Puja memories…

ghugniGrowing up in Bombay, there were some dishes that only seemed to make their appearance during Puja. Almost as if those recipes would magically appear during those five days of October, and then retreat away into some misty mountain top – much like the myth of Maa Durga! That theory was clearly a product of my comics-addled brain, but not being in Calcutta, we would not be exposed to the moghlai porota, or the ghugni off-season. My mother would make the chops and fish fries at home from time to time, but I have no memory of eating ghugni outside of Puja time.

So, when we added ghugni to our BHDC menu, the main memory I was going for was the snacky variety we ate at the Puja Pandal. I’m not quite sure if there’s a homier version of that dish but when we brought it on to the menu, my aim was to get the moreish taste so much of the world’s street food gets right. The dish is really simple and satisfying at its heart. Cooked yellow peas spiced with the classic bhaja moshla (freshly roasted and powdered chili and cumin powder in the main, but I add coriander to this version too) topped with onions, chilli, and dried mango powder. Comfort food, tang and spice, rolled into one. And the beauty – as with so many lentil dishes goes – is that works wonderfully with meat as well. Apart from the spices and the toppings that make you keep going back for the next spoonful, the key to a good ghugni is that the peas have to ben somewhat al dente. Obviously not undercooked, but a mushy gloop of peas could be many things – a ghugni it is not.

For those who have a memory of taking trains in the days before railway catering, or just for a touch of whimsy, we serve it in tiffin carrier bowls. And the response so far – to the dish and the presentation – has been very good!

Aniruddha

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Recipe for vegetarian ghugni (Adapted from a great recipe I found on the bongcookbook.com):

Ingredients (for 6 servings):

For the first cook of the peas:

  • 2 cups yellow peas (also called white peas/ white vatana in Indian grocery stores)
  • ½ tsp turmeric powder
  • 1 tsp red chili powder
  • 5 tsp bhaja moshla (for this one I dry roast equal parts cumin seeds, coriander seeds and kashmiri chilis till fragrant and then grind them to a fine powder)
  • 2 inch knob of ginger finely cut
  • 6-8 green chilis – whole, split
  • 2 medium potatoes diced

For the finishing cook

  • 1 tbsp mustard oil
  • 2 tsp roasted cumin seeds
  • 2 medium onions chopped
  • 2 tsp garlic paste
  • 1 tsp of red chili powder
  • 2 tbsp of bhaja moshla
  • 2 medium tomatoes, finely chopped

Cooking method:

Soak the peas overnight in enough water to cover them – wash them out the next day once you are ready to cook them

First cook

  • Add the soaked peas (should have grown to 2 times the size), potatoes, and the ingredients of the first cook with twice as much water – enough to cover them properly – and pressure cook it (about 15-20 minutes from the time the cooker starts to whistle). The peas should be about 80% done here i.e. it should not squish easily between your fingers.
  • Drain the peas and potatoes from the water, reserve the stock.
  • Some of the pea shells soften and come off in the cooking – fish them out with a slotted spoon (they make for a great, healthy snack!)

You can cook it more gradually on an open flame, but I found a short pressure cook did not mush up the peas and was far more time efficient.

Second cook

  • Heat the mustard oil in a heavy bottomed pan, when the oil is heated, add the cumin seeds
  • Add the onions and cook them down till translucent
  • Add the tomatoes and dry spices and fry together till the oil separates.
  • Add the drained, par-cooked chickpeas and potatoes, and cook it at high heat for 5-6 minutes. Add salt and sugar to taste. Cook for a further 15-20 minutes then on a low simmer with some of the stock reserved from the first cook, till the peas are fully cooked through, but hold their form and can be bitten through. The gravy should be loose but not watery – like a thick coating.

Final garnish

  • Finely chopped onion and green chili, marinated in lime juice
  • Pinch of amchur (dried mango powder)
  • A little sprinkle of the bhaja moshla – if you like a bit more heat in your ghugni (I always do!)

An ode to the Mughals – Chicken Rezala Tarts

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The word ‘Moghlai’ that features prominently on so many restaurant boards back home conjures up images of a rich, heavy meal followed closely by Antacids, in many of us. While it’s understandable, that is a shame. While there is a tendency towards richness in that cuisine, it often gets short shrift for the oily, over-spiced onion and tomato concoctions so many restaurants serve up as an excuse for Moghlai food.

But a well-executed Moghlai dish is a thing of joy. From its Central Asian roots, it grew into a deep and complex cuisine with its kebabs, koftas, pulaos, a range of curries, and some unfairly delicious things done to breads. Don’t plan on eating a Moghlai meal before a run, but be prepared to taste some very subtle spices, a range of sauces and flavours in meats and vegetables.

