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Bangla binge
FOOD
KORMITALA-R KHASI-R BHUNI

One day, my mother picked up her rucksack and tootled off to Dhaka. She’d left Bangladesh as a teenager and never gone back. Then, years later, she decided she needed to trace her roots.

She went to Dhaka not just for old memories. I later reasoned that she wanted to visit a place which was familiar, yet foreign. I think that’s something that many of us feel every now and then: we want something new, but don’t want to enter an alien territory either.

We feel this way about food too. During the Pujas, for instance, people want to do something different. Nobody wants home-cooked simple fare, but as some of my Bengali friends tell me, they don’t want to miss the fun of Bengali culture and food either.

I suppose that’s one reason why Kalash, a restaurant at the Hotel Hindustan International in Calcutta, has called in chefs from Bangladesh for a food festival during the Pujas. Chef Norbert D’costa and two chefs from Sarina Hotel in Bangladesh will join hands with corporate chef Utpal Mondal of the HHI for a festival of familiar exotica. And that’s just the right order for those looking for a mix of the home and the outside. Bangladesh food would be familiar but new at the same time.

I remember my mother came back full of tales about the food of Bangladesh. She gave the finest details of the hilsa that she ate on many occasions, rendering a great many hilsa lover at home green with envy. Those days I was not much into the hilsa, but remember being struck by the thought of a hilsa pulao.

MUKHI KOCHU-R BHARTA

The pulao, of course, figures on the menu. The festival will fete the hilsa in many ways, as no gala occasion can be without the fish in the two Bengals. One hilsa dish that intrigues me is called nona ilish-er subji curry — or the salted hilsa with a vegetable curry. This dish — in which the hilsa is preserved with salt — used to keep fish lovers happy during those torturous months (for most Bengalis) when the fish was not available. Now that it is eaten through the year — even though the fish itself is getting rarer and rarer and more and more expensive — the recipe has almost faded out.

In this, a layer of fish is mixed with salt and kept in an earthenware pot. A second layer goes on top and so on till you reach the mouth of the pot. Now seal it with a muslin cloth and refrigerate it. This process is repeated thrice, and the fish stays in the fridge for nine months. In the olden days, when fridges were still a distant dream, chef Mondal tells me the pot was buried under the ground.

Then, after nine months, you prepare the gravy, adding potatoes and brinjal to hot mustard oil, with ginger juice, spices and water. The fish has to be washed over and over again to get rid of the salt. Then when the gravy is bubbling and the vegetables have been cooked, you add the fish to it.

NONA ILISH-ER SUBJI CURRY

Apart from the hilsa, I’ve noticed another dish that Bangladesh loves — and that’s bhorta or mashed fare. Bhorta is prepared with fish, prawns, brinjals, pumpkins and so on. The vegetable bhortas, of course, are divine. The festival, for instance, has an interesting mash of colocasia or kochu leaves. Of course, those bhortas just mark the beginning of a meal. If you want to get to the heart of it, you need to focus on the Kormitola-r khasi-r bhuni, a delicious mutton curry cooked gently over a slow fire with all kinds of spices.

Bangladesh food is spicy and hot — and I like the air of celebration that it comes with. A sense of drama envelopes the food — with its vivid images of turbulent rivers, lush fields and noisy kitchens. And when the dhakis start playing their drums, the heart beats for a slice of a life that’s so near, yet so far. And the Pujas are just the time to mix the two worlds....

Puran Dhakar Murg Jhalfry (serves 2)

Ingredients:

• 250g chicken cut into curry pieces • 50g chopped onion 10g chopped green chillies • 10g chopped ginger • 100g chopped tomatoes • 10g turmeric powder • 10g red chilli powder • salt to taste • 5g roasted cumin powder • 100ml mustard oil • 5g garam masala powder • 2 bay leaves l20ml vinegar

Method:

Marinate the chicken with salt and half the turmeric and red chilli powders for 30 minutes. Sauté the chicken in mustard oil. Remove the chicken and add bay leaves to the oil. Add onions. Fry. Add chopped ginger, green chilli and fry. Add the remaining turmeric powder and chilli powder. Sauté some more and then add the vinegar. Cook for two minutes. Add the tomatoes and cook till the oil starts to leave the gravy. Season and add garam masala powder and cumin powder. Add a little water. Put the chicken into the gravy and cook for five minutes. Serve hot.

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