Monday, 31 January 2011

Shorshe Chingri

The last time I made shorshe chingri, I was living by myself in a land of snow, slush and skiddy sleet, and not enjoying it one minute (well, maybe a few minutes). But I did have a larger, sunnier, and better-equipped kitchen than I'd ever had at home before. This dish, I decided, was going to be my opportunity to try out those new toys. I did everything right, right upto the moment I popped the prawns in the oven to bake. It came out slightly rubbery and pink. Strike one against ovens.

Thing is, people abroad hard-sell baking as the 'healthier option', and it might be... when compared to chain-shop fast-food deep fried in hydrogenated oil. Regular Bengali cooking, with its light vegetarian curries, zero-spice daals, white fish in barely-spiced broth, and a near-complete lack of butter, ghee, cream, red meat or cheese, doesn't even distantly need the aide of an oven. Baking for the tastebuds, however, is a different matter. I love baked fish and roasted meats, but I like them only in specific ways. And I think I speak for most Bengalis when I say, THIS is how we like our baked fish.

Black mustard seeds.
Mustard oil.
Turmeric powder.
Green chilies.
Coconut -- white part scraped or sliced (optional).
Pumpkin or potatoes, pumpkin infinitely preferred -- sliced thin.

Skinned and cleaned white fish or shelled and de-veined prawns.

For this recipe, we take off the tails and the outer shell of the head with the feelers/antenna. Then we make a thick paste with the mustard seeds, coconut, salt and a little water. Add the salt! Otherwise the mustard will go bitter. Don't ask me about the chemistry. Slit the green chilies instead.

 A chilli.

 Jab a knife-tip right below the top of the chilli.

 Bring down the knife in one swift motion.

The chilies are slit.

Or you can slit them the boring old way, but when you're weeping fiery tears and your tongue is on fire, with my way you'll at least have the satisfaction of knowing you took a decent punch at the damn chilli when you had the chance.

Now, add the green chilies to the peeled and washed prawns. Then add the mustard you so painfully pasted (or maybe you used a food processor). Add a couple of tablespoons of mustard oil, salt and a little sugar, and mix it up. I'll add a lot of pictures of this short process 'cause they're so pretty :-)



A few teaspoons of mustard-coconut paste.

Peeled prawn heads. They'll feel hard when touched.

Mustard oil.

One more, with feeling. And more oil.

All mixed up!

Now, in the absence of pumpkins, which I kept forgetting to get every time I walked past both the local markets, I used potatoes. Old age and so on, I'm sure. Make sure they're sliced in this shape, and quite thin. I'm sure you're legally allowed to slice them differently, but I'd prefer it if you did it this way. After tripping 'tradition' and sticking my tongue out at it, let's give the old ways a hat-tip.

Add them to the mustard-prawn-chilies mix. Add any remaining mustard paste there is, sprinkle some turmeric, and mix it all up.

Now, this step is no longer strictly necessary, but we still do our fish-baking the old-fashioned way -- wrapped in banana leaves. If you can't get banana leaves, feel free to use any other relatively flavourless large leaves you've used in cooking before.

And, this just occured to me: traditionally -- there goes that word again -- we pay very little attention to food presentation (and thank god for that), mostly because it gets in the way of its eating. But it would look rather fetching if you'd cut the large leaves into smaller pieces and bake each person's serving separately. It's like baking dessert in individual ramequins. This also accomodates smaller flavourless leaves you can use in the recipe if bigger leaves are unavailable, so yay.

Rub the leaf or leaves with a bit of mustard oil.

Now layer the mustard-salt-sugar coated potatoes on the oil-rubbed banana leaf. I've arranged the potatoes like this for fun, but really one can just toss it on. Notice there's plenty of space in between them. This is not about creating a base, but it IS about protecting most of the delicate prawns from charring. After all, potatoes will take longer to cook than the fresh white prawns.