The Chicken Rezala is an offspring of this cuisine and very popular in Calcutta with its rich tradition of Moghlai food that travelled there with the Nawabs from Avadh. It is a white gravy cooked in yoghurt and cashew paste (sans poppy seeds in Singapore, which is a part of the recipe back home), and we love it because it looks and tastes different to the many of the more onion and tomato centric dishes. It is a white creamy sauce and has sweet and floral notes with the saffron, kewra (screw pine) essence that plays against the garam masala spices. It is normally had with roomali rotis or as an accompaniment to a biryani, but we decided to give it a modern twist by serving it as a filling in an open tart.

The recipe for the Rezala and the tarts:

Chicken Rezala

Ingredients

  • 400 gms Chicken – ideally thigh and leg pieces cut into 2 inch pieces (for the tart, else use bone-in pieces and keep it intact if using just for a rezala curry)

Marinade

  • ½ cup boiled onion paste (boiling the onion before making a paste makes it sweeter)
  • ¾ cup Yoghurt
  • 1 tbsp ginger garlic paste
  • ½ cup whole unroasted cashews
  • 1 tbsp poppy seeds (if you can use poppy seeds where you live!)
  • Whole garam masala
  • 1 inch cassia bark / cinnamon stick
  • 3-4 cardamom pods
  • 3-4 cloves
  • 1 small strip of mace
  • 6-8 black peppercorns
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 3 teaspoons coriander powder
  • ½ teaspoon white pepper powder
  • 1 teaspoon kewra water
  • 4-5 strands of saffron soaked in a table spoon of warm milk, and ground to release the colour
  • 1 tbsp ghee
  • 1 tbsp oil
  • Salt and sugar to taste

Steps:

  • Soak the cashews and poppy seeds in 2 tablespoons of water and after about half an hour, grind them in a smooth paste in the food processor
  • Combine the boiled onion paste, ginger garlic paste, and yoghurt with salt and the white pepper powder and marinate the chicken pieces for 3-4 hours in the refrigerator
  • Heat the ghee and oil in a heavy-bottomed pan add the whole garam masala pieces and fry them gently till aromatic
  • Add the marinated chicken pieces to the pan, fry to seal the chicken – about 10 minutes
  • Add the coriander powder, cashew (and poppy seed) paste, salt and sugar to the pan, coat the chicken pieces evenly, and cook on medium heat for another 15-20 minutes with a closed lid, stirring occasionally
  •  Open the lid, add the kewra water and saffron, and reduce the sauce to a creamy consistency for the tart filling (if you’re making just a rezala curry with rotis, you may want to keep it a little runny)

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The tart shells

Ingredients:

  • 200gms plain flour
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1 tbsp caster sugar
  • 120gm salted butter, chilled and diced
  • 1 large egg yolk
  • ½ tbsp ice water

Steps:

  • Put flour, sugar and salt in a bowl and pulse a few times to combine. Add butter and process till the mixture reaches a crumbly texture. Add the egg yolk and add a little ice water at a time to bring the dough together (you may not need the full tablespoon of ice water). Make a disc with the dough, wrap in cling wrap and chill in the fridge for at least 15-20 minutes
  • Cut out the dough in portions and roll it out to about 2mm thick between 2 sheets of parchment paper
  • Carefully ease the dough into 3 inch diameter tart pans, ease it into the flutes and the base evenly with some overhang
  • Prick the base of the tarts with a fork. Run the roller over the tart edge to remove the extra dough. Pre-heat the oven at 180 degrees C, Gas Mark 3
  • Put the tarts in the oven and bake for 15 minutes, and then check for a golden crust. If it’s not quite done, give it another 2 minutes at a time till they are done
  • You can save the tarts in an airtight container for up to a day – we assemble them pretty much fresh, with the chicken rezala pieces and gravy, and top it with some chopped spring onions.

Aniruddha

Chorchori – All the goodness with some more elegance?

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So, here is the challenge…..how do you take a wonderful tasting vegetable dish that looks like a big mash-up, and present it in a more modern way? We decided to tackle that with the chorchori – a Bengali dish whose very name evokes a giant mish-mash of vegetables (often an efficient way to use up left overs), cooked down to a pretty pulpy consistency that is one of the stock dishes you would find in one of the early courses of a Bengali meal.

