Bengali Soru Chokli (Rice Flour Pancakes with Zucchini or Calabash/Bottle Gourd) & PatiShapta Pitha

Dear Cousins,

(I am a bit late in writing this post coz Makar Sankranti has long gone..but nevertheless, please read it :D)

As you know mid of January is the time for celebrations all over India.  Between 13th Jan to 16th Jan, numerous festivals like Makar Sankranti, Lohri, Pongal, Magh Bihu, Uttarayan, etc. are celebrated all over India by various communities. Since India is primarily an agricultural country, many of its festivals coincide with important dates of sowing and harvesting.  Mid of Jan marks the end of winter and beginning of spring in most of the Indian calendars (different from the Gregorian Calender).  Now like all festivals around the world which mean food, family and more food, these festivals too are heavy of food and emphasise family unions.  For 2 consecutive years, I have had the privilege of being in Purulia, Ma and Baba’s hometown, during Makar Sankranti which enabled me to gorge on loads and loads of different varieties of Pithas, the traditional dish for this festival and understand the family rituals around it!! In Indian states like Assam, West Bengal, Orissa, Bihar and Jharkhand, sweet and savory versions of Pithas are a common sight in most households on this day.

At home in Delhi, Baba and Ma try to make some every year but in small quantities; so when I was at my relatives’ the sheer amount of stuff being made startled me!! Choto Mamima (Ma’s younger brother’s wife) says that on an average in a family of four, 4-5 kgs of Parboiled and Normal Rice is used along with 3-4 kgs of Jaggery, 3-4 fresh Coconuts and 1-2 kgs of Sesame Seeds for making sweet pithas during this time.  There are also savory pithas made of Lau (bottle gourd), Seem (flat beans) and cabbage.  In joint-families the amounts simply double as there are more hands for moulding the pithas.  Sometimes, if relatives are not around, friends and neighbours extend helping hands to each other to create massive mounds of Pithas!!  Hence in every way the festival is an opportunity to meet, gossip and bond over food.

The sweet varieties like Sheddo Pitha, Puli Pitha, Gokul Pitha, Moong Puli are awesome but I have never tried making them (maybe next year!); so I made the most easy one – the Pati Shapta. For savories, I made the Lau Soru Chokli and I tell you, they were yuuummm!!

Pati Shapta

Pati Shapta

Zucchini Soru Chokli

Zucchini Soru Chokli

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Mushoor Daaler Boda’r Dalna (Masoor/Red Lentil Fritters in a spicy curry)

Dear Cousins!

Since you guys are busy with other things, lemme carry on my writing.  This is a dish that I learnt from Ma. Now one must note that she doesn’t like cooking, yet every time she cooks, she does create wonders falsifying the notion that only people who love to cook can cook good food!! Usually, she just throws in this and throws in that and !!VOILA!! a splendid dish emerges…one can rightly call her a good careless cook! She tells everyone that she can’t cook, apparently when compared to me, but Ma, you are my true inspiration to cook.  From childhood I saw you create amazing things out of nothing or with limited things…Baba used to say, ‘Anyone can cook well with a lot of oil, spices and expensive ingredients; but your mother cooks well even with limited resources, that’s why she is a good cook!’  I second my Dad in this….you rightly exemplify the funda of jugaad (we Indians are so adept in jugaad, that there is even a wiki page on it!!).  You were the one who taught us how to bake a Cake in a pressure cooker; grill an awesome Pizza on a pan, where even the dough is homemade without yeast; make a Egg & Crumbed Bread pizza (will surely write about that in another post); the gorgeous but delicate steamed Caramel Pudding; Mutton Rezala; 1/2 an hour Chicken Biryani; Fish Biryani and the entire fare of Bengali foods….shukto (a veggie dish with a bitter taste) to payesh (rice cooked in a sweetned milk thats been thickened through slow cooking)…I guess this is why I too have learned the art of using jugaad ingredients & less oil!! My mother – my inspiration, my strength and my friend!! This post is dedicated to you, Ma…

Mushoor daale'r Boda'r Dalna

Mushoor daale’r Boda’r Dalna

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Ilish Maacher Mudo’r Tok (Hilsa fish’s head in a Tamarind gravy) and Bengali Women

Dear Cousins,

Hope you both are doing well. I have been a bit out of action lately as I was attending a conference here in Melbourne on India and Australia Relations.  I didn’t get much time to cook at home during these days, but I can happily tell you this that I was part of a 2 member team catering for almost 40 people’s dinner!!! My contribution in this amazing food spread were making 2 dips for crackers that were served with drinks (mushroom pate and a yoghurt+garlic+mint+ ricotta dip).  I plated them so well that Mary, the head chef of the day was totally in awe with the results!! The second thing I made was Red Peppers stuffed with Spiced Chickpea and Lentils.  I must proudly inform you both that many guests (Indians and Australians) came and personally congratulated me for all the three!!! One gentleman said, “The aroma of the peppers was so intoxicating that I couldn’t wait till the vegetarians had had their share!! I quietly took one :).” The appreciation was heartening!

