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Sunday, April 29, 2012

Tales of Kolkata: Winters, Picnics and Paratha Aloo ur Dom

December and January are the outdoor months in Kolkata-- book fair, leather fair, expo or textile fair, circus performances, various open air concerts and many more interesting outdoor stuff happen all over the city. So does innumerable picnics, either in private bungalows or in public spaces like the Zoological or Botanical Gardens, Victoria Memorial, on the banks of the Hoogly River or in the newly sprung up amusement parks. If nothing can be organised the enterprising Bengalis have picnics in their own backyard or terrace!

Image Source: http://ihmilanoblog.blogspot.co.uk

Very near the Tropic of Cancer, Kolkata mostly has an extremely hot and humid climate. But by mid September incessant monsoon rains come to an end, almost like someone turning off a tap, and autumn valiantly tries to make an entrance. There is a nip in the air,  the ceiling fan at maximum speed makes one shiver at night and trees start shedding leaves. By December the weather turns slightly chilly and Kolkatans happily step outdoors to enjoy the  two months of mild  winter.

Warm clothes come out of trunks, smelling of moth balls, so does quilts and blankets which laid out in the terraces to 'sun' (In Bengali language rod khawa/rod dewa is a commonly used term meaning what in English would be 'to air').  Indians from the chillier North scoff at these elaborate preparations  for a winter which never actually arrives. True the temperature hardly ever dips below 10 degree Celsius. But the Bengalis in Bengal do take their winter preparations rather seriously. The Bong heart shivers in anticipation of the chilling Himalayan wind sweeping the great Gangetic plain. You never know, the Bong logics, sometimes it does snow in Darjeeling and the distance between Darjeeling and Kolkata is a mere 634 kms, so what if the cold wave hits the plains? No Bong wants to be caught unprepared for that cold eventuality. Hence all those woollen sweaters, mufflers, socks, gloves which their mamas have laboriously knit through previous winter seasons. 

Winter heralds fresh seasonal vegetables in the markets like carrots, radishes, beet roots, various kinds of  beans, spinach and other greens, cauliflowers, cabbages and best of all the oranges. Oranges from the North and West India start flocking markets of Kolkata from early December. Ah that smell of peeling oranges on lazy winter afternoons. This is also the favourite season for pickling. So ladies of the house spend  their winter afternoons drying their wet hair in the sunny terraces, while guarding big glass jars of pickles and baris (lentil mixture with spices) which are left to dry in the sun (whereby it becomes hard and can be stored for a year or so in cool, dry places and are used in preparing many vegetarian dishes). This is in complete contrast to the summer months. During the summer, post lunch is siesta time in shutter drawn bedrooms.

*****
I vividly remember the picnics we used to go to when I was a child. Winter meant at least three to four picnics. A couple at my grandfather's garden house (20 kms away from the city) and the rest in public spaces like the Zoo and Victoria Memorial. The picnics held in the garden house meant the whole extended family, about 40 to 50 of us. Dates for the picnic would be discussed since Durga Pujo (in autumn) and eventually a date would be fixed. Then menus would be discussed. Some would suggest pot luck, mostly the ladies of the family would enthusiastically start discussing menus. Sometimes they would protest and say they need a break too! That would trigger discussions about hiring a professional cook or some enterprising uncle would suggest that he would cook. Then they would get into boring adult talk like who would hire the cook, who would be the grocery shopping et al.

