Sunday, February 21, 2016

Begun Pora - Roasted Eggpant Bengali Style

Begun Pora is one of those dishes that every Bengali has encountered at some time or the other in their life time. Like most vegetarian preparations of Bengali cuisine this is another exceptionally simple recipe that's big on flavour and taste, and therefore enjoys cult status.

Years ago when my Didin's sisters cooked on 'koyla'r unoon' or coal fed clay ovens the begun pora was made frequently. That flavour, of course, simply cannot be recreated on a gas stove, and even less in an electric oven. Still, for apartment inhabiting urban dwellers like us the only way to get a relatively good smokey begun pora is to roast it on the open gas flame. Yes, cleaning up after the roasting is a pain but then - no pain no begun pora!

There are many variations to the basic theme of roasted eggplants spiced up and served with rotis or parathas, across Indian cuisines. Some add a medley of spices, tomatoes, ginger, garlic, and even curd. The version I like best, probably because that's what I grew up eating, is where the roasted eggplant is simply mashed up and mixed with raw onions, green chillies, fresh coriander, salt, and of course, mustard oil. There is no further cooking beyond roasting the eggplant till it is charred and the flesh is translucent. The smoked flavour dominates, the chillies add punch, the onions give crunch and texture, the coriander makes it fresh and vibrant, and the mustard oil stamps it as clearly Bengali.

Begun Pora

1 large 'bharta' Eggplant
1 medium onion, chopped
2 green chillies, chopped fine
A few sprigs fresh coriander leaves, chopped fine
mustard oil

Wash and dry the eggplant and then make four cuts from the tip to the base, leaving the stalk in place. If it's a really large eggplant make a few stabs in the four quarters just to help it roast quicker. Take a little mustard oil in your palm and coat the eggplant inside and out with the oil. Do this carefully so you don't break off any quarter from the stalk.

Roast the eggplant slowly over the gas flame. It took this one around 20 minutes to roast - I reduced the flame often so it would cook right through and not just burn on the outside. Make sure you monitor the roasting process - Not only can the eggplant burn, the gas flame might also go off because of the juices dripping from the eggplant. So pay attention and NEVER leave it unsupervised. Check the eggplant occasionally by inserting a knife into the flesh to see if it is cooked. The flesh should change colour and become translucent till right inside.

Once it's done take it off the flame and leave it in a plate or wide vessel to cool. Once it's cooled enough to handle peel off the charred peel of the eggplant.

Now add salt, a hefty slug of mustard oil, the chopped onions (chop the onions smallish - not too fine but not coarse either or they will be a little jarring as you eat), chillies, and coriander leaves and mash it up all up and mix well.

Break up the eggplant flesh as much as you can. Once it's all mixed just have a quick taste and adjust salt if required.

Serve the begun pora with hot phulkas or simple parathas. You can add this simple begun pora to a more elaborate menu as a flavourful side dish too.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Poached to Perfection - An Easy method for Poaching Eggs

Being married to a Parsi means eggs feature very often at breakfast in our house. Though I don't cook egg curries very often, fried eggs, omelettes, french toast, akuri, etc., are a very regular feature in the mornings. Breakfast is our favourite meal and we like to make a fuss over it adding cold cuts, cheeses, and of course, eggs to the meal. Over the years I have learned how to fry eggs perfectly but the perfect poached egg was still elusive.

I'd seen plenty of videos showing different techniques but I couldn't really master any of them. All that swirling the water and popping in the egg only resulted in a mess of stringy egg whites that looked like very ugly noodles instead of those perfect poached eggs ones saw demonstrated. I needed to find a way to keep the white together and without buying another rash of gadgets and doodads (yes, I'm trying hard not to buy stuff!).

After fooling around with various saucepans, bowls, and ladles I have finally figured out a simple technique that has worked very well, and repeatedly. This is one science project that has yielded good results!

Here's what you will need -

Fresh eggs
1 tbsp vinegar

A small deep saucepan
A large milk ladle
A flexible rubber spatula

And here's what to do -

Fill the saucepan about halfway up with water. Bring the water to a boil with the vinegar added to it.
Rub the ladle with a drop of oil. This helps release the egg once it's cooked.
In the ladle crack one egg and sprinkle with a little salt. Carefully lower the egg on to the water but don't submerge it. Let the lower side of the egg set with the heat from the water.

Tip the side of the ladle just a little and let very little water run onto the egg. Once again, be careful not to let the egg run out of the ladle or too much water get in. Be patient and do this with confidence and a steady hand. Alternatively pour hot water onto the egg using another ladle. Do this if you are sure you can keep the egg steady and use the other hand simultaneously.

Once the top of the egg is set let more water in and slowly submerge the ladle into the water. The water will foam up so keep an eye on things and don't let it spill over. Reduce the heat if required. Don't leave the egg submerged - let it stay under the hot water just a few seconds at a time.

Pour off any water from the ladle once the egg is done to your level of preference. Try to ensure that all the white is cooked.

Gently prise off the egg using the rubber spatula and slide it onto your ready plate or on a slice of toast. You can slide the poached egg onto a slotted spoon to drain off all the excess water if you like. Be sure not to break the egg.

It takes around three to four minutes to do each egg from start to finish so I make these on days when I'm not in a hurry. Patience is the key here so don't rush things. Make sure you have your equipment in place before you start. And use fresh eggs.

Did you know many Bengalis refer to the good old fried egg as 'dim'er poach'? You should have seen the hubby's face when my mum offered to make him a poach for breakfast when she visited the first time after we were married, and presented him with a perfectly fried egg! Well, my mother has also been educated in the finer points of egg dishes and their correct nomenclature since then, lol! 

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Aar Machher Jhol - Another Bengali Fish Curry

As a child I hadn't eaten many varieties of fish beyond Rui and Katla, Chingri (prawns), and the occasional Ilish, Pabda, and Tyangra. Fresh water fish was available in Mumbai but the variety was quite limited. Thus my education about the immense variety of fish that is cooked in Bengali households was very severely lacking. It didn't help that not much other than Rui and Katla was cooked in my Didin's (mom's mom) kitchen so my exposure to fish was limited even in Kolkata, and since I was not an adventurous kid as far as food was concerned, I would refuse to eat any unfamiliar fish at other relatives' houses too.

My interest in food started when I was in the hostel in Pune while studying archaeology. I often cooked simple meals on a hot plate with basic vessels and a frugal pantry. Then I met the hubby and my exploration of food began in earnest. Eventually we married and have finally ended up living in Kharghar, a remote suburb in Navi Mumbai.

The best thing about life in Kharghar is my fish monger. Operating from a shop about 15 minutes away from my house, this fellow has a huge variety of fresh water and sea water fish available daily. All I do is call up to find out what's available on the day and place my order. My fish comes home to me, cleaned and cut as I like, neatly packed. It is from here that I have discovered new varieties of fish that I had never even heard of, let alone eaten. And one of these, Aar maach, has become a favourite now. It's a large fatty fish, no scales, and has very few bones.

Since there was no point in calling up my mum and asking her for a recipe I turned to good old Google. After browsing a little I realised that the best way to cook this beautiful fish is in the traditional jhol style, with onions and tomatoes, ginger and garlic, and green chillies for zest. It's a very delicate fish that tends to break quite easily, so handle it with care while cooking.

Aar Machh'er Jhol

5 or 6 pieces of Aar (around 500gms)
1 medium onion, finely sliced
1 medium tomato, chopped fine or pureed
1 tbsp fresh ginger-garlic paste
2 fresh green chillies
2 small Indian bay leaves
red chilli powder
mustard oil

Wash the fish gently and drain all water. Sprinkle with salt and turmeric and set aside for 10 minutes. In the mean time you can slice the onion, chop the tomato, and pound the ginger and garlic into a paste.
Heat mustard oil in a thick bottomed kadai. Once properly hot fry the fish, one or two pieces at a time. Flip the pieces carefully to cook both sides. Remove from the oil when you see the first hints on browning on the fish pieces. Set aside.

