Keemar doi bora/Meat balls in spiced yogurt and a tribute to Tagore on his birth anniversary

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If you know any Bengali, you know that we are too proud of our ‘kalchaar’ (read culture). We pay good attention to cultural education apart from the traditional ‘going to school and reading our books as a routine’ education. If you listen to too much Bollywood music as a kid, you stand the deadly risk of being branded ‘unkalchaarred’ (read uncultured).

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Maybe Bengalis subconsciously compensate for their physical laziness by being very intellectually active (or at least attempting to)?  I heard it many times when I introduced myself to a non-Bengali: “Oh, Bengali, from the land of Tagore, eh? Very cultural community.” Hence, by the virtue of being a Bengali, I became a part of a very cultural community.

When it comes to Bengali culture, no one messes with the Old Man. He is the be all and end all of our very own Bengali existence. He overshadows every nook and cranny of our culture. I really don’t know how we existed before he was born. In case you are curious to know who the Old Man is (Bongs might have guessed it already), I am referring Rabindranath Tagore. In one of the true ironies of our land, the greatest poet of the Bengali language usually signed his name using the Anglicized version of Thakur, the original family name. Anyhow, as a people, we eat sleep and breathe his literary and musical creations.

My Dad was raised almost as an orphan and my Maa in a refugee family, so, they did not have the luxury of being exposed to Tagore’s works at an early age. Naturally, they were unable to transfer any such interest to me. No Gitobitaan (anthology of lyrics to Tagore songs) adorned our bookshelf and the tape recorders didn’t play melodious Rabindra Sangeet (songs written and composed by Tagore himself). Having studied in a Catholic school, Jesus was more important than any Hindu gods and goddesses, forget about the mere mortals. They did not care much. Again, I did not get a lot of chance to be touched by him.

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I learnt to appreciate his songs only much later into my adulthood. I still know only a very few songs of his but they are very dear to my heart. I appreciate his art, his knowledge and his immense quality of being very versatile. He is like an ocean of knowledge. He probably deserves the name and fame Bengalis swear by. Being a rare unkalchaarred Bengali, I am probably unable to appreciate him in his entirety, but here is a poem which touches my heart every time I read it:

“Bohu din dhore bohu kros dure

Bohu byay kori bohu desh ghure

Dekhite giyechi parbotmala

Dekhite giyechi sindhu.

Dekha hoy nai chokkhu meliya

Ghar hote sudhu dui paa feliya

Ekti dhaner shiser upore

Ekti shishir bindu.”

Across many a year and distant sands,

I squandered my wealth in exotic lands,

Viewing majestic mountain peaks and the vastness of the ocean.

Alas! Ere my travels were my eyes not keen?

For out my own doorstep, lay yet unseen

A dewdrop sparkling perched atop a golden paddy kernel.

(translated by Shurjo Kumar Sen)

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Keemar doi bora is a very unusual recipe and belongs to the Thakurbari (Tagore family). I adapted this from a book written by Purnima Thakur, who married into the Tagore family and inherited a cookbook from one of the ladies of the Tagore household. The cookbook is like a treasure to me.

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Recipe:

Ingredients:

Mutton or chicken keema (minced mutton or chicken meat): 1 lbs.

Onion: one medium to large, finely chopped.

Green chilies/jalapenos: 3-4 or to taste

Yogurt: as much as you want

Black salt/any salt to taste

Cilantro: to garnish

Ginger: couple table spoon, very finely chopped

Sugar to taste

Oil to deep fry the meat balls

Potatoes: two medium or

One egg and two teaspoons of corn starch

Dry roast and grind to a fine powder:

Cumin: one teaspoon

Coriander: one teaspoon

Dry red chilies: 2-4 nos.

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  • Boil the meat along with a cup of water or even less. Do not add a lot of water in the beginning; you can always add it later. The meat will also release water. If you are using chicken keema, skip the boiling part.
  • Boil the potatoes. Do not overcook them. Just boiled should be fine.
  • Cool the keema if boiling and then mix with the boiled potatoes. With your hands or in a food processor, mas them very well. It should be lump free. If you are not using boiled potatoes, beat one egg and add it to the keema along with two teaspoons of cornstarch.
  • Add chopped onions and the chopped green chilies. Mix them well with the keema. Add salt to taste.
  • Oil your palms and form one inch balls.
  • Heat up oil in a deep bottom kadai/wok/pot and once the oil is hot, turn it down a bit.
  • Deep fry the balls turning them periodically to avoid burning and for even coloring. If the oil is too hot, they burn. They should have a deep brown color but not blackish brown. They will go a shade darker even after you take them out of the oil.
  • Drain them on an absorbent paper. Let them come to room temperature.
  • Beat up the yogurt with black salt (or regular salt) and sugar to taste. Add the finely chopped ginger. If you do not like to bite on raw ginger, skip it. The amount will vary according to your liking. Start with a small pinch and then add more if you like it.
  • Add the bhaja moshla/roasted spice powder to taste and sprinkle some finely chopped cilantro.
  • Drop the balls in the yogurt and serve.

