Thursday, October 22, 2009

Bengali Cooking

I mentioned in this post the importance of understanding the regionality of South Asian food. What if you, a non-desi, or perhaps a desi from a totally different background from your man, marry a guy from a certain place and you have no clue where to begin learning to cook homefoods from his region....which you obviously want to learn becuzzz you lurve your man and want to impress him with your cooking? Girls, you know what I am talking about. Authentic regional South Asian English language cookbooks can be hard to find. There are loads of websites nowadays, but they are not often written for the neophyte desi cook, and contain lines like: Here is a totka, add a chutki of such and such thing, bhunofy, onions turn pink (this is a really weird one for people who have never seen a desi onion)...then put on dam for 30 minutes. Huh? I have learned a lot from cooking websites. I often search through them to compare and prepare recipes to try out for myself. But I really love a good cookbook right there in my hands. I wanted to take some time to highlight books which I have come across which I really liked, and which really helped me learn about the food of a region. I am very interested in regional South Asian cooking, and I have over the years managed to peruse and acquire some English language regional desi cookbooks. I have Kashmiri pandit and waaza books. I have a great Maharashtrian book. I have an Indian Hyderabadi Muslim book, and so forth. Let me start with Bengali cuisine:

There are two books from which I gained a lot of information about Bengali cooking, as well as good recipes.

The first is the excellent tome, Bengali Cooking: Seasons and Festivals by Chitrita Banerji. This is written for any reader, not just a Bengali Indian or Bangladeshi who is already familiar with Bengali cooking terms and ingredients. Banerji writes a narrative about her childhood in West Bengal and then her adult life in Bangladesh. She is originally a West Bengali, but she married a Bangladeshi, so she knows the cuisines of both sides of the border well. Her narratives focus on, as discernable from the title, seasons and festivals, and are interwoven with very good recipes for special foods of those times. Loaded with information, anyone who reads this book will gain very in depth knowledge about the cuisine of the Bengalis, as well as on Bengali culture. The book is well written, informative, gives a beautiful and romantic picture of Bengali culture and foods, and has great recipes.

The second book is Rannaghor by Roopa Sharma. This book, like many Indian cookbooks written for Indians, is not as easily navigable for people who are not very familiar with Indian food terms. So if you are a non-Bengali, especially non-Indian bahu of a Bengali family, you'll have to get a Bengali friend to help you with any unfamiliar terminology or show you some of the special South Asian ingredients until you have learned them all. The author says she wrote the book for the busy, working woman and offers cooking tips and simple recipes to a cook with little time to spare. I don't know about all of that, but I can simply assure you that the recipes are excellent samples of West Bengali homecooked fare. I have made many of the recipes in this book, and I liked all of them. The book can help you set your table with delicious West Bengali fare.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Chicken Nihari

