Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Food’ Category

Last week was the time of year when Bongs (Bengalis) world over, celebrated Durga puja, which in many ways is our Christmas.  But it comes without the drama and logistical nightmare of cooking the Christmas dinner, buying multitudinous presents and being in the close confines of just family when all the shops are closed.

So for anyone who loves Christmas, enjoys dressing up, likes the sound of free Indian food cooked by someone else, and appreciates Durga’s kick-ass qualities I wrote about last year, here are some tips ‘to do puja’ like a Bong next year.

Do: Don’t:
Choose what days to go. Puja lasts for 3 days (as do most festivals and weddings in India). I’d recommend Ashtami and/or Nobami evenings – the 2nd and 3rd days of puja. Go everyday both afternoon and evening. It’s going to be hard to take that much time off work and seems a bit overkill unless you are a) very religious, b) have run out of food at home and a bit skint or c) have loads of saris that you really want to show off.
Dress up.  When you live abroad, Indian weddings and pujas are the only two real occasions when we get to wear our Indian finery.  For women, saris are standard but churidar kurtas (a kaftan-like top with leggings basically) will also do. Men can get away with just coming from work i.e. trousers and shirt unless you are on the hunt for a traditional Bengali bride. Then perhaps opt for a kurta + pajama to really impress. Come looking like an over-decorated Christmas tree.  We Bengalis are intellectual snobs and therefore believe we are the custodians of ‘good taste’.  We will judge you.
Give Anjali – this is the prayer offering with Sanskrit mantras.  People usually repeat them quietly to themselves after the priest says each line. Loudly repeat the mantras. Some of the Sanskrit words are really long and difficult to say. I still struggle with some of them so I prefer to say them softly rather than have other people be distracted by me mangling the rich and evocative words.
Ask for sensible things during Anjali such as to grow in confidence, work harder in school, be more patient etc. Ask to be rich, to find a nice husband, a son, or the latest Macbook Pro laptop.  It’s not in god’s hands. You know that.  And it’s a little tacky (there goes the Bengali judgement again). Durga is also not our version of Santa.
Enjoy the food!  It’s usually vegetarian but it doesn’t have to be. The standard fare is ‘Khichuri’ –  a rice and lentil dish, a vegetable curry, a veggie pakora and then a sweet.  It is not uncommon for people to choose which pujas to go to on the strength of the food! Go for seconds until after the first round has been and just ask to make sure it’s ok. Once you have the green light, go for it!
Mix and mingle.  Apart for the 5-10 mins spent on the prayer offering, puja is by and large a social get together and not very religious so just join in.  Apart from our occasional snobbery, we are always humbled when anyone else wants to come along to our festivities, so I promise we will welcome you with open arms. Expect there to be booze at the puja.  It is strictly a no alcohol zone.  Instead what tends to happen is that the ‘young folk’ sneak away to the nearest pub once the puja dies away for a pint.  Go with them when you are thirsty.

Here are some photos from this year’s puja at Hampstead Townhall.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Looking forward to next year but what sari do I wear??

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

Salmon cooked in mustard

Bengalis are obsessed with fish.  No surprise really as the land (West Bengal and Bangladesh) is permeated with thousands of rivers and freshwater lakes.  But using the word ‘obsession’ is not an exaggeration.  It is common for Bengali families in India to have fish in various preparations twice a day. Yes, you read correctly: two times every day.  Having lived abroad for so long and eating so many types of other food, eating this much fish on our annual visits back to India always takes getting used to.  Also, while I love fish, the exactness and thoroughness with which other Bongs eat fish is a sight to behold.  Heads, tails, the fatty bits are all consumed with relish and the flesh is painstakingly chewed upon to expertly remove the bones.  And then the fingers are licked clean with satisfaction.  A job well done.

The recipe I’m about to write out involves cooking the fish in mustard, the favoured way to cook fish the Bengali way.  Usually freshwater fish such as hilsa, rohu are used but while these fish are available in Asian food stores here, they usually come frozen which spoils the taste.  So whenever Maa cooks fish Bengali style, she tends to use fish that is freshly available like salmon and seabass.

A couple of other things to point out with this particular recipe.  It has Maa’s unique touches which make it all the more delicious. This is a fact.  Firstly she adds yoghurt to the mustard paste, which brings out the flavour of the mustard and gives the paste a slight hint of tanginess.  She also adds grated coconut.  And in terms of cooking, this recipe involves baking or steaming.  A more healthy.  But you can also fry the fish, pour over the sauce, add chilli, turmeric, salt and then simmer until fish is cooked and sauce is reduced.  Here goes:

The fish in the paste before going into the oven for baking

Serves 4

Prep time: 20 minutes

Ingredients:

  • 4x salmon fillets (cut in half so each section gets best chance to absorb the mixture)
  • 15g mustard powder
  • 15ml Colman’s mustard
  • 1.5tbsp rapeseed oil
  • 1.5 tbsp yoghurt
  • 1tbsp grated coconut (if dessicated, soak in boiling water and cover)
  • 4 green chillies (slit just the top part)

Method:

  • Set oven to 180C (A lowish temperature is used as yoghurt curdles on higher heat)
  • For the mustard paste: slowly add water to the mustard powder until it becomes a paste-like consistency.  Add salt. Leave for 10 minutes to ensure no bitterness.  Then mix in the Colman’s mustard
  • In an oven-proof dish, put the chillies in.  Add the oil, the yoghurt, coconut and mix together.  Then add the mustard paste. A dash of salt and then mix
  • Add the salmon fillets to the oven-proof dish and mix them well with the mustard marinade.
  • Cover the dish with foil
  • Put in oven for 15-20 minutes.
  • Serve with rice

Note that this isn’t a dish with lots of gravy but it makes up for it with maximum flavour impact!

