws dropped. Two pieces of begun bhaja (fried eggplant) was like Rs.25/-…are you kidding me? A simple bowl of daal (lentil soup) will be Rs. 30/- or something close to it. It looked outrageous to me but still went to the restaurant to see if they can justify the price. The food wasn’t bad but no way am I going to that place again in my life to pay Rs. 25/- for two pieces of begun bhaja. That’s just me, but I don’t see the restaurant going out of business in near or far future.

Chapor Ghonto

In the matter of Bengali restaurants, Minakshie Rakhipurnima Dasgupta was a little ahead of her time. She opened her own a place called Kewpie’s in the memory of her mother Minakshie Dasgupta, when eating traditional Bengali food from an a la carté menu was almost unheard of. Although bhaat-daal-maachh (rice-lentils-fish, the Bengali staple) was very much available in the traditional kebin (communal dining establishment with prix fixe menus and limited table service), these establishments were the haunt of the working-class bachelor or the poor lover, and no bhadralok (upper middle class educated Bengali gentleman) would be seen dead in one. I have a book written by Mrs.  Minakshie Dasgupta called “Calcutta Cookbook”, where I found many recipes which are pretty new to me. Among the more traditional ones, there was chapor ghonto and I had no idea what it was. Naturally, I was very tempted to make it and finally I have managed to do it. Looks like it is among the dying recipes but I don’t see why. It is a little bit time-consuming but less so than a regular mutton curry. I am more like a fishiterian (yeah, I came up with the word) and eat mostly vegetarian and fish at home. Meat is reserved for special occasions. If I see an interesting vegetable recipe, I can’t wait to make it.

Split pea lentil and the fried chapors

The recipe below is almost copied from the cookbook with my variations included. I have no idea what it should originally taste like, because I haven’t had it in my life. I liked the taste of my chapors (fried spiced lentil cakes), so right now, not so worried about the authenticity. When I called my mom, she said she has made it once from a recipe shown on TV. I assume this a recipe from the Bengalis originally from the West Bengal (ghotis) but not sure. If you are ready to put in a little bit of effort to make something rarely found these days, go for it. You won’t be disappointed.

Ingredients:

Potatoes: 100grams

Pumpkin: 100grams

Sweet potato: 2 medium

Jhingey/ridge gourd: 100grams

Begun/baingan/eggplant: 100grams

Chapor (broken into small bits) made from 200grams of split pea lentils (recipe below)

Mustard oil/vegetable oil/ghee: 2tbsp

Tejpata/bay leave: 2 nos.

Red chilies: 2 nos.

Pnach phoron/Bengali five spice: 1tsp

Ginger paste: 1 tbsp.

Green chilies: 4-5 nos.

Coconut: 2 tbsp.

Oil to shaloow fry the chapors

Sugar: 1tsp.

Salt to taste

Bengali five spice/pnachphoron

How to make the chapor:

  • Wash ans soak the split pea lentils overnight.
  • Drain and coarsely grind it with the green chilies.
  • Add salt to the batter and whip it very well.
  • Het oil in a preferably non-stick frying pan. Make 2-3″ round flat ckaes (around 1/4″ thick) and place them on the pan. Cook on medium flame, turn over and cook until the cakes are a little brown on both sides. You shouldn’t be deep frying them. Keep them aside.

How to cook the ghonto:

  • Dice the potatoes (I prefer to keep the skin, but you can peel them), sweet potatoes (you can peel them or leave the skin, it’s your choice), pumpkin (peeled) and the eggplants.
  • Heat the mustard oil/ghee/vegetable oil to smoking hot and then reduce the heat.
  • Add the pnach phoron, bay leaves and dry red chilies and stir fry them until a nice aroma released. The pnach phoron will splatter a little bit.
  • Add the vegetables and stir fry them for 5-10 minutes.
  • Add salt and sugar, mix well and cover the pot.
  • Cook the vegetables on simmer until they are tender or almost done.
  • Break the chapors into smaller pieces and add them to the vegetables.
  • Add the grated coconut and the ginger paste and mix well.
  • Add 2-3 slit green chilies.
  • Let the vegetables get completely cooked in their own juices. Do not add a lot of water. The ridge gourd and eggplants will release water. If they are sticking to the bottom, sprinkle a little bit of water.
  • Finally give it a good stir and take it off the fire.