I love nihari. Nihari is tradionally a breakfast food. "Nahaar" means day in Arabic, the language of origin of the word nihari. Nihari is a food to start the day with, a morning food to give energy throughout the day. It is eaten with naan in most places, but in Indian Hyderabad it is eaten with the deliciously light and flakey Hyderabadi style paratha. (Nihari recipes vary by region, and niharis of Hyderabad are a bit different than North Indian-Pakistani niharis as well.) Nihari is tradionally made with beef in North India. These days, there are mutton and chicken niharis as well. Nihari is said to be originally from the city of Old Dehli, but outside of its birthplace of India, in neighboring Pakistan, nihari has taken on a life of its own as one of the signature dishes of Pakistani cuisine. In India it is hard to find a dish of nihari at a restaurant, usually a specialty nihari restaurant, after late morning. It is still considered a breakfast food. Nihari is expensive to make at home for common folk, so it is very often bought by the plate at specialty nihari houses. In Pakistan, some people do keep the breakfast tradition. But nihari is more often consumed at any time of day. It is a festive and rich dish associated with Ramadan and Eid.
I will say it again. I love nihari. But, I have been interested in cooking on the lighter side of Pakistani and Indian cuisine, so I had been trying to create a perfect, full bodied chicken nihari since chicken is much lower in fat and calories than beef. I have experimented a bit with online recipes. I have finally settled with a delicious self-created recipe which I am very proud of, and which I hope you will like.
1 whole skinless chicken, bone in, cut into 12 pieces
1/2 lb of chicken stock cuts, such as necks, backs, and wings
1 onion finely sliced (one American yellow onion or 2-3 small desi pink onions)
2-3 Indian bay leaves (tez patta)
3 pieces of whole black cardamom
1 inch piece of whole cinnamon
6 whole cloves
1 heaping tsp garlic paste
1 heaping tsp ginger paste
1/2 tsp turmeric
1 tsp Kashmiri chile powder (or more to taste)
2 tsp ground coriander powder
1 cup whipped yoghurt
4 cups of water
1 tsp white flour (maida)
2 tsp ground chickpea flour (besan)
1 tsp garam masala
1 tsp freshly ground anise seed powder
1/2 tsp freshly ground green cardamom powder
salt to taste (about 1.5 tsps)
1/4 cup oil
2 tbs oil for thickening flours
Garnish: lemon wedges, chopped fresh cilantro, chopped green chiles, ginger cut into match stick sized slivers
Heat oil and brown the chicken pieces (but not the chicken stock pieces) and remove from oil. Set aside. Heat oil again and in bay leaves, cinnamon piece, black cardamom, and cloves. Once the bay leaves begin to change color, brown the onion by first frying on high heat, then lowering the heat until the slices become crisp and golden brown. Alternatively you can use pre-browned onions. Towards the end of the browning process, stir in the garlic and ginger paste and let this turn golden. Turn up the heat and add in the previously browned chicken pieces, and then the turmeric, chile powder, and coriander powder. Stir for a few moments. Now lower the heat and add in the yoghurt. (you lower the heat to prevent curdling of the yoghurt) Mix well, add in the salt, and stir fry for about 7 minutes on medium heat until the oil rises to the top of the yoghurt. Now add in the chicken stock pieces. Stir to coat with the masala mixture, then turn up the heat and add in the water. Allow the pot to boil, then cover and simmer on low heat for about 30 minutes or until the chicken is cooked.
Once the chicken is done, turn off the heat. Remove the meaty non-stock pieces from the pot and set them aside. Now, without removing the stock pieces, return the pot to a boil and boil on high heat for 10-15 minutes to remove extra water, thicken the gravy, and make the stock rich. When this step is done, you will have about 2.5 cups of gravy. Strain this gravy. You can pick the meat off of the stock pieces and use them for sandwiches laster. Aside from that, all of the spices have done their job, and any undissolved shredds of onion have given off enough of their flavor, and the chicken bones have lent their taste to the gravy. So throw it all away. Keep the gravy ready to use on the side. You can also pour off some of the oil that rises to the top of this gravy. Add water if you have boiled off too much water and have less than 2.5 cups of gravy. Now, heat a clean pan and add in 2 tbs oil. Stir in the white flour and chickpea flour and use a whisk to move this around and smooth out lumps, allowing it to sizzle in the oil and cook through for a minute. Do not allow this to burn. Slowly, 2 tbs at a time, pour in the gravy, continously whisking to avoid lumps. When you have poured in about 1 cup of gravy, go ahead and fully pour in the rest all at once. Allow this to come to a boil to thicken it. Add in the garam masala, anise seed powder, and cardamom powder. Stir this in well. Now re-add the chicken pieces you set aside earlier. Lower heat and keep covered on a very low flame for about 5 minutes. You can also allow this dish to rest a bit and re-heat gently later to allow the flavors to gel for longer.
Decorate with a little of the green garnishes and the match stick ginger, but also serve the garnishes, as well as lemon wedges, on the table with the nihari. Each diner should squeeze in her/his own lemon juice, just a few drops per serving, and add on more of whichever garnishes they like. Eat with whole grain naan to be extra healthy!

Friday, October 9, 2009

Potato with Okra: Aloo bhindi masala

Many goras don't like okra because it comes out slimy. The desi methods of cooking okra can circumvent slimyness. The key is allowing the okra to fully dry after washing. Moisture will bring out the okra slime. Another key is to avoid tossing the okra around too much. Try to avoid moving it too much with the spatula, and the slime will not seep out. Below I mention four methods for cooking okra for a bhindi masala, from deep frying (ideal but unhealthy, to sautee-ing, to cooking in the gravy (some mushiness will occur), to a low fat microwave steam to saute method. The main recipe is something I picked up/adapted from my dear friend Gehana, who does cooking classes in Dubai...see side bar link for more info.

For the okra:

Wash bhindi and allow to air dry. It should be very dry, then make a small slit in each piece and cut the bhindi in two pieces.

If you want the bhindi perfect, no mushyness, cook the bhindi by deep frying till crispy looking (starting to look a bit golden on the sides) and set aside.

