Monday, December 28, 2015

Story of the Kacha Golla

Barfi (above); Kacha golla (below)
I cannot begin to express how wonderful it feels to be posting again. A great deal happened over the past two months and like always I will maintain my allegiance to all that was good, fun, and of course delicious. There are three events that deserve a mention here, one especially overdue but not forgotten. In November we hosted a small terrace party for friends and family, both to welcome the winter season and to thank everyone who stood by us during the difficult times that went by. We cooked a traditional Indian fare, complete with fiery curries and oven-roasted mustard fish. Dad and I tried our hands at making sweets - yup, Indian sweets! Dad made a delicious barfi with slivers of almonds and pistachio sprinkled on top and I ended up with one of my favourites gurer kacha golla. Sadly, we got so busy with the cooking and the hosting that we entirely forgot to click pictures. I clicked a few the next day with broken bits from the leftovers! The second thing I want to blog about is the wonderful trip that Len and I took to Goa. Two weeks of sun and sea - actually more of sun and sand for me, but that's another story! And finally, a recipe for a wonderful chicken stew coming all the way from Imphal, Manipur, from Len's sweet mum.

Coming back to the sweets, the story behind making the kacha golla for the party is a bit like the unplanned child: one doesn't plan for it, but then it just happens! For the past few months I had been Googling traditional Bengali sweets and generally talking to people about their preferences and gathering recipes and so on. So, while in the past ten years or so, we have seen an effusive rise of excellent bakeries across the city that I am sure could well compete at international levels, the quality of Bengali sweets has been on a decline ever since. Prices have risen certainly, but standards have fallen consistently. And I kept thinking to myself that I had to learn how to make at least a few of these delicious balls of goodness because very soon there would be no decent place left to go to, where one could find them.

My personal favourite is the nolen gurer shondesh. This is a sweet prepared using soft jaggery of the season along with freshly made cottage-cheese (paneer). Anybody who is interested would find a plethora of websites sharing recipes and experiences behind its making. No one however seemed to have faced my predicament. Anyhow, shortly after having decided on making this for 20+ guests I launched into an intensive search on Google, especially on Youtube, for a good authentic recipe. I chose the one here from a Bangladeshi TV show. 

I picked out the jaggery with great care from a local store, and followed the video as closely as possible. But, if any of you would have tried making shondesh at home, perhaps a few would be familiar with that feeling of growing dread when the sweet mixture does not seem to get to the right consistency! I stirred constantly, kept the flame at a constant, but nothing helped. Instead of a nice firm mix that could be pressed into a mould, what I had was more of a goopy mess in the pan. After about an hour of cooking, with my heart set stone dead, I decided to stick in a spoon for a taste. And to my great delight, it tasted great! I made frantic calls to my parents and discovered that what I had unknowingly made was not shondesh, but kacha golla!! I turned off the heat and let the pan cool for about 45 minutes. Miraculously, the extra water content dried up, and what I was left with, was just right to roll into balls. They had that wonderful aroma of fresh jaggery and just melted into the mouth.
Joy o' joy!

What you need

1 cup of jaggery, broken into pieces       
800 gm paneer

How to

The first step to a great kacha golla is kneading the paneer. This needs to be done for a long, long, long, time using base of the palm on a large flat work surface. There should be no lumps left whatsoever. Not the tiniest of them! We worked on it for more than half an hour - Len helped - but I think there was a scope for more! Just batter that block of paneer into a smooth paste.

Once this is out of the way, take a non-stick pan and add the jaggery. Keep the heat at the lowest and gently stir the jiggery as it melts. Make sure it does not burn and if needed, the pan can be taken off the heat in between. 

After a couple of minutes, add the paneer in batches. Make sure the jaggery and paneer mix evenly, before adding the next lot. Once you have added the paneer completely, keep stirring for another hour. The sweets are ready when the mix begins to harden slightly. Turn off the heat and let it sit for sometime till it cools completely. Finally roll them into small balls using your palms.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Memories of Banzai: Pot-stickers at home

Prawn pot-stickers with sweet-chilli sauce
When I was studying at college in north campus, there used to be a couple of inexpensive Chinese restaurants closeby, thronged largely by the massive student population living in those areas. My favourite was Banzai - it has shut down since - tucked away in the back alleys of Kamla Nagar market. We used to frequent the place to have their delicious steamed pork momos. A plate costed about 60 or 80 bucks, and had 8 or 10 very large dumplings arranged around a plate with a small bowl of spicy sauce placed at the centre. They were juicy and full of deliciousness, and comfortably priced for a student budget. A plate was adequate for a heavy lunch, and I remember not feeling the slightest pangs of hunger till about dinner time. 

A couple of weeks back I came across a lovely video on Youtube by the Dumpling sisters (watch it here) for making pork pot-stickers for the Chinese New Year, and I knew I had to try it out. I modified the recipe a wee bit, but the credit goes out to the Dumpling Sisters for this fantastic recipe! In fact, I always assumed that pot-sticker wrappers need to be store-bought and there aren't any speciality Asian stores in the city that I know of. But this is a myth, happily dispelled by this wonderful video! The first time Len and I tried it out, we used a pork filling and miraculously they turned out just like the ones we used to eat at Banzai. It was the same moist dumpling with that extra crunch from being first pan-fried. The second time around we used prawns, using using exactly the same ingredients as with the pork. 