Sadly, while it tastes wonderful and there are an interesting mix of colours to the dish depending on the range of vegetables you use, it doesn’t exactly sing to you visually as a plated dish in a modern dining context. Hence, we tried to deconstruct the dish somewhat, roasting the component vegetables with a pretty neutral flavour and basic seasoning, and then tossing it with the stock seasoning of the chorchori (paanch phoron – that Priya has written about earlier here and dried red chili primarily) as a dressing. Like a roast vegetable salad. It looks neater with the vegetables retaining their baton cuts, and the wonderful smoky spicy dressing of the spices that go into a chorchori. Now, to mess with the shukto!

Aniruddha and Priya

My new favourite dessert

Bhapa doi with apricot side

I have done a post earlier about trying to combine all the yoghurt/milk based desserts between Marathi and Bengali cuisines and in that post I spoke briefly about a very easy to prepare Bengali dessert called Bhapa doi or steamed yoghurt pudding.

Keen to do more with it, I kept doing some research on yoghurt based desserts till I stumbled upon ricotta cheese. In my quest for yoghurt, I had overlooked the fact that Bhapa doi, once cooked, was also close to cheese, either as a cheese cake or ricotta.

And so inspired by many ricotta based desserts I came across, I did my own trials and came up with what I think is a beautiful dessert – Bhapa doi, served with poached apricots (poached in a simple sugar syrup with cardamoms, cinnamon and rose water), toasted almonds and pistachios and a generous drizzle of orange and lemon zest. And it is beautiful, both to look at and to eat!

This particular serving was for a friend’s dinner party and it was a hit!

Bhapa doi with apricots

Home cooking with Mom – Patishapta (sweet rice pancakes with filling)

IMG_2697Bengalis have a saying that we have thirteen festivals for twelve months of the year (“Baro Mase Tero Parbon”) – implying that we barely need an excuse to celebrate. That probably also explains our healthy levels of food obsession and productivity! And festivals clearly meant , which invariably involves eating way more than we ought to.

One of my personal favourite festivals used to be Poush Sankranti that celebrates the harvest and the beginning of winter, and like all traditions around the world that celebrate food in sync with the seasons, it is celebrated with rice – since it is harvested then – and palm jaggery – that is produced only in that season. My grandmothers would then bring out the big guns to make the wonderful desserts with rice and jaggery, and the excellent vegetables in season in winter. My favourite dessert of these, was patishapta, or rice flour pancakes – with a filling of either coconut and jaggery, or sweet milk solid. The pancakes themselves are made with a combination of rice flour, wheat flour and semolina in a thin milk slurry, lightly pan fried and then rolled with the filling, almost like a soft, golden white cannoli.

I got my mother to teach me the pancakes with two kinds of filling – spiced coconut and jaggery,and sweetened milk solids. The pancakes like all such dishes I guess are a function of practice and my tenth pancake was better and smoother than the first, and the twentieth better than the tenth….and so on, you get the drift. Guess that’s why my grand mothers, who were easily a thousand plus pancakes down in their lives, were so effortless and consistent.

I also made the jaggery filling version at our dinner party, that we served with a lovely raspberry coulis that Priya prepared. I also took down the semolina content in the pancake batter….the semolina is there to give the pancake structure, but makes it a bit heavy, so I preferred the lighter version, though I needed to be a bit gentler with the pancakes. All in, a good effort, and a version I made at home got a final brush of cointreau. The orange notes were great and when has the right use of alcohol ever hurt a dessert??

Aniruddha

Home cooking with Mom – Mochar Chop (Banana flower chops)

We were back in Bombay to celebrate my Dad’s 70th birthday and much to his chagrin, I spent the better part of a day cooking with Mom to learn a couple of my favourite recipes (that she has no part in my Dad’s bonding sessions with me over single malt, was not a consideration). The first of these was Mochar Chop – chops made with Banana Flower (Mocha). Banana flowers are a favourite of Bengalis with good reason – they are wonderfully fragrant, with great, subtle flavours. They look really pretty as well lined up in rows inside the big purple banana blossom that holds hundreds of these little flowers.

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Banana Flower_3

Now for the bad news. They are a pain in the arse to get to. And I clearly wanted to learn to do this from scratch (and there is no way to buy cleaned flowers, so someone had to do the hard work anyway). You have to pull out the tall stigma and a plastic-like bud from each individual flower to leave behind the soft, delicious bud and stamen. So, after that patient effort (quite therapeutic), it was time to finely chop and cook the flowers into what is called a Mochar Ghonto (a mixed Banana Flower vegetable) that becomes the filling for the chop and is a fantastic vegetable dish to learn in its own right….