Considering that the conference left me intellectually bombarded with so many esteemed researchers and activists giving speeches, I have been thinking about a few things myself as well…and while cooking too such thoughts don’t leave me…like the other day I was making Ilish macher matha (Hilsa fish’s head) and a question popped up in my mind. As you guys know, the head of the fish is considered very auspicious and very healthy (they say if you eat fish’s head you would have a sharp brain).  Both men and women therefore must consume it.  So I asked Niloy how would he like me to cook it. He said, “I don’t eat this piece.”  Now this was expected. In many Bengali households it is eaten normally by the women because eating it can be time consuming as well as difficult. There are large bones in it which make it cumbersome. I have heard from many Bengali women that because of this reason they end up eating it as no one else wants to eat that piece.  I guess this trend is also a result of the old Indian tradition when women ate after everyone had eaten (mind you, in many parts of India, it still happens and that includes the urban cities as well).  So lets say there is a big pot of fish and first the men eat, then the children and then the women.  Since fish head and tail are two cumbersome pieces, they would sit in the pot till the end and invariably the women would eat it.  To avoid this, I think Bengali mothers and grandmothers invented the recipes like Mudi Ghonto (Rice and fish head mix), Macher matha diye muung daal (Fish head with Moong daal), and many others that mix fish head with some vegetable or rice and make it tasty so that everyone eats it.  Is it because Bengali women are more progressive? Any comments?

I too learned a recipe like this from Ma’s late aunty – my grandmother (Mami Dida).  I think grandmothers are a repository of awesome tips & recipes; and so was she, an accomplished cook who could even make a simple dish like daal, tasty!!  Her prawn curry (Chingdir Jhol) was totally out of this world!! I wasn’t lucky enough to taste much of her cooking as my trips to Chandernagore (her home) weren’t too often.  But whatever little I have eaten from her kitty, has left an indelible mark on my memory….so here is the recipe..

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Ilish Maacher Mudo’r Tok (Hilsa Fish’s head in a Tamarind gravy)

2 Hilsa fish head, cleaned and cut into halves

2 medium sized Onions

2 tsp Panchphoron dry roasted and powdered                                                                             (Bengali five spices – mix 1 tsp each of cumin seeds, nigella seeds, fenugreek seeds, mustard seeds, fennel seeds)

1 tsp Turmeric

A table-tennis ball sized Tamarind ball soaked in water

5 tbsp Mustard oil

Salt, sugar and red chilli powder to taste

Fresh Coriander leaves to garnish

Wash the heads well and sprinkle 1/2 tsp of salt and turmeric on it. Mix well and leave for 2-3 hours.  Then heat the mustard oil well in a deep pan and fry the heads (its best to deep fry them, but I didn’t do so as I don’t have a kadhai or wok). Don’t forget to cover the pan or else hot oil would splatter all over.  Fry till both sides are golden brown.  The Hilsa flavored oil left in the pan tastes wonderful with hot rice and bit of salt, but only a true blue Bengali can understand that taste and swoon over it 😛 So I set aside some of the oil for rice and in the rest I fried 2 onions that I had finely sliced.  When they were complete caramelised, I poured in the tamarind pulp, turmeric, sugar, salt and chilli powder.  Check the seasoning (I like it sweet, very sour and pretty hot!!).  Then add the fish heads and 1 tsp of the roasted and powdered panchphoron.  Simmer for 5-7 minutes on medium fire and then add another tsp of the spice powder.  Take off from the fire, garnish with freshly chopped coriander and serve with hot rice!!

Any other fish can be made the same way, but I think that the taste of Ilish Maacher Mudo’r Tok cannot be replicated!! What say?