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PS: Avoid eating them while frying. If you want, you can add cumin coriander powder or any spice or your liking to the meat balls.

 

 

 

 

 

Shrikhand and choosing your poison

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Recently I have been struggling to lose some weight. Maybe someday have that perfectly flat tummy which TV, movies and ads have seared into my brain as being the ideal female form. I eat ‘healthy’, I exercise – but I still gain weight. May be the air is bad. Who knows? While trying to lose weight, the first food group which we consider BAD is always the good old carbs. Everyone I talk to says “Oh no, you are eating half a cup of white rice with dinner? No way can you lose weight. Is that white sugar? OMG, God help you”.

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I can do many things to lose weight but I cannot live without white rice for dinner. I need it at least three to four days a week. And if eating half a cup of cooked rice makes me fat, I am ready to be fat. At least, I do not consume processed sugar every day. Although I add sugar to my tea only twice a week, my husband adds sugar to his tea everyday (but is still managing to lose weight). Being the person who decides mostly what is to be consumed every day, I decided to replace the good old bad white sugar with “raw cane sugar which happens to be brown”. As we know, everything brown should be good, right? Brown rice, brown bread, brown grains, brown sugar syrup, brown skin? Looks like I was wrong. Here is why.

 

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To my surprise, when I did my research to find out which sugar is less evil than the other, I found that as with the world around me, there are a lot of grey zones in the world of sugar. Turns out that white sugar is mostly glucose which is the simplest form of sugar and is readily/quickly absorbed by the body. It also has a high glycemic index and is unquestionably bad for diabetic people. So, okay, granted: white sugar is not so good for you. But what about the ‘natural sweeteners’? Looks like they are not as good as I thought. After much reading and comparing them upto three decimal points in terms of calorie and nutrition, my conclusion is, none of them is more superior than the other. Maple syrup might be the best bet but the better grades are very cost prohibitive (and my husband, being a horrible food snob, will not touch anything other than Grade A Light Amber). Agave might seem like a good choice as it has very low glycemic index but on the other hand it has a very high fructose index and can be worse for you in the long term. Brown sugar and honey are very flavorful but not much in terms of nutrition. You have to take gallons of them to get the nutritional value.

 

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Long story short: If you are NOT eating a huge amount of sugar every day, it really doesn’t matter which one you use. I keep a bottle of honey and maple syrup at home to flavor my tea and yogurt, but they give me the same calories. I like the complex flavor of honey and maple syrup. I like agave but stay away from it due to its high fructose content. If you really want the “best” sugar, try date molasses (khejur gur in Bengali) – it’s loaded with nutrients!

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Recently, I am hooked on Srikhand, which is a very traditional Indian dessert made with yogurt and flavored with saffron and cardamom. I flavor the yogurt with honey as I like the flavor of honey and yogurt together. You are more than welcome to use any sugar of your choice. This is very kid-friendly but do not use raw honey for kids under one as there is a threat of infant botulism.

 

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Recipe:
Ingredients:
Whole milk yogurt (please): 2-3 cups
One cardamom, seeds removed and crushed finely. You can toss the shell or use it in your tea.
A pinch of saffron
One-two table spoon of milk
Honey/maple syrup to taste (you can add sugar too)
Fruit of your choice
Nuts of your choice
• Place cheesecloth or a fine cotton/muslin on a strainer over a bowl. Put the yogurt in the cloth and cover it. Keep it in the refrigerator and let it drain for at least overnight or couple of days.
• After a day or two, the day you want to eat it, heat up the milk a little bit. Toast the saffron a little bit, crush it with a mortar pestle or with you finger and add it to the warm milk. Cover for 15-30 minutes.
•  Add the cardamom powder and the saffron to the yogurt and mix nicely. I whip it a little bit with a spoon to give it a fluffy texture.
• Keep it in the refrigerator or serve it with a drizzle of your sweetener and chopped fruits.
• Add the chopped nuts while serving (optional)
• You can add powdered sugar to your yogurt too instead of honey or maple syrup.
Sometimes I skip the saffron/cardamom part and zest some lemon and orange to it. Sometimes just honey or maple syrup and nuts. It’s a very flexible recipe and you can tweak it to your convenience.

Here is another recipe from my favorite blogger Lakshmi. She can make anything look beautiful. I loved the saffron hue in the yogurt.

 

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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.