Sunday, 30 March 2014

Prawn Balchao and a few memories

One of my most distinct childhood memories that has Ma in it is of her playing Shaayad Meri haadi Ka Khayal...on the black upright piano in her bedroom, lights dimmed, while I twirled around her. I loved the song and would beg Ma to play it just one more time. I was 5 perhaps. Seems like a scene from a film eh? My life story.
        I decided on one such evening that I wanted nothing more in life than to get married. At 5, yes. Sometimes my dad would say, as he cuddled me, that he would never get me married and send me away cause he couldn't afford to part with his darling daughter. And all hell would break loose. There I would be on the ground, whining and sobbing, I will marry, that's what I'll do when I grow up, I would tell him.
      Anyway, so Ma loved the piano. She never pursued it seriously, but whenever she played the keys, her love for it would shine through. At one point I used to take piano lessons too, but somehow I never warmed up to it. It was perhaps because I was terrified of my piano teacher and before long I gave it up. That made Ma sad, I now feel I failed her in a way.
     Ma had a wonderful teacher though, one Miss Kathy. She was a Goanese of Portuguese origin but had come to Calcutta as a young woman and settled here. She must have been in her early 60s then. A very sweet lady and though I do not have too many memories of her, Ma still remembers her fondly. Now, she was a great cook too and she had shared two of her recipes with Ma, Mutton Vindaloo and Prawn Balchao. I had found the two recipes in Ma's decades-old notebook that was suddenly discovered, a few months ago, and the Balchao, Goan style pickled prawns, really appealed to me, festering between the yellowing dusty pages of the notebook until now it begged for a place in my kitchen....and I embraced it alright.
       That notebook is gone, again, lost during renovation upstairs, and Miss Kathy's Balchao has undergone a few changes in my hand over the few times I made it. i referred to a few other recipes of the dish and picked a few elements. For instance, I use curry leaves in my dish, which wasn't there in Miss Kathy's original recipe. Again, I have added sugar in my version. Besides, I use prawns heads and all because I feel the juices in the heads do a world of good to a dish. But the dish I guarantee is still a huge hit.
       You see, I am not an authenticity snob myself, for me if a dish is delicious, I a going to vote for it, even if it compromises a little on authenticity. Again a very authentic preparation might not go down well with me My judgement is ruled by taste alone.And as far as that's concerned this seems to be a winner. I say seems because I am allergic to prawns and have no idea how this dish turns out. I loved prawns as a child you know and then things just went horribly wrong.
     It's Sunday today and Dad had brought home some awesome prawns. There was a tie between Gambas pil pil and Balchao, and this time the Goanese beat the Spaniards. Balchao was the unanimous decision. Besdies, the Kolkata Food Bloggers is hosting a special event, East or West, Food is the Best, and I thought this could be an awesome entry.

So here goes...


Prawns - 1 kg (cleaned and deveined)
White oil
Onions (chopped) - 3 (medium)
Tomatoes- 2 medium
Vinegar- 100 ml
Garlic - 15-20 cloves
Ginger - 1 inch root
Cinnamon stick - 2 inches
Cloves - 10
Cumin whole - 1 tbsp
Mustard - 1/2 tbsp
Whole dried red chilies - 8-10
Kashmiri red chili powder- 1 tsp
Curry leaves - 2 sprigs and more for garnishing


Heat oil in a pan and toss in the prawns with a dash of salt, in batches, fry until the prawns turn opaque and is nearly done but not quite. Keep aside.

Dry roast the cumin, mustard, whole red chilies, cinnamon sticks and cloves and cool.

Use a mortar and pestle or a grinding stone to grind the garlic, ginger and the roasted spices together, pouring in the vinegar to the paste, on the go, little by little. Of course, you can use an electronic grinder but the effect is not the same. Miss Kathy insisted on a mortal pestle.

Now heat about 3 tbsp oil in a pan and add the curry leaves. Once its exudes its aroma add the onions and fry. Add some salt so that the onions soften quickly.

Next add the tomatoes and fry until it softens and melts into the mixture.

Finally add the Balchao masala and Kashmiri chili powder, fry until oil separates.

Add the praawns, toss it in the spices and cook for a couple of minutes covered, on low heat, until prawns are done.

Serve hot with plain rice.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Pabda Mouri

I t is a stereotype of course, but an archetypal Bengali babu heading to the Bazaar every morning with the iconic tholey (shopping bag) in hand is an image every Bengali will reckon with. However, since childhood, until recently, I have never seen any man in my family head to the bazaar in the morning. It was Notobor da who always went to the bazaar. In fact, he was the one who decided which fish would be brought and what vegetables would be cooked on a particular day. The concept of storing vegetables or fish in the refrigerator was frowned upon in our household for the longest time and rain, storm or sun, Notobor da went to the bazaar every single day..

 Notobor da, as he was called  by everyone in my family, came from Orissa as a young lad of 17, decades ago, to work for my grandfather, at one of the his company godowns. Eventually, for some reason, his duties were altered and his responsibility shifted to household work. And for the next 30 years or so, he was an indispensable part of our family. Every one depended on him for everything. He scowled, glared, made a face but never said no to any of our requests. To my grandparents, he was their son. My father respected him like an elder brother. When dad was a kid, Notoborda had often dragged him home from the park, by the ear. In fact, it was my grandmother's strict instruction that after her, her pure shegun four poster bed, an antique at that, should be passed on to Notoborda. Notobor da cried like a child when my grand ma passed away. 

Anyway so we have always seen Notobor da going to the bazaar for us, until he retired a few years ago. His sons are doing well in life and they felt it was time their father stayed with them.So seeing my uncle and dad head to the bazaar is a recent phenomenon and quite amusing. They, especially dad, bring a whole new dimension to a chore as mundane as going to the bazaar. Talk about drama, sensationalising to the core. Dad makes this regular errand seem like the most important and challenging task there is. Mind you, he only goes to the bazaar twice a week and only to buy the fish and the meat. For lesser mortals (in this case groceries) there is Shambhu Da. Shambhu da is yet another very interesting character and deserves not just a blog pot, but a book about him alone. That, another day. 

Anyway, dad's twice-a-week bazaar visit is no mere task. Preparations are made a day in advance. The alarm is set, calls are made (you need company on these excursions), the tholey is placed where he can easily notice it, etc etc. And when he returns there is no stopping him...he goes on about how everyone in the bazaar adores him, gives him only the best, special treatment, discounted rates only for him, etc etc. But he does bring home good fish. And yesterday he brought these mammoth PABDA fish (Indian butterfish), fresh and delicious. He told Ma that "the Pabda should be on the dinner table tonight" (it was more like a polite "is it possible?" No one orders the wife) 

I being the darling that I am made sure it was on the table. So I tried out a recipe that has been lingering in my mind for a long time now. Pabda in a fennel flavoured sauce. The flavours are typically Bengali and it is distinctly different from the Pabda'r jhaal and jhol we mostly eat.



Pabda fish – 4 (large)
Ginger-garlic paste – 1 tbsp 
Chopped green chilies – 2 tbsp
Tomato puree – ½ cup
Fennel seeds roasted and ground – 21/2 tsp
Red chili powder – ¾ tsp
Turmeric powder – ½ tsp + ½ tsp
Salt to taste
Sugar to taste
Fresh cream – 1tbsp
Mustard oil 


Marinate the fish with salt, turmeic powder and a pinch of red chili powder and keep for about 15-20 minutes.
Heat oil in a kadhai, fry the fish until a deep golden and keep aside.
In a pan, not a deep bottomed one ideally, heat 2 tbp mustard oil. Add the ginger garlic paste and fry until it golden.
Add the tomato puree, turmeric powder, red chili powder, chopped red chilli and the ground fennel and fry the masala until oil separates.
Add one cup water and bring to boil. Add sugar. And then add the fish. Carefully ensure that the fish is well coated with thesauce.
Cook on low heat until the water soaks up and oil separates. Add the fresh cream and take off heat.

Serve with gorom gorom bhaat (piping hot steamed rice). 

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Raw Mango and Pepper Fish

My obsession with Raw Mangoes continues and why not? It's not like we get them all year round. They come along once a year and I am going to knock myself out. I suggest you do too. I have paired raw mangoes with meat, vegetables and even eggs, but I couldn't bring this series to an end without pairing it with fish. This time around I have done just that and I have taken inspiration from Oriental flavours. This dish, spicy, tangy and delicious, can be served both as a starter or as part of the main course. The spicy kick from the peppers and the burst of tang from the mangoes gives the fish a delectable makeover.

So, Bon Appetit!

Raw Mango and Pepper Fish 


Bekti fish fillets - 500 gms (cut in squares)
Red and yellow bell peppers (finely cubed) - 1 each
Raw mango (finely cubed) - 1
Soy sauce - 1 tsp
Vinegar - 2 tbsp
Coarsely ground black pepper - 1 tbsp
Garlic paste - 1 tsp + 1/2 tsp
Salt to taste
Sugar to taste
Whole red chilies - 5-6
Red chili paste - 1 tsp (optional)
Flour (to dredge)


Marinate the fish with vinegar, salt, 1 tsp garlic paste and black pepper and keep aide for 45 minutes to an hour.

Heat oil in a pan, dredge the fish in flour and deep fry until a lovely golden. Fry on low heat so that the fish is cooked through without burning the crust.

In another pan, heat about 2 tbsp oil. Add garlic and fry until to begins to catch colour.

Toss in the bell peppers and fry for a couple of minutes. Add the mango too and fry for a while

Add salt, sugar, whole red chilies, chili paste and soy sauce. The bell peppers and mango will take a few minutes to cook, soon the soy sauce and sugar will come together to form a beautiful caramel-y sauce. Keep the heat high all the while, and keep stirring ad tossing it.

Add half a cup of water and once the sauce comes together, add the fish carefully and toss it so that the sauce, the bell peppers, mango et al lace the pieces of fish.

Garnish with spring onions and serve piping hot.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Mediterranean Flavour Fest at Souk, Taj Bengal

Talk of the Middle East and I think of a souk. A thousand images, vivid and wonderful, flash across my mind’s eye – stone walls and flamboyant arches, winding alleys lined by shops selling raw silk and dyes, beads and ornate clayware, bejeweled vases and silver teapots…and  then the spices, familiar and exotic, the aroma exciting and soothing all at once. Knolls of colourful spices and herbs and beans – from Iranian saffron to sumac to lavender and rose petals – it’s a feast for the senses. In fact, I could almost imagine the teasing aroma of a myriad spices mixed with the heady scent of burning incense fill my nostrils as I enjoy a leisurely stroll in a faraway souk in Northern Africa, perhaps. Wishful thinking, I say.

 But recently I landed at a souk of another kind. I had the wonderful opportunity of dining at the Taj’s specialty Mediterranean restaurant SOUK and to guide me through the lavish fare was none other than Sujan Mukherjee, executive chef, Taj Bengal.   

And the spread chef Mukherjee brought to the table proved to be an interesting display of the diverse flavours and the mindboggling variety that is Mediterranean food. From Egypt to Israel and Turkey to Morocco, the menu included a wonderful assortment of dishes from across the region that left me drooling. 
The meal kicked off with an amuse bouche that was not only pleasing for the palate but also a treat for your eyes. A dice of fresh, juicy watermelon topped with a cube of feta. The burst of sweet freshness that was the watermelon did a little tango with the salty treat that is the feta right inside my mouth. And my heart did a somersault. 

Next came the Mezze. Mezze (an assortment of bite sized appetizers quite like the Spanish tapas platters) is by far my favourite part of a Mediterranean feast. And while mezze could be as simple as stuffed olives and fresh vegetables and hummus and some bread, there is no end to the range. But I was quite impressed by the Mezze selection on the table. 

Of course there was the ubiquitous hummus (who could ever think of a mezze platter without this mash of chicpeas and tahini and olive oil?) but not just regular hummus – there was Hummus Turki, hummus topped with a blob of finely chopped Piri Piri chilies and olives, and Hummus bil Lahm, topped with tiny, deep-fried morsels of lamb, an Israeli specialty I hear. Now, easy as it might sound the perfect hummus is not child’s play. But chef Mukherjee has nailed it. Chef Mukherjee is known for being fastidious and rumour has it that he personally supervises and carefully sieves the chickpeas that go into his hummus. Not just any chickpea can make it in there. Reminds me of the Bourneville advertisement with that wailing and whining cocoa bean in it, yeah the one tossed into oblivion. However, of his two variations I was a little more impressed with the Hummus Turki, the burst of tangy heat simply sent the taste quotient shooting, at least for me, this despite my obsessive penchant for meat.

About the tabbouleh, a typical salad made with cracked wheat and parsley with a fresh lime dressing, what strikes you first is the kick of the lemon and then you fall in love with the freshness. We were treated to tabbouleh done the way it is done in Tripoli. Somehow that made the dish seem all the more exotic, or I was just romanticizing. And yes, the parsley, the main ingredient, wasn’t just regular parsley either. What does the trick for an authentic version of the tabbouleh is flat leaf Italian parsley and chef Mukherjee insists on using just that.