Sending loads of love,

Dakhina

A Twist in The Tal (A new take on Traditional Bengali Palmyra Palm sweets)

Hey Cousins,

Monsoon has finally bid goodbye…for the moment at least. The rains have just shifted base…Instead of the skies it’s raining from every pore of our body! The season is well on the road to being that horribly sticky and sweaty post-monsoon kind of weather which we dread. The other day my parents came over as there was no electricity at their house for two whole days, can you imagine their plight… They came bearing a fruity gift from their garden. The Tal (Sugar Palm or Palmyra Palm). This is one pungent smelling fruit, sweet with sometimes a bitter after-taste. I love to eat the unripe fruit when the seeds are  jelly like and filled with a syrupy liquid, I also love to drink the freshly harvested, unfermented sugary sap called tal rosh. For many years I couldn’t stand the strong aroma of the ripe Tal, just as I couldn’t palate the ripe jack fruit. I think it has to do with the fact that as children growing up in Delhi we were not exposed to these fruits which are probably an acquired taste. Living in Bengal one can’t help being made familiar with such fruits, especially during the season when you come across it everywhere. Here in Santiniketan, these palm trees are a familiar landmark. You are most likely to be scared out of your wits with the sudden thud of a falling fruit right behind you, especially in the dark! Over the years I have grown quite fond of certain sweets made from this. Some like the Tal Kheer ( The pulp of the ripe fruit mixed with fresh grated coconut and thickened milk) and the Tal Boda ( Tal pulp and Rice fritters) is quite a favourite. Baba (father) wanted me to make something different with the Tal. I thought of making a quartet of Tal dessert, with a fusion of traditional and non conventional sweet platter. He was so enthusiastic about the idea that he helped me to extract the golden pulp from the fruit, which truth be told is quite a messy job, and one that I would have delegated to you , my dear Rinki had you been here : )

Quartet of Tal dessert

Tal Coulis, Tal Cake, Tal Fritters and Tal Kheer

My platter consists of four dishes – Tal Coulis, Tal Bora (Tal and Rice Crispy fritters), Tal Kheer  and a Tal cake.

To Extract the Tal Pulp  Peel the fruit and separate the three Nuts( there are usually three segments) cut off the fibres with a scissor. As I do not possess the traditional bamboo extractors, I used an inverted colander as a pulp extractor. Takes a bit of elbow grease and an unconventional method which works just fine for me. The important bit being getting the pulp out!  Just rub the fibre over the colander holes till the pulp goes through to the other side. Collect the pulp once all the fibre has been given this scrubbing. Pass it through a sieve. Collect the golden pulp which is ready to eat.

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For The Tal Coulis:  Extract the golden yellow pulp from the fibers of the fruit. Sieve well to remove fibers.

For The Tal Cake: (see Sinful Dark Chocolate Cake for basic cake recipe. Instead of Cocoa add 3-4 tbsp Tal Pulp)

For The Tal Kheer 

1/2 litre milk thickened till it coats the back of the spoon.

3-4 tbsp freshly grated coconut

3 tbsp Tal Pulp

2-3 tsp sugar

Mix everything and blitz in the blender. Cool in the fridge till needed.

Can use Condensed milk, but then don’t add sugar.

For The Tal Boda (  Tal and Rice crispy Fritters)

1/2 cup rice soaked for a few hours and ground to fine thick paste.

1/2 cup freshly ground coconut

3-4 tbsp Tal Pulp.

Sugar to taste

Oil for deep frying

Mix everything together to from a thick batter. Using piping bag pipe small rings directly into the hot oil. Fry till Golden brown. serve hot.

To assemble I smeared  the Tal Kheer on a serving dish, over that a piece of the Tal cake, a few rings of the Tal Bora, and a Quenelle of Tal Coulis over the cake. A few dots of the Coulis on the plate finished the look.I think the end result looks quite exciting…and the whole experience of the soft flavourful cake along with the rich creamy Kheer, the crisp Fritters along with the burst of pungent Coulis provides a complete Tal experience.

I know this recipe may be a bit difficult to make in Australia, but I wanted you both to have an experience and taste of the season. One may not always be able to eat in person but we can always devour with our eyes : )

Take care,

love,

Didi

Bengali Illish Macher Paturi (steamed Hilsa Fish in banana leaf with Mustard paste)

