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Posts Tagged ‘Indian cooking’

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Last week (14/15th April) was Bengali new year (Pohela Boishakh – meaning first month of the Bengali calendar) and it is one of those Bengali events and traditions which I routinely forget about.  It doesn’t help that unlike Chinese New Year in London which regardless of whether you are Chinese or not, is seen everywhere, Bengali New Year is the shy wallflower skulking in the corner at the high school dance.   Apparently the main reason the Bengali calendar (loosely tied to the vedic solar calendar) was created by Mughal Emperor Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar was because the original lunar calendar conflicted with the harvest seasons, therefore making it difficult for the farmers to pay taxes out of season.   Traditionally it is the time when businesses start new ledgers, new shops open, business relationships are renewed.  So basically, the Bengali new year is really about the start of a new tax year (!) and since it closely follows the UK tax year, I will now have something to remind me that it is coming up.  Hardly an exciting way to remember it but as taxes are unavoidable for most of us, it is a reassuringly predictable reminder.

As I mention in an earlier post here that Bengal is very left-leaning politically and Bengali people haven’t really blazed an entrepreneurial trail.  So the fact that Bengali New Year is connected to business and money strikes me as very funny and ironic.

The new year starts with Sankranti (new year’s eve) which involves a complete spring clean of the house.  I quite like idea of literally starting the new year with a fresh and clean outlook.   Baths are usually taken and then children swallow bitter neem leaves, turmeric and a piece of jaggery.  As neem and turmeric are anti-bacterial, the body also goes through a bit of spring clean.  And new year itself starts at dawn, not midnight.  And yes, included in the festivities and fun, is a liberal scattering of Tagore songs.  For anyone who has read my entry about Tagore, you’ll know what my opinion is on this. Spoiler alert: lets just say when the ladies of the Bengali community (my mum and sis included) have performed at various functions, I have been kindly told to move from the front row to go sit at the back of the audience because my bored facial expression is distracting.

I digress.  We don’t go through all of the above anymore but as with any event like this, food plays a central role. And my family does food really well.   However, since the new year fell on a Monday, we didn’t feast.  Indigestion is a nuisance – more so when you don’t have the weekend to suffer lazily.  But the menu was still a treat: Shorshe Maach (fish marinated in mustard), Shukto (a Bengali preparation of vegetables), both of which I blogged about here and here.  The third dish we had is also a favourite of mine – Shaak – of which the main ingredient is any green leafy vegetable.  Sounds quite dull but not the way my mum cooks it!  It is common to use spinach for this dish but my mum doesn’t like to use spinach as it reminds her too much of the soggy mess dumped on plates in her college hostel!  So one of the ‘charms’ of my family is that my mum cooks it with Swiss chard, having tasted it for the first time when we lived in Sweden.  Less soggy mess, more texture and taste.

IMG_20130421_1Here’s the recipe:

  • 2 bunches of white/ red Swiss Chard or a combination of both
  • 1/2 of a smallish cauliflower, broken into small florets
  • 1 small khol rabi (instead of potato), it is sweet and crunchy), diced into small pieces
  • 1 small aubergine. diced into small pieces
  • A handful of frozen soybean (for higher protein content than green peas)
  • 2 green chillies,
  • 1 tsp of panch phoron (Bengali five spice)

Method

  1. Wash the green leaves thoroughly and drain well.  Chop into approximately 1″ wide pieces.  Do not discard the stems. Cut them finer.   These are crunchy and add texture and taste.
  2. Pre-boil the khol rabi until tender but it should still hold some bite. Drain and keep aside.
  3. Heat 2 tbs oil in a pan.  Brown the diced aubergine but make sure it is still firm.  Keep aside.
  4. Add another tbs oil to the pan.  Add the panch phoron to the pan.  As soon as it starts spluttering add the green chillies and the cauliflower florets.  Stir fry for a couple of minutes.  Add the greens.  Cover it briefly and cook on a high heat to allow the leaves to wilt, probably not more than a couple of minutes.  Remove the lid. Add the remaining vegetables and salt to taste.  Stir to mix.  Cook over high heat until all the water from the leaves has evaporated.  Stir for few more minutes more.  Remove and serve hot with either rice or chapati.

Note:  It is important to cook over high heat and mostly uncovered to avoid an overcooked, soggy mess!!!

Happy new year everyone.   Sort out your taxes!

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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.

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