You can also gently pan fry in nonstick, covering and sprinkling water until done, without moving them in the pan too much so the sticky slime doesn't come out. They should be about 3/4 cooked if you do the pan method. Set aside.

There is also a way to steam okra in the microwave and then gently saute. You wash and allow to completely dry, clean, and cut the okra. Then you put it in a microwave safe dish with the top of the dish covered in slightly ajar saran wrap. Microwave on high for 4-5 mins. Then you have to allow the okra to completly cool. Then you heat a pan and add 1 tsp or so oil. I have tried with fat free cooking spray but didn't get the best results. Anyhow, you then sautee just to give the okra some crispyness and color. Then you would add it to the cooked masala for 5 mins on low heat.
I have done this with masala stuffed okra and also just plain sprinkled with some pan roasted spices. It works well and I can't say that the taste is as fabulous as deep fried, but it is definately good for something low fat.

The potatoes

For the potatoes: cut about the same size as the bhindi slices, which you can also fry separately and add in at the end, or pan saute, or also cook in the masala.

For the masala:

In a food processor add:
1 onion
4 pieces garlic
1 inch chunk ginger
3 fresh green chiles
2 medium tomatoes
1 tbs coriander powder
1 tsp cumin powder,
1/2 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp red chile powder
1/2 tsp dried mango powder

Grind all of these ingredients together for your masala.

Heat 2-3 tbs oil in pan, fry the masala paste until the moisture evaporates, adding salt to taste shortly after you add the masala to the pan. When the oil has risen to the top of the masala and it is a thick paste but not fully dry, add the bhindi and lower heat and cook for about five minutes more.

All in one pan method:

You can also cook the potatoes and bhindi in the pan with the masala, but they will get a bit mushy. Some people like it that way though, so it is up to you. For this, cook the masala for a few minutes to dry it up a bit. Then add in the raw potatoes, sautee, and cover for 5 minutes, sprinking a little water. After 5 minutes of cooking the potatoes, add in the okra, stir once well to mix it into the masala, sprinking a little water. Lower heat and cover, steaming on low heat for about 20 minutes. Every five minutes or so, you should open the lid, sprinkle some water around the pan, and shake the pan gently to move the potatoes and okra. Cook until potatoes are tender and by then okra will be done, too.
What ever method you use, garnish with a pinch of freshly ground whole green cardamom.
This generic masala paste can be used with many other vegetable combinations: peas and potato, peas and paneer, cauliflour, pea and carrot, and so forth. The options are endless.

Sprouted Mung Bean with Tarka

I just loooove me some sprouted mung beans. See here to watch a video on how to sprout your own mung beans at home. The link leads to the wonderful website Show Me the Curry, which I highly recommend perusing.
Now, once you have sprouted your mung beans, you must know what to do with them. Here is a lovely South Indian-ish recipe.
3 cups sprouted mung beans
Boil water (about 5 cups) on the stove. Add the raw sprouted mung beans. Allow the water to return to a boil, and boil for about 10 minutes. The skins will separate from the mung beans and float to the top of the boil. Skim them off, taking care not to discard any lentils. Get as many as you can, but if there are some left, no worries. More healthy fiber for you. Strain and set aside.

3 tbs oil
1 tsp crushed minced ginger
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp black mustard seeds
1/4 tsp asofetida
1 fresh green chile finely chopped
4 fresh green chiles slit open
4 whole dried red chiles emptied of seeds and cut into wedges
6 fresh curry leaves
pinch of haldi
1 tsp cumin powder
1tsp red chile powder
1/4 cup water on hand
boiled strained mung beans (see above)
+/- 1 tsp salt or to taste
1 tsp or so lemon juice
2 tbs chopped cilantro

Heat oil. Fry slit green chiles in oil till they color a little and their outer membranes peel away from their skin a bit. Remove from oil and set aside on a kitchen paper towel. Returning to the hot oil, add in cumin seeds and allow to color. Add in mustard seeds and red chile wedges and when the mustard seeds pop, toss in asofetida. Quickly add in the curry leaves and ginger. Stir till ginger colors.  Pour in  1/4 cup water if you need to prevent any burning. Add in the red chile powder, haldi, and cumin powder. Stir for a moment, then add in the boiled sprouted mung beans. Toss well in oil, then add in the salt. Stir for a few minutes on high heat to infuse the mung beans with the seasoned oil. Lower heat and allow it to cook covered for 5 minutes. Turn off the heat and stir in the lemon juice, then chopped cilantro.

Serve with chapattis and fried slit green chiles on the side.