Now, pour some more mustard oil all over the top and sides (not more than a tablespoon though, I'd say). The more total mustard there's in the dish, the more pungent it will be. It'll clear your sinuses if you add beyond your capacity, but you may not find the process particularly gratifying.

Lid the mixture with another banana leaf. Then make a second lid with a thick tawa or plate, or if you're making this in a cast iron skillet, just put the lid on. The smallest possible space between the banana-leaf sandwich and tawa yields the tenderest prawns, so pick your second lid carefully.

After about fifteen minutes (or twenty) of cooking on low, and I do mean low, take the second lid off. The banana leaves will have darkened and will look parched. Usually, you can catch a peek of what's happening inside.

Take off the leaf, marvel at the lovely, lovely colour of the juices from the prawn's head (sorry of that's icky for you). Now pour some more mustard oil, all over the top, replace the banana leaf lid, put the second lid back on, and turn off the heat. This last adding is called "kNacha tel dewa", and imparts more of the sharp, pungent flavour of mustard that we love so much.

Serve over steaming white rice!

Friday, 28 January 2011

Daal Gosht

When we were at school, English exams -- language, not literature -- were constructed thus: one essay, no less than two foolscap sheets long (well, maybe three sides and a few lines); one letter, between one and one-and-a-half sides of the same; one comprehension and textual analysis; and one question on grammatical exercise, with several subsections. It now seems unthinkable that we sat quietly at our desks, all sixty of us, and wrote two hour exams in long hand, and used nearly ten foolscape sheets each, but in college it was three hours, and we had to remember primary and secondary sources, and analyse them on our feet while developing a coherent thesis with enough proof to support it, all the while making sure this monster also specifically answered the question posed, which was frequently complicated, controversial, and quirky. And we had three such instruments of evil to answer in three hours, multiplied by two exams for each course and by four courses for each semester. So... sixteen such assaults twice each year, plus eight research papers.

My American undergraduate students had no idea how good they have it.

This recipe has nothing to with any of the above. Except that through middle school, we had one standard essay question that made steady, reassuring appearances over and over in final or half-yearly examinations. It came in many guises, but could accurately be paraphrased as the "Day When Everything Went Wrong" question. We were encouraged to render it comically, tragically, with a dash of adventure, or whatever else our moods and abilities lent themselves to. Some people had a running joke with the question, attempting it each year in different genres, but most people thought it was the easy way out and avoided it. We had our pride.

I'm unlikely to ever face the Day When Everything Went Wrong essay in an exam ever again, but should I come across it, this time, I will tackle it. My story of making daal gosht is sure to earn me a star AND a smiley face. What a catastrophe this dish has been!

Before we launch into that epic tale, here's what you need:
Gosht -- mutton or lamb, cut into pieces about an inch.
Daal -- one can use chholar daal, one can use mushur daal. I suggest chhola. To know what these are in your language, please see this list.
Garlic, ginger, onions, green chilies.
Cumin seeds, ground-at-home cumin powder. Garam masala.
Mustard oil, sunflower/canola oil.

First, we didn't have gosht to make daal-gosht with. No lamb, no mutton. We had chicken. Seriously. So we made daal gosht with chicken. Then, because the daal gosht was being made on request for someone who brought forward her visit from dinner to lunch at short notice, I tried to see if using large pieces of chicken would do (because chopping is such a time-consuming chore). It emphatically didn't, and I had to rework the whole thing. Then I forgot to add the onions and green chilies and had to redo from start. Again. Finally, I realised I either don't have cultured enough tastebuds, or the gas overn really has killed our cuisine... or the original recipe needs serious amendment. So I amended it.

And then our guest postponed her visit again, to dinner.

Anyway. The meal did finally end up being absolutely delicious, so if you want a taste, please follow the pretty pictures. And don't make my mistakes.

Heat a little oil in a wok. Fry some minced/crushed ginger in it till you can smell the lovely flavour.

 Toss in the chicken. But please, please chop them into small pieces first. Unlike me.

 Add the washed/soaked daal into the wok.

 Mix it up!

