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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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.