And then, after a night in the fridge for the filling (helps any chop by drying out some of the moisture and firming up the filling) it was time for a coating of flour slurry and bread crumbs for deep-fried goodness. You get the wonderful crunch, followed by the fragrant, spiced banana flower filling with all the garam masala, coriander and cumin flavours and the added flavours of grated coconut in the filling. They went down pretty quickly with the kasundi (sour mustard sauce) – a must for many of our deep fried chops.

Aniruddha

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My Introduction to Bengali cuisine

Before Aniruddha and I were engaged, my knowledge of Bengali cuisine was very limited. I knew that fish was a big part of their diet but I wouldn’t have been able to name a single dish. And my father had convinced me that the best Bengali sweets (notably sandesh) were available not in Kolkata but in Nagpur, his hometown.

Aniruddha and his family opened up the world of Bengali food to me and when I started experiencing the cuisine, I realized just how much I had missed out on. Fish was an integral part of the diet, but there was so much more to it.

I tasted unusual vegetable combinations and flavours in shukto and chorchori (mixed vegetable dishes typically cooked in mustard oil). I enjoyed dal preparations like cholar dal (slightly sweetened dal made from Bengal gram). I was introduced to paanch phoron, the Bengali 5 spices of onion seeds, fennel, cumin, mustard and fenugreek. I discovered kashundi, the Bengali mustard sauce. I learnt that poppy seeds are as much a part of their cuisine as they are in Marathi food. I experienced nulen gur (date palm jaggery). And of course I went through a wide range of Bengali sweets especially sandesh (a light dessert made of a ricotta-like cheese). I later realized my father’s love for his home town had clearly muddled his taste buds.

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Paanch Phoron – 5 spices

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Kashundi – mustard sauce

I learnt that the Bengali obsession with all things meat is second only to that of the Parsis. A Parsi wedding feast is slightly extreme. If you opt for non-vegetarian, that is pretty much the only thing you are getting on your plate 🙂 And vegetarians, like my father, are relegated to one corner of the dinner hall.

Bengalis are more inclusive. A traditional meal which is served in courses has vegetarian food served, consumed and done with before moving on to more exciting non vegetarian options. I learnt this the hard way at a dinner hosted by Aniruddha’s relatives. Not knowing that there would be courses, I tucked into the first couple of vegetarian dishes and had a lot of trouble trying to cope with the dishes that came in later. I also learnt that trying to argue with a Bengali hostess is in vain.

The Bengali opinion on culinary matters was another part of my education. Well, the Bengali opinion on anything and everything is also something to experience.

  • Evidence 1: To me, the samosa and shingara (fried flour pastries with a vegetable stuffing) look the same, though the filling is different (samosa is mostly potato while shingara has cauliflower and peanuts also). However to the Bengali they couldn’t be further apart and any insistence that they’re essentially the same thing with a different name can provoke an extreme reaction
  • Evidence 2: The pani puri vs. phuchka, both street snacks in the respective cities of Mumbai and Kolkata and made of deep fried wheat and semolina puffs stuffed with an assortment of boiled potato and/or lentils. The boiled lentil in the filling is a key point of difference between the Mumbai version which has it vs. Kolkata which doesn’t and which apparently makes the Mumbai version inferior. The second point of difference is the water that it is dunked into. Not willing to relinquish this debate, I still maintain that the Mumbai pani puri is better!
  • Evidence 3: The Mumbai frankie vs. the Kolkata kathi roll. Both rolls made from parathas and stuffed with meat or veg fillings. I believe the two should not be compared as they are quite different and both are good in their own right.

Mercifully since Aniruddha grew up in Mumbai he takes a benign view of these debates.

And so after almost 14 years of being married into the community, learning dishes from my mother-in-law and eating in Kolkata, a small part of me is also Bengali. Through the Bombay Howrah Dining Car, hopefully more people will be exposed to Bengali cuisine.

Priya

Home-made ‘bori’

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I have fond memories of seeing my grandmother make ‘boris’ (sun-dried lentil dumplings) at home, arranging the wet lentil batter in neat little dollops in a big circular tray to be dried in the sun. I have even fonder memories of those sun-dried boris being deep fried into crispy delights that would punch up many a vegetable and fish preparation at home.

I decided to try making ‘boris’ at home but sadly without access to a big sunny verandah and the time to monitor a sun-drying process, I decided to slow roast them at a very low temperature. The result was pretty good. I deep fried a batch for a ‘chorchori’ (mixed vegetable) and the rest are sitting pretty in a jar for the next time I want to add texture and a new flavour to a dish.

Aniruddha