Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Let the festivities begin!

          Kolkata loves its food to the point of pride; Durga Puja especially is a time when the city puts out the best it has to offer, in all its finery. Ask any Bengali, or a food lover, even, what Durga Pujo means to them and you cannot miss that flicker of happiness in their eyes. The festival begins in full fervor on Sashti and culminates on Dashami. Time for pandal hopping, Notun Jaama and great food. (NB: This list isn't exhaustive!)
        It’s a rare Bengali breakfast that would be complete without the Phulko Luchi, the Eastern counterpart of the Puri, especially around Durga Puja . Made with refined flour, it’s slightly smaller than the normal puris and popularly served with either sweet or savoury sides, the more common ones being Alur Torkari or Cholar Dal. The taste of a true luchi is enhanced when fried in ghee. That might have got your calorie bells ringing, but remember, Pujo time is for indulgence!
       Radha Ballabhi is a match made in culinary heaven. It’s one of the omnipresent dishes in any important Bengali ceremony. It’s difficult to pass by a sweet shop and resist these stuffed delights, right off the wok as they are prepared by the Moira, or the traditional sweet maker. Much as they are a popular breakfast dish, they are equally enjoyed as evening snacks.
        Other snacks worth exploring at this time are the Koraishutir (Peas) Kochuri with Alu dum, the humble Alu chorchori seasoned with Hing and Golmorich (asafetida and pepper) and the Tinkona (triangular) Porota with Chenchki (vegetables or lentils spiced with panchphoran), Vegetable chop, Kathi rolls and Dimer Devil, which is, guess what – Deviled Egg!

           The Bhog or the community lunch is the highlight of the Pujo celebrations. It is Niramish or pure vegetarian. Bhog er Khichuri or Moong dal Khichdi is an important part of the bhog. Prepared in the Satvik manner, i.e, no onion or garlic and just the fact that it’s cooked for Bhog, it’s blessed with a flavour that can rarely be recreated elsewhere. Other dishes include the Mishti pulao, Labdar Torkari, a mixed vegetable dish, Chanchra (a drier vegetable dish); all this served with crispy fried bhajas or vegetable fritters on the side and the delectable Payesh and mishti to end the meal with. It’s interesting that typically, a sweet and sour chutney is served in the interim before the dessert fare to cleanse and neutralize the palate.
            From the Muri Ghonto or the Fish head curry served with rice, Ilish Pulao, the famous Kolkata mutton biryani, to Shukto, Doi Fulkopi (spicy cauliflower in yogurt), Lal Shaak bhaja (you guessed it right, amaranth fritters) and an interesting one made with grated potato, called the Jhiri jhiri or Jhuri Alu bhaja, there's a heady mix for vegetarians and meat lovers alike..

  No account of Bengali culinary offerings is complete without touching the sweet end of the spectrum. The Nolen gurer Mishti Doi or sweetened yogurt made with date palm jaggery and Nolen gurer Payesh are major attractions. 

Bijoya or Dashami sees more sweets, as togetherness is celebrated with sweets; Mishti mukh kora as it’s called. Komola Bhog, a saffron flavoured Roshogullah, Sandesh in all its variations, also Shor Bhaja, a sweet that’s deep fried in ghee and soaked in sugar syrup. This dish originated in Krishna Nagar, Nadia and is a labour of love. It’s made from the cream of milk called Shor. A baked variation of this dish also exists, called Sarpuria.

            The connection of food with the Divine is oft talked about and is a given. It’s indeed the power of faith, purity of mind and the spirit of cooking and eating together that infuses a magical flavour to any fare. So this Durga Pujo, go ahead and celebrate the festival of power or Shakti, victory of good over evil and discover the power of food in all its glory.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Fasting - the science beyond

       That time of the year again when I start thinking fondly of pandal hopping. A mere recall of the Niramish bhog and my ever favourite Bhog er Khichuri, gets the taste buds salivating. Well, the feast is another story for another time. Let’s talk about fasting.
                We have long since established a scientific logic prevailing behind our socio-religious practices, be they at the spiritual or culinary levels. That includes the change in food patterns, as also fasting. Fasting or vrat in its varying degrees, from complete to partial abstinence is in itself, a scientifically essential detox for our digestive system.