In the same oil throw in the green chillies and the Indian bay leaves. Add in the sliced onions and a pinch of sugar. Stir well and fry till the onions start to brown. Now add the ginger-garlic paste and fry for a minute. Keep the heat at medium throughout so things cook without burning. Add the tomato and cook further. Put in some turmeric, a teaspoon or so of chilli powder, and salt as required. Stir nicely to mix everything and let the spices cook properly.

Once the oil starts to separate from the mix pour in a generous cupful of water and bring it all to a boil. Slide in the fried pieces of fish and let the curry cook for another five minutes. Aar cooks quite fast so don't leave it to boil for too long.

Remove to a flat bottomed bowl and serve it with plain hot rice. Happiness will happen with the first mouthful :)

Thursday, February 11, 2016

The Oriental Hub, Vashi - For Want of a Copy Editor this Restaurant is Lost

There are new restaurants opening up in Navi Mumbai every month and the food scene here is quite exciting. I have been invited to a few previews now and then and have, over time, found a peculiar trend. Plenty of attention is paid to the decor, the cutlery and crockery, uniforms of the servers, the wine list, the dishes on the menu - everything that one would expect. Known as I am as a Grammar Nazi, I unfailingly read menus, flyers, and any other readable things within reach. And I find that the menus and other printed paraphernalia is invariably full of errors. Not just the random typo but serious errors.

Today we went to The Oriental Hub just opposite Inorbit Mall at Vashi. Another one of the many new eateries that have opened in the area, it looked promising enough from the outside. The interiors are spacious and well lit (I really dislike dimly lit restaurants because I like to see and often photograph what I'm eating).

Once we had settled into our seats we were promptly handed the menu cards. Now at most 'fine dine' places one expects a nice looking menu card. If nothing else at least a properly bound menu with neatly printed lists of the items available, sorted into the relevant categories. What we got were cheap plastic folders with photo copied sheets inserted into transparent plastic pockets. I was honestly quite startled. With most dishes priced between INR 300 and 500, this was not a low budget dining hall by any long shot.

While I was still recovering from this shabby menu card the hubby showed me a card placed on the table - It was about Chinese New Year and was attempting to say something intelligent. I will leave it to you to figure it out.

Yes, at first glance we all had a good laugh but it left me feeling irritated and disgruntled nevertheless. I went back to looking at the menu and in the next few minutes my irritation turned to anger and disgust. There were so many mistakes on that menu it became a game among the four of us at the table to find the next ridiculous entry. The menu covered Chinese, Thai and Malaysian dishes and, for some strange reason the Indian options were restricted just to kebabs - no main course, no breads/rice, no sides, no desserts.

Each entry on the menu was accompanied by a description of the dish, sometimes detailed and sometimes so short it wasn't even complete. There were innumerable errors and some of the descriptions made little sense, reading like those seemingly nonsensical results you get from Google Translate.

Take this description of Orange Darsaan - The description reads more like a terse recipe and there's no mention of orange anywhere. There's mango ice cream, though.

Even better (?) is the next dessert - the Tub Tim Grawp (?). Another cryptic sounding recipe, it makes me wonder what a guest will be served if the kitchen staff is following those instructions, and what a guest should expect after reading that.

The Sizzling Brownie entry also seems to be accompanied by a recipe meant for the kitchen instead of a tempting description of the dessert that would make your mouth water in anticipation.

And then there's the Date Pancake that doesn't even deserve a complete description. And don't miss the Treasure Bag - there are milk maids to be found inside!

The bloopers were all over the menu. Like these fairy hunans I saw lurking with the Shriraja sauce.