 Realise the chicken isn't getting anywhere while the daal nearly charred. Pick it out of the wok and chop it. Finally.

 Because the daal was charring, add water to it in a rush. Add leftover giant red chilies for extra flavour.

 Then add the chicken, quite forgetting they hadn't been sautéd and will now taste bland and boiled. Just see how white and undercooked it looks. Yuck.

Shrug off the chicken for the moment and see if the daal is done. Does a spoon paste it easily?

Yes, it does. Turn off the flame. Let some liquid remain in the daal and chicken.

 Pick out the red chilies. Toss them.

 Now, in the same wok (lightly washed) or a new one, heat oil, add jeera. Watch it nearly burn because you didn't realise how hot the oil was. Hurriedly throw in garlic to divert the heat's attention.

 Add the boiled chicken and daal in a rush because oh my GOD, the jeera is almost black now!

Realise you've forgotten to add onions and chilies to the cumin seeds and garlic. Take everything off the wok, reheat some oil, and add the onions and green chilies.

While it fries, wonder how much damage you can do to weapons manufacturing companies if you buy their stock today. Then remember YOU would the one losing money -- amongst other people, but that's just detail -- and get back to cooking

 Re-add the garlicky cuminy daal and chicken. Let it simmer for a while.

 This ingenius instrument is called a daaler hata. Seldom used but vry useful. Crush the soft boiled and tempered daal with this so it makes a very granular, crumbly paste. Well, it won't actually remotely approach a paste paste, but it will provide a thick, creamy texture to the base.

 While doing your culinary crushing, please remember to hold your work steady with yet another of our ingenius kitchen implements, the shNarashi. It grips the edge of the wok from within and without and allows for very little movement.

When a satisfactory amount of daal has been crudely pasted, add water. Scrape up the lovely, lovely brown cripsy layers that have formed at the sides and bottom of the wok. Come think of it, nothing's stopping you from deglazing with a little red wine if you're using mutton or lamb. Add salt and sugar after the water and mix in.

 When the water evaporates, leaving behind a thick... mass, add garam masala and fold it in.

Transfer to a bowl and top with chopped coriander leaves hoping this will make it all right. Alas, it won't. It might make it marginally better. But the chicken will still taste like boiled chicken in mouthfuls of well-cooked daal.

So start over. Pick out the chicken and heap on a plate.  Heat some more sunflower/canola. Toss the chicken in. Fry them on low, low-medium till they're lightly fried. Then add the daal and disintegrated chicken to the wok. Fry this over low too. The wok will have oodles of that wonderful crispy fried crust, but no more deglazing!

 Add some more water. 'Cause why not, right? You need some gravy to make the other stuff go down!

 When it thickesn to your liking, transfer to a serving dish.

Serve over lightly-buttered white rice. Or jeera rice. Or brown rice. Jasmine even. Any variety of rice you like, in short. No restrictions. Dive right in. Or, if after all this you still have the energy, make and serve with rooti or parathas. I ate the leftovers with parathas, and man, if they were good on Day 1 (after all the after-hours I put in), they were fabulous on Day 2. Somethings just taste better stale.

With plain buttered rice.

End Notes:
I just have this final comment. I picked up this recipe from various internet sites because this isn't a Bengali dish and no one in my family cooks it. The recipes differed, but they all agreed on one thing: no marination of the meat, and no sautéing before the boiling. I heartily disagree, on both counts. The chicken was marinated in lemon juice, salt and pepper because I was too rushed to do anything fancier, but even that helps impart a lovely flavour to the meat, and make it more tender. And the lack of sautéing, though unintentional on my part, rendered the meat nearly inedible.

So, I don't care about 'culture' and 'traditions of cooking'. The very nature of our kitchens and cooking equipment have changed completely. So unless you can cook this dish for four hours over a coal and/or wood fire that will ensure the meat cooks and is thoroughly tender, please marinate and lightly sauté it before you add the water and boil it. Your tastebuds will thank you :-)