Read Full Post »

Maa has made 31 paayeshs for me, one on each birthday.  And so yesterday was my 31st.  On the morning of every birthday, she patiently stirs the milk mixture forever (actually it’s probably around 45 mins but this is a very long time to stir continuously, although on a positive note it’s probably really great for toning the arms) to make the sweet and silky paayesh.  Obviously, as fitting for any special occasion, the paayesh does not touch my lips until a small portion of it has been offered to god ( in the form of Ganesh in the photo) and until I shower and say a little prayer myself.  I’m not religious at all but this little ritual provides comfort and balances out the other more hedonistic aspects of birthday festivities.  That minute in front of the offering is a quiet moment in which I can reflect on the past year, give thanks to all the good things in my life, and look forward to next year.  It puts everything in perspective.

Maa’s paayesh has that perfect consistency of being a little less thick than condensed milk.  I find it is so uninspiring and spirit-deflating when the paayesh limply spills over the spoon because it is so thin and watery.  Also importantly, Maa’s paayesh has NO RAISINS.  Nothing against raisins as such but we just don’t like them in the paayesh.  Instead she adds flaked almonds which gives it a lovely and different texture.

Ingredients

  • 2 pints full cream milk
  • 2 tbs rice (in UK, Maa uses Basmati but if back in India, she would have used gobindo bhog rice, which is a short-grained, glutinous rice that cooks quickly and has a creamy quality, perfect for paayesh)
  •  2 tbs sugar
  • 2 tbs palm jaggery
  • Handful of flaked almonds

Method

  1. Put the milk in a saucepan and bring to boil.  Stir continuously
  2. Once brought to the boil, add in the rice (wash it first).  Reduce heat a little and stir until the rice is cooked.  This should take about 20 minutes
  3. When the rice is cooked, include the sugar, jaggery and flaked almonds.  Stir until the water from the sugar and jaggery have evaporated and the milk has thickened to the consistency preferred.
  4. Grate a little nutmeg on top (optional)

Can be served warm or cold

Read Full Post »

Ma and Baba’s wedding.

An intimate retelling of my parents’ Indian wedding nearly 40 years ago in their own words.  The rituals, the food, the clothes and the thoughts running through their minds on the day.

Read Full Post »

I went to my friend’s English countryside wedding last week.  It was beautiful, simple, romantic and fun.  But it made me think of how different Western and Indian weddings are.  One is like a roast chicken meal, minimal ingredients, not that many steps but oh so satisfying to eat.  The other is akin to a biryani, a sumptuous dish with an army of ingredients and spices, multiple steps in its cooking, waves and waves of exquisite taste but liable to leave you with indigestion.

It also made me think of my parent’s wedding.  I have some scant stories and seen a few pictures but it would be so wonderful to take the time to capture the event through the eyes of Ma and Baba.  What rituals did they have? What were they thinking? How did they feel?  In their own words.  So here’s Ma’s perspective on the occasion and then Baba’s thoughts will follow in the next entry.

Ours was a very traditional arranged marriage with each other’s consent.   Arranged marriages usually conjure a picture of a practical, well planned affair, devoid of any romanctic aspect.  In my experience, far from it.  One constantly think of the distant person.  The element of surprise and anticipation  of falling in love is incredibly romantic.

Before the actual wedding came the the aashisbaad (blessings) where the groom’s side comes to bless the bride usually with  jewellery, sari and gifts including sweets and a whole fish, usually a Rohu.  Bengal being a river-rich state with abundance of varieties of fish this item has become an auspicious symbol  for weddings.  Blessings are usually done with durba ( a variety of three blade fine grass) which symbolizes long life and unhusked rice which means wealth.  After that the usual feasting.  The ceremony really drove home the point that I was really getting married and would be leaving my home which was a part of me for an unknown place. The uppermost feeling was sadness but probably a little excitement as well.