I remember the excitement mounting as the day of the picnic drew near. We the youngsters would discuss and plan the games we would play. Just to be on the safe side we would pack in everything-- badminton rackets, cricket kit, footballs, playing cards, Ludo board, Scrabble board, Frisbee, the boots of the cars would resemble a toy shop. On the morning of the picnic, we would plan to start early, but inevitably someone would get delayed, so after a spate of phone calls, a later time would be fixed. All the uncles and aunts would get their own cars and assemble in front of our house. We would try to accommodate our favourite cousins or sneak into their car. And wait patiently, while the elders sorted themselves. Finally the ten/twelve cars after one last discussion about the route (even though they all have been driving to the same house more than a couple of times every year) would snake out in a file. There would be some mad waving to each other and then enticing the drivers (usually the dads) to overtake all the others. Most often than not a car or two would get caught in the traffic, then all the other cars would pull up and wait for that car to catch up. We would stop midway for breakfast in some sweet shop. Breakfast would be luchi, torkari, boode ar cha (Indian fried bread, a potato curry, a sweet and tea) and then we would go off again. Or we would have breakfast once we reached the venue. In that case breakfast would be luchi/paratha (Indian fried breads) and aloo ur dom (potato cooked with spices) carried in  steel tiffin boxes. Of course accompanied by tea poured from a big Thermos flask and some sweet.

Bengalis learned to make aloo ur dom from the Kashmiris who had perfected the art of making Dum Aloo. But Bengalis being Bengalis, the enterprising foodies that they are, they have given Kashmiri dum aloo a thousand different avatars. There are literally umpteen varieties of aloo ur dom out there, each chef having his/her special recipe. After the meat and the fish, it is one of the most popular dish in Bengal. Every time you expect guests you make a gor gore aloo ur dom (really spicy potato). It is a must for picnics since it has no gravy, also for train travels. To go with it you need luchi or paratha, again dry stuff. But no Bengali would contemplate eating rotis, the healthier bread on such events.



Today I want to share with you an aloo ur dom recipe which my mother often makes during winter. You could call it one of her specials. She usually serves it with motor shuti ir kochuri/stuffed peas puris. this has accompanied us to many a picnics, train journeys etc.

Ingredient:

This recipe has two parts. First let us make the coriander paste/chutney.

1 bunch fresh cilantro chopped, use the stems as well,
20 or so mint leaves, chopped
2 to 4 green chillies, seeded or reseeded, according to your taste
1 small piece of ginger, grated
1 pinch of asafoetida/hing
1 tea spoon of roasted cumin seeds roughly crushed
1 tea spoon of brown sugar/jaggery
1 table spoon of vegetable oil
Juice of half a lime/lemon
Salt to taste
1/4th cup of water

Method: Just blitz all the ingredients in your blender, check the taste. This recipe yields a big bottle of chutney, if you do not have immediate use of so much, just store the rest in a sterilised glass bottle. The chutney stays fine in the fridge for about two weeks. Generally one bottle of this paste is needed for the aloo ur dom.

Now The All Important Potatoes:

Ingredients: 500 gms to 700 gms of small potatoes or medium sized potatoes halved, 90% boiled, if using an Indian pressure cooker one whistle should be sufficient. Once the potatoes have cooled down peel the skins and lightly prick them with a tooth pick.
Two table spoons of poppy seeds soaked in lukewarm water with a pinch of salt for 15 mins or so and then blitz with a green chilly
1 table spoon of ginger paste
2 table spoons of grated coconut
1 heaped table spoon of coriander and cumin powder
A pinch of haldi
One bottle of coriander chutney made with one bunch of coriander
Whole garam masalas-- 4 cloves, 4 cardamoms, 4 peppercorns, 2 medium sized bay leaves, 1 inch of cinnamon bark--lightly crushed
4 table spoons of sunflower oil
Salt to taste
1 table spoon of roasted cumin powder to be sprinkled on the finished dish at the very end
Juice of half a lime

Method: In a big heavy bottomed pan (kadai) heat the oil, add the whole garam masalas, then add the haldi, coriander and cumin powder. Fry for a minute or so, then add the ginger paste, fry for a minute more, then add the poppy paste and the grated coconut. Fry till oil starts to separate, then add the coriander paste, mix well and let it come to a boil. Once everything has cooked, you will see oil separating at the sides, add the potatoes, again mix well and cover the pan with a lid and let it cook for about 20 mins, checking and stirring in between. If it gets too dry you may need to add a little water. Once the masala becomes dry and sticks to the potato after 20 mins or so, your aloo ur dom is ready. Check the salt, there was salt in the coriander and poppy paste, so you may need to add just a little more. Mix well.

