Spending our time untethering the mind, getting the fidgets out, exploring the in-between ideas, and learning kintsugi.

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Jhal muri – finally cracked it!

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What is nice about muri (otherwise known as puffed rice) is the crispiness. The word jhal refers to the heat of Capsaicin e.g., thai green chili. Jhal Muri often contains ingredients like chopped tomatoes that can potentially make the muri soggy. After half a lifetime, I think I have finally cracked it – no more soggy muri. The technique is part trick and part clever choice of ingredients.

Puffed rice, dried red chili, mustard oil, green chili, red onion, pappadam, bhujia, pumpkin seeds (or peanuts)

If you live in Kolkata, your muri has the aroma of rice and it is crunchy. If you are elsewhere, you are in God’s hands. In California Bay Area, you get Korean puffed rice which lacks the full flavor profile of Bengali muri (there, I said it) but has the pillowy-ness. If your muri has an offensive smell, give up and wait for the food distribution chain to get better. If the moisture gets to the muri, it can be corrected by roasting.

Prepping the muri: Place a tsp of mustard oil in a kadai, let it reach smoking point, turn down heat and add couple of torn dry red chili peppers until they are fragrant or you are sneezing, whichever comes first. Add 2-3 cups of muri, toss to coat, add 1/4 tsp of salt and lightly roast the muri on low heat. Shut off heat, let cool and store in a dry airtight container. You can eat this for snacks as is. It is divine with a cup of tea. If you are preparing the jhal muri immediately, you don’t need to stow away.

Choosing the ingredients of jhal muri: The dry ingredients are your friends. I get lazy when making snacks and prefer ready to eat dry snacks like pappadam (fried or roasted and then crushed into small pieces), bhujia (your favorite brand, but simplest is often the best), roasted lentils or nuts or seeds (e.g., chana or peanuts or sunflower). For two cups of roasted muri, add no more than half cup of dry snacks. Muri is the king here, so you don’t want to drown it out. Less distraction is not a bad choice here.

See the alternate recipe by Ranveer Brar below for other additions like boiled potatoes, tomatoes, cilantro leaves, sprouted black chickpeas, boiled yellow peas. The only one that you might want to think twice is the pappadam. Jagged edges of traditional pappadam when broken are not pleasant mouthfeel for some. Peanuts are often the preferred choice, but substitute if you have allergies. I do like sprouted black chickpeas in my muri but not the boiled potatoes. I rarely have yellow peas in my pantry but the taste is indeed very Bengali. A relative of mine swears by addition of a tablespoon of sattu, roasted and powdered black chickpeas.

The wet ingredients are your nemesis. Tomato is too wet and beyond rescue, skip it. If you must, add roasted and powdered skin of tomatoes for the flavor. If adding, I also recommend adding air dried cilantro leaves and ground Persian limes or even sumac.

The key step (or the “trick”): Chop up 2 Tbsp of onion and a green chili (possibly Thai chili or similar in heat) in a large bowl . Add 2 tsp of raw mustard oil. Toss to coat the onions and green chili with mustard oil. This step prevents subsequent sogginess.

Note that mustard oil is not optional. It brings the mustard sharpness (aka jhanjh) that is quintessential here. The sharpness going up the back of your throat and rising up your nose is a must have part of the experience.

Finally: Add the muri, dry ingredients, salt to taste and toss. Eat soon. I did once leave it around for 15 minutes and it was still crispy and that is how the “trick” was born.

An alternate: Bengali magic by Ranveer Brar (video link). Note how he leaves adding the wet ingredients to last. He insists on adding the mustard oil from a jar of mango pickle, I like it but I don’t find it to be critical. The spice mix (slow roasted and powdered – 1 Tbsp cumin, 1 Tbsp fennel, 1 tsp coriander, 2-3 green cardamom seeds, pinch of salt) is also nice, but again not a must have. I often roast the spices, cool and keep whole and powder them last minute with a mortar and pestle.

Written by Som

May 23, 2022 at 2:27 am

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Learning to cook with mom – the pause

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Mung lentil with raw papaya, and Red lentil with tart tomatoes

I have run out of time and these two recipes are the last of this batch. I don’t remember a meal without daal, so I decided to end this short series with couple of daals. Don’t start to wonder how these will taste given handful of simple ingredients, these dishes are about purity of flavors. The trick to making lentils is getting them super soft to the point that they melt but don’t turn into gloop. Both these daals are made without pressure cooker.

Pepe diye daal: For this recipe, we need split green gram washed (husk removed). Green gram has various forms (whole, split, split washed), but aside from the difference in forms, there is difference in size and taste. The ones in Bengal tend to be smaller and yellower and for reasons unknown, tastier.

Split green gram washed (mung), raw papaya, Cumin seeds, red chili, ginger, ghee (clarified butter), mustard oil

To serve four, start with 1/2 cup of the mung daal, dry roast it until it turns golden brown. Cool and rinse. In a pot, add the daal, add 4 cups of water, 1 tsp of salt, 1/2 tsp of sugar and cook on medium low heat until it is partially done. In the meantime, peel and chop raw papaya into 3/4 inch cubes to make up 2 cups. Add to partially done daal and continue cooking until the papaya is cooked through. Switch off heat.

Take some ginger, peel and convert to fine paste (mortar and pestle will work, but a spice grinder with a little water works well). We need about 1 Tbsp of the paste. In a tadka pan, add 1 Tbsp of mustard oil and 1 Tbsp of ghee, let it get hot, add 2-3 torn red chilies and 1 tsp of cumin seeds. Let the seeds splutter for 15-20 seconds and acquire a darker shade (lightly roasted coffee). Dump in the daal. Now add 1 tsp of ginger paste to the daal. Stir and adjust salt and sugar balance.

Toker daal: Literally translated, “toker daal” translates to sour daal. But in our house, it is led lentils with tomatoes. Traditionally, the daal is made with local “desi” tomatoes which are tart and the daal is tart. But these days, it is hard to source local tomatoes so the daal won’t be as tart. The taste of tomatoes with red lentil is particularly delicious.

Red lentil (masoor daal), tomatoes, turmeric, mustard seeds, dry red chili, mustard oil

To serve 2, start with 1/2 cup of red lentil, rinse, add 4 cups of water, 1 tsp of salt and allow it to boil for 10-15 minutes. In the meantime, chop 2-3 medium size tomatoes (1/4 inch pieces). Once the lentils are starting to disintegrate, add the tomatoes, 1/2 tsp of turmeric, 1/2 tsp of sugar and continue cooking until the lentils are fully cooked. If you need more water, add hot water. Taste test, adjust salt/sugar balance and switch off heat. In a tadka pan, add 2 Tbsp of mustard oil, let it reach smoking point, reduce heat, add mustard seeds and let them splutter away until they nearly stop spluttering, add 2-3 torn red chilis and continue for another 10-15 seconds. Dump the oil in the daal.

Written by Som

December 16, 2021 at 5:36 am

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Learning to cook with mom – the unique

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Raw pumpkin vegetable dish, and the Cauliflower curry

Kacha kumror tarkari: I am not certain what exactly is raw pumpkin. What sells for raw pumpkin has green skin with light green or white patches and a light yellow interior. The pumpkin skin is edible and must be left on so the dish doesn’t turn into a mush. The closest to edible skin might be Hokkaido pumpkin (aka red Kuri pumpkin).

Raw pumpkin, Potatoes, Panch phoron (mustard seeds, fennel, nigella seeds, fenugreek, cumin), red chili, vegetable shortening (dalda), mustard oil

To serve four, chop the raw pumpkin, including its skin, into 3/4 inch cuboids to make up about 6 cups and set aside. Cut up two small potatoes similarly and set aside. In a kadai, add 3 Tbsp of mustard oil and 1 Tbsp of dalda. Let reach smoking point, reduce heat, tear and add 2 red chilis and 1 tsp of panch phoron (equal mix of mustard, fennel, nigella, cumin and fenugreek seeds). Let the seeds splutter for 10-15 seconds and add the potatoes, followed by the pumpkin. Add 1 tsp of salt, gently mix, cover and cook. The water will be released and the vegetables will cook in the water. Here, the vegetables retain their colors and we are not adding turmeric. Modulate the heat and kadai cover to achieve doneness while the vegetable mixture is still loose and moist. Taste and adjust salt.

Phulkopir dalna: This one can be one of those dishes where people may have foundational differences in opinion – to make it dry or to have a curry. This one is a curry. I think, this dish done right is amazing (rich and unctuous), but it is difficult to get this right (watery and mushy). Wishing us all some luck.

Cauliflower, Potato, tomato, ginger, garam masala (cinnamon, cloves. cardamom), red chili, Bay leaves, cumin, cumin powder, turmeric, ghee, mustard oil

Following should serve 4-6. Start with cutting the cauliflower in florets that are approx 1.5 inches in diameter. The trick is to not cut through a floret to the extent possible, instead cut in-between to retain the florets. The stems should be slit for better flavor absorption. Add 1.5 tsp salt and 1 tsp turmeric, mix gently and set aside from an hour or two. When ready, peel and cut a medium size potato in 1 inch cubes and set aside. Chop two medium tomatoes in small pieces. Make a paste of the ginger (need about 1 Tbsp) and set aside. Prepare 1 tsp of garam masala (grind equal parts cinnamon, cloves and cardamom seeds).

In a kadai, add 4 Tbsp of mustard oil and let reach smoking point and reduce heat. Add the cauliflower florets in batches and gently fry them turning occasionally. You want them fried to golden brown. It isn’t important to cook them right now, you want to get them nicely colored. Once the florets are done, repeat with the potatoes.

Add 1 Tbsp of mustard oil to the Kadai, once hot, add 2 Bay leaves, 1 tsp of cumin seeds, 1 Tbsp of ginger paste, 1 tsp of cumin powder, and fry for a minute or so. Add the chopped tomatoes, 1 tsp salt and fry for another few minutes. Add 2 cups of hot water. Now gently lower the potato pieces and florets, add 1 tsp sugar and salt to taste. Cover and cook, occasionally stirring. Goal is to cook the potatoes through and no more. Switch off heat.

In a tadka pan, add 1 Tbsp of ghee, once hot, add 1 tsp of garam masala (dry ground equal amounts cinnamon, cloves and cardamom seeds), let splutter for about 10 seconds, add the mixture to the vegetables in the kadai.

My mom doesn’t use coriander powder as much, but it is equally nice to have 50-50 or 30-70 cumin/coriander powder mix. Depending on your variety of potatoes, you might need to give your potatoes a head start and add the florets a later.

Written by Som

December 16, 2021 at 5:07 am

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Learning to cook with mom – bam!

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Malabar spinach berries with hilsa fish head

Pui pholer charchari: We have a single Malabar spinach plant growing in our grandmother’s lot. It has managed to climb all of the two stories of the old house in search of sunlight. I was remembering their berries from our childhood days. The berries turn deep purple when they mature and also get crunchy. These are fried and served with rice. And as a kid, what is not to like about tiny food that makes your tongue go purple. And lo and behold, we managed to lay hands on a bunch of these berries, albeit not quite ripe yet which allows us to make this particular dish. I have no way of replicating this exact dish elsewhere, but I think a sturdy leafy vegetable like mustard green might just work.

Malabar spinach (and expanded view of berries), potatoes, hilsa (Ilish) head

The following will serve 4. Lets assume that we have 4 cups of berries accompanied by some of the Malabar spinach leaves. Clean, chop and set aside. Peel and chop a medium size potato in 1/2 inch pieces and set aside. The dish calls for head of a single hilsa fish, cleaned and cut in two uniform pieces. Add 1/2 tsp salt and 1/2 tsp turmeric, coat the heat and set aside. If I get to try to make this in Bay Area, I will try with other fish head or perhaps, fish jowls.

In a kadai, take 2 Tbsp of mustard oil, let it reach smoking point on medium heat, reduce heat and add the hilsa fish heads and gently fry for 7-10 minutes until nicely browned. Take them out and set aside. Add the potatoes and brown them. Take them out and set aside. Top up with 1 Tbsp of mustard oil, when hot, add 1 tsp of “panch phoron” (black mustard, nigella, fennel, cumin, fenugreek), let splutter for 10 sec, add back the potatoes, and berries. Add 3/4 tsp of salt, 1/2 tsp of turmeric powder. Cook stirring gently for 5-7 minutes. Add the fish head and continue to fry until the released water in fully reabsorbed back and the potatoes are cooked through.

In the final stage, to 2 Tbsp of mustard paste, add 2 Tbsp water, stir and mix and add to the kadai. Stir to coat the vegetables and fish with the mustard paste. Adjust salt to taste and switch off heat. Top it with 2 Tbsp of raw mustard oil and mix gently. Serve with rice.

For mustard paste (black and yellow mustard, green chilis); For panch phoron (black mustard seeds, fennel, cumin, nigella seeds, fenugreek); Turmeric and mustard oil

Written by Som

December 12, 2021 at 8:35 am

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Learning to cook with mom – acquired taste perhaps?

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A tamarind broth, black gram soup and steamed daikon

I love these, but I also know that some people don’t. I don’t quite understand the people who don’t.

Mulor tok: This is a sweet and tart broth with vegetables and daikon as the highlight. To serve 6-10, first chop the vegetables. Cut up half an eggplant into 1 inch squares (~2-3 cups loosely packed), cut up one of the hard winter squashes (pumpkin/danish/butternut) into 1 inch square to make up about 2 cups loosely packed, cut up 1 daikon into thin semi-circular slices (~3 mm thick). To prepare the tamarind, take about a lemon size ball of tamarind and soak it in 2 cups of hot water. Once the water cools down, smash the tamarind thoroughly (need fingers here) and then strain it to extract the tamarind liquid.

Quality of tamarind is a significant variable here. You can get it as hard blocks which are difficult to use. The next variety is a semi-soft dark paste with seeds in it. This is my preferred one. The final variation is a prepared tamarind paste, it does have the seeds and tends to be too sour. Depending on what one has access to, the amount of tamarind and sugar needs to be adjusted.

In a kadai, add 2 Tbsp of mustard oil, bring to smoking point, reduce heat to medium high and add the vegetables. Add 1 tsp salt and mix, cover and occasionally stir gently to caramelize the vegetables. In about 7-8 minutes, add the tamarind liquid and 2 cups of hot water and continue to boil. Now add sugar, and salt to balance the flavors. Continue to cook until the vegetables soften. Switch off heat. Finally, in a small tadka pan, add two Tbsp of mustard oil and let it reach smoking point, reduce heat, add torn red chillies and 1 tsp of mustard seeds. Let the mustard seeds splutter away until they stop doing so. Then add the hot oil mixture to the vegetable broth.

Daikon, Eggplant, Pumpkin, Tamarind, Mustard seeds, dried red chili, mustard oil

Kolai daal: I did struggle with this particular lentil (black gram) while growing up. But this is perhaps the only lentil that is universally digestible. Of late, I have acquired taste for things that my gut microbiome likes.

Forms of black gram: whole, split, whole washed, split washed

For this preparation, you want split washed black gram. To serve, start with 3/4 cup of split washed lentil in a kadai. Slow roast it until it is uniformly golden brown. Cool the lentils, wash them in running water. In a pressure cooker, add the lentils with 4 cups of water, 1 tsp of salt and put on medium heat. Once the pressure is up, reduce heat and cook for 7-8 minutes. Switch off heat and wait for 20-30 minutes until the pressure goes away. Open and check for doneness. How do we know, it is done? The lentils should be completely disintegrated (no individual identity) without turning into a gloop. Sometimes, if they are really soft, you can simply stir them until they disintegrate. If it needs more doing, redo the pressure cooking and this time cook for 3-5 min. Certain things simply can’t be done without a pressure cooker. And making Indian lentils is one of them. You simply don’t get the creaminess without one. If you do the lentils frequent enough, you know the pressure times by heart. Otherwise, a bit of trial and error would do. Slightly overcooking is better than undercooking.

Split black gram washed, panch phoron (mustard, cumin, nigella, fennel, fenugreek). red chilis, mustard oil

Now for the final phase, the tadka. Blitz 1 tsp of fennel seeds into a fine powder, set aside. Combine the five spice in equal proportions to make “panch phoron”. For this one time, you need 1/4 tsp each of black pepper, cumin, nigella seeds, fennel and fenugreek. In a tadka pan, add 2 Tbsp of mustard oil, achieve smoking point, reduce heat, add 2 torn red chilis, the “panch phoron” mixture, let splutter for 15 seconds and dump the resulting oil in the pressure cooker. Mix and adjust salt. Now add the fennel powder and mix one final time.

Mooli sheddho: Radish (or daikon) is gut microbiome’s best friend. This is s super simple dish. To serve 2, steam or pressure cook 1 large daikon after cleaning, scraping the skin and chopping into 2 inch portions. Cook until they are buttery soft. Mash, add salt to taste, 2 chopped green chilis and 4 Tbsp of chopped cilantro leaves. Add 2 Tbsp of raw mustard oil. Mix and serve with steamed rice or chapati.

Daikon, Green chilis, Cilantro, Mustard Oil

Written by Som

December 12, 2021 at 6:22 am

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Learning to cook with mom – Eggplant bonanza

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Smoky eggplant mash, Eggplant with poppy seeds, Eggplant in mustard sauce

Begun pora: This is perhaps the simplest smoked eggplant dish that exists and it is yummy. What can be simpler than smoking the eggplant on open fire and adding a couple of spices to it! To serve two, start with a medium size eggplant, make a few slits, smear a bit of oil all over and then roast on open gas flame. I like to cook on medium high and I keep a close eye on it. It is often done in a few minutes. You want to turn the eggplant as the skin gets completely blistered. Once all of it is done, set aside to cool. If the skin isn’t blackened properly, it will be hard to peel. If you cook too much, you will end up with charcoal. One trick I learned from an Indian chef is to stick in a few cloves of garlic in the slits. They get cooked during the roasting process. If you love garlic, go right ahead, but the dish doesn’t really need it. Once cooled, peel off the dark skin, mash up the flesh, add 1-2 chopped green chilis, 1 tsp of salt, 4 Tbsp of chopped cilantro leaves and 2 Tbsp of raw mustard oil. Optionally add 2 Tbsp of chopped onions. That’s it! Enjoy with rice or chapati.

Begun posto: To serve four, start with a medium size eggplant and cut it half. Then cut each piece in four along the length. Sprinkle with 1 tsp of salt and set aside to sweat for an hour. In a kadai, take 4 Tbsp of mustard oil, let it reach smoking point, reduce heat, add 1/2 tsp of nigella seeds, let splutter for 10 seconds, add the salted eggplants, then gently fry the eggplants, stirring occasionally until they are well browned. In the meantime, in a spice grinder, grind 1/2 cup of white poppy seeds. It doesn’t really become a paste, it breaks down a bit and some of the oils come out. Pull the eggplants out of the kadai and set aside. Add 2 Tbsp of mustard oil, let it reach smoking point, reduce heat, add 1-2 chopped green chilis and the poppy seed mixture. Fry gently for 8-12 minutes. Add the fried eggplants back along with 2 cups of hot water. Taste the salt and adjust if necessary. Let cook on medium high heat until the water is almost evaporated. Don’t stir (or stir very gently) or the eggplants will turn into mush. The eggplant should fall almost apart but not quite and the poppy seeds should coat the eggplant.

White poppy seeds to grind, Eggplant, Green chilis, nigella seeds (kalonji), mustard oil.

Begun jhaal: Very much the same as begun posto for the first part – frying the eggplant. In the meantime, take 4 Tbsp of mustard paste and add 2 Tbsp of yogurt, 1 tsp of turmeric powder and mix. Add 2 cups of hot water to the eggplant along with the mustard mixture. Taste the salt and adjust if necessary. Let cook on medium high until the water is almost evaporated. Don’t stir (or stir very gently) or the eggplants will turn into mush. The eggplant should fall almost apart but not quite and the mustard sauce should coat the eggplant. Top with 4 Tbsp of chopped cilantro leaves.

Yellow and brown mustard seeds and green chili for the mustard paste, eggplant, turmeric, nigella seeds (kalonji), cilantro and mustard oil

Written by Som

December 11, 2021 at 9:15 am

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Learning to cook with mom – Part 4, a touch complex

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Bengal gram cakes cooked in a ginger-garlic curry

Dhokar dalna: This is my dad’s favorite dish and I can understand why. It is complex in flavor (more that a dozen ingredients albeit simple), is complicated to cook (2 part) and has a ton of fat (~3 Tbsp per serving). In this two part recipe, the first part is making the cakes and the second part is making the curry. The word “dhoka” means deception. This complex dish hides its deceptively simple ingredients.

To blend: Chana daal, frozen coconut, ginger, red chili powder, turmeric; To fry: Asafetida, Mustard Oil

To make the cakes, start with soaking chana daal (bengal gram). The following proportion will make sufficient cakes for two batches of curry and each batch will make 4 servings. Soak 1 cup of chana daal overnight. In a blender, add the soaked daal, 1 cup of grated fresh coconut (can be found frozen in Bay Area Indian stores), 2 tsp of salt, 1 tsp sugar, 2 tsp of dry ginger (or 4 tsp of grated fresh ginger), 2 tsp of red chili powder, and a cup of fresh water. Blend until a smooth and fluffy batter is formed. In a kadai, take 6 Tbsp of mustard oil and let reach smoking point, reduce heat to medium low add 1 tsp of asafetida and within a few seconds add the batter. Mix and keep stirring. The batter will start to form a dough and then start to fry a little. You may need to scrape the pan a little to avoid the dough from sticking. Keep stirring until the dough is no longer sticky to touch. Switch off flame. Oil a 9 inch cake tin (you guess it right, with mustard oil), and flatten the dough in the pan. If you feel a touch of OCD coming on, use a square pan. Cool the dough in the tin overnight. This is a bit like cornmeal cakes or teff cakes. It will solidify on cooling and will be pretty dense.

You can keep the cakes in the fridge for a few days. When ready, cut half the cake into 1 inch squares. Now we will work in the curry. You can set the rest of the cake aside for another batch of curry. In an iron pan, add 4 Tbsp of mustard oil, let reach smoking point and reduce heat to medium low. Then fry the chana daal square on low until each side is reddish brown. Don’t skimp on the frying. In the meantime, grate a large onion, a 2 inch knob of ginger, 4-6 fat cloves of garlic, 1 large tomato and set aside. Peel and chop a medium potato into 1 inch cuboids. In a kadai, add 4 Tbsp of mustard oil and let reach smoking point, lower heat to medium low, tear in half and add 2 red chilis, 1 tsp of jeera seeds and let splutter until the seeds take on a darker hue. Add the potatoes and continue to fry until the potatoes take on a golden brown color. Take the potatoes out and set aside. Add the grated garlic and cook for 30 seconds, add the grated onions. Continue to cook until the mixture is fried. Add the grated ginger and tomatoes, add 1 tsp of turmeric powder, 1 tsp of salt and continue to cook until the mixture is caramelized and nicely fried. Add the potatoes and 6 cups of hot water. Add 1 tsp chili powder, 1 tsp jeera powder, 1/2 tsp of sugar. the fried chana daal squares and cook for 15-20 minutes until the curry is thickened. Note that the curry will be absorbed a little more by the cakes so you might want to err on the side of more curry at this stage. Check salt and adjust. Switch off heat. In a small pan, take 2 Tbsp of clarified butter, warm it and add 1 tsp of garam masala. Release the aroma in the gentle heat and then add to the curry. Add 4 Tbsp of chopped cilantro leaves to the curry.

I make the curry in two batches because I don’t like overcrowding my kadai. I find that it is harder to mix gently with overcrowding. While the cakes are reasonably sturdy, I don’t like accidental breakage. I also struggle to blend things when the total amount is too small (e.g., 1/2 cup). But it is perfectly reasonable to make half the cake and only one batch of curry. It may also be possible to freeze half the lentil batter or use in other application like crepes.

Written by Som

December 10, 2021 at 8:49 pm

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Learning to cook with mom – Part 3, starting to get the hang of it

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Ridge gourd with poppy seeds, Lima beans with mustard paste, Bitter gourd with mixed vegetables

Jhinge posto: This might have been my favorite vegetable dish growing up. Fresh white poppy seeds have been difficult to find anywhere. There is a possibility that the black poppy seeds might work, but I will have to try and the final look will most certainly be different. I have always been surprised how simple this dish is, in terms of the number of ingredients. Assume we are making two serving sizes. Start with 6-7 ridge gourd. The ones here are 18-20 inches long and at its thickest about 2 inches in diameter. They release a lot of water and reduce, so don’t be surprised with the starting amount. Take off all the stiff/rough green skin. Cut into cylinders that ate1/5 inch thick and cut each cylinder in half. Again, they may look big right now, but they will reduce rapidly. Take 2 small potatoes (1 medium Idaho), peel and cut into cuboids that are a third of an inch per side. In a kadai, add 4 Tbsp of mustard oil and put on medium heat. Let the oil reach smoking point. Add 1 tsp of nigella seeds, let splutter for 10 seconds and add the vegetables. Gently toss and cover. Add salt to taste and 1/2 tsp of sugar. Add green chilis, chopped or slit, depending on their heat and your tolerance. The gourd will release a ton of water and the vegetables will get cooked in the water. In the meantime, prepare the poppy seeds. Take about 1/3 to 1/2 cup of poppy seeds and grind them to a finer mix in a spice grinder. It won’t really become a fine powder. It will also release some of its oils and start to become a paste. Once the potatoes are starting to break down a little and the water is nearly absorbed, add the poppy seeds and gently stir. Keep uncovered. At this point, our goal is to slow fry the mixture without turning it into a mush. Taste test for salt and heat balance and adjust if necessary. The poppy seeds, as they fry, will start to generate a nutty aroma. Between under frying and over frying, you are better off over frying. There is no turmeric and the vegetables are not browned. The dish has a greenish white appearance. Serve hot with rice.

White poppy seeds, ridge gourd, potatoes, green chili, nigella seeds (kalonji), mustard oil

Shorshe Sem: The flat lima beans are not available in California Bay Area, so I will have to try with other broad bean varieties. It seems that the basic concept can be tried with pretty much any vegetable. It is customary to take the fiber off the spine (trick is similar to how we remove the fiber from celery sticks) of the beans and cut them in thirds or half depending on the size. Lets assume we have making two serving sizes and have 4-5 cups of chopped broad beans. In a kadai, add 2 Tbsp of mustard oil, let it reach smoking point, add nigella seeds, let splutter for 10-15 seconds, add the broad beans, 1/2-1 tsp of salt, stir to mix, cover and gently fry for 15 minutes stirring occasionally. The beans should turn light brown and soften. Add a cup of hot water, 1 tsp of turmeric and cook, stirring occasionally until the liquid is reduced to 1/4 cup. Take 2 Tbsp of the mustard paste, add 2 Tbsp of yogurt, mix and add to the kadai. Gently mix and let cook until all water evaporates, taste and adjust salt. At the end, the beans should be moist and well cooked but not falling apart, and the sauce should coat the beans.

Mustard paste (yellow, black mustard, green chili), flat lima/broad beans, nigella seeds (kalonji), turmeric, yogurt, mustard oil

Shukto: Bitter gourd is an acquired taste. Here, we add only a little. The goal is to add a hint of bitterness. But if you are comfortable with the taste, you can add a little more. Assume serving size for two. Cut half an eggplant into cuboids about 1.5 inch large. To prep the raw banana, peel the green skin, cut into 8 pieces (cut in half and then cut each half along the length in four each). To prep the raw papaya, peel skin, cut a raw papaya into thin slices about 2 inch wide and 5 mm thick to make up about a cup. Throw away the unripe seeds in the cavity, if any. Cut the bitter gourd into rings of 5 mm thickness. Chuck the seeds. In a kadai, take 1 Tbsp of mustard oil, once it reaches smoking point, add the bitter gourd, reduce heat, add 1/4 tsp salt, 1/4 tsp turmeric and fry for 10-12 minutes. You want to fry them well, they develop better taste upon frying. Once they are done, take them out and set aside. In the same kadai, add 3 Tbsp mustard oil, add the mustard seeds and wait until they stop spluttering (you might want to cover with a screen to avoid them going everywhere), add radhuni and let splutter for 10 sec and then add all the remaining vegetables. Add 1 tsp salt, 1/2 tsp sugar, mix gently and slowly fry for 10 minutes. The vegetables should acquire some color, but they are not really cooked yet. Add 2 cups of hot water, 1 tsp turmeric, cover and let the mixture boil until the water is reduced to 1/4 cup. The vegetables should be cooked by now. If not, add 1/4 cup of hot water and gently cook some more. Taste and adjust salt. Once the vegetables are tender, add the fried bitter gourd and 1/2 cup milk. Gently combine and switch off heat.

Raw papaya, raw banana, eggplant, bitter gourd, mustard seeds, radhuni, turmeric, milk, mustard oil

Written by Som

December 8, 2021 at 4:50 am

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Learning to cook with mom – Part 2, baby steps

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Green papaya stir fry, fish with mustard paste, and pointed gourd cooked in ginger-garlic sauce

Peper Tarkari: Young green papaya is a popular Bengali vegetable. It tastes like the mild version of the seeds. To make a dry sabzi, peel the green skin, take out any seeds if present and cut into small cuboids of about half inch on each side. Cut potatoes (about a third of the papaya by volume) in similar shape. Steam the green papaya until it is parboiled – pressure cook on medium heat, once the pressure is built up, keep for a minute and switch off the heat. Lets assume we have two serving sizes e.g., 3 cups of papaya and 1 cup of potato. In a kadai, add 2 Tbsp mustard oil and 1 Tbsp ghee. Once the mixture reached smoking point, add couple of dry red chilies, 1 tsp of cumin seeds, a bay leaf and then add the parboiled papaya and potatoes. Stir to mix, add salt to taste (1-2 tsp), 1/2 tsp sugar, cover and cook on low heat until they are both fully cooked. Occasionally stir the vegetables to allow even cooking. The salt draws out the water and the vegetables tend to get lightly fried and start to break down just a bit and start to stick together lightly. Water content is highly variable in vegetables and it is important to modulate the heat and covering. If the vegetables are too dry, it is ok to add 2-3 Tbsp of water at a time. It is recommended that you boil the water and add hot water to maintain the heat level which in turn preserves the taste of the vegetables better. Add 1 tsp of jeera powder and continue to cook for a few minutes. Taste and adjust salt if needed. Switch off heat and add 2-3 Tbsp of chopped cilantro leaves.

Green papaya, potatoes, bay leaves, cumin (jeera), dry red chili, cumin powder, cilantro, clarified butter (ghee), mustard oil

Macher Jhaal: For most fish dishes, cooking in mustard sauce (refer to part 1) is the simplest recipe. Typically, fish is scaled, cleaned, cut into individual serving size portions and stored in freezer after applying salt and turmeric. My family grew up on river or pond fish and these are relatively small. You can also cut up bigger fish into smaller cross sections (perpendicular to spine, 1 inch thinchness). To make the fish, start with thawing. Lets assume we are making 2-3 serving sizes e.g., 2 trouts, each cut in half or thirds. In a flat bottom container, preferably non-stick, add 4 Tbsp of mustard oil. Once the oil reaches smoking point, add nigella seeds, gently lower the fish pieces and fry for a minute on each side. Add water to submerge the fish e.g. 4 cups. Add 0.5 tsp turmeric, salt to taste and let boil and reduce the liquid by half. Mix 4 Tbsp of the mustard slurry with 2 Tbsp of yogurt and add to the liquid. Let cook for another 5-7 minutes at reduced heat. Taste and adjust salt if needed. Switch off heat and add 2-3 Tbsp of chopped cilantro leaves.

Mustard paste, fish, nigella seeds (kalonji), turmeric powder, yogurt, mustard oil

Kosha Potol Tarkari: Pointed gourd is seasonal. They taste better if fried. If they are young and tender, they have soft seeds. As the get older, the seeds get brittle. I like it when the seeds pop upon biting, but if you don’t, feel free to scoop them out. Vegetables cook better when young and tender. Lightly take off the skin and slit each gourd (2-3 slits along the length) so spices can penetrate. Lets assume you are making 10-12 of these. Add 1/2 tsp salt, 1/2 tsp turmeric, toss and let rest. Cut a medium size potato into pieces, match the length of gourd and half the thickness. Add 1/2 tsp salt, 1/2 tsp turmeric, toss and let rest. In the meantime, prepare the onions, ginger, garlic and green chilis. Take 1 small onion and grate. Take another small onion and finely chop. Take a 1 inch knob of ginger and grate. Crush and thinly slice 2-3 cloves of garlic. Chop on slit the green chilis depending on their heat and your level of tolerance. In a kadai, add 2 Tbsp of mustard oil, and heat until it starts to smoke, add the gourd, toss, reduce heat and fry gently until they are nicely browned and starting to soften. This may take 15 minutes. Take the fried gourd out of the kadai and set aside. Add the chopped potatoes and similarly gently stir fry until they are golden brown in color. This may take 5-7 minutes. Take the browned potatoes out of the kadai and set aside. Add another 2 Tbsp mustard oil to the kadai, let it reach smoking point, add 1 tsp of cumin seeds, let splutter for a few seconds, add the garlic, let fry for 10 seconds, add the chopped onions and fry the mixture until onions are golden brown. Add the grated onion and ginger and fry until the mixture starts to exude the oil. If necessary, reduce heat and cook slowly. The entire mixture will develop a caramel brown color. Now add the fried gourd, the browned potatoes, add green chilis and add about 1-2 cups of water. Cover and let cook for about 12-15 minutes. The vegetables should be moist (not watery) and coated with the onion-giner-garlic paste. If necessary, add 2 Tbsp of hot water at a time and continue to cook covered until done. Add 1 tsp of cumin powder. Gently stir to combine and switch off heat. Add 2-3 Tbsp of chopped cilantro leaves.

Pointed gourd, potatoes, onion, ginger, garlic, cumin seeds (jeera), cumin powder, green chili, cilantro leaves, mustard oil

Written by Som

December 8, 2021 at 1:37 am

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Learning to cook with mom – Part I, the basics

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This is my first dedicated effort to cook while in Kolkata. I am cooking on my own, following mom’s instructions. Bengali home cooking is somewhat non-trivial to replicate outside of Bengal. A number of produce are unique to this region and while sourcing them elsewhere is possible, there is no guarantee to the quality of the produce. The Gangetic delta is particularly fertile and small scale agriculture continues to be pervasive. This also means that farm to table is a very short trip. Produce varieties are extensive and the produce is often very young and tender. To the extent I will be able to replicate them in California remains to be seen.

First the basics. In my mom’s house, there are only a handful of spices like mustard seeds, cumin, nigella seeds, fennel, bay leaves etc. There is nothing particularly exotic. Dry red chili is a common mechanism for generating heat but some dishes exclusively use green chilis. The common powdered spices are turmeric, cumin, chili and “garam masala”. Turmeric, cumin and chili powder are store bought, but the garam masala is always made from whole spices in small batches. Asafetida is used but not commonly. The other critical ingredient is white poppy seeds. Mustard oil is commonly used but vegetable oil, ghee, Crisco (Dalda is the Indian variant) are all used occasionally. And, like Thai cooking, sugar is a key ingredient in savory dishes. It is the equivalent of adding salt in desserts. You add a touch, enough to balance the flavor, not enough to make the dish sweet. A very unique Bengali spice is Radhuni (apparently called ajmod in Hindi), its scientific name is Trachyspermum roxburghianum (also known as Carum roxburghianum).

Top row: Yellow mustard (shorshe), black mustard, Cumin (jeera), Radhuni (ajmod); Bottom row: Nigella (kalonji or kala jeera), Fennel, Cumin powder, Chili powder, Turmeric powder
Top row: Poppy seeds, Asafetida, Cinnamon, Cloves; Bottom row: Red chili, Bay leaves, Cardamom, Nutmeg
Common cooking utensils (kadai, saucepan, pressure cooker, tadka pan) and oils (vegetable shoterning, clarified butter, mustard oil)

A kadai is typically used for cooking. A kadai is shaped like a wok (wide but not deep) but heavier duty. It is often made of aluminum, sometimes steel and rarely iron. Mom has kadais of all sizes, ranging all the way from 7 inches to 12 inches. These are the workhorses of the kitchen. I often turned to 10-12 inch wide ones when cooking for 4. Saucepans are set aside for boiling or reheating e.g. milk . An electric kettle is always handy for ready access to boiled water. She has three pressure cookers and they are all in use, small, medium and large. They are most often used for cooking rice or lentils.

Jhaal Shorshe: Translated exactly, it is spicy mustard sauce. Mustard flavored fish or vegetable is a staple. The fundamental ask is the mustard paste made from yellow mustard seeds and black mustard seeds in a 6:1 ratio. The two are combined and then dry ground to a fine powder in a spice grinder. Lets assume we are starting with 0.5 cup of seeds.Then we add a few green chilis (e.g. 2 Thai chilis), 1 tsp turmeric, salt and 0.25 cup water to make into a smooth paste (thick batter consistency). The paste should feel fluffy and lighten in color to indicate good mixing. At this point, the paste can be stowed away in refrigerator for up-to a week. To use, optionally mix with yogurt (nonfat or otherwise), mustard sauce to yogurt in 2:1 ratio, before using. It is best to add the yogurt right before using.

Panch Phoron: Translated, it is a mixture of five spices that is used for “tadka”. It is equal amounts (e.g., 1 tsp) of mustard seeds, nigella (kalonji) seeds, cumin seeds, fennel seeds and fenugreek (methi) seeds. I bet there are variations. My favorite variation is 1/2 the amount of methi seeds as the rest.

Ingredients leading unto Bengal’s famous “Jhaal Sorshe” and “Panch Phoron”. For “Jhal Shorshe” or mustard paste, need black and yellow mustard seeds, green chilis and a spice grinder. For “Panch Phoron”, need black mustard seeds, nigella (kalonji) seeds, cumin seeds, fennel seeds and fenugreek (methi) seeds.

Here are some notes on known deviations and options:

  • Mustard seeds: The black mustard seeds come in all sizes and sharpness. I find the mustard in Bengal at least third the size of mustard in US. The taste is also mellower. Indian stores may carry the smaller mustard.
  • Fennel seeds: There are at least two varieties, the big fat yellowish ones and the skinny green ones. The later are known as Lucknow-e fennel (i.e., from Lucknow). I personally prefer these. My mom has always used the fat ones. Indian stores will carry both varieties. There is no significant taste difference, the smaller ones present a more pleasing mouthfeel to me.
  • Red chili: There are dozens of common varieties. The one that are most elegant and spiced right are skinny, red and long. Indian stores will carry this variety.
  • Garam masala: There is no one garam masala. Instead there are as many variations as there are homes. Mom uses cinnamon, cardamom and cloves in same quantity and sometimes throws in a small amount of nutmeg. Cinnamon is one of the hardest one to source right, the ones in Indian subcontinent are more savory and complex in flavor. Good luck.

Written by Som

December 7, 2021 at 1:21 am

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A Californian saag-paneer

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This saag-paneer recipe is unapologetically Californian. The only thing Indian about this is my homeland. The inspiration came from watching and then making Rick Martinez’s Pozole Verde. If you don’t have access to tomatillo or poblano, or you look at kale with trepidation, I recommend that you look for some other recipe. Like the “Thousand and One Nights”, there are a thousand variations of saag-paneer to dive into.

In this version, we are combining the bitterness, sweetness, savoriness and tartness of the components, to try and create a whole that is bigger than the sum of its parts, like a complex mole sauce. There are two distinct stages here, that are independent. The first is making of the fragrant paneer, and once made, you can use it in other recipes. The second is the green sauce, built from roasted vegetables and slow braised leafy vegetables. The sauce needs to be paired with a rich protein source, like the paneer or a slow cooked pork. The final stage is putting it together.

Following makes 4-6 servings.

Stage 1: The paneer

Making paneer is like making fresh ricotta. Essentially, you scald the milk, add acid and take the resulting casein protein coagulate and make that into blocks that you can subsequently cut up. Here are what we are going to need:

  • 2 gallons of whole milk
  • Crushed cardamom seeds, remove the husk and use mortal and pestle to crush
  • Half teaspoon of turmeric powder, you can tell it is fresh from its aroma
  • 2 fat limes, zest and juice, keep separate
  • Salt

You can use any normal whole milk, but I am going to pay homage to Alexandre Milk (6% fat) – the first one I used to make this recipe. I mix the milk with a tsp of salt, zest of a lime or two, a half tsp of turmeric, a half tsp of crushed cardamom pods. Once it reaches boiling point, you put just enough lime juice to curdle the milk and get a clear whey. Then drain the coagulants away from the whey. The whey can be re-purposed if you are not lactose sensitive, it contains whey protein and is traditionally used in lentil soups. The coagulant can be pressed into a block, cooled and chopped into blocks.

I love the yellow paneer blocks in my green saag. Cardamom is a super spice. Its sweet tones go well with complex roasted flavors of the vegetables that will follow in the sauce. Once you make the paneer, you can stash it away for a few days.

Stage 2: Roasting the greens

Before we start, here is what we will need:

  • 2 medium or large poblano peppers
  • 1 head of garlic, wrapped in a foil with a teaspoon of water
  • 2 leeks
  • 6 tomatillo

In a pre-heated 400F oven, shove in poblano, tomatillos, whole head of garlic and leeks for 25-30 minutes. The leeks should be carefully rinsed to remove any dirt, the green parts separated from the whites, the whites cut into half longitudinally for better browning. The poblano peppers can be left whole or cut in half. The tomatillos skin should be taken off and the tomatillo rinsed, but otherwise left intact.

Once done roasting, cool and removed skins from poblanos and tomatillos.

Stage 3: Putting it together

Before you start, here is what you will need:

  • A large bunch of fresh tender spinach leaves, washed
  • A large bunch of fresh tender lacinato kale, washed, separate any hardy stems
  • Stems of a large bunch of cilantro, reserve the leaves for another use
  • 1-2 dried red chili
  • 4 tbsp butter or ghee (aka clarified butter)
  • Salt
  • Previous roasted vegetables from stage 2
  • Paneer from stage 1

Take the roasted leek greens and kale stems, add 6 cups of water and boil gently for 30 minutes. Strain the broth. Add spinach and cook for 30 minutes. If you are not sensitive to the oxalic acid in spinach, you can cook for a shorter time. Add kale and cook for another 15 minutes.

Squeeze the roasted garlic out of the cloves and blend together with roasted leek whites, poblano peppers, spinach, kale, cilantro stems. Add as much broth as you would need to make a thick cake batter like consistency for the puree. Add 4 of the tomatillos and taste the puree. Add the remaining two tomatillos if their sourness is not overwhelming. You may want to adjust salt at this stage.

In a large pot, melt 4 tbsp of butter/ghee, break the red chili peppers and toast them lightly. It is possible to modulate their heat down by nicking them instead of breaking them. Add the green puree. Cook for 10-12 minutes to blend the flavors. Add the chopped paneer blocks. Adjust salt to taste. You can keep this for a day or two.


Serve with cooked parboiled rice. I like to cook my rice like pasta – plenty of water and then draining the water out. This makes for perfectly cooked rice every time. To round this out, you can put together a plate of salad with fresh cucumbers, sliced red onions, and tomatoes. The red onions balance out the rich saag-paneer dish. Sprinkle with lime juice and flaky salt. Also toast some pappadam.

Written by Som

June 9, 2020 at 8:07 am

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