Masala Pohola Maccha Bhaja: Pepper Fish Fry

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Fish cravings V 1.0

Deep fried. Shallow fried. Steamed. Mashed. Minced. Filleted. Whole. Fish heads. And roe.Floating in mustard sauce. In yogurt sauce. In thin gravies. In thick ones. Batter-fried. Rava encrusted. Chutney wrapped. With winter vegetables. And dried mangoes.

This was all I could think of as I packed my bags for my bi-annual trips home. Every single time. And the first meal I had after Rajdhani deposited me, faithfully on time at Bhubaneswar station, had to be fishy. It was the same with Tina, my sister. Even though she made a trip every three months, good daughter that she is. We even counted the number of meat eating days we were lucky to have during our stay (see this to know more), since that translated into the number of times fish would make it to the dinning table, and the possible number of combinations in which it would arrive. Tina had (and she tells me still does) a list of things she just-had-to-eat on every single trip. A sort of bucket list. And that very often included fish for breakfast. Yes, you heard that right. Heart shaped fillets of Rohu marinated in a simple mixture of salt, turmeric and chilli powders, and shallow fried in golden mustard oil. This was the first step to making a fish curry that would form a part of my father’s lunch box that he carried with him to his office. My mother reserved some for the curry, some for a simple stir fry with green chillies and lots of onions, and the few that were left we happily had for breakfast. Just one per person, in case this whole story is forcing you to come up with rather dodgy names to refer to us-the Oriya Fish-ters or such like.

Fish Cravings V.2.0

By now you have probably worked it out that our family is very partial to a particular category of vertebrates. If you haven’t, let me say it loud (in my best Gollum voice) “WE NEEDS IT. WE WANTS IT. ITS OUR PRECIOUS“. Even when we traveled outside Orissa a good fish dish really made our trip. We were always open to trying local food, and more than happy if our beloved fish was a part of the local cuisine. One of my family’s favourite trip had been to Kerala. I opted out of it since a summer internship by some strange logic made more sense to me than vacationing in “God’s own country”. My parents and sister would call me and fill me in with the details of the day, the places the went to, the sights the saw, the food they ate. My father just could not stop praising the KarimeenCan you make it? It was excellent. It was wrapped in banana leaves. And coated with spices. Can you make it? It was very good. It had black pepper. Can you make it?”   

I have imagined standing behind Chinese fishing nets, a packet of banana chips in hand, taking in coral sunsets. I have bit into macaroons in delicate boutiques in Paris. Tasted rhubarb pies in farmers markets in England. Torn tiny pieces of Prata and dunked it into fragrant curries in Singapore. All without traveling. Most through my sister. Some through my parents. And a few via the accounts of my friends. Food enthralls me. It makes me want to travel. Since my family’s trip to Kerala, I was intrigued by the Karimeen. And by my sisters accounts of the spices found there. “You have to see the spices hanging off the creepers. The nutmeg? It looks so healthy! So glossy!” . So what if I couldn’t travel? I had my time-machine-my kitchen. I could cook. Experience what my father had experienced when he had his first bite of Karimeen pollichathu. That counts for something, doesn’t it?

I have made Karimeen pollichathu quite a few times. And I have loved it every single time. I love the pollichathu mix. I love the fact that it uses pepper in three ways-red chilli powder, black pepper powder, and freshly crushed black pepper. All the three add different layers of spice, hit different spots. If you are going to make this dish, I’d suggest add all the three or don’t make the dish. After making this dish a few times I wondered how would the pollichathu mix take to local Oriya fishes. I tried it with one of my father’s favourite fishes-pohala/pohada. Its a small river fish, a little larger than an adult palm in size, and looks very similar to herring. It was excellent.

I have tweaked this specific rceipe by removing a few things from what would otherwise be used in making Karimeen polichathu, like, coconut and curry leaves. This is NOT a recipe for Karimeen polichathu. Its my way of travelling. From my kitchen. I would not want you to call it “fusion” cooking since that term conjures really bad images in my mind. Like overcooked pasta in tomato ketchup. No, forget pasta in tomato ketchup. Its not fusion cooking. Its just bad cooking.

You can serve it as a side with the usual rice-dal-sabzi lunch or serve it as an appetizer.