This ridiculous menu made me wonder why a business would spend several lakhs on renting space, doing up the interiors, hiring consultants to help finalise cuisines and menus, hiring staff, investing in equipment, and all the other associated paraphernalia but would not spend a relatively minuscule amount of money to get the content for menu cards and other things checked. Even a school going child with access to Google would be able to straighten out this ludicrous menu card.

That little promotional card set on every table - how much would it have cost this restaurant to hire a proper PR agency and get a correctly written promotional piece done? How much would it have cost The Oriental Hub to get get proper menu cards made?

About the food - We tried four starters - wasabi prawns, squid in plum sauce, chicken prawn baos, and a lamb starter whose name I don't remember. Apart from the baos being slightly underdone, everything else was quite nice. For mains we had Mei Goreng, and Lamb Rendang with steamed rice. My friends said the Mei Goreng was as removed from an authentic Mei Goreng as possible. If one didn't think of the dish as Mei Goreng it was quite nice, but that was not the point. The sauce of the lamb rendang was delicious but I found the lamb severely overcooked and my jaws ached from chewing endlessly. We cautiously ordered a single portion of dessert - the Lime and Lemon Creambrule. It was an untidily made dessert that had no trace of lime or lemon in it. The hubby said it was a simple egg custard with no cream anywhere. We did mention this to the restaurant manager who noted our dissatisfaction and we were not charged for the dessert.

We paid approximately INR 4,000 for a meal for four. At that price I do not expect a cheap plastic folder with crookedly photocopied sheets, not to mention the rubbish they have printed on it.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Randhuni diye Musuri'r Daal - Masoor Daal with Randhuni

The jar of randhuni (ajmod/ajmoda in Hindi) had been sitting in the pantry for many months. The contents had been refreshed a couple of times - old and stale randhuni thrown away and fresh stock emptied into the washed jar. I needed to break this cycle but I really had no idea what randhuni was used in apart from sukto. Not that I had got around to making even sukto, but then I don't particularly like sukto so I am sort of justified. But that randhuni was still there, waiting and watching.

The obvious thing to do was to look in the myriad cookbooks I own. Laziness coupled with the fact that though I read Bengali, I'm not all that proficient, ensured that I didn't look. Ultimately I turned to Google one day to see if I could find anything interesting. And that's where I found mention of randhuni diye musuri'r daal among a few other preparations. Bengalis love masoor daal and have a huge variety of recipes involving delicate tempering and this particular version was so incredibly frugal I was intrigued but not very confident about how it would turn out.

Around the same time my friend Bhavna was going to be visiting Mumbai from Australia and I would be meeting her for the first time. She expressed a desire to eat a Bengali meal and I promptly volunteered to cook it for her. I added randhuni diye musuri'r daal to my menu. Though I cooked a lot of other dishes for that meal, this fragrant and supremely delicate daal was my top pick of the meal.

Randhuni diye Musuri'r Daal

1 cup masoor daal, washed well
1 tsp turmeric powder
1/2 tsp randhuni
1 generous tbsp ghee
2 green chillies, not a hot variety

Pressure cook the washed daal with turmeric and enough water. Don't cook it till the daal grains disintegrate completely - Bengalis like their daal to retain is shape and have texture. Lightly stir the cooked daal to integrate the water and daal grains (or flakes, since they look like flakes).

Heat ghee in a tempering pan if you have one, or just use a kadai. Once the ghee is hot drop in the green chillies and then the randhuni seeds. Once the seeds are sizzling uniformly chuck the whole lot into the daal. Add salt as required and bring it all to a nice boil.

Remove to a serving bowl and serve with plain hot rice. You can add a simple vegetable stir fry alongside, or a slice of fried fish too. Simple is the key here.

Traditionally the tempering is done in mustard oil though I used home made buffalo milk ghee instead. The use of randhuni is not restricted to just the Bengalis in India, but it is restricted to the eastern states of Bihar, Assam and U.P., as far as I know. This spice has a strong unique flavour and must be used in small quantities so it doesn't over power. Used correctly randhuni is quite magical!