In terms of the actual novelty of preparing a dish, the pot stickers experience was right up there. I was quite surprised to find that the pork filling turned out better :) I say, surprised, because I have never rated anything above a prawn dish previously in my life! But luckily we used the same recipe for both; the only difference being the 300 grams of pork instead of the prawn I used for this recipe. Come to think of it, I think one could use also use chicken and they should still be just as yum! I served mine with a sweet-chilli sauce, readily available at any store.   

What you need:

Fresh prawns ready to be chopped

For the original recipe and the method, check out here. We made it exactly how the Dumpling Sisters did in their video it. I only tweaked the ingredients list a wee bit, mainly because I could not lay my hands on Shaoxing rice wine. So, here's what I used.

For the dough:
300 g flour
220 ml boiling water
1/4 tsp salt

For the filling:
300g cleaned prawn (OR boneless pork), minced finely by hand or in a food processor
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp cornflour
1 tsp sugar
Salt and pepper, to taste
3 tbsp. water
2 tsp soy sauce
1 tsp oyster sauce (I added this for the prawn, not pork)
1 tsp vinegar
2 tsp sesame oil
1/2 tsp honey
5 small spring onions, finely sliced
2 tsp ginger, finely diced
2 large cloves garlic, finely diced

All rolled up

Monday, October 12, 2015

The last Sunday of September

This post has been sitting in the drafts folder for a really long time now. It is from the weekend before last: probably one of the laziest and longest of weekends in a long long time. What did I do? Absolutely nothing, well apart from hanging about at home watching some absolutely mind-blowing animations, cooking a little bit, and generally sinking into bed at every given opportunity. But, this apart, there were three other reasons that made the weekend utterly and perfectly delicious. 

Plucking one
Firstly, I discovered that even in late September, our mango tree is bearing fruit! I don't know if climate change is to be held responsible for this anomaly - in which case I shouldn't be happy - but it is hard not to, when you see big green mangoes hanging within reach :)

After we spotted one (see photo), we started looking for more, and there were so many, hidden in between heavy foliage and all that green and brown. We plucked a couple and left the remaining for the occasional parrot or (yes!) monkey visitor! They can be quite a nuisance, but then, as long as there is no visible damage, we are happy to see them hop over once in a while :)

Secondly, we ate pancakes for breakfast: some with maple syrup, others with butter or soft chocolate spread. And best of all, I didn't even have to slave over the batter. We used Aunt Jemima's ready-made pancake mix, thanks to Madhu's timely visit from Chicago and my superior judgement in listing out all that I needed from Walmart!

Pancakes for breakfast

Thirdly, by Sunday evening, I had warmed up to the idea of cooking a little bit. And I mean actual cooking, and not the kind of cooking that ready pancake mixes warrant. We made this simple, yet delicious tuna curry Veracruz style. Lately I have been reading up a bit on popular Mexican food, and this one popped right up on top. I adapted it a little bit to suit what we had at home - definitely not high on authenticity, but right up there in taste!

Tuna Veracruz style!

What you need

500gm tuna, diced
2 onions, medium-sized, chopped 
5 cloves of garlic, medium-large, chopped
black olives, a handful, sliced
green chilies, sliced
Creole seasoning, to taste
1 tomato, large-sized, chopped
100 ml light cream
1 bay leaf

How to

Wash, clean, and pat dry the tuna. Season generously with the Creole seasoning. Keep aside.

In a pan, heat oil and throw in the bay leaf. Once it starts giving out a gentle aroma, throw in the chopped onions and garlic. When soft, add the tomatoes and cook for a couple of minutes.

Now add the fish to pan and fry on low heat for ten minutes, turning the pieces occasionally.

You could also add some salt at this time, along with chopped chilies and olives. Cook for a couple of minutes, turning up the heat slightly.

Now add the cream and let the gravy simmer away gently. You could cover the pan, but keep stirring every couple of minutes, so that the cream does not curdle. Heat should be at the lowest.

Once the fish is soft, and flakes easily, turn off the heat. This should not take more than ten minutes.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Gourd tales: why you should disown the kofta

This is the 'eat-your-vegetables-as-they-come' week. I find that there are some vegetables that people want to cook up, upscale, and deliberately metamorphose them into things that they are not! This is definitely true of the gourd (lauki in Hindi). A general favourite I find is 'lauki ke kofte' - a kofta, or a dumpling, where everything that is integral to the gourd is crushed ruthlessly in order for it to taste of anything but a gourd! Mothers tell their children, 'but you can't tell it's lauki!' Others wax eloquent about how the kofta tasted just like chicken, not gourd! Really, I ask? Is it because it is assumed that the gourd can never be prepared in a manner that does justice to it being a gourd - the soft mild flavoured gourd?

This is not an eulogy to the gourd, really. All I want to say is that sometimes it's easier to cook a vegetable in a manner that retains its essential form, and they taste better that way too. I find that gourd (and often bitter gourd) are its greatest victims, at least in India. A fresh, succulent gourd can be delicious. And even if it does not hold the mantle of the queen of your dinner table, it can certainly whisk away that much-coveted supporting role award. The trick is to find a gourd that is neither too large nor too old, and the skin should be soft when pricked, and the peel a beautiful light green colour. 