Ingredients

Pohola or any small fish-4

Turmeric-1 teaspoon

Red chilli powder-1 teaspoon

Pepper powder-1 teaspoon

Pepper, crushed-1 tablespoon

Ginger, minced-1 tablespoon

Garlic, minced-1 tablespoon

Lime- one half, plus more to drizzle, if required.

Salt-to taste.

Mustard oil-half cup

 

Poda Pitha : Spiced Rice and Coconut Cake from Orissa

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 According to a lot of women in my mother’s generation, most of whom did not own an electric oven, the poda pitha was the “risky-est of them all” . Yes, the haladi patra pitha (steamed rice cakes in turmeric leaves) is aromatic, owing to the fact that it is steamed in fresh turmeric leaves, but the poda pitha has more layers. The arisa pitha (fried rice cakes) needs skill, but this one needs skills, patience and prayers. (I actually remember my mother praying that there would be no power cut so that the pitha could bake peacefully in the oven). It needs prepping the night before. Has a long ingredient list.  Takes forever to cook. And, had you been a house wife half a century ago in a traditional house in Orissa, you would perhaps have spent the whole first half of a rainy day alternating between raising prayers to Lord Jaganath, muttering incantations, and looking anxiously over the burning coals in the clay oven, within which lay the talking point of the next 3 days–the poda pitha. Yes. It is the Godfather of pithas in Orissa.  You ruin this, and for the next one year everyone who has had a bite of this –your maid, your great-grandfather, your long removed second cousin, everyone who knows you is going to report you to everyone they know, and so everyone is going to keep reminding you how you failed on that one day when it mattered. How badly you failed. In one word-completelossofface. In two words-public humiliation.You will get a chance to redeem yourself. After one full year. But if you are successful, and the pitha turns out as it is supposed to be-a sexy burnt sienna top, with notes of spice mingled with caramelized jaggery and coconut, and studded with cashewnut and raisins, you will make a lot of women jealous.  That’s good enough of a reason to take this risk, if you ask me. Plus, it tastes good. Very good. The slightly burnt bits of raisins? The accidentally charred edges of coconut? Yes, them too.

Poda pitha is almost exclusive to the the Raja festival, which marks the onset of the rainy season, and is celebrated over three days in Orissa. And, since this festival is symbolic of a menstruating earth, the food that is prepared is not offered to the Gods, like it is in all the other festivals. (Correct me if I am wrong). The first day, called the “paheli rajo” ( pa-hey-lee rah-jaw),  is when girls scrub themselves with turmeric paste before taking a bath, change into a new set of clothes to mark the beginning of the festival, apply alata (red dye) to their feet, and spend the day taking turns at the swing made out of thick long ropes on the grandest tree around. Or in urban homes like mine, made out of nylon ropes and a wooden slab, hung somewhere in the courtyard or in the balcony.Not that it took away anything from the festival for us kids. The preparation for the festival in coastal Orissa starts almost a week before the actual festival, with all the shopping for new clothes, shoes, nail varnishes, bangles, anklets, hair bands with bunnies, and everything else that parents of little (and big) girls give their nod to. Some lucky ones get three sets of new clothes for the three-day festival. And some annoyingly stubborn ones, like yours truly who make their parents go from shop to shop in search of that perfect skirt that hits the knee get threatened with puffy dresses in garish blue.

The poda pitha recipe that I have used is from my father’s family. There are other versions which use pumpkin puree (Kakharu Poda Pitha) , or cook the batter before baking it (Janta Poda Pitha).  The simplest recipe would probably consist of the rice batter, jaggery, grated coconut, and maybe be a hint of cardamom. But who does plain Jane on a festival? I don’t. And I am assuming, you wouldn’t want to too.

Ingredients:

 Rice-1.5 parts

Black lentil (dehusked)- 1 part

Coconut

Jaggery

Sugar

Raisins-a handful

Cashewnuts-a handful

Green cardamom-3-4

Black cardamon-1-2

Peppercorns-3-4

Bay leaf-1-2

Ginger (grated)-1 1/2 tablespoon

Ghee-5-6 tablespoons

Salt

Baking powder

Notes:

I have kept the quantities unspecified since it would depend on the amount of batter that you have. Two important things to note, however.