Variation: In her original recipe, she added 25 grams (around 2 1/2 tbsp.) of soaked chholar daal/Bengal gram with the vegetables. The pumkin and the sweet potato addition is mine, she had wax gourd or potol instead (I don’t get wax gourd very often here in the US). She said you can use the freshly grated coconut as a garnish also. She also didn’t add green chilies to the vegetables. I like a little bit of kick, so I added 2-3 nos. It’s your call, go for the pumpkin and the sweet potatoes if you like a little bit of natural sweetness in the vegetable mishmash or completely omit them or may add one and skip the other one. I’ll try to cook it again with soaked Bengal gram and coconut as a garnish.

I had it with ruti/chapati and it tasted great. I am sure it will taste good with rice also. Have it with a simple masoor daal.

Uchche chachchori/Bitter gourd with mustard paste

Bitter the better, no one said ever, except the Bengalis. Traditionally in a Bengali household, food will be served in separate bowls with five different types of food (pancha vyanjana) in them. The rice was placed on the metal platter (thala) and the bowls were arranged anticlockwise around the platter in the order the food was to be eaten. It started with something bitter, maybe uchhe bhaja (fried bitter gourds), neem-begun (neem leaves fried with eggplant) or some kind of bitter leafy vegetable. Then followed a daal (lentil soup), bhaja (fried vegetable like potato, ash gourd, eggplant etc.), vegetables in gravy, ghanto (a vegetable mishmash with or without fish), fish or meat and the last course was always a sweet or tangy chutney (made from either tomato, green mango, papaya or jolpai (Indian olives)). Separately, sweets were a must after every meal, be it mishti doi (sweet yogurt) or something made either at home or bought from the local moira (sweetmeat maker).

It’s very normal for children to hate anything bitter. But, I was a strange kid; I didn’t like fish or most of the vegetables but always liked bitter foods. Uchche (karela/bittergourd) was always my favorite, be it fried crisp, chachchori cooked with potato and mustard paste or just boiled and then mixed with boiled potatoes, mashed with green chilis, salt and mustard oil.

The bitter taste is an acquired taste, if you like it, you like it a lot but if you don’t, you’ll hate it…not many people fall in the middle category I assume. The bitterness is supposed to clear your palate (probably the reason behind serving it first during the meal) and has medicinal properties too. During old times, the kabiraj (ayurvedic doctor) would often prescribe bitter tasting food to cure many diseases. In fact Bengalis still eat neem-begun at the onset of boshonto (spring) as a preventative measure of chicken pox. One way or another, the Bengalis’ love for the bitter has never faded.

The recipe below is my mother’s and I love it. It’s very simple and needless to say that it’s tasty (at least to the bitter-loving people). I haven’t altered anything from her recipe including grinding the mustard-poppy seed on my shil-nora (traditional Bengali grinding stone).

Ingredients:

Bitter gourd: 3 med.

Potato: 2 med.

Green chili: 2-3 nos.

Dry red chili: 2 nos.

Pnach phoron: 1/2 tsp.

Mustard whole: 2 tbsp

Poppy seed: 1tsp (optional)

Salt to taste

Mustard oil/vegetable oil: 1 tbsp.

Water: 1/2 cup. or more if needed.

How to cook:

  • Soak the whole mustard and poppy seeds with water for 30 minutes.
  • Grind it to a fine/smooth paste with 2-3 green chilis.
  • Wash and cut the bitter gourds in 1 1/2” pieces. Do the same for the potatoes. I prefer not to peel potatoes for most of the times as I do not want the nutrition in the peel to go waste. If you like it, go ahead and peel them.
  • Heat up the oil (if you are using mustard oil, heat it up to smoking hot, reduce the temperature and then add the phoron. The mustard oil does add flavor to the dish but you can always use something else), add pnach phoron and two dry red chilis. Sauté them until they release a nice aroma.
  • Add the potato, sauté them for 5 minutes. They should be very lightly fried, not deeply fried.
  • Follows the bitter gourd. Add turmeric powder and sauté for another 5-8 minutes.
  • Add water and cover the pot with a lid.
  • Once the vegetables are halfway cooked, add salt and let them cook uncovered.
  • Add the mustard-poppy seed paste when the vegetable are cooked. Give them a good stir and turn off the heat.
  • Let the flavor intermix a little bit and then serve with plain rice.
  • Try not to overcook the vegetables. I cut the potatoes a little bigger than usual (for no reason), but it’s better if you can cut them a little smaller than mine. Mine worked fine but to me it looked like the potatoes were predominating the dish.