At home, we love to have a boiled gourd salad with salt and lemon leaves, when eating pork cooked with bamboo shoots. It is a cool comforting side dish that beautifully complements the richness of the meat. In my mother's kitchen there is a lightly sautéed chopped gourd peel with poppy seeds, that tastes wonderful with daal in summers. This is a big summer favourite and anybody who has ever tasted it would never consider those disgusting balls of gourd paste, mixed with masalas beyond recognition, as the finest example of a gourd dish. Sometimes, I also also like adding cubed gourd in fish curries, such as in the delicious Assamese tenga.

There is no end to the possibilities. Just keep cooking!

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The farm friend: Pumpkins in the goodie bag

Len loves vegetables. And so do I. Despite my love for eating meat, I genuinely enjoy eating vegetables and trying out variations of the same dishes. Last week, a family friend - with large farm to his long list of assets - visited us, and brought along with him, a big bag filled with fresh farm produce. There were two pumpkins in the goodie bag, along with generous portions of green beans and potatoes! Yay! If I ever had a farm to myself, I would grow all my vegetables, and have five big dogs as pets. And, also a pony. Sigh... a Halfinger.

Pumpkin with fragrant lemon leaves

What you need:

500 gm pumpkin, diced to 1 inch cubes
1 large onion, finely sliced
1 tsp, ginger-garlic paste
Lemon leaves, a handful
1 tsp, red curry paste
1 cup, freshly squeezed-out coconut milk*
1 tbsp, lemon juice
2-3 green chillies, chopped
2 tbsp, oil
Salt, to taste

How to:

Pour oil into a non-stick pan, and once hot, add the onions to it. Fry them till they a pale pinkish colour and then stir in the ginger-garlic paste. If you are using a fine paste that has a higher water-content, then it would be a good idea to fry the onions for another minute more before adding the paste. I prefer a fresh, more coarse paste using a mortar and pestle.

Add the red curry paste and stir it around for a couple of minutes, so that the paste melts into the onion mixture before you add the pumpkins. Fry the pumpkin for 10-15 minutes. You could add the salt as well as lemon leaves and chillies at this time. If it gets too dry, add a splash of water, now and then.

Now add the coconut milk and let it simmer away till the pumpkin is very soft and breaks easily with a ladle. You may add the lemon juice or later before serving.

* If you wish, you could substitute coconut milk with fresh desiccated coconut. In this case, add the coconut just after frying the onion-ginger-garlic mix. Cook the coconut till it loses its raw colour before adding the red curry paste.

* You could also add shrimps to this recipe, or prawns, or even crabs for a delicious variation.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Happy Birthday to Me!

Yep, last Thursday was the happy happy day! :)
That's called Strawberry Seduction: a delicious chocolate cake topped with a tart strawberry preserve from Whipped! YUM!

Cake from Lenny

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

In praise of DK: Banana-Date-Walnut Loaf

The only thing edible I photographed last month was that brilliant banana-date-walnut loaf that I cooked up, thanks to a wonderful DK cookbook. Ever since, I have started looking at DK books with renewed respect. To me, making anything out of squishy bananas, suitable enough for actual consumption is a miracle, and if it turns out as yummy as it did, it is a testament to the fact that I am working at a really great place! Rarely did I praise my workplace as much as I did after discovering the wealth of goodness stocked in every page of a DK book. Yep, carefully tested, tasted and verified. DK books are fantastic :)

The loaf is moist, sweet with that extra crunch of walnuts, a perfect teatime snack. And, best of all, it stayed fresh for over two weeks in the refrigerator.

Anyhow, after this preliminary success I have gone ahead and bought another book - available here. I have not tried out anything from this one yet, but will do soon.

This loaf calls for neither cashews nor Oreos, but they taste just as well!

Monday, August 24, 2015

The Party!

It would be entirely untrue to say that I have not been cooking. In fact I could say that in the last month or so, or at least since I blogged last, I have cooked quite a lot of nice-ness! But, I have been lazy mostly, especially after returning home from work and cooking and walking Cheeku (my dog), etc etc. In fact I don't think I took notes of anything I made; and neither did I click any pictures. And so, after more than a month of break, I am sort of sheepishly looking at my screen wondering what I should write about.

Ok, so, to begin with, there was 'the' party of course. Yep, Len and I decided to host a smallish party, something in between a birthday party (mine, a week later) and it's-great-to-be-alive party (a lot of hospital in-and-outs in the past couple of months). We planned, and plotted, and shopped, and cleaned, and I obsessed over it for a good two weeks! But, it all turned out great and we had a jolly good time! Of course, it wasn't all hunky-dory - between panicking over curdled chocolate and a pasta that went too dry, a BBQ sauce that seemed to taste a little off and baked fish that seem a bit too moist - I fumbled and blundered all the way through, but at the end of the night, most of the food was gone, I think I did alright, thanks to all the help I got from Len and my folks :)

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Fennel in the rains: Kashmiri lamb chops again!