1) The proportion of rice:lentil is 1.5 : 1

2) You can use only jaggery instead of a combination of sugar and jaggery to sweeten the mixture. But jaggery tends to stick to the bottom and sides and burn easily, so I have used a mixture of jaggery and sugar in the ratio 2 : 1.

Aushak : Afghan leek dumplings with yogurt sauce.

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Three tall, heavy set men sitting around a table. A rather large plate of dumplings covered in some sort of sauce and topped with yogurt lies in front of each of them. Every table has it. Mine does not. The menu just said “Afghan dumplings” under mantu. No mention of sauce. No mention of yogurt. I feel cheated. I want dumplings. But I have a plate of rice peppered with thin slivers of carrot and raisins, and meat that falls off the bone. Qabuli Pulao. Served with thick Afghani nan, and a side of borani banjan. I pull a long face and tear off a piece of nan and pick up a piece of egg plant from the banjan. This stuff is good. The mantu can wait.

Food from Afghanistan is something that I had never encountered until I came to Delhi. My first encounters with bidesi khana (foreign food) was through the written word. As a child growing up in what could be called the “interiors”,   most of my encounters with literature and gastronomy were mediated by the newspaper. The book reviews were the ones that I looked forward to, but the restaurant review was the one that intrigued me the most. (Even MacDonald’s burger, something I absolutely hate, seemed alluring. Advertising, thou playest cruel games with my taste-buds.) But even in those sorts of mediated encounters with food, food from Afghanistan was absent. Perhaps it was not “foreign enough”, perhaps these places came into being much later. I don’t really know.

The aushak is a vegetarian version of the  mantu , where the dumpling is stuffed with leeks instead of meat and is topped with a sauce made from channa dal  (in place of a meat based one) and a slightly garlicky yogurt sauce. It is a meal in itself, and like most Afghan dishes, is served at room temperature. I have used leeks, but I think you could substitute it with green onions, if you can’t find them. The dumpling wrappers that are used for this are very thin. I had ready made dumpling sheets with me, but you could roll your own out with a dough made from flour and water. The dumplings are shaped differently from how I have made them. I went with easy. But you can, if you like shape it the traditional way. Also, the photos might suggest that the layer of sauce and yogurt completely blankets the dumplings below. It is not so.

Ingredients:

Dumpling wrappers : 6-8

Leeks : 2-3 sticks

Ginger : half inch

Garlic : 3-4 pods

Onion : one, large

Chana Dal : I cup (soaked in water for 2-3 hours)

Tomatoes : 2-3

Bay leaf : one, small

Yogurt : One cup

Dried mint leaves : to garnish

Extra Virgin Olive oil : 2 tablespoons

Sea salt : to taste

Pepper: to taste

Chuda Ghassa : Flattened Rice Crumble from Orissa

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Ok. I need to let it all out.

Adaptation is not one of the qualities I would list out in my CV. Adapting to the ways of fellow Homo sapiens less so. And in the last few months that I was away from this space I had a hell lot of adapting to do. Bad food. Bad academic life. Bad weight management. The three things that matter most to me. I have had to endure dull plate after dull plate of burnt rotis and goo looking dal. The worst was perhaps the sambhar with potatoes. Oh wait, what about kaddu three days a week, and dry, stringy chicken. So, yes I am royally pissed. It would have been endurable if the academics here didn’t suck as badly as it does. Damn. I need a bar of chocolate. And food. And I need to run.

 (RC, take me back please! I promise I’ll study for 18 hours a day. Adichie write me a book please! An eye candy would help too, methinks. Put that on your list, Santa! )

I need a sweet fix. And steamed muffins just won’t do today. I want something from the “good ol” days. I need a happy memory. I need to “engage”. And I need to stop chasing pirates.

The “ghassa” in Chuda Ghassa refers to the act of vigorous rubbing that is integral to this dish. Chuda is flattened rice. I am probably not going to say this again in this blog, but “mommy makes it the best!” (There you go Tina). My younger-older sister, Tina loves it. She loves every thing my mother makes. I was of course the quintessential hard-to-please nitpicking Virgo child. The vegetables were too mushy. The custard was too thin. And the biryani needed another 7 mins on the stove.