Once you switch off the heat add the roasted cumin powder and lime juice and your aloo ur dom is ready to be eaten. Serve it hot or cold with luchi/paratha/kochuris.


Thursday, April 12, 2012

Stories from Paris with some Fruit Kebabs...

Sorry folks for the long silence. Actually I was away on a holiday. We spent the Easter holidays in Paris with some lovely friends. And ever since I got back I have been sleeping like Kumbhakarna and when not sleeping feeling rather blue. 

But lets not talk about blues. Lets talk about the good bits. Lets talk about Paris. Ah Paris. Apart from all that beauty and grandeur, the city has a hum. A creative hum. Parisians are such a creative lot. And so effortlessly. I wonder if they ever realise that the whole world is gaping at them? Maybe they do, which gives them the confidence to be so flamboyant. You got to be flamboyant to drag a grand piano on a busy intersection and proceed to play it. You got to be unselfconscious to stick some blue angels (I read they were ducks, somewhere) over your blue door and let people stop and photograph them. We were really lucky that we not only got to explore Paris, we also got a taste of French country living. We stayed in a commune called Fontainebleau in a charming French home. So much so that I often wondered if I had stepped into the pages of a  décor magazine?

I have not even starting to talk about the food we ate in Paris. Lets keep it for a separate post.

Some photographs from the trip. This is just the tip of the Paris berg, over the 5 days we were there, we clicked 970 photographs. Of course most of them are rubbish, but the ones which are decent still needs some organising. So more photographs to come over the next few weeks.

Eiffel Tower during the day
The view of Paris sprawled out, from the steps of  Sacré-Cœur Basilica. There was this guy who kept playing with a foot ball, while hanging from a lamp post.
The famous bookshop Shakespeare & Company. Movie buffs remember the movie Before Sunset? 
View from the boat ride along the Seine River
Window display

Concert happening on the road

Eiffel Tower all lighted up

Would you like to live in one of those apartments?
*****
Now the reason why I dragged my lazy self to post. It is time for my second Blog Hop Wednesday and I almost missed it, had it not been for an email in my inbox. Do not get me wrong. Initially after Radhika sent the list, I was amazed when I visited my partner's blog. Chef Mireille's Gourmet Global is truly an international cooking affair. Mireille has been cooking up a marathon of  global cuisines. I got super excited, this was my chance to try out some really innovative recipes. I wanted to try kuku, tatale, Indonesian chicken kebab and so many more recipes. But I got super busy before leaving for Paris, so thought that I will cook up a storm once I am back. And then I totally forgot about it till today. Since there is not much time left, also severely lacking on the enthusiasm and energy front,  decided to make the easiest recipe on Mireille's blog-- the Fruit Kebabs.

Frankly after all those super rich crème brulees, madeleines, macaroons and the heavy duty chocolates, not to mention the cups of hot chocolate that we had been happily guzzling on in Paris... fruits kind of appeal to us.  Also I have never eaten fruit kebabs before, so I was excited.


These kebabs are super easy to make. What you need are some fruits.  
1 ripe mango
1 medium sized pineapple
1 Granny Smith Apple
1 small honey dew melon
You can use whichever fruits you want. Just wash them and cut them into roughly same sized cubes. Along with this you need 2 table spoons of softened butter and 1 table spoon of soft brown sugar. Mix these two together. I added some crushed sea salt as well. After you organise the fruit pieces on skewers, use a brush to apply the butter mixture on them. Then heat a grilling pan till smoking hot and grill these beauties.



Before you start with the fruits, make the sauce, so that it can chill till the kebabs are made. For the sauce you need
Half a cup of plain yogurt
A pinch of ginger powder
3 to 4 mint leaves, rolled up and finely chopped
2 table spoons of honey
Mix everything, put it in the fridge to set. Once the kebabs are ready, pour the sauce on them and serve.


These kebabs are yum...the butter and the mint flavour stands out prominently...the apple brought lovely crunch while the pineapple and mangoes pieces were sheer delicacies, the melon was not doing much. I think I will leave out the melon next time. For someone like my husband who is not too fond of fruits this was a treat. He wished he was made to eat fruits like this when he was a kid. Looks like this is ready to be part of our summer BBQ menu!

Monday, April 2, 2012

Annapurna Pujo...

Today I want to share with you, no not a recipe nor a food story, but the tale of the Hindu Goddess of Plentiful Food. Yes we do have a Goddess for food, plentiful at that and she is one grand lady, dressed in rich robes with control over the universe's granaries; so we believe.

As a kid I often sat on a stool in our kitchen while my mother worked there. She would sometimes ask me to stir something, or add a pinch of masala or taste a gravy. We would chat about different things, sometimes she told me stories. One story I loved hearing from her was that of Shiva and Annapurna. According to my mother, though married, Shiva and Annapurna are totally opposite characters. Shiva is the renouncer, he has left behind all worldly comforts, dresses only in animal skins and roams around bare feet with his worthless companions Nandi and Bhringi. They are drunk most of the time, and always high on dope. While on the other hand Annapurna is a grand lady, she is dressed in the best of robes, sparkling with jewels. Shiva often went for days without eating, while in Annapurna's house the kitchen was always busy, pots were bubbling away, guests were continuously being fed. Often Shiva would get so hungry and tired from his wanderings then he would come to Annapurna's house to be replenished. My mother would describe in details the food Annapurna would serve Shiva. I used to be fascinated. To this day I think of Shiva and Annapurna more as people, rather than as Gods. The power of story telling :-)


We Bengalis have a saying ''baro maash ee tero parbon''...literal translation means in twelve months we have thirteen festivals...what we mean is that some festivity or the other is always going on in Bengali households.  Among the spring festivities Annapurna Pujo stands out for its grandeur. It is held on choitro maash er aasthami/the eight day of the first month of spring, according to the Hindu calender.

Annapurna is a Sanskrit word. Anna means rice/food and purna means full...the belief is if you pray to this Goddess your household would never lack of food. She is an avatar of Parvati, Shiva's wife. She is one grand dame sitting on a throne, ladying over the world's food, while her husband Shiva, the Hindu God of destruction and rejuvenation, is a penniless vagabond. So Shiva has to depend on Annapurna's largesse.

Her main temple is situated in Kashi, so the belief is that no one goes hungry in that ancient city. My mother always offers a silent prayer to this Goddess before starting to cook. She is not alone, Hindus over the centuries have been doing this. The belief is if you pray to Annapurna you would never be short of food while serving your family.



Like all other ancient religions, in Hinduism fire plays a very important role. It is used for purification and as a medium to reach out to the Gods. The above photo is that of a hom which is a sacred fire ritual which goes on for half an hour, while chanting slokas (prayers in Sanskrit) priests keep feeding the fire with ghee/clarified butter.


The above photo is that of  sondhye aarati/ evening prayer. One hundred and eight lamps are lit for this.


The Goddess during the aarti/evening prayer.


Bhog--food offered to the Goddess. Since in Bengali households Gods/Goddesses are treated as guests, usually feasts are prepared to serve them, like any other important guest. Of course there is method of cooking these feasts--it is pure vegetarian food, cooked in separate vessels without onion, ginger or garlic. The salt used is also different. It is called sandhuk noon, a purer form of salt. Once the prayers are over, this food is distributed among the guests.

Hope you enjoyed a glimpse of Annapurna pujo. All the photographs belong to my friend Joy whose family in Kolkata celebrates this pujo.

P.S. I have shared the Hindu folklore of Shiva and Annapurna from my memories, there are numerous versions out there. It may be possible that your version does not match mine.

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