Kashmiri lamb chop

Of what I know of it, I love Kashmiri cuisine. I love the use of fennel in everything and to my mind, the Kashmiris are highly accomplished users of this wonderfully aromatic spice. There is something infinitely malleable about fennel, don't you think? It is fresh in summers and lends warmth in winters, but I think it is the rains when I love fennel the most. Then I want to eat pakoras spiced with fennel, chicken cooked in fennel, and fish grilled with fresh fennel leaves! In Delhi, the rains have arrived. They have come without reservation - determined to quench these parched lands. And from what it seems, they are here to stay. My terrace has been washed cleaned, and the roads below are flooded: I hear people cursing as they wade through ankle-deep water, but I don't really mind it all that much. Living in the tropics I have perfected the art of loving the rains, despite the obvious inconveniences they bring along. Honestly speaking, I didn't really mind it all that much when I went to buy the lamb chops from the neighbourhood market, plodding through muck and all that dirty water. I remember as a kid, we would do that almost always deliberately, jumping into puddles, floating along a paper boat, and on the whole enjoying the rains. Why is it that as we grow up these simple pleasures begin to appear as impediments?

Oops, I did not mean to digress! Coming back to my love for fennel-infused food, I must confess that it has been a decade or more since I cooked lamb chops in Kashmiri style. This is an old recipe from my scrapbook that I had penned down when I was in my teens. I recall the one time that my father and I had made it together. I think it is the best dish we ever cooked together, but somehow we never did it again. So, as I was flipping through the pages, and surfing the web for an easy-to-prepare mutton appetizer, my gaze stopped at the sight of the recipe for Kashmiri lamb chops. It took me less than 10 seconds to zero in on this one! It is utterly delicious, crisp on the outside, and tender on the inside, mildly spiced with the evergreen fennel and a host of other seasonings.

As I cooked, I could hear the gentle pitter-patter of raindrops on the roof of my kitchen, and the leaves on the mango tree outside were glistening in the rain. The temperature is down to a mere 22 degrees! It really does not get better than this - the perfect weekend to dig into crisp lamb chops.

What you need:


How to:
  • Take a pressure cooker with about 150 ml of milk; throw in a bay leaf and the spices listed under bouquet garni along with some salt. I did not actually  make a bouquet garni, I simply added everything to the milk - fennel, cardamom, black pepper, and cinnamon. 
  • Once the milk is warm, gently drop the clean lamb chops into the cooker. Let it simmer for five minutes or so, then cover the pressure cooker with its lid, and give it a whistle or two. 

Making the batter
While cooker cools down, prepare the batter: mix all ingredients and ensure the batter is of a coating consistency. Keep aside. Open the cooker, and simmer for about 10-15 minutes. Add this point add the khoya* and more salt if needed. The milk should have evaporated entirely and the lamp chops should be coated in the khoya gravy.

Now you are ready to fry away! Heat sufficient oil in a deep pan. I used a heavy-bottomed kadhai. Dip each of the chops in the batter, and drop them in hot oil. Fry till they are golden-brown on the outside. 

* My ingredients list does not mention the quantity of khoya needed! I used about two tablespoons heaped this time around.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Thinking aloud: How the pauper's breakfast led to the royal brunch

All through my days at school there was really no concept of breakfast in my life. Breakfast in those days meant the ubiquitous bread-butter-jam combination, along with a glass of warm milk - neither particularly appetizing at the wee hours of morning. The trouble with breakfast is that it obviously needs to take place early in the day - if I had my way I would love to whip up pancakes and poha each morning, only if they could be consumed at lunch! And so it happened that for most part of my school-going years and thereafter, I opted out of the meal, inadvertently making me fall in love with those rare holiday season elaborate morning meals. I have realized now that old habits indeed die hard and despite the deluge of information now available on the benefits of a king’s breakfast, it is still a difficult battle to win. But luckily necessity has led to great many inventions, and it is probably this problem with breakfast, that led to the birth of its generous big-hearted sibling - the brunch :) And thus, for me, and perhaps a great many others, nagging weekday breakfast have given way to luxurious weekend brunches! And as Wordsworth said once, it is abundance recompense! And looking by the number of restaurants offering brunch buffets all over the city, it may be stated with absolute  certainty that people indeed love a good brunch. For me, a good brunch maketh a good weekend - those wonderfully slow Sunday mornings that begin with a cup of steaming hot coffee and gradually build up to steady flow of friends at 11 am, all ready to tuck into a sumptuous home-made brunch menu!

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Poached fish with mushrooms and bamboo shoots

L's best fish recipe that is healthy and great to taste!

Ever since L and I returned from Manipur armed with bags full of local produce, I have been on a Manipur-inspired cooking spree. The one thing that most Bengalis would never quite consider, is the fact that fish can be curried, not just using oil, but water! I am quite certain that my mother or grandmother or aunts or anyone else in my near and far family would ever poach or boil fish. Bengalis fry their fish, almost always, except in the occasional Doi Machh or Muithha recipe, but even those involve frying/sautéing other ingredients at some stage, even if not the fish specifically. Having said that I must admit that of all the things my cross-cultural marriage has taught me, it has given me an opportunity to try out a  fantastic alternative - fish cooked sans oil. This wonderfully aromatic recipe uses one of my favourite items, bamboo shoot along with papal. Papal is a type of dried mushroom, with a smoky, earthy flavour from Manipur. Rohu seemed like a good choice; it took on the flavours to perfection and became so soft that it simply melted away. 

Poached Fish

What you need:

300 gms Rohu, or any other big fish 

Dried mushrooms, a handful of papal-go*
2 tbsp fresh or fermented bamboo shoots
Local herbs, a handful of mongche**
1 dried raja mirchi, or red chilly powder
2 cloves of garlic crushed
1/2 inch ginger, crushed or sliced
1/2 tsp turmeric powder
salt to taste
300 ml water

*this is a mushroom available in Manipur, but I think all kinds of mushrooms would be nice here

**back in the city here, I would use fresh mustard leaves and coriander instead of mongche 

How to:

Clean the pieces of fish with water. 

In a pot, bring water to a boil. Add all ingredients, and let the fish simmer away for about 15 minutes. I covered the pot with a lid and stirred it gently every now and then; if it looked like too much of the liquid had evaporated, I just added some more water. 

When ready, the fish will be white and ready to flake. Turn off the heat. 

We had this fish curry with boiled rice and a pickle on one of those lovely Friday evenings sitting in front of the television watching nothing in particular. The really great thing about this dish was that it took me almost no time to prepare, and yet it tasted fabulous!

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Snacking on Shingju in Manipur

When the keekar trees began to give way to the date palm and the banana groves, I knew we were heading East. This was my first-ever 34-hour-long train journey - from Delhi to Guwahati, where I had planned to spend a night at M's, and then fly onwards to Imphal for a holiday. When I finally reached Guwahati, I was whisked away by my lovely hosts M and R. Needless to say, after a night in the train at the mercy of the Indian Railways' service, I was in much need of a shower and a drink. Luckily, I got both! We then headed out to Khorikha, an excellent, excellent, must-go-to restaurant right in the heart of the city. I wish I had photographed the lavish spread we had ordered, but I was much too engrossed in catching up with M and the others! Anyhow, we tucked in crispy fried fish and chicken in sesame sauce, along with rice and an assortment of delicious local vegetarian dishes. 

The next morning, and a short flight onwards, I was finally at Imphal: for my second visit to the beautiful state of Manipur. For a lot of people, Imphal is a vague far off hill station in the Northeast of India - disturbed and unsafe. But, for a second time visitor, I can firmly state that it is none of the above. While it is true that bad governance and insurgency has changed it for the worse, but despite the inconveniences, it is certainly worth a visit or more. Luckily for me, this trip turned out to be pretty unique – no overlaps whatsoever with my last visit to the state, except of course multiple visits to the local bazaar! 

For a city girl like me, my most intimate connections to rural India had been confined to the sights of the countryside while travelling on train or on long-distance buses. They had never been the final stop. March 2015 changed all that. L and I visited Siden village, and spend three glorious days soaking in all its rustic charm. As I write today, I am running out of words to describe the warm-hearted people of modest means whom I met, and their spotlessly clean mud huts and paddy fields. I am reminded of the lazy afternoon that L and I spent lying on a patch of dry hay watching the cows graze while we snacked on salted sunflower seeds. The cattle all had wooden bells round their necks that make a sort of woody clickety-clack sound as they moved about. There was a very young, but inquisitive calf that made its way close to us, peering at us in a rather incredulous manner. I tried reaching out, but mommy-cow didn’t quite appreciate my rather forward gesture. I quietly backed out fearing being butted out of the field! 

Then, there were those adorable puppies, Bobby’s pups, as we found out later. They would come out to play and when tired promptly run back to the cowshed where amidst the hay, wood, and old knick-knacks, they had made a seemingly comfortable home for themselves. They were all white and fluffy like little panda bear cubs.

Bobby's pups

Kelkot: a Thadou term for a gate

For our meals we had fish or country chicken, along with sticky rice and very spicy chutneys. I had to give up on the chutney, owing to my limited capacity for very hot food, but L relished every last morsel, dipping his finger in the red-hot goodness with every bite. Life was slow and easy (at least for us). It started early with the rising of the sun and ended with round of chit-chat after dinner. The ten odd days we were in Manipur, L and I visited a number of beautiful spots around the city (my favourite being Loktak Lake and Khuga Dam). Needless to say, while on the road, I tried out the robust local cuisines as much as I could. Ima Keithel, the bustling women's market in Imphal is a food paradise: a must-visit for anyone who is interested in local produce. We tried out a range of traditional Meitei sweets made using jaggery, rice puffs, sesame, and so on. On one end were the fish mongers selling all kinds of fish - fermented, dried, fresh, or alive (!) and at the other there were exotic fruits and fresh greens of all shapes and sizes. The city of Imphal is home to large number of people belonging to different ethnic sensibilities, each offering a slice of their gastronomic cultures. A little away from Paona Bazaar that hosts Ima Keithel was the Tribal Market, where we found a host of ingredients used by the Kuki and Naga tribes of the state. Here, I found the most exciting range of dried mushrooms, which I purchased in hoards! 

L's granny
Kids playing

But in all our travels across the state, in 2010 and 2015, there is one local preparation I found all over the state. This is the omnipresent Shingju! But each time I tried it, it tasted different, it is like one of those eternally malleable recipes - prepared a little differently by every cook and at every household or corner stall. My favourite version was the one L and I tried outside the Imphal War Cemetery. 

Shingju at a roadside stall at Imphal, Manipur


What you need*

Cabbage, a small one, chopped
1/3 onion, chopped
1/4 carrot, shredded
1 tomato, chopped
4 green chillies, chopped (alternately sun-dried raja mirchi pound to a pulp)
2 tbsp Shi seeds, roasted and ground to a powder
1 tsp, roasted chana, whole or ground to a powder
Salt to taste.

Mix all ingredients together.

*Ngari, or fermented fish, is a common ingredient added to this dish. Also, aithanglou, which is the root of a plant is also often added. Shingju is generally very hot and pungent, but I adapted it to better suit my taste buds, and others around me.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Gajar ka halwa at Jodhpur

During my years at the university, I had been christened 'the vagabond' by my friends owing to my tendency to be constantly wandering - on campus and off campus. However, since money was tight and I was too lazy to be working part time, most of my wandering happened within the city and a lot of it in my head. To make up for what I couldn't experience in real life, I chose to live through the many books that inspired me get on the road. As a result I spent more time looking through the dusty bookshelves in the English literature department than on the mezzanine floor that held the books that I ought to have read! But, having said that, I have no regrets. My time with 
Mr Kerouac On the Road was indeed precious to me.

A walk to remember: Jaswant Thada in the distance
Over the years, I think I have more or less lived up to the nickname that was kindly bestowed upon me. Like all other tourists, each trip I have taken has taught me something new, of the place, its people, its food, its beauty, and a lot about myself. However, up until a while back, I had never taken a trip alone. Sure, I had been alone in transit, or spent some time by myself in another town or city, but never had I spent a night at a hotel room in an unknown city all by myself while on a holiday. It had been on my mind for a while but every time I considered planning a solo trip, I always ended up with a friend or two! And, the solo trip was forgotten... until last month when I took a trip to Jodhpur and its neighbour, Osiyan. I had just watched Wild on the big screen, and that familiar itch began to get so unbearable that I knew I had to get away. Of course, I had L in splits when I tried comparing my everything-booked two-day trip with a 1000-mile-long solo-trek along the Pacific Crest Trail. 

A canon atop Mehrangarh Fort
But in any case, to me it was a fantastic moment. I had stepped into the hallowed portals of solo trip-dom! So what if it was just the city next door, so what if it was only for the weekend, so what! I imagined a garlanded homecoming with a band of cheerleaders welcoming me back with much hoopla! Obviously, none of that happened. It was more like, 'hey, you are back. You leaving for office in a bit?' Well, I suppose, it wasn't a big deal really, but what it was, was every bit of fun I wanted it to be. I spent two days wandering the streets of Jodhpur, taking photographs, and eating pakoras on the way. Even though I am not a very big fan of Rajasthani food, I did make it a point to try a lavish thali at the Chokelao Mehal restaurant at the Mehrangarh Fort. The sky had darkened and in the midst of my wandering at the fort, there was a sudden downpour. Luckily, I was close to Chokelao and the brassware laid out on the long buffet table had never been more enticing. I walked in. Hot tawa rotis with lal maas and ker sangri; I must have polished off a quarter of those serving trays! I cannot vouch for the authenticity of the dishes; most likely they weren't. The lal maas for instance was anything but spicy. Rather, it was a mild Indian curry, probably to accommodate the palates of the many foreign tourists who frequent the restaurant. But on the whole, it was worth every penny spent. And the best part of the meal came at the end. When the red-turbaned waiter brought me a bowl of gajar ka halwa, I was in for a real treat. Rich, sweet, and aromatic, the flavours came alive in my mouth. That wonderful aroma of ghee (clarified butter) without it being a greasy mess. Even though I was really full I went back for a second helping of that delicious dessert. 

In general I like halwas, but they have never been a particular favourite. Chokelao changed all that. I have looked up tons of recipes online since then hoping to find that perfect one. After returning home, I tried my hand at the gajar ka halwa, but the carrots betrayed me. I have not got it right yet. Maybe I could sneak in another weekend trip, just for a bowl of dessert at Chokelao again!

The best gajar ka halwa ever!
Chokelao Restaurant at the fort

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Chinese chaat for my Chicago girl

Chinese chaat!

Last week M left for Chicago.

M and I have been best friends since we were five years old. Or may be six. I do not really remember how it happened, but we used to live just a few blocks apart and became the closest of friends over music lessons that we both hated. Needless to say, at six, classical music seemed to be the dullest way to spend a Saturday morning. On other days we met in the evenings. As young kids, we must have played every possible street game known to mankind. Over the years, we just lazed around at the park or went out for coffee or drinks. Often we would head to the local market and treat ourselves to delicious street food - chicken momos, mutton rolls, Chinese food, and so on.

Anyhow, time flies by and as I got thinking of all the silly adventures we had growing up, and all the fun things we did behind our parents' back (and often getting caught). I recollected this incredibly embarrassing incident from our school days. Middle school - like the middle child, the middle seat on airplanes, and middle age - is tough. It is the age of budding rebellion suppressed by severe parental control! And things were no different then. In those days we did not hang out after school at movie theatres or pizza places or malls (of course there weren't any then); instead, after school, our respective school buses would drop us home. Afternoon were meant for homework - evenings were about play. So, hanging out after school meant permissions, permissions, and permissions in addition to saving pocket money. Anyhow, to break the monotony of school-dom, one fine summer afternoon M and I planned to head out after school for a  movie, without informing any un-consenting adult. I remember taking an autorickshaw after school to hers (a mere 7-8 kilometres apart), and hung around outside waiting for her. After about a quarter of an hour, M met me outside, and instead of heading out directly, we decided to take a tour of the school premises! And as we approached the school grounds, we were stopped by a stern nun. My white school uniform was a big giveaway. Obviously, I was the errant outsider, and we were promptly taken to the principal's room. Oh! The horror of it all! After threatening to call our parents and 25 minutes of a pretentious speech on propriety, honestly, and decency. we were let off, packed off in another autorickshaw, homewards.

Looking back, we often laughed about it. I wonder where the old nun might be today, probably still robbing young girls the sweet joys of stolen freedom!

But now in 2015, with M thousands of miles away, I thought of trying out one of our favourite dishes that we often had from the local market. They call it Chinese chaat, i.e., Indian Chinese indianized further! Its fried, spicy, and delicious. We often had a meal of what they call Veg hakka noodles + chili chicken combo and I can bet all my money that nowhere in Chicago will this taste be replicated!

Veg Hakka Noodles

What you need

1 pack noodles*
1 onion, medium size, cut into thick slices
2 large pods garlic, finely chopped
6-7 beans, finely chopped
1 small carrot, finely chopped
2 tsp oil
1 tsp each, vinegar and soy sauce
1/2 oyster sauce (optional)
Salt to taste

How to 

Boil the noodles with some salt and a spoon of oil. Boil till just about cooked through.

In a wok, heat oil and add onions and garlic.Once they lose their raw smell and colour, add all other vegetables and cook on medium heat.

Then add the vinegar, soy sauce, and oyster sauce. Turn up heat and stir for two minutes or so. I am quite certain that the Chinese chaat shop does not use oyster sauce but I have always used it and I think it adds a nice punch to the dish. But it's entirely optional, a bit of honey can be used instead.

Finally throw in the boiled noodles and give everything a good stir. Check for salt and add if needed.

Add the noodles. Give everything one good toss and plate up.

* I used these packs of noodles available locally with the vegetable sellers. I suspect this is the stuff used at tall street food Chinese joints. (Brand: Champion)

 Chili Chicken

What you need

300 gm boneless chicken 
1 large onion, cut into chunks
3 large garlic pods
4 green chillies
Garlic powder
Red chilly powder 
1 medium capsicum, diced
I egg beaten (optional)
2 tbsp cornflour
2 tsp each vinegar and soy sauce 
Salt to taste

How to

Chop up the chicken into small bit sized pieces and marinate it for an hour or so with salt, red chilly powder, garlic powder, and a paste of two garlic pods and two green chillies.

In the meantime chop the onions and capsicum into large chunks. Also, finely chop the remaining garlic and green chillies.

Just before cooking, add the cornflour to the chicken and give it a good mix. If you wish you could also roll the chicken in the egg and then coat it in cornflour. This ensures that extra crisp in the chicken.

Then add enough oil in a pan and fry the chicken pieces until they are nice and brown and cooked through. Set aside.

Now in the same oil (you could take some out if you wish, but I am certain the Chinese chaat guys don't care much about the on-going cholesterol problem in the country!), add the chopped garlic and chillies. Fry for half a minute on high flame and then add the onions and capsicum. After two minutes pour in the sauces. Saute. Add the chicken back to the pan. Cook for a couple of minutes, adjust seasoning if needed, and you are done!

Monday, February 9, 2015

Garden love

The earliest recollection I have of cooking on my own, rather with friends, was back in the nineties, when I was probably nine or ten years old. We had — at least by present-day city standards — a fairly large garden with fruits trees and a vegetable garden. Four of us, closest of friends, had gathered at my garden for some famous five – secret seven games where we had to fend for ourselves in the wilderness. This of course usually meant gathering food and make-believe cooking. That summer forenoon however we decided to do the real thing. I roped in my paternal grandmother who helped us put together a temporary brick oven in the backyard and kindled the fire in the stove, and probably in my heart, for cooking. After gathering fire wood, leaves, old newspaper, and some utensils, we were ready to cook! We cooked cauliflower with lots of Amul cheese spread and gravy of potato with tomato and Indian spices.

I still remember the taste of the cheesy cauliflower in my mouth (which was honestly quite terrible) and the aloo torkari which had turned out very well. It was a modest beginning but at ten, I felt like I had conquered the world. Many years have passed since then but the joy of cooking, especially for loved ones, has not ebbed. It has on the contrary doubled-quadrupled many times over and I find that there is little joy greater than that of cooking for friends and family — laughing, drinking, eating around the dining table.


I still love spending time outdoors, even if it is just my backyard or terrace. This is my dog Cheeku who always stays close to me, especially when I cook! :)