I am sorry Momma.

Chuda Ghassa is an integral part of the offering that is made on Saraswati Puja and Ganesh Puja in Orissa. While growing up in the little hill town that my father was posted, these were the only days that we went out to watch movies. So we if we didn’t make a trip to the shehr (city) 500 kilometers away we probably ended up watching two films that year. Not that the town didn’t have a theater or anything, but it wasn’t something our parents thought was necessary. Sports, yes. Musical instruments, yes. Movies, no. And since Saraswati and Ganesh are worshiped as goddess/god of learning, we were given a day off from books, fed a huge lunch, handed down a hundred rupee note each, and sent off to the cinema. It was fun.

The reason I like my mother’s Chuda Ghassa is that it is not sickly sweet. It is sweet, but it has notes of spice and that really takes it to the next level. And yes, the shudh ghee. Now, you can’t have festival without ghee, can you? But don’t go overboard with it. Moderation is good. (PMS doesn’t count. Nope.)

This goes well with dalma as well as with mutton curry. You can serve it with a side of fresh fruits too.

Ingredients : 

Flattened Rice : 1 1/2 cups

Sugar : 2-3 tablespoons

Coconut : 1/2 (freshly grated)

Green cardamom :3-4

Black cardamom : 1

Peppercorns :4-5

Ghee : 2 tablespoons

Coconut water : 2 tablespoons

Notes:

1.The quantity of ghee in the pic might seem quite overwhelming. I didn’t use the whole of it for this particular recipe. You shouldn’t too.

2. Please don’t substitute butter/oil in place of ghee for this one. Please. Please. Please.

3. You can make laddos out of this mixture. Shape small amounts of the mixture into rounds balls and roll it in some sesame and/or coconut flakes.

Tingmo : Tibetan Steamed Bread

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“They are so cute!”

“I want to adopt one when I grow up! “

This was my first encounter with Tibet.  My sister and me were watching  young Tibetan monks on TV. There they were, hardly four or five years old, sitting in neat lines, their shaved heads moving back and forth over prayer books.  It really was an endearing sight. The show was perhaps filmed in a monastery in Dharmashala, the seat of  the His Holiness the Dalai Lama.  For a very long time this was the only image of Tibet in my mind. Of young monks, wrapped in maroon robes, running around in a monastery,of them praying before serene statues of Buddha . My idea of Tibet was therefore condensed into this image of the monastery. It was an image without any voice, so to speak. The only voice was that of a faceless narrator providing a voice-over. It was almost like listening to Nik Gowing on BBC World.

Since then my idea of this nation in exile has diversified into a few more images. Of those “TIBET IS NOT A PART OF CHINA” written on rocks near the riverbeds in Manali, of women in chuba  selling woolen clothes on makeshift stalls in some obscure town in Orissa, of colourful prayer flags tied like totem across bridges, of Siddharth Kak drinking salty Tibetan tea on Surabhi , of the Dalai Lama, of Ladakh, of  Nawang Khechog creating hauntingly beautiful music on a spring night in Delhi. And of agitations.  Of refugee settlements. And yes,  of Richard Gere.  

My first “taste” of Tibet came in the form of a plate of chicken momos. This was perhaps my first meal in a restaurant in Delhi. This is perhaps the first, and perhaps the only encounter with the food of Tibet for a majority of students who study in the universities of Delhi. My next encounter was in Majnu Ka Tila, a refugee colony popularly called MKT on the fringes of Delhi University.  Its narrow lanes are dotted with shops selling Tibetan groceries, of karigars  crafting elaborate jewellery, of quaint shops selling books and tshirts, their racks lined with CDs of Tibetan music and prayer flags.  And then there are hair dressers and tailors.  And shops filled with rolls of rich brocade. And cafes and restaurants filled with people . Enough maybe to make a displaced nation feel at home.