Tabbouleh evokes a few fond memories for me and has a special spot in my heart.. I had bonded with one of my dearest friends for the first time, though we are not in touch for a while, over a bowl of tabbouleh she had made. It was also the first time that I had tasted tabbouleh. She was an Arab and a great cook. But her version of the tabbouleh had couscous in it, instead of bulgur (cracked wheat) as in this version I was savouring just now.

And it was just the right accompaniment for deep fried delights like the falafel, an iconic Middle Eastern chickpea cakes, flavoured with herbs and spices like cumin, coriander and parsley, and deep fried. I am not a huge fan of falafel but during my year and a half in Brighton, I used to often visit a Lebanese joint which made an excellent falafel roll. And though chef Mukherjee’s falafels were neat enough, crusty and flavourful, it missed a little something.

What I was impressed by however was the subtly spiced Lahm Kibbeh, torpedo-shaped croquettes made of minced meat, pine nuts and cracked wheat, typical of the region, known to be of Levantine origin… that is from Eastern Mediterranean region. The kibbeh has a nice crust while inside its loosely packed minced meat that’s crumbly but not dry, in fact it was quite moist, it simply falls apart with a soft poise. That’s how a kibbeh should be, says chef Mukherjee. I agree. To get the right kibbeh you need the right meat...lean, without a trace of fat. And chef Mukherjee gets his lamb for the kibbeh all the way from Rajasthan. “You get the best meat there,” he says.


Now I am a huge fan of Mediterranean food because of its freshness and the subtlety of its flavours. What I really appreciate about cuisines from this part of the world is the fact that though there is an extensive use of spices, there is a poised restraint in the use of spices. So, while each dish promises a flavour fest, none overwhelms your taste buds. And the mezze platter i had just devoured celebrated that subtlety of flavours. Oh! Another interesting item on the mezze platter was the Swada Dijaj, marinated bits of chicken tossed in pomegranate molasses and fresh coriander. I think I detected a hint of lime too. I was not particularly crazy about it, but that could be because I couldn't get over the kibbeh and especially the Hummus Turki I was scooping up with my za'atar smeared pita. Zatar by the way is a mix of spices and herbs  used extensively in Middle Eastern and Med cooking.

Next in line was a platter of grilled meat and fish comprising Adana Kebab, a spicy minced meat kebab from Adana in Turkey ( you can also see my recipe of the same here), Tavuk Yogurtula Bitlis, another Turkish speciality, chicken marinated in special spiced and grilled, a recipe from Bitlis in Eastern Turkey, and Samak Meshwi, grilled fish with Turkish spices. Now, while the Adana Kebab was moist and juicy what it missed was the fiery kick it should have had. The chicken failed to impress me, and the fish...I loved the spicy and tangy marinade that laced the fish. The  grills came with a light truffle pilaf loaded with berries and it was quite the treat.

For the main course, there was the typical Moroccan Lamb tagine that came in the traditional clay pots called tagine (hence the name). The lamb, tender, melt-in-the-mouth, came in a subtly spiced sauce that had preserved lime, olives and chickpeas was served on a bed of perfectly steamed couscous.

Lamh Tagine

Now if you thought pasta was a monopoly of the Italians, think again. The Middle Easterns love their pasta too and the chef gave us a taste of it. Loaded with preserved limes, olives and prunes, the Middle Eastern style pasta was a little too tangy for my taste, but I sure did appreciate the distinctly different taste. 

By the time I reached the Samak Moroccan, pan fired fish fillets flavoured with pickled lemon, cayenne pepper and parsley and the Moussaka, I was too full to savour the flavours. In fact, the fish was a tad overdone and hence stringy and quite bland really failed to make a mark really, in fact far less. It  I had the desserts to accommodate.

Samak Moroccan


For desserts, we were served Omali, a dessert made with filo pastry and condensed milk and topped with pistachio. In loved scooping up the creamy Omali, cutting through the soft, golden crust. It is not too sweet and has a soothing effect on the palate. Then there was the refreshing rose petal ice cream, the chef’s signature dish. It is indeed the best summery treat around. But what came as a delightful surprise for me was the Baklava. I have never warmed up to the Baklava, greasy and dripping sugary sweet syrup. But this time around the Baklava, neither too sweet nor too greasy and chockfull with chopped pistachio warmed the cockles of my heart alright....ah I am exaggerating just a little bit. Let's say I could have had another helping. 

From left: Omali, Baklava and Rose Petal Ice Cream