Dear Rinki ,
This year the Bengali bhadrolok (Gentleman) has been quite  glum ..why you might ask …  You know how we Bongs are a bit crazy when it comes to maach (fish) and mishti (sweet-meats). These two are a part of our cultural, social and emotional fibre. And this season, the famed Illish mach ( Hilsa fish) is not as plentiful as other years. A true Bengali waits with the patience of a tiger hunter….for this delectable fish which is available only around the monsoons.  Usually, if one visits the early morning fish markets any where in Bengal around this season, rain or hail, you would encounter all varieties of men fighting to buy one variety of fish. Rolled trousers, cigarette in one hand and the striped ubiquitous shopping tote in the other, the usual gossip put aside, jostling in the muddy slime of fish markets….and the loudest haggling this side of NASDAQ. The fish makes its appearance in all hotel menus, just like a celebrity, which it rightly is. One reads of Hilsa festivals and new concoctions like Hilsa in orange sauce.  It has been written about in songs, poetry and literature. We are a crazy bunch..in a good way of course 🙂 Sadly this year, the supply has been nowhere near satisfying the eager wait. Most prized of all the Hilsa is the one from the River Padma in Bangladesh. The Bangladeshi government has put a ban on the export of the fish…..the Indian government retaliated by threatening to curtail the export of rohu, and katla (varieties of fish)…a stink was raised…tempers were raised higher and the price of Hilsa skyrocketed! Talk about fishy politics!!!

Even here in Santiniketan too, we have been lamenting the lack of the golden fish. But yesterday Prasanta, by a stroke of luck found an excellent specimen….and proudly came bearing his good fortune like a victorious battle weary soldier wears his wounds! And what an occasion it was. My parents were duly invited for lunch. Much reminiscing  and discussion ensued about the good old days when one would eat the fish every day, what its ideal shape and weight should be and how it should be cooked. One would think we were at some scholarly discourse. But it’s my kitchen, my rules! Of course I was going to cook the preparation I like best. I wanted to make the most delicious of all Hilsa preparations ..the bhaapa maach or steamed fish wrapped in banana leaf. The steaming in the ground spices leaves the fish exquisitely soft and preserves  its unique aroma… Oh even thinking about it now can put me in an ecstatic mood .

Illish Macher Paturi

Illish Macher Paturi (if made without the banana leaf, then called Bhaapa Shorshe Illish)

Ingredients

Hilsa steaks 6
Black Mustard seeds 1 tbsp
White Poppy seeds 2 tbsp
Turmeric 1 tsp
Red chili powder 1 tsp
Green chilies a few
Mustard oil 2 tbsp
Salt to taste
Banana leaves

Method

Grind the mustard and poppy seeds together with one or two green chilies . Mix together the salt, turmeric, chili powder and oil. Smear the fish with the paste. Wash and cut banana leaves into large rectangles  and warm over the gas flame swiftly to make it pliable. Arrange the marinaded fish in the leaves and make a parcel.  Top with a few split green chilies and drizzle some more oil over the top. Tie with a string or banana fiber. Keep on a heat proof plate. In a large vessel add water and a stand (a ring or metal lid) on which to stand the parcel bearing dish. Steam for 20 minutes on high heat. Serve hot with rice.

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Do you get Hilsa there ? If not try using any meaty Australian fish like say, John Dory or Monk Fish. Let me know how it tastes when you make this recipe using local ingredients instead of the traditional ones….You must make it at least once this season, although I know its winter there..but nothing to beat the chill like a taste of home….And if you don’t have a Banana leaf do make it in foil or in a oven-proof covered dish with some extra 2-3 tbsp of Mustard oil and bake in the oven or microwave for 20 mins. If you don’t get poppy seeds you could try and substitute coconut paste. And don’t worry about the mustard oil, just use any oil. Food should after all be about enjoyment, and we are no purists, hey even mustard out of a bottle is just fine.  When it comes to food  my motto is….cooking thy name is flexibility!

Ciao, Didi

Mochar Ghonto (Banana Flower/Blossom with Potato)

Dear Didi and Daibi,

I am proudly writing today to inform you both that I made the famed Mochar Ghonto without Ma’s supervision for the first time!!! Most people think that Mocha or Banana Blossom/Flower and Thod or Banana plant stem which is another of our Bengali delicacies are very difficult to make.  I learned to cook both under Ma’s supervision and realised that both of them are actually not that difficult once you know what to keep and what to discard.  So in this post I will explain each step of the recipe individually for easier comprehension. To serve 6 people you need 1 Banana Blossom/Flower, 1/2 cup whole bengal gram (I didn’t have this, so I used its shelled and split variety called the chana daal), 4-5 medium sized Potatoes cut into cubes, a stick of cinnamon, 2 green cardamom pods, 2 dried bay leaves, whole red chilli, 1 tsp cumin seeds, 3-4 tbsp of ghee (clarified butter), oil, turmeric, salt and sugar.

Mochar Ghonto with Arhar Daal, Rice and Pappad

The Mocha or the Banana flower is like any other flower with many petals.