The next part was getting ready for the wedding.   As soon as the word spread, the jewelers, the cooks, the sweets makers, decorators and others flocked to the house.  Jewellery design was chosen ordered, other necessary arrangements were made, e.g making the furniture etc. which was part of the trousseau.  Maa beautifully embroidered and crocheted the bed linens, cheval sets (for dressing table) runners for sideboards, tray-cloths and teacosy covers.  It was absolutely amazing how much she did in such a short time.  Invitation lists were made.  Mejomamu designed a very simple but elegant invitation letter.  After a week or so Badomamu with badimami and Chinoodidi and chhotomamu arrived.  My three brothers helped maa and baba organise everything.  I bought my wedding sari in Kolkata with Suman mami’s help.  It was an elaborate red Benarasi with intricate gold work.
(more…)

Read Full Post »

Lamb curry

You know the question about ‘what would be your last supper?’.  I don’t like this question.  I find it impossible to answer as I love all kinds of food.  How can I limit it to one type of dish?  However, if I could have a Top 5, then Ma’s lamb curry would definitely make the cut.  I love the taste of the soft, succulent lamb with the rich, smooth and aromatic gravy.  Oh and the potatoes.  They are a must.  They have to be soft and completely soaked in the gravy.  Mmm.  The recipe below has a Bengali/Kashmiri slant.  Ingredients such as the cashew paste, fennel, and the garam masala composition give the curry a more delicate, aromatic flavour versus the spicy lamb curries more commonly eaten.  Check out a great book which beautifully describes the history and differences of Indian regional cooking called ‘Eating India’ by Chitrita Banerji.  Ok back to the lamb curry.

Ingredients (for 4 people):

  • 1 kg lamb (shoulder or lamb) chunks
  • Potatoes (waxy), peeled and cut to similar size of the lamb pieces. Dima used to make small cuts in the potatoes for maximum gravy + flavour absorption!

Marinade:

  • 150g plain yoghurt
  • 1.5 inch ginger, grated
  • 1.5 onions, grated
  • 4 garlic cloves, grated
  • 2 tbsp cashew paste

Other

  • 1/2 onion, finely sliced
  • 3 tsp ground coriander
  • 2 tsp ground cumin (less than the coriander because it has a much stronger flavour)
  • 1.5 tsp ground fennel (this is a very Kashmiri touch)
  • Chilli powder
  • Kashmiri/Bengali garam masala (2 inch cinnamon, 4 green cardamom, 5 cloves, 0.5 tsp nutmeg – all powdered and mixed together)
  • 1/5 tsp sugar
  • 2 tbsp oil

Pre-prep

– Soak about 15 cashew nuts in milk for approximately 2 hours.  When soft, grind them up in a grinder to make a smooth paste

Method

  1. Marinade the lamb in the yoghurt and the juices of the ginger and onions.  Ma only uses the juice so the gravy doesn’t become too chunky and overpowering.  Then add the cashew paste.  Let the marinade sit for at least 30 minutes.  Obviously longer the better and the marinade can be left overnight for more special occasions
  2. After the lamb has been marinated, add the coriander, cumin, fennel and chilli powder to the mixture
  3. Heat the oil in a pot
  4. Add sugar to lightly caramelise for colour and flavour
  5. Put in the chopped onion.  Saute until soft and lightly browned
  6. Put in the meat.  Toss around a couple of times so all the pieces get coated with the oil, onion and sugar
  7. After, 5-10 minutes, reduce heat and cover with lid.
  8. Keep checking the softness of the lamb but this should take approximately 1 hour
  9. Half-way through cooking, put in the potatoes and give it a good stir
  10. When the lamb is nearly cooked, add a little boiling water if the mixture needs more gravy
  11. Season and cook for another 15-20 minutes
  12. Add 2tsp of the gravy and ghee to the garam masala.  Mix together and pour over the curry.  Stir
  13. Serve with rice and sprinkle over some chopped coriander and flaked almonds for an added flourish

Bon apetit!

NB: For a low-fat version, make the curry the day before.  Leave to cool in the fridge.  The next day, the fat will have solidified on the top.  Just scoop out the layer of fat with a spoon and there you have it: a lower(ish) fat version of the curry to enjoy.

Read Full Post »

Ahh behold the glorious Alphonso mango!  I’ve been at my parents’ place during this bank holiday weekend and when Ma announced that we had some Alphonso mangoes at home, both my sister’s and my eyes lit up.  I will also admit to some wooping.  Every year we excitedly anticipate the moment when the Alphonso mango season arrives.  Just like the British summer, it is short ( six weeks from mid-April to end May) so when the mangoes are here plenty of fanfare ensues.  Most people in the West are unfortunately only exposed to the yellow and quite tart mangoes that are neatly sliced up and presented in the little plastic clinical pots for lunchtime by the likes of Pret a Manger, M&S etc.

        

Alphonsos are on another level.  They are the kings of mangoes.  When you smell them, even with the skin on, they immediately transport you somewhere exotic.   They are vibrantly orange and when ripe have a soft, fleshy and juicy texture.  And then there is the taste.  So sweet, tropical and just a hint of tartness right at the end.  Every different way to eat an Alphonso mango, whether just on their own, in a salad, or as a milkshake is a delight, but you cannot forget the seed.  There is something deeply satisfying and basic to suck out the flesh and juice from the hairy seed.  This is a compulsory ritual for me but it is not a Japanese tea ceremony.  It is messy work.  I clutch onto the slippery seed with both hands as I attack it.  The juices run down my chin and my forearms as I make sure I get every last bit of the mango goodness.  Bring on next year’s season.

Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts