Category: Cuisine

Potato Tales: All About Aloo

Bengali aloor dum. Image courtesy Whiskaffair

We Indians and aloo. The starchy potato or aloo is probably the most popular vegetable in India. There’s aloo in our samosa and aloo in our dosa, there’s aloo parantha and aloo bonda, there’s aloo tikki, aloo chat and what not. Especially in a bong household most veggies are paired with aloo – aloo kopir dalna, aloo pataler dalna, aloo peper dalna and the list goes on. There’s aloo in our mutton and fish curries too. Aloo or potato in these non-veg curries especially mutton adds a flavour that is much coveted.

Aloo doesn’t only lend support to other vegetables it stands on tall on its own as well. It’s probably the friendliest veggie that easily blends most veggies and yet has a character of its own. Aloo bhaja, aloo posto, aloor dum, aloo bhate (Bengali version on mashed potato) are a few popular Bong preparations. Not just in Bengal versatile aloo has popular culinary representations across India – Kashmiri dum aloo, Brijwasi aloo of Vrindavav, dahi aloo in UP and aloo chokha in Bihar are relished by people across India. Much to the surprise of Westerners’, we Indians have aloo with roti and chawal – carb with carb as they put.

In the West aloo or potato is often the substitute for our roti and chawal, served with roast chicken, baked fish and veggies etc. We also have popular potato snacks like potato chips, French fries and very classy potato in jacket. Potato is probably one vegetable that is popular across the world, across cultures. Weight watchers may raise their brows, but gol aloo or starchy potato is a nutritious vegetable rich in potassium, iron and vitamins.

The origin of potato

Potato or aloo is one vegetable that has travelled across the world. Potato was first found in Peru and extreme northwestern Bolivia sometime between 8000 and 5000 BC. The cultivation of potato is South America may go back 10,000 years, however the earliest archeologically verified potato tuber remains were found at the coastal site of Ancon, central Peru dating back to 2500 BC. Since then potato has travelled to many countries.

Potato first reached Europe sometime before the end of 16th century, first in Spain and then in British Isles. In France potato was introduced at the end of the 16th century. According to the 1785 edition of Bon Jardinier, “There is no vegetable about which so much has been written and so much enthusiasm has been shown … The poor should be quite content with this foodstuff.” Yes, potato was largely considered to be food for the poor then.

Throughout Europe, the most important new staple food of the 19th century potato had three major advantages over other foods: its lower rate of spoilage, its bulk (which easily satisfied hunger) and its cheapness. The crop slowly spread across Europe, becoming a major staple by mid-century, especially in Ireland.

Aloo comes to India

Potato started becoming a popular food in the East as well. Introduced in  China toward the end of the Ming dynasty, potato immediately became a delicacy of the imperial family. Sometime between 1735–96 the growing population of China led to potato cultivation across the country and it was acclimated to the natural conditions.

In India, author Edward Terry mentioned potato in his travel accounts of the banquet at Ajmer hosted by Asaph Khan for Sir Thomas Roe, the British Ambassador in 1675. The vegetables gardens of Surat and Karnataka mentions potatoes in Fyer’s travel record of 1675. The Portuguese introduced potatoes, which they called ‘Batata’, to India in the early seventeenth century when they cultivated it along the western coast, thus we have batata and famous batata vada in Maharashtra. British traders introduced potatoes to Bengal as a root crop, ‘Alu’, and alu became Bengal’s much loved aloo. By the end of the 18th century, it was cultivated across northern hill areas of India.

Aloo wins over India

Since then potato or gol mol aloo has won over Indian palates. Though aloo maybe round and some preparations like fries and chips fattening, the vegetable by itself in not fattening. Potato is an all-purpose, high fibre vegetable than can be quite nutritious if prepared in the right way!

My newly found love for Earthenware by Titas Mazumdar

 Earthen Pots- The true organic pot for cooking Indian food.  My new passion in cooking section is terracotta Pots. I have heard so much about ancient healthy and hygienic cooking in them that I finally got attracted to it and started trying my hands on it.

Assorted eartherware from my collection

Thinking of these pots, take me back to those childhood days in Krishnanagar at my Grany’s place, where once in a while, we used to lit a fire outside the house and cook in those earthen handis. It used to be fun-filled cooking noontime, full of excitement with my Dadu and Dida. But that too was a rarity in my growing days.

My Dad has fond memories of his childhood days cooking in those earthen pots. I have heard these stories several times and every single time he narrates them with a sparkle in his eyes. In his growing days chicken was not a popular Hindu meat so was not allowed in the regular kitchen. Cooking Chicken in the household used to be a big deal and rarely it was allowed to be cooked at homes. My Dad describes how he along with the other siblings would gather together and the elder one would take the lead to cook chicken in the courtyard during a bright sunny winter morning. The custom was to destroy the pot every single time after cooking chicken as chicken was considered as untouchable meat and the pots used to cook them went back to the soil where it came from.

In 2018 we went for a vacation to Hartola in Uttarakhand and there we stayed in a home stay assisted by a local cook. First time I saw how easily Rajma can be boiled in those beautiful earthen pots and from there my inner desire kicked in for these earthen beauties. I started collecting few from local Banjara market and few from Surajkund Mela.

There are lot of benefits of cooking in earthen pots, primarily the taste. As these pots are porous they retain heat and moisture and  ensure an even distribution of heat throughout the entire cooking process. The food cooked in these earthen pots are no doubt more aromatic, tasty and it retains the nutrition of the food and on top of that adds required minerals that include calcium, magnesium, iron and phosphorus. Isn’t it magic cooking?

Champaran Mutton

This pandemic time gave me a lot of opportunities to explore new things, and one among them is cooking in these earthen pots.  My best one is cooking Champaran Mutton (a speciality from Bihar) in terracotta handis.  You can feel the spices in the tender meat which melts into your mouth. I also make Kerala fish curry in these pots. The spices enter in fish uniformly making it soft and tasty even more. Daal is a must-try in these pots, it will the best Daal which you have ever tasted. Stir-frying vegetables in a terracotta pan is also a tried and tested option.

In Olden days, Bengal’s Sara pithe a popular sweet dish of the Harvest festival (Poush Shankranti) used to be prepared in earthen pots. The misti doi & rosogolla in Bengal comes in clay pots and outside every offices and corner of the road, you can still see bharer cha (earthen cups) for tea. The simple rule is to drink it and crush it, no use of paper or plastic cups till date.

Having said all these, one thing for sure, these earthen beauties need lot of care and pampering. We cannot wash it in a similar way with other utensils. Washing tips I got from the Banjaras from whom I purchased the pots. Never use soap in these posts, porous body will absorb the soap water and might be injurious to health. I can’t put them in dishwasher too along with other dishes. After using the pots I just wash with hot water to remove the food particle, after that I boil water in the pot for 5 to 10 mins so that the oil and smell goes away and the pots become sterile. This has helped to keep them clean and odour free. These darlings are no wonder high maintenance babies which needs care during washing and also from mishandling.  I call them the delicate darlings of my Kitchen and the most pampered ones, but trust me they are worth the pamper considering the tasty food they help me to serve.

No wonder that earthen pots have magic but honestly I don’t use it daily, though I am trying to introduce terracotta wares in my daily cooking and not just the fancy one

A quick recipe of my style of Kerala fish curry- A simple one.

  1. Wash king fish (Surmai) pieces, put salt and turmeric
  2. Original recipe don’t tell you to deep fry it but I do to get rid of its fishy smell. But one caution don’t over fry it, otherwise, it will become tough. A quick shallow fry will also do.
  3. Take an earthen pot , heat it with little oil- fry ginger pieces, whole garlic cloves, Onion cubes, red chillies, tomatoes, black pepper, curry leaves, whole jeera for 5 to 10 mins, switch off and let it cool down. Make a paste of it.
  4. Now in the same terracotta pot put oil, let it heat and then put curry leaves, mustard seeds, fenugreek seeds- once it splutters, put chopped onions and fry till its light brown.
  5. Add the paste made to it and keep frying in the same oil.
  6. Once cooked add coconut milk and pot the fish in the creamy gravy.
  7. Serve it with LOVE, along with Dosa or rice .

The earthy sweetness of Poush Sankranti

Malpoa & dudh puli from Swadhinata’a kitchen

There’s a price that we pay for city living, losing out on our traditional festivals being one. I remember Poush Sankranti as an important occasion growing up. Mom and my grandmother would get up early, take bath and pay homage to the sun. We were pulled out of bed asked to bathe and wear fresh clothes before eating anything. The temptation of yummy khichuri, labra (mixed veggie) and bhaja would make us hurry.

Sankrati or Makar Sankranti is one of the few Hindu festivals that is observed according to the solar cycles, thus falling on the same date as per the English calendar every year (it’s usually on Jan 14th except in some years it shifts by a day to Jan 15th). It is said that the Sun enters the Capricorn (Makar) zodiac on that day, marking the end of the winter solstice as per the Hindu calendar. While most Hindu festivals are set by lunar cycle, Sankranti celebrates Sun and the solar cycle.

It could be because Sun or the right amount of sunlight is so important for a good harvest. Hailed as the harvest festival Sankranti is celebrated across India in different names – Magh Bihu in Assam; Maghi (preceded by Lohri) in Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh, popular amongst both the Hindus and Sikhs. It’s Sukarat in central India; Pongal in Tamil Nadu; Uttarayan in Gujarat, Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh; Ghughuti in Uttarakhand; Makara Sankranti in Odisha, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Goa and West Bengal; or as Sankranthi in Andhra and Telangana. Irrespective of the many names feasting is an integral part of this festival, preparing a lavish meal with fresh yields from the field. We urban souls off course depend on the yield transported to our markets and mandis.

Makar Sankranti or Poush Sankranti is also called Pithe Porbon in Bengal as we prepare a range of Pithe (sweet savouries made out of rice flour, gur, coconut or khoya) on that day. However, in my family there would be no Pithe made on Sankranti as a little child once (generations back) accidentally choked on rice flour while his mother was making Pithe. Since then, the family decided not to make Pithe on Sankranti day. We would stick to khichuri and its accompaniments. My mother would make Pithe and payesh a day prior to Sankranti so we could have Pithe on that day, yet the tradition would not be broken.

Chitoi Pithe with jhola gur (liquid jaggery), pathishapta, dudh puli, malpoa and off course nolen gurer payesh (kheer made with rice and date jaggery) are made in most household. Sharing an image from my friend Swadhinata’a Instagram account who keeps the tradition alive even in Grenoble. “My childhood used to be closely associated with this day when my mother used to make varieties of pithe, and we all used to have fun eating them. To commemorate this festival, I made 3 varieties of pithe namely dudh puli pithe with narkel and nolen gurer pur (semolina/rice dumplings with coconut and jaggery filling), narkeler gujiya/bhaja puli (fried rice flour/wheat flour dumplings with coconut and sugar filling); and shukno sujir malpoa/poa pithe (fried semolina pancakes). It was awesome to see them come out so well and I got nostalgic,” says Swadhinata. (Swadhinata delights us with her culinary posts on her Instagram page bobbysaha).

Back home my sister Miki too made a range of pithes. The pictures that she shared on WhatsApp did make me very nostalgic. And thank God for Roy Meshomoshai and Mashima who live in my society I could savour the flavours of Poush Sankranti. I just hopped over to their place and had my fill of khichuri, labra, pathishapta and payesh. Their children who happen to be my very close friends were also there. Good food, great company and Old Monk was the flavour of Poush Sankranti this year.

Winter afternoons and China (Cheena) Badam…AKA Peanuts

Winter and peanuts share a strong bond, or at least they used to once upon a time. As a girl I remember sitting on our terrace in Agartala with my sisters or in the courtyard at my grandparents’ place in Lucknow with my cousins, the winter sun on our back, shelling peanuts over idle chit chats. The warmth of the winter and freshly roasted peanuts, what an intoxicating combination it was!

Cheers to Peanuts

Peanuts, commonly known as china badam in Bengali, is a popular winter snack. In the winter we would find vendors in every corner roasting whole peanuts in a huge iron kadai placed on the warm sand. Wrapped in old newspapers in small conical packs we would buy those peanuts for a few pennies, shelling them and popping the nuts in our mouth of lazy winter afternoons. Though I can’t figure why peanuts are china badam, there seems to be no connection with China and peanuts in Bengal.    

Also known as the groundnut, goober (US), pindar (US) or monkey nut (UK), peanuts are one of the world’s oldest crops. The only nut that grows underground, peanuts were first cultivated in Brazil-Bolivia-Peru region about 5000 years ago. In the 15th century, Spanish and Portuguese explorers shipped peanuts from South America to Asia, Europe and Africa. An American named George Washington Carver is considered to be the ‘Father of peanut industry’ as he researched and developed more than 300 other uses for peanuts and improved peanut cultivation. It is believed that Jesuit Fathers introduced peanuts to India in the first half of the 16th century. Portuguese got peanuts to Goa around the same time, their colony then. From Goa peanut travelled to China. Peanut cultivation is big in China and India today.  

Freshly roasted peanuts

A popular on the go snack, especially in winters, roasted peanuts are enjoyed in parks, in a stadium during a cricket match or any other sporting event or during any outdoor activity. Called ‘time pass’ in Mumbai people munch peanuts or moongphalis in local trains. We Bongs also enjoy fried peanuts with our muri makha or chire bhajaChirer pulau (bong poha) is made with peanuts and boiled potatoes. Our delicious samosas have peanuts in them with aloo. In small restaurants or food joints, they put peanuts in biriyani as well. And of course, badam bhaja or fried peanuts with a cup of tea and beer!

Peanuts are very popular in Gujarati and Marathi cuisines as well. Guajarati’s use peanut in roadside snack Dabeli to Gujarati Dal. In Maharashtra, it goes hand-in-hand with another favourite sabudana. We also enjoy peanut chutney or salad tossed with roasted and crushed peanuts. And nothing can beat the sweetness of badam patti or chikki after a winter meal. I am a big fan of American peanut butter and Thai cuisines in peanut sauce as well.

We grew up munching peanuts, celebrated with them, gossiped other hot freshly roasted peanuts or china badam. These nuts bring so much to table, add to the flavour and the mood. And to forget the immense health benefits of peanuts. I sometimes wonder why Peanuts are considered humble at all!

Choruibhati – pure Bong Picnic

Picnic or Choruibhati is something that we Bongs indulge in, especially in the month of December. Many of us usher the New Year by heading out for a Picnic, Boro diner (New Year’s) Picnic as it’s popularly called. When we were growing up, Choruibhati or Picnic meant a big group of friends and family heading out in a minibus to the outskirts of the city early morning, to a riverbank or forest land, making a makeshift clay-oven, gathering woods and then cooking and eating a meal out in the open. We carried the ingredients and the utensils with us. Of course, there would be a lot of fun and games, singing, dancing etc. in between cooking and the meals. Late afternoon lunch would usually be hot dalbhaja, mutton and rice served on disposable plates. There was something special about those freshly prepared Choruibhati meals that we would sit on the grass and eat!

When we go the wild for Bonbhojon

Since we went for Picnics to idyllic locations away from the city, Bonbhojon (feast in the forest) is another apt Bong term for Picnic. Bengali zamindars or aristocracy added flavours of hunting and boat riding as well to Bonbhojon. Often, they would shoot a duck or a bird to be cooked in the open and stroll the river in their boats. But for a long time, I couldn’t fathom why we Bongs loved to call Picnic Choruibhati, that literally translates to Sparrows Feast. What does a cute little sparrow have to do with Picnic? Only recently I learnt that Chorui also means open space while bhati means feast, and Choruibhati thus translates to a grand feast in the open.

Interestingly, in its early days, Picnic was an indoor affair that originated from France. It is speculated that French Pique-Nique may have been derived from verb piquer (‘to peck’ or ‘to pick’) and the noun nique (‘a small amount’ or ‘nothing whatsoever’ in the mid-18th century. By late 18th century Picnic or Pique-Nique was a fashionable affair – a dinner to which each guest would contribute, very similar to potluck lunches. It was a favourite pastime of genteel, sometimes involved singing and dancing but was always indoors. 

Picnic travelled to England after the French Revolution, where many from French aristocracy fled fearing for their lives. It soon gained popularity amongst the English upper class. A Pic Nic society was founded in 1801 by a group of 200 wealthy young Francophiles.

Image courtesy The Gurdian

Sometime in 20th-century Picnic travelled outdoor. It was supposed to be an outdoor meal in idyllic locations, an innocent pleasure that aristocracy indulged in.  Picnic basket for packing in cold lunch came into being. Soon wine found place in the Picnic basket. Eventually, it also became more mass, with the working class enjoying their own Picnics. 

From England, Picnic travelled to America. I assume Britishers’ brought Picnic to India and genteel Bongs embraced it. Kolkata being the British capital then, Bongs did enjoy certain proximity with the British Colonial rulers. Though we adopted the concept, we packed more punch to it. Rather than carrying packed food, we decided to cook out in the open. Bong food tastes best when freshly cooked.

We modern Bongs sometimes become lazy though and, we just drive to a Picnic spot that serves cooked meals. Though it is fun, it can’t match Choruibhati – the excitement of gathering woods and a cooking meal in the open!

Arpan in Apron- with a BIG Smile and a Spatula by Titas Mazumdar

Gone are the days when work was defined as per gender and strict parameters were set. If I being a female can take the car keys, drive amidst traffic without being abusive, login to my work station, pay my house bills why can’t my better half change the diaper, cook a meal once a day, do the laundry?

Is it too much to ask for? I don’t think so. It’s just the right expectation which couples have to set from day 1 they start their journey together. Things just fall into place.

Arpan with spatula

Year 2002 –Arpan my Husband now and Boyfriend/Fiancée back then, moved to US for his PHD and I was pursuing my B-tech/Applied physics at Kolkata. Arpan was never exposed to cooking until then. Bong guy raised by Grand Ma /Mom and then moved to Hostel and then all of a sudden to a foreign land had to learn basis life skills to survive. Bongs in general I have seen are super foodies and no wonder hogs on  Non-veg. Staying with south Indian friends in his initial bachelor days was definitely not easy when you have to survive mostly on Curd rice and Podi. In this situation, you are not left with any options but just learn cooking.  And our Long distance romance- Kolkata to Florida was mostly on teaching him basic life skills which is cooking. It started with simple food like Daal Tadka, Begun bharta, Pulao, mixed vegetables, —but do you think this Bong girl who till that time never stepped out of her parent’s nest knew how to cook? The answer is “NO”.  My recipe book was my Grand Ma. All those recipes shared with Arpan back in those days over Yahoo Chats, ISD phone calls were my Dida’s recipes which made Arpan quite a big chef which I realized once I reached US 2.5 yrs later.

Yummy prawns

Year 2003 Dec – Arpan in Mumbai to meet her Lady Love. I just joined Mumbai TCS in Jul 2003, staying with my roommates and learning to cook to satisfy my taste buds. The role was reversed and by then Arpan was a renowned cook in his bachelor circle and often gave me lessons over our daily phone calls. Arpan stayed in Mumbai for a week and one evening we planned to cook together. And yes that was the first time ever we were cooking for each other. Arpan chose Fried rice and I chose Palak Paneer to impress the other one. Not sure it was love or something else but those half cooked Fried rice and runny Palak Paneer cooked out of the most important ingredient “LOVE” tasted heavenly. And we both were assured that after marriage food will never be an issue, both of us can please each other with this newly acquired art of ours.

Year 2005- March- I was in California for my 1st onsite assignment and Arpan used to visit me every month from Florida. We purposefully used to book those hotels with cooking facilities, so that we can cook for each other. I used to go for early morning shifts and Arpan used to surprise me at lunch with his new learnt recipes every single time- Shrimp Okra, baked Salmon, roasted chicken.

Year 2006- Feb- we tied the knot and I moved to Pennsylvania and rented a house. No more room mates, no more fighting for space. A house of my own, my first house along the rail lines of Secane Station in Philadelphia. Arpan was still perusing his PHD hence he used to stay 15days with me at Phili and another 15 days at Boca Raton, Florida for his research work. Those 15days of his stay used to be our Food holidays…Whatever Arpan learnt from his Canadian roommate, French senior or Iranian class mate used to be on our dinner table. Rarely did he cooked anything Bengali or Indian- it used to be variety every single day like  Fried Calamari, Oysters in white wine sauce, Grilled Lamb, Ghormeh Sabji,  Beef steak and the list goes on and on. After work cooking used be our stress busters. It was like both of us competing for master chef competition but slowly with baby steps we unknowingly became passionate cooks, trying various recipes at home. Then those weekend potluck or any friend coming for dinner it was like who will cook what, and trust me, we never repeated any recipe for the same set of guests.

Yes food and love for food made Arpan an expert in most of the foreign dishes- anything to do with grill, bake, steam, roast- he is always ready to take the lead. Only for bong food he looks forward to my cooking. The load got well distributed over the years and I can happily say we equally share our Kitchen. I did a good job of a taster and food critic I guess, 15 years of our marriage and yes every day dinner delicacies are from Arpan …. Mostly my logoff time is late, so dinner is Arpan’s job and he does it with love especially those Thai curries, cream of mushroom, tomato basil oat soups to name a few.

Once upon a time he used to cook to impress his lady love but now for his little love- Megh. Megh will go gaga for daddy’s white sauce pasta. I still remember first time when Arpan made Alfredo sauce from raw eggs- newly learnt recipe from his half Italian friend…he sacrificed few dozen of eggs but was still not able to get to the perfection. What the heck, we now use the easy recipe of white sauce by Sanjeev Kapoor.

Biryani has always been disloyal to Arpan, that’s his biggest sorrow. Every single time it’s a disaster. But I fall in love over and over again for his Grilled pork, Greek lamb, Mutton stew, Beef Kebabs. But one little thing I must share about his cooking, whenever he enter the kitchen for some special dish, I can bet on this, every single time I will get a surprise and every time those are not happy surprises.  I always tell him that he can never replicate his own dishes, every time its different one because he doesn’t believe in you tube recipes, or noting down his own recipes, he believes in his intuition which sometimes go haywire.

Arpan’s greatest cooking wish/dream is to open a roof top restaurant which will not have any menu card. Whatever he wishes to cook on that particular day, which will be of course some fusion dish , will be served to the customers who wants to risk their appetite for his dishes… keeping fingers crossed, I am waiting for that dream restaurant too.

Stirring magic in the kitchen: Sanjay Roy in apron

Kitchen has traditionally been women’s domain. The responsibility of cooking at home was shouldered largely by the lady of the house. Men cooked but professionally – first as humble bawarchis and later as glamourous chefs. Could be because of the stereotypical patriarchal perception that women are meant to take care of home while men earn a living.

Thankfully, these stereotypes are changing, albeit slowly. Men are entering the kitchen at home and delighting us with their culinary skills. Sanjay Roy a hotelier by profession, a chef and a cook by passion is one such example. Though Sanjay headed operations of various chains like Hot Breads, Bisque and hotels, he has always stepped into the kitchen to develop innovative products. His customers in these bakery chains would look forward to cakes and pastries specially made by Sanjay. At home too he often enters the kitchen to pamper the taste buds of his family and friends. Be it his biriyani or mutton dishes, grilled fish or continental we look forward to his specialities during any gathering.

I am interviewing Sanjay Kumar Roy, a dear friend, who effortlessly dons the apron to pamper our taste buds with many delicacies.

How did you develop fondness for cooking?

I think it was there from the very childhood, may be because I have a very peculiar taste bud. I could, even as a child tell whether the food prepared was good or bad, the unique taste of different masalas and flavours they add. So, when I grew up and joined the hotel industry I always stepped into the kitchen. Wherever I worked, I wanted to first check out the kitchen because unless you know your products, you can’t sell them. And that is how the interest developed. I started sharing tips with chefs to improve their recipes and develop new products initially. But I got involved in food development when I joined bakery. I used to be in the kitchen a lot then, apart from supervising other operations.

But you are not a professional chef, you were more charge of operations. Why didn’t you opt to become a chef when you joined IHM Delhi?

A delectable spread

I think the realization came very late. Also, when I joined IHM 30 years back, becoming a chef wasn’t as glamourous as it is today. Now things have changed, and a chef’s coat commands lot of prestige. Also, there was nobody to guide me and I did feel later that I should have gone into full time production. Since I had the knack for it, I would get into designing kitchen, developing new recipes while overseeing operations. I liked to do something different with each outlet.

Since you are someone who has does both, how’s cooking at home different from cooking professionally?

Sheek kebab biriyani

The only major difference is when you do the professional cooking you have all the professional gadgets and equipment. When I cook at home, I miss those. Though my kitchen at home is quite well equipped I do miss the commercial tools. But I do enjoy cooking at home as it’s more out of love and passion.

Home kitchens are meant for a particular portion of cooking, for four people or five people at best, or if you are having a party once in a while, then you cook for a larger group. But then if you have to do commercial cooking from home every day, it becomes difficult.

Cooking for family is enjoyable. It’s a stress buster. And when my daughter or wife appreciates that’s even better.

What is it that you cook at home?

At home I cook what my family and friends demand. My daughter Prapti likes pastas so I make different kinds of pastas. She has a unique taste bud for a child, but she likes anything I make. My wife prefers continental or Chinese, things that are not regularly made at home. When I cook, I like to give them the feel of fine dining at home.

What, according to you is the most important ingredient when you are cooking?

Your passion is a very, very important when you are cooking. Sometimes you may not have all the ingredients, but you will still manage fine. If you have all the ingredients, then there is no problem. But sometimes at home, all the ingredients may not be available. You have to manage, you have to innovative, you have to be open to experiment.

And when you cook professionally, say like, when you developed cakes and pastries for Hot Breads and or now for your own brand Dessi Baker, what is it that you offer to your customers?

When you’re cooking commercially your ingredients have to be a top notch. You can’t just make your products with inferior quality of ingredients. We have to make sure that we are using the right kind of ingredient which helps in developing good products. When you cook professionally customer is the King, and we have to design our dishes as per their requirement and the liking.

What does Dessi Baker?

Dessi Baker offers a range of bakery items from specialty breads, cakes, pizzas, to muffins, cookies and doughnuts, and some frozen food items. We also cater to special requests from customers like glutton free bread, or special items for people who are lactose intolerant. That is how we came up with idea of Dessi Bakers, to offer people what they want.

During the lock down we took bread, cakes and other items to people’s doorsteps, and they were really grateful for that. We delivered specially baked cakes for their birthdays and anniversaries. And I think that has been appreciated. We wanted to bring smile on people’s faces during these difficult times.

Blood orange campari cocktail

Sometimes people are just focused on taste. But how important is art of presentation to you?

Cooking is an art. Anything that you do with passion is an art, whether it is a painting or even making a building. You do want people to appreciate you.

Also, I am perfectionist and I pay equal attention to cooking and presentation. I believe people eat through their eyes first and anything that’s not presented well will not appeal to them. So, it is very, very important that food is presented well and that’s an art, especially when you do confectionary. Not everybody can be a confectioner because you need have an artistic sense when you decorate a cake. Similarly, food presentation, plating is in very important when you’re banqueting. Also, table spreads and artfully done carvings add to the feel. The overall presentation has a lot to do with how people appreciate food.

What is it you like to cook the most, the things that you enjoy doing most as a cook at home, as a professional chef?

I prefer majorly doing Italian and continental. I find them much easier and neater things to do. I also enjoy making Pan-Asian – basically a combination of sauces and spices and other vegetables, which may be available at home. In Indian, I only do particular dishes like biriyani, mutton etc. at home. But bakery & confectionary is my first love.

Your favourite food

I like steak, I would love to have it anytime.

And what about home cooked food?

Simple daal chawal and aloo cooked by mom or my wife Sanchita. I love karela, I can have karela any time, in any style.

Thank you, Sanjay, enjoyed the gastronomical trip!

My Bong Cooking: from Compulsion to Passion by Titas Mazumdar

As a girl in Dhanbad and later during my college days in Kolkata I rarely got entry to my Mom’s Kitchen. Mom is very possessive about her kitchen and few are the occasions when I got chance to try my hands in her kitchen. Hence my self-cooking actually started with my first job when I moved to Mumbai and started staying with roommates. We used to take turns cooking dinner and that is the time when I started cooking out of necessity and compulsion.

Traditional Bong meal on banana leaf

My cooking from compulsion slowly turned into passion over the years when I move to US and then got married to a food lover. Indian food in general and Bong food in particular is not widely available – as per our taste in western countries. My husband also enjoys cooking and rarely criticizes what I make which is a blessing and inspires me to experiment with variety of cuisines.

I was picky eater during my childhood days until I started cooking and appreciating various flavors which comes from different spices used in Bengali cooking. The flavour that comes from fried whole red chilies in pure ghee used for Daal is unique, the aroma of Panch Phoran (seeds of Mustard, Fennel, Nigella, Fenugreek, Radhuni) does wonders in most Bong dishes. Another unique spice is mustard paste and poppy seed paste used in typical Bengali dishes. Fishes cooked in Mustard oil and mustard paste and eaten with white rice tickles your taste buds with a pungent aromatic flavour. Vegetables cooked in white poppy seed paste puts you to a lazy, late afternoon nap. And not to forget the mouthwatering flavour of mustard and poppy seeds together used for Shrimp and Hilsa fish curries which will linger with you for several days.

We all love talking about our own regional dishes and most of the times get carried away by it. I think mostly it’s about the acquired taste over time. Food brings back lot of childhood memories too. Food which I hated during my growing years are the ones which I crave for now. I smile when I see my 8 year old pushing away the mouthwatering dishes as she is still in the process of acquiring the taste to appreciate them, so it’s very important to keep on pushing kids to try out tradition food cooked daily at home even though they dislike it. It’s just matter of time you will see how appreciative they become of these traditional meals.

Today I love the aroma of fried Neem leaves mixed with mashed potatoes and yes traditional bong lunch starts with something bitter, be it Neem or Bitter gourd fried/boiled or if it’s any special occasion then Bitter Gourd Sukto– the bitter and sweet white creamy mixed vegetable dish. My passion for Bong food started with those weekend potlucks when I was staying in Philadelphia. We had few Bengali families who used to meet without fail every Saturday for elaborate Bong Adda and potluck dinner. The main attraction of those potlucks were that no dish was repeated. Every single one of us came up with variety bong dishes and that’s how I got to try my hands in various Bong recipes. Sujata’s Kitchen was my favorite website in those days for trying out Bong food as You-tube was not that popular or was not flooded with so many cooking videos. Today trying out various traditional recipes has become simple. I try out different East and West Bengal recipes from You tube channels. It’s not only thrilling and exciting but also takes me back to my roots!

Bengalis are always known for their Fishes and Rosogollas but just to let everyone know we have a variety of vegetarian dishes too which surpass Indian veg dishes from other states in count. Our range of vegetable is very similar to those in Chinese and other South East Asian countries. During my stay in US Bengali vegetables which were never available in “Patel Brothers (the most popular Indian grocery chain there)” were found in those smelly Chinese market –  variety of vegetables like stem of banana tree and flower of banana, different leafy vegetables (Saag) and roots of plants (Yam). I am sure most Indians don’t know that we make excellent dishes with banana stem (Thor in Bengali) and banana flowers (Mocha). Do you know we eat peels (Khosa Bhaja) of most of the vegetables like bottle guard (Lauki), potatoes, pointed gourd (Parwal) and raw banana peel. I can see you raising your eye brows. Just get hold of a Bong friend and bribe her for these delicacies which you will rarely get in any Bong restaurants. These are only ‘made in home’ grandmother dishes.

Entire India eats unripen jackfruit curry, we too love jackfruit curry and also the ripe jackfruit and the big white seeds inside ripe jackfruit which is again a specialty in Bengal. We take the seeds from the jackfruit juicy pulp, sun dry it, remove the external skin and cut into pieces and use it as fries, put it in Daal and mixed vegetable curry. Needless to say it enhances the flavor.

Let me share a quick mouthwatering banana stem recipe with you all – Banana Stem Fried rice (Thor Pulao/ Chal Thor)

  1. Get hold of Banana stem (yes that’s a challenge based on your geographic location, I leave it up to you).
  2. Keep removing the external hard skin till you can’t remove anything. Once you have reached the soft white portion, slice it, remove the fibers with finger and then cut into small pieces. Soak it in salt turmeric water.
  3. Soak flavored rice for 30 mins, we prefer Govindo Bhog, you can use Basmati also preferable broken. Drain out rice water keep it aside to dry.
  4. Heat  pan/ kadai, put ghee( yes only ghee)- bay leaves, sahi Jira, and cinnamon stick and crushed Cardamom (Black), once the flavor comes put the drained rice and mixing it slowly.
  5. After 10 mins when the rice is completely dry and is coated with ghee, add the cut Thor pieces. Remember to hand press it and take away all the water.
  6. Keep frying for another 5 to 10 mins, when its dry add water in same proportion as rice quantity, cover it.
  7. Periodically keep a watch till the rice is cooked and add water if required, put soaked raisins (optional). Add salt and definitely sugar as Bengali Pulao has a Bengali sweetness in it too.
  8. Before removing from heat add chopped green chilies and Bong Garam Masala powder (it’s always homemade- powder of Cinnamon, Clove and Cardamom- NO Jira or pepper powder).
  9. Last but never the least- Serve it with LOVE.

I am sure you all will enjoy it……Unlimited Love is the best Spice to make your food tasty and flavorful.

My Kitchen Garden with the help of those tiny hands by Titas Mazumdar

Working Mom – isn’t it always a big challenge? The guilt of not able to give enough time to your little ones, and the fear of not creating enough childhood memories. I am no different and not free from those guilts. I keep on brainstorming and engaging my little time after work and weekend with my daughter with a lot of creative stuff like DIY projects, best out of waste, bottle painting, soap making and the list goes on and on. The best one which is also a stress buster for me is gardening with the help of those tiny hands.

I always dreamt of having my own vegetable garden but never had the luck of staying on the ground floor to grow my own, but as the saying goes, where there is a will there is a way. Luckily, I am blessed with 4 big terraces that prompted me to take up terrace farming. I realized that’s the best way to keep my little one engaged and create some childhood memories for her.

YouTube is my best teacher; yes there ought to be couple of hits and misses but I never lose hope and faith, and always remember there are no gardening mistakes but only experiments. These video and tips help me a lot in my journey of building my terrace garden. I never buy seeds from market, I use vegetable seeds, shoots, cuttings to grow my veggies. Pumpkin, bitter gourd and watermelon are the easiest to grow, they have never failed me. I let my daughter pick the fat healthy seeds from these fruits and allow her to sprinkle them all around. The excitement in those tiny eyes to see the seeds sprouting is unfathomable. Within few weeks tender leaves comes out and within a month, if the soil is healthy enough, the plants start flowering. 

There is also another very interesting aspect when you are farming at home with your kids. I introduced her to the concept of photosynthesis, pollination, male and female flowers and fertilization. It’s very easy to identify male and female flowers in these melon category plants. Many a times male and female flowers are out of proportion in numbers and hence I use hand pollination (Remember those 80s Hindi movies 🙂 and hand pollination does help too, got quite a good result from it. Trust me growing a kitchen garden with my daughter has been so much fun!

Freshly grown tomatoes

After successful fertilization, the wait time is a little longer as the fruits grow slowly at their own pace. Bitter gourd can be harvested quickly within a couple of weeks but pumpkin and watermelon take more than three months to grow to full size. It’s a different kind of pleasure growing your own fruits and vegetables, though in a small quantity, the satisfaction is immense. Someone rightly said growing your own food is like printing your own Money 🙂

We bongs cook almost every part of the plant, say for example the leaves of bitter gourd are used with lentil paste for fritters, we eat flowers of Pumpkin plant dipped into gram flour paste and deep fried, the leaves and vegetables go with mixed vegetable curry in mustard and poppy seed paste.  I even wrap mustard coated fish in pumpkin leaves and steam it. It’s one of my family delicacies. Serving something on table from your kitchen garden is indeed tastier and healthier.

The most exciting part is when you use your vegetable waste/throw away to grow your garden. This year late winter I planted the throw away stem of a market bought cabbage, and guess what – I was gifted by nature with three medium size cabbages. One point I have noted in my last 2 years of terrace farming, you cannot expect market size from you own kitchen garden. I think one reason might be I grow in pot, ground produces a better size and secondly, I don’t use market fertilizers, it’s completely organic. I use my own fertilizers. I use fish water, egg shell, used tea leaves and coffee powder. I have two compost makers; all my kitchen waste goes there and after couple of months I get home made organic fertilizer. If you have plants you are sure to invite few pest guests too. Easy solution to keep unwanted guests out from your garden is spray diluted Neem oil with water and a spoon of Shampoo.

Pickle with home grown chillies

Garden has a tremendous healing power on a stressful and tiring day, it soothes me and relaxes my nerves. Last year I planted a Mango, Avocado, Guava tree. This year Guava plant blossomed with 25 beautiful hairy white flowers, almost 15 flowers turned into fruits but heavy wind and birds didn’t allow to grow into full size. I am just left with a few now. Lesson learnt for next year, I have to create some shade for my guava plant. I have a 6-year-old a different breed of a lemon plant (We call it Gandhoraj Lemon- King of fragrance in Bengal). This plant is yet to bear fruit but so what, I use its flavorful leaves in my Thai & Malaysian Curries and Bengali daal. It tastes heavenly.

Pasta is my daughter’s favorite and what can be tastier than making your pasta from hand-picked basils from your garden. Two varieties of basil Sweet Basil and Thai basil grows in my pot round the year for all my Southeast Asian and Italian dishes. 

Ajwain plant is another low maintenance herb and easy to grow from stems and has immense health benefit. I use thick green succulent Ajwain leaves for making Chai, Pakora, Paratha and Daal. Tomatoes and chilies will never upset you; these gorgeous sexy reds enhance the beauty of my kitchen garden.

Katha with cabbage 🙂

I also try my hands in microgreens, they are full of nutrition and gives results in just 3 to 4 days. Salad lovers will love microgreens of Moong, Methi (Fenugreek), Mustard and many more. That’s again another kind of gardening, can be very easily grown even in dark corners of your kitchen engaging your little ones. And the best part is, the kids cannot say “No” to what they have grown, even the pickiest eaters fall into the prey of their own kitchen garden and start eating veggies. Isn’t it a win-win situation for the mommies?

Titas is a banker, a mom, passionate about gardening and cooking. Look out for her next post on the many delicacies that she dishes with the yields from her kitchen garden.

Savouring Vintage Wine

The price that we are willing to pay for a bottle of old wine! Connoisseurs and collectors outbid each other in Sotheby’s or Christie’s to possess a bottle of fine vintage wine. They are preserved and stored with the utmost care and savoured only on Very special occasions. For a wine that has reached its plateau of maturity can be magical — offering nuances and textures unimaginable in a young wine.

Image courtesy winecottage.co.uk

Apparently, in 2015, Russian President, Vladamir Putin, and former Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi drank from a bottle of Jeres de la Frontera worth $90,000. Chateau Margaux 1787 is valued at $500,000 as it may have once belonged to the declaration of Independence writer, Thomas Jefferson. A bottle of the Massandra Sherry de la Frontera 1775 was sold at a Sotheby’s auction for $43,500 in London in 2001, making it the most expensive bottle of Sherry in the world.

While the above wines are beyond ordinary mortals like us, we do occasionally enjoy a mature wine – 20-year-old Port or Madeira maybe. Those occasions are special. The bottle is uncorked and wine poured with much ado. We slowly sip in the valuable liquid, role it in our tongue before taking it in. Savouring the mature flavours of old wine! 

Image courtesy Royist

However, many don’t know that not all wines age well. Only fine wines with a high level of flavour compounds, such as phenolics (most notably tannins), are likely to age well. White wines with the longest ageing potential are those with a high amount of extract and acidity. The acidity in white wines acts as a preservative like tannins in red wines. So only the likes of Pinot Noir, Port, Madeira, Claret, Bordeaux and Sherries are likely to become more valuable and flavourful with age.

Then again, it is not easy to age wine or handle vintage wine. A lot depends on the bottle, the cork and the storage. Most wood-aged ports and sherries are bottled after they have aged sufficiently in the winery, sometimes for decades. For the wine to age perfectly it needs to be stored in a cool, dark place, till all its flavours and nuances are released, and then, it can be enjoyed by someone who truly enjoys wine. Even after a bottle of vintage wine is delivered to a customer it needs to be handled with patience. Some wines need to sediment, while some need to breathe. Even decanting wine is an art to be perfected with experience. And a wine lover will always have a cool cellar for storing wines. For fine wines need to be stored in right temperature, even the angle must be right – 45 degrees.

We can fuss endlessly over old wines, and yet we go to ridiculous extent to look younger, even deny our age. Wouldn’t it be more fun to age like fine wine, becoming wiser, mature, and more enigmatic with age!  For with passing years and experience we do acquire those magical nuances to be savoured like vintage wine.