Tee Dee is perhaps the most popular restaurant at MKT.   It is perched (atleast it seems so once you enter) on the first floor of a building towards one end of the colony. The whole arrangement at Tee Dee makes you feel like you are in some hilly town, and not in Delhi.  Maybe its the demographic, of students and Tibetans, that fill its tables at all hours of the day. Maybe its those red curtains. My first meal there was a bowl of Thenthuk  (a noodle soup with vegetables and meat/chicken) more commonly known as Thukpa. At 40 rupees it was one of the cheapest dinners one could have while eating out.  The other popular dish (and probably the most ordered by students) is Buff Chilli. This is had with Tingmo, a yeasty steamed bread. The slight sweetness of Tingmo perfectly complements the heat of the Buff Chilli and is great accessory to pick of pieces of the meat. I don’t really eat red meat, so I generally order their style of Chilli Chicken to go with it. Yeti, at Hauz Khas Village does a great Nepali style Chilli Chicken that really goes well with Tingmo (recipe for this in the next post).

I have used the list of ingredients mentioned here for making Tingmo, since these are essentially steamed buns.

Ingredients

Active dry yeast : 1 tablespoon

Sugar : 2 spoons

Warm water : 1/4 + 1/2 cups

All-purpose flour : 1 1/2 cups

 Salt : 2-3 pinches

 Sugar: 2 tablespoon

 Oil  : 1 tablespoon

 Baking powder : 1/2 tablespoon

Guguni : Yellow Peas

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Train journeys were an integral part of my growing up years.  Since my father was transferred to a new place every couple of years on account of his job, and both his and my mother’s parents lived in Cuttack, we traveled very frequently to meet them.  One such place was Balasore, situated in the northern part of the state, sharing its borders with West Bengal. We lived there for around three years and both me and my sister started our school there. Balasore was connected to Cuttack by the East Coast Railways and it took approximately three hours to reach Cuttack from there. We usually took a train around noon (I think), and were at Cuttack by late afternoon. Now, if you have traveled around India courtesy the Indian Railways as much as I have, you would definitely have a culinary map of all the routes you have traveled on. My four year old sister already knew the various stations and the food one could expect to find there. If you are travelling  around coastal Orissa, one quick snack that you will definitely encounter on the train is masala mudhi (a spicy puffed rice mixture). This was the first thing our parents bought for us, thanks to my sister. The next thing on her list used to be guguni (mushy yellow peas). These were available only at Bhadrak, where the train halted for no more than five minutes. My father would get down quickly and be back with two servings of guguni. These came in bowls made of dried leaves, stiched together, and were called daana. Each bowl was topped with a thin slice of fresh coconut, and came with a disposable wooden spoon. We even knew the guy who sold the best guguni by name and didn’t buy it from anyone other than him! So on days when we didn’t find him, or when his wares were sold out, my parents promised my crestfallen sister a treat on our way back.

Guguni is used in a number of ways in Orissa. It is used as an accompaniment to most tea time snacks, like Piaji, Bara, and Alu Chop. It is also an integral part of the quintessential Cuttacki snack called Dahi-Bara-Alu-Dam-Guguni (DBADG).  A whole maidan in front of Barbati stadium is filled with carts selling just this! But this is not the best place to go searching for a fill of this massively popular street food, if you ask me. The really good ones have their carts in specific sahis and are known only to locals. DBADG is assembled on the spot for customers. First the dahi baras (urad dal dumplings soaked in buttermilk) are placed at the bottom of the leaf bowl. This is followed by a helping of alu-dam (spicy potatoes in a gravy) and guguni (yellow peas). The vendor then drizzles some yogurt, adds some chopped onions, and finally sprinkles some very fine sev on top before handing you a (by now)  very heavy bowl of DBADG. The dahi baras, that are used for these are unlike the dahi vada that you find else where. They are really small, usually the size of a Piaji (that I had made before). They are first soaked in water and then soaked in a very thin yogurt mixture. Most vendors selling DBADG also add a mitha dahi bara to every bowl.

In Bhubaneswar there aren’t many places that sell DBADG. But what you find is Guguni being sold as a snack in itself. So around 4 pm you’ll find men setting up temporary stalls selling this. The stalls really comprise of two stools, the smaller one balancing a huge vat of Guguni, and the other used by the vendor to sit.  These are sold very cheap, around two rupees a bowl. The vendor spoons some of the mixture in a leaf bowl, sprinkles some black salt, and then drizzles some tamarind water (out of an old bottle of coconut hair oil) on top.