One sunny afternoon 

Monday, January 26, 2015

A lasagna for sunny noons and rainy nights

The last time I made a lasagna, I didn't know that lasagna sheets needed to be cooked, like they say al dente, in hot salted water! I put them right in to the oven along with the chicken and what-nots, and what emerged after 20 minutes was, to say the least, not very desirable. So, this time around, I was somewhat apprehensive because it was for the Sunday afternoon shenanigan and friends were coming over. But the box of lasagna sheets had been sitting in my pantry long enough, and the long inviting weekend, thanks to the Indian national day, seemed to be the perfect opportunity to finally layer it up. Thankfully my guest, R, has gradually evolved in to an adventurous non-vegetarian, a far cry from her veg-food-only days when I first  met her in college. After confirming that she does enjoy the occasional sausage/salami/ham, I got down to work. Italian food seems to be the new Chinese in the capital! In the nineties, there were Chinese restaurants everywhere. If you wanted to go out for dinner, Chinese was it. Nowadays, folks have evolved from enjoying Indianized Chinese food to authentic Asian food. But, pastas have taken the place of the chowmein. They are being whipped out at every nook-and-cranny takeaway promising authentic Italian food in the capital, wedding menus must have the 'live' red/white sauce pasta counter today, and of course ready-to-eat packaged pasta is now available at the neighbourhood grocery stores. Maggi Masala almost gave way to Maggie Pazzta! I mean, seriously, how difficult could it be! When I was in Italy, I never ventured to try Italian food at even the so-called bistros because when you convert the Euro into the Rupee, everything is way too expensive, and especially when you are in the continent for a six-week long trip! Instead, I soaked in Venice, Florence, and Rome walking the cobbled streets, enjoying the grand old structures, visiting the occasional museum, but prudently heading to the nearest supermarket for my meals. But that's another story, for another day.

Here is what you need:


1 broccoli head, small to medium size
2 bell peppers, red and yellow
4-5 smoked sausages 
100 gm ham
200 gm lasagna sheets
1/2 cup mozzarella cheese, grated 
Olive oil
salt and pepper, to taste

Tomato sauce:

   3 ripe tomatoes, large size
   1 onion, small, sliced
   4-5 pods garlic, sliced
   1 tbsp tomato ketchup
   1 large pinch baking soda
   1/2 tsp basil
Right out of the oven
   100 ml white wine

Mushroom cream sauce:

   200 gm mushroom, sliced
   50 gm butter
   1 cup milk
   60 gm cheddar cheese
   1 tbsp cornflour
   2 tbsp thick cream
   1 tbsp olive oil
   1/2 tsp parsley
   1/2 tsp Italian seasoning

How to:

  • Chop up the broccoli into small pieces, about an inch or so. Then, de-seed the bell peppers and cut them into chunks. Slice the sausage into 1 cm thick pieces. Now place all these in a baking tray, with a tablespoon of olive oil, salt and pepper. Season well and toss them in olive oil. Preheat your oven to 200 °C, and bake for about 20 minutes. The broccoli should be slightly crunchy but cooked through and the sausages done.
  • While the oven is at work, you can prepare the tomato sauce. I prefer to skin my tomatoes before adding them to the sauce. To do this, insert a fork in the tomato and hold it over the gas stove, turning it from time to time. For the skin to burn and blacken, it takes about a minute for each tomato. The skin will peel off easily. Once the peel is out of the way, roughly slice up the tomatoes and put a pan to heat.
  • Once the oil is hot, add the sliced tomatoes and garlic in olive oil and saute till soft. Now turn up the heat and add the tomato ketchup. After frying this for a minute, pour in the white wine. Once the alcohol from the wine has evaporated, throw into your sliced tomatoes. A trick I learnt while making pizza sauce, which is very similar to this tomato sauce, is to add a pinch or two of baking soda to the pan as the tomatoes are getting cooked. This cuts through the acidity of the tomatoes and ensures that the sauce is not too sauce. I found this tip very helpful because a sour base sauce can mean definite ruin of an otherwise heavenly pizza!
  • Add the parsley and salt and allow the tomato sauce to simmer for about 10 minutes. I prefer to keep the lid on at this time otherwise the sauce tends to thicken too much. Then, turn off the heat.
  • In a dry hot pan, add about two tablespoons of butter. Throw in the mushrooms and fry till browned at the edges. Keep aside.
  • In a bowl, mix the cornflour with a tablespoon of cold milk. (There should be no lumps at all!) Add this to the remaining cup of milk and mix well. In the same pan that was used to fry the mushrooms, add the milk and cornflour mixture. Turn up the heat slightly and keep stirring. After a minute, add the rest of the butter, dried parsley and sir in the cream. You might want to take the pan off the heat before adding the cream; else, stir well after adding cream. If you like to make the sauce richer, you can add grated cheddar cheese. Keep stirring the sauce till cheddar melts away. Now add the mushroom and give it all one good stir.
  • Once both sauces and the roasted vegetables are ready, heat a large sauce of water with about a teaspoon of salt. Once the water boils over, throw in the lasagna sheets. It took me about 5-7 minutes for the pasta to get cooked just right. As I learnt, al dente is the way to go! This means cooking the pasta till its cooked through but still nice and firm when bitten.   
  • Now that all the elements of the lasagna are (finally!) ready, it is time to layer up! In a baking dish (I used a 6 x 10 inch ceramic dish). Layer up the sliced ham at the bottom, after which add a layer of the roasted veggies and sausages. Then spoon a layer of the tomato sauce, followed by one layer of lasagna sheets, topped with some mushroom sauce. Keep layering and top it with a thick layer of the mushroom sauce on top. Finally sprinkle the grated mozzarella and Italian seasoning. I omitted this step, the essential mozzarella (sigh), probably not ideal but Countess Calorie raised her ugly head... and there is really no arguing with her!
  • Bake the lasagna in a preheated oven at 180 °C for 0 minutes or till the cheese turns to a delicious golden colour. Yum! Yum! Yum! 

All plated up