Each petal or bract has to be peeled and the flowers must be removed. Try to remove the whole stack of flower together like in the picture below as then it is easier to clean it.

Hold the whole bunch together, single out each flower and pull the black/brown looking stamen out.  The fresher the flower, the lighter the colors, so don’t worry about the color.  Just look for the hard stamen and remove it.

Once all the stamens are removed, the cleaned bunch looks like this.

Keep peeling the bracts/petals and the flower bunches till you reach the soft heart.  From this point onwards the petals/bracts and the stamens get very soft and tender.  It is difficult to separate these tender parts. So you cut it into very very thin slices.

Now while cutting this part, you would see very fine thread like stuff coming out or sticking to your knife like in the picture below.  This can be rolled with a finger and removed or could be left just like that – it doesn’t matter actually.

Then chop the flowers also into small pieces.

Then soak all of it in water with 1 tsp turmeric and 1 tsp salt overnight (I soaked it for 6 hours).  The flower is very high in iron content, so if cooked without soaking, it leaves the mouth bitter and weird…like you have eaten lots of plain spinach…in bengali we say, muukh ta koshey gailo…as in the mouth gets dry…At this time soak the lentils/bengal gram in water as well (minimum time – 5 hrs).

Then drain the water and pressure cook or slow cook in fresh water for 15-20 mins or till soft.  Drain it again.

Boiled flowers, chana daal and potato cubes

In a pan, heat 2-3 tbsp oil and add the whole spices and chillis.  Remember to break open and slightly crush the cardamom pods for maximum flavor.

Then add the potatoes, turmeric and a little bit of salt. Fry for 5 mins on high heat and add the soaked lentils and the boiled flowers.  Mix well, season according to taste. Now many Bengalis like it sweet (and I think it tastes the best this way), so I added 2 tbsp of sugar in it. But if you don’t want it sweet, you could add according to taste.

Mix well, add 2-3 tbsp of ghee, cover and cook on medium heat for 20 mins while occasionally stirring the pot.  When everything is cooked well, use a wooden spatula to mash everything well and add 1 tbsp of ghee again.  Serve hot with rice, daal and pappad.

Variations:  Many people add dessicated coconut or badi (Lentil nuggets) to this recipe instead of bengal gram or chana daal.  Also, the mashed version serves as a great stuffing for vegetable cutlets or can be turned into tikkis that are great snacks and appetizers!!

Didi, I know you know how to make this..but Daibi this post is mainly for you, so that wherever you are in the world, you can try making this favorite dish of yours!

Sending lots of love,

Rinki

Bengali Style Stuffed Pumpkin Flower Fritters (Kumdo Phooler Pakoda)

Dear Rinki,

Monsoon is here, its wet and damp and soggy, and we are confined to the house …and you know how it is that the rain always makes us Indians pine for pakodas (fritters)..I thought I would do something different with my pakodas today, especially as the pumpkin plant in our kitchen garden is in bloom. So I made stuffed Kumdo Phool (Pumpkin flower) fritters. Although this is a typically Bengali dish , I think the Greeks also have a somewhat similar take on this with the flower stuffed with cheese. My ingredients , though couldn’t be more traditional.

Bengali Style Stuffed Pumpkin Flower Fritters

Serves two

Pumpkin Flowers ( stamen removed and washed)  – 6 nos

Coconut grated                           2 tbsp

White Poppy seeds                                 2tbsp

Black/white mustard seeds   1 tsp

Green chilli de-seeded             1-2 nos

Bengal Gram Flour                     100 gms

Garlic paste                                   ¼ tsp

Kalo Jeera (Nigella seeds)       1 pinch

Salt to taste

Pinch turmeric powder

Pinch baking soda

water

Oil for frying

To begin, wash and clean the flowers, remove the stamen and the sepals. Try to keep the flower whole. You may leave the stem attached. Soak the poppy seeds in warm water for ten minutes then combine with mustard ,coconut and chillies  then grind to a thick paste . You can use a mortar and pestle . Just take care that the mix is not runny or watery. It should be rather thick. Add salt and then stuff the flowers with this mix, folding the petals over each other to form a parcel of sorts. Next prepare the fritter batter by mixing together gram flour, garlic paste, nigella seeds, baking soda , turmeric and salt and water to make a thick batter. Heat oil in pan to smoking point then turn down heat. Dip each plump stuffed flower in the batter and deep fry till it turns golden brown. Eat hot with chutney of your choice or with a steaming dish of Kichdi

I hope you will definitely make this and share in our taste of monsoon.

Love

Didi

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