The Guguni that is sold on the street is different from the one that is made at home (which is usually served for breakfast with puris). For one, it tends to be more spicy. Also, it is kept really simple, because it is used more like an accompaniment. The one that is made at home is more of a curry, cooked with tomatoes and onions (and a host of other things). I prefer the street version. Even though the recipe that I have used below is based entirely on what my taste buds thought they could detect, these do taste like the real thing!

Ingredients:

Dried yellow peas

Ginger

Turmeric

Cinnamon 

Dried Red Chilli

Cumin seeds

Black peppercorns 

Salt

Black Salt

Piaji : Dal fritters from Orissa

My sister’s eyes used to light up when my father proposed something takaliya .  She would beam at my father, put on her shoes, and shout back to my mother “Bhai sangere jauchi. Khaiki asibi” (I am going out with bhai. Will eat out). She called my father bhai (big brother) instead of the baapa (oriya for father) like yours truly did. She always had a mind of her own. That kid surely did.  I always pictured them as a part of some secret fraternity, a brotherhood, hanging out together, doing cool things, two buddies walking into the sunset together. I don’t remember what I did while they were away busting gangs, but what I remember is them coming back, my sister more chirpy than she had left, usually with the spoils of the war-a newspaper packet. A hot newspaper packet, speckled with oil.  “Jaldi kholo! Ebe baharila kareiru! Jaldi kholo thanda heijiba” (Quick! Open this! These just came out of the frying pan. Open the packet quickly or these will get cold).  Inside would be all sorts of fried goodness (everything tastes good when fried, remember?), dusted with black salt. I would pick  one up, take a bite, take two bites and reach for more, all the while making stories about two great buddies, one considerably shorter than the other with her hair bunched up in the front, almost resembling a whale spout.

I don’t know how to translate takaliya into English.  I don’t even know if its an Oriya word, even though it was used often in our household (parents are constantly making up things, so one never knows). Savoury is too overarching a category, and sounds particularly insipid when it is used to describe food that is supposed to make your mouth water.

Piaji, Pakudi, Bara, Alu chop are some the favourite tea time snacks in Cuttack, where my father was born and brought up, and where both me and my sister were born. It is known for its street food (or so my father claims. He claims quite a lot of things for this beloved city of his, by the way). Being an old town, unlike Bhubaneswar, it has a rather amorphous urban topography. The city is made of sahis (plural) that are usually made up of a single street with houses on either side.  Sahis are mini localities in themselves and people have very strong social (and emotional) attachments with their own sahis.  Every sahi (neighbourhood) has a shop that specializes in these and you will find a horde of people outside these shops since the moment it opens, usually just in time for tea.  Most of them have walls made of wooden planks and a tin roof, and are very small square structures.  These shops are usually manned by two men, the older one doing the frying and the younger one packing  things for the waiting masses. The frying goes on till the supplies last, which is generally till dinner time. By 8 pm most of these shops close and the men manning them start for their long walk home.

Piaji is a onion and dal fritter. Even though it is usually served as a snack at tea time, it is sometimes served as a part of the lunch as well. A typical Oriya lunch has at least five accompaniments-dal, a side of vegetables, bhaja, bharta, and khata. Bhaja is a vegetable stir fry, seasoned with salt and turmeric, and some cumin at times. These fritters are sometimes served in the place of bhaja or even in addition to it. When guests arrived unannounced at our home during lunch, my mother’s way of “jazzing” up the lunch plate was to quickly slice some brinjals or potola (parwal or pointed gourd, dip them in a mixture of besan (chickpea batter) and deep fry them.  These fritters are also crumbled into a favourite Oriya snack-masala mudhi (a spicy mix of puffed rice, onions, chillies, and a host of other things, brought together by a drizzle of raw mustard oil and a dash of lemon juice).

Ingredients

Channa Dal- 1 cup

Onion (finely chopped)-2, medium

Dry Red Chillies-3

Green Chillies-4-5

Ginger-1 inch piece

Garlic- 1 large clove

Salt- to taste

Oil- for frying

Black salt

Tap on the first picture for a step by step demonstration.