Wednesday, June 12, 2013

My Inner Bengali And The Green Beans Bhorta

I have told you about my pan-Indian looks, about my inner Malayali. Now here's another story.

 A few months ago, a relative of mine wrote his life story in which he mentioned my great-grandfather (henceforth referred to as GG), who was his uncle. Apparently, my GG liked living well and was given to spending a lot of money. One of his expenses, I hear, was on getting a cook from Bengal to come down to where he lived in current-day Andhra Pradesh and make rasgullas for him and his family.

 I wish my grandmother was around to tell me more about GG, who died before I was born. I knew he was wealthy and had a temper, but not much beyond that.

 Many years ago, even before the blogs came into my life, I discovered Bengali cuisine through a book. I took a fancy to it and would often make something from that book, a no-frills affair which tried to pack three or four recipes into a single, short page. I usually experiment with vegetarian food as it's simpler and I took a liking to mustard oil and panch phoron. I even made a chorchori with vegetable peels!

 Gradually, the blogs, including my own, entered my life, and during some discussion in the comments, Sandeepa once asked me if I was Bengali, or if The Spouse was. We are not, but I wonder if my GG's predilection for rasgullas and the length he went to for them, commissioning a Bengali cook, worked its way into the gene pool and manifested as my love for Bengali food. I don't eat even one rasgulla a year, somehow, but I do make something or the other from my Bengali cookbooks.

Now, of course, I have one more, Sandeepa's, and what I found utterly fascinating in that book was the green beans bhorta, a Bangladeshi recipe.

 It HAS to be a thick paste she said, when I checked with her, and I was a little disappointed, because I thought it would be another chutney, and a chutney's nothing exotic for us in the South, if you kept aside the fact that it was made green beans. I would have liked it to be a coarse, multi-textured affair, just so it would be new and different. And the recipe called for fried shrimp to be ground with the mix too - I thought I would fold it into the bhorta but I ended up grinding them in anyway. (My inner Bengali prevailed.)

 I was wrong - it was as unlike any chutney I've ever made or eaten, or even unlike any Bengali food I've ever eaten or made. It calls for sauteing, in a little mustard oil, a small onion, sliced, four to five cloves of garlic, eight green chillies and four cups of chopped green beans, in that order, till the beans are cooked. Cool it down and grind it with half a cup of grated coconut and fried shrimp. It has to be a thick paste, so if it has become loose or watery, dry it up in a lightly oiled pan. Garnish it with chopped coriander.

 I made enough for three meals and finished it in two days. The shrimp is optional, of course. When ground, it imparts a rather strong flavour/aroma to the mix, and you can choose to leave it out or retain it as garnish for a variation.

 Here's the bit of Sandeepa's book that stuck in my mind. Food, she says, is "life wrapped in a soft egg roll with slices of crunchy onion and bites of feisty green chilli." She arranged for me to get a copy of the book, and as soon as I got it, I read the introduction (and the acknowledgements where yours truly is mentioned). This sentence is from the introduction. I got thinking about life, eggs, onions and chillies and even made omelettes for dinner the next couple of days! The book is as hilarious and as full of joie de vivre as her blog. I know that whenever I want a laugh, all I have to do is read a chapter, or even a portion of it, and I'll be happy.


Friday, June 07, 2013

The Things I Don't Really Crave/Eat But Relish Making

Sometimes, I don't quite know why I do the things I do.

Sometimes I buy maida to make cake to get rid of extra fruit, and then I am stuck with the maida so I make more cake after letting it sit in the pantry for months.

I made marmalade last year simply because my uncle and I had a conversation about thick-cut marmalade and it seemed very romantic to make marmalade. Of course, it wasn't.

I don't really crave these things, leave alone eat them. Today, I gave away the marmalade to a friend who invited me for lunch.

Then, overtaken by an overwhelming urge to have some Andhra-style bobbatlu (poli/holige) after Ugadi went by, I used the last of the maida from God knows when to make them. I don't think I've kneaded dough in the last 14 or 15 years, if I ever did. But I plunged into it, literally. At one point, I couldn't extricate my hand from the dough, I couldn't even find it, it got stuck in it. A frantic call to a friend then had me adding ghee to the dough and rescuing my hand. I managed to make the bobbatlu which turned out better than I expected for a first-time attempt and earned appreciation from The Spouse and The Refuge of Failed Experiments (aka The Office).

The next day I attempted another batch but of course by then I had tired of the whole thing so I kneaded the very last of the maida, a little more ghee and the filling together and made sweet rotis.

Convinced I could now make chapatis, also something I don't really crave or eat, I bought a packet of wheat flour which is now resting unopened in my pantry. I was reminded of it today when my friend, who had me over for lunch today, mentioned the cooking classes she had been attending and a keema khameeri paratha (there was a fourth word in the name, I've forgotten) and offered to give me the recipe. I didn't rise to the challenge as I did in the above instances. I declined. The wheat flour will probably be given away soon.

A few weeks ago, my colleague treated us to a lovely green mango jam-kind of affair. She called it 'paagu manga, Tamil for 'mango in syrup'. It was all gold and languid syrup, and the mango pieces had a great texture, having lost their crunch after boiling but having acquired toughness and shape after stewing in the syrup. This was her grandmother's recipe from long ago, she said, and they used the relish as an accompaniment to curd rice, dosas and chapatis.

Of course, I had to make it, though I draw the line at eating it with curd rice and dosas. Having seen people eating chapati and jam in the hostel, I am more open to the thought of eating it with chapatis. I'm not saying I will, just that I'm less resistant to that idea.

About two weeks ago, I went home to visit my folks and came back with four green mangoes. I used one for dal, one is still in the fridge and I used the other two for this.

There are many notes below the ingredients and the method as I messed up somewhere, and had to do a lot of repairing, but let's get the basic recipe out of the way.

The ingredients

1 cup mango - 3/4 cup of sugar (that's the proportion - I used two mangoes, peeled and cubed)

Some honey

Some powdered cardamom

A smidgen of salt (my touch - optional)


Boil the peeled and cubed mangoes in water just enough to cover them. For just three minutes and drain them immediately. Dry them on a cloth for a few hours.

Then make a one-string sugar syrup and I did, with help from the Internet.

Put the mango pieces into the sugar syrup and let them soak for a few hours.

In the evening, stir in some honey, tasting as you go along, and the salt and powdered cardamom.

My experience

After I boiled the mango pieces for three minutes, they became soft, I didn't know if they would hold their shape at all.

The sugar syrup turned to a hard sheet of sugar at the bottom of the bowl and was all liquid on top - maybe the mangoes had oozed liquid as well but they were swimming in more syrup than I had made in the morning.

I was tempted to throw it out but I let it stay in the fridge for about five or six days during which I sought repair advice on Facebook and got a few suggestions, of which I took one - fish out the mango pieces with a slotted spoon, drain off the liquid and melt the sheet of sugar. When I did that, I ended up fishing out very little sugar so I added a splash of water and heated it. It caramelised and I abandoned the attempt.

Sitting in the fridge, the mango pieces seem to have absorbed some of the sugar and attained a texture somewhat similar to my colleague's own paagu manga.

I simply added some honey and the cardamom and salt to the mangoes. It looked runny and I was disappointed again, but I resolved to let it stay in the fridge for a few days.

It seems to be thickening.

I ate with my popped amaranth cereal for some texture, it wasn't enough to sweeten it, though.

All in all, I am very taken with its process of maturation.

How, or whether, I will eat it is another thing entirely.