       Take Navratri for instance. There are two major Navratris in a year (four in all). Both of these occur during major seasonal shifts – beginning of spring and autumn. These are also times when the human immunity level is at its lowest. Eating light and avoiding rich, heavy and spicy foods helps the body adjust to the new season naturally.
                That brings us to the importance of eating right during fasts. Getting plenty of energy and fibre rich foods while staying hydrated is the order of the day. Hence why there is inclusion of more millets as grain substitutes and not surprisingly so, considering that millets were an Indian staple in the days of yore.
                And it’s not just Navratri that highlights the significance of fasts. Similar science revolves around fasting on Ekadashi, the 11th day in the lunar cycle. Atmospheric pressure being the lowest on Ekadashi, makes it apt to abstain from heavy foods to sustain the mind-body balance. The concept is simple and similar for the most part. Eating light puts less pressure on the digestive process, helping the senses stay alert and active.
                So this season, while you observe fasts and enjoy the feasts, don’t forget to honour what your body truly needs.
Here’s a light yet energy rich recipe to try..
300 gms sweet potato - boiled, peeled & diced
½ green apple, diced
½ red apple, diced
Few spinach leaves, roughly shredded or chiffonade
Few Walnuts, roughly broken
1 tbsp chaat masala
1 tbsp chili powder
1 tbsp cumin seeds - roasted and powdered
2 tbsp yogurt, beaten
Lemon juice-to taste
Fresh Coriander, chopped
Fresh mint, chopped

1. In a mixing bowl add cumin seed powder, chili powder, chaat masala and lime juice and mix well.
2. Now add sweet potato, diced apples, spinach, walnuts and mix well.
3. Transfer to serving bowls and pour remaining seasoning on top.
4. Sprinkle the chopped coriander and mint leaves and serve immediately. Optional to serve with whisked yogurt too.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Magic is in the Tadka

               Ask any seasoned Indian home cook about the true foundation of a dish and the reply is bound to be Tadka. Call it Baghar, chaunk, vaghar, phodani and much more in different vernaculars, tempering is a crucial step in Indian cooking that sets the basics right. Now tempering in Asian terminology is different from the western concept; the latter referring more to balancing or stabilising an ingredient or a set of ingredients, especially in the confectionary field. The Asian version is the practice of cooking spices in hot fat to improve the flavour of a dish.
              Tadka originates from taṛaknā, which interestingly means ‘to crack’ or ‘to break’. Fat being a better carrier for spices than water, the aroma spreads more evenly through the dish.
             There are multiple components to the Tadka, most important being the heating of the fat. Clarified butter imparts a flavour like few other, as any true-blue Dal Tadka or Rasam fan would tell you. Health scares initially and sadly drove away the ghee lovers, but with more friendly researches surfacing, the masses are gradually making a beeline to the ghee counter, which, trust me, is extremely heart-warming to the Punjabi in me!
              Techniques and combinations play an equally important part. Each savoury dish; and I am talking the length and breadth of our culinary map; typically uses a different set of ingredients, that need to be added at specific times, in a particular order and ratio and cooked for just the right amount of time before the main ingredients are added, or the tempering itself is added to the cooked dish. Which brings me to the timing of the tempering. 

             Some dishes begin with a tadka, while for some, it is the finishing touch; most of the Gujarati Farsaans are excellent cases in point. After all, who isn’t drawn to that final dash of mustard seeds, slit green chilies, curry leaves and grated coconut on a Dhokla or Khandvi?
              My stint with Munir Ustad instilled in me the importance of Tahseer, a concept that was ingrained in the Lucknow cooks of yore. It's about balancing the ingredients, neutralising the property of one with the property of another. The same Tahseer is an important aspect of tempering in Indian cuisine. Cumin seeds, cinnamon and asafetida aid digestion, mustard seeds are excellent for heart health and relieve muscular pain; in fact, the very addition of fat as the cooking agent is to enhance both the flavours and the nutritional benefits of the spices.
               So the next time you prepare your tempering, stick to the basics, keep the ingredients in order and cook them right, because, remember – the magic is in the Tadka!

2 tbsps sesame Oil
1 tsp Mustard Seeds
1 tsp Cumin Seeds
5 to 6 Curry Leaves
1 tsp Chopped Garlic
1 tsp Chopped Ginger
½ cup Chopped Onions
½ tsp Red Chili Powder
½ tsp Coriander Powder
1 tsp Turmeric Powder
½ cup Mixed Veggies (Carrots, green beans, peas)
2 tbsps Corn
2 cups Bajra, soaked overnight
1 cup Amaranth, soaked overnight
½ cup grated Coconut
Salt to taste
1 Tomato, chopped
Juice of 1 Lemon
Chopped Coriander for garnish
1 tbsp Green Chilies, chopped

1. Pressure cook bajra and amaranth with salt, turmeric & red chili powder for up to 3-4 whistles. 
2. To prepare the Tadka, heat oil in a large pan, add mustard seeds and let crackle. Add cumin seeds, curry leaves, chopped garlic, chopped ginger and saute for a bit.
3. Now add chopped onion, coriander powder, mixed veggies, corn, cooked bajra, cooked amaranth, grated coconut, salt, chopped tomatoes, lemon juice, chopped coriander and cook well.
4. Serve with chaas, pickle and toasted papad.