One of the many joys of writing a food based book is that, it allows you to meander through the cultural and historical perspectives of food. It makes you take a new look at your heritage. At least, that is what food writing has done for me. I have always loved history, and food and culture often helps me put history in perspective.
Park Street in Kolkata used to be the fun place to hang out in when I was growing up. In particular, the confectionary called Flury’s. A special place where you could get tea, cakes, cookies and breakfast.
Back then, whenever my father was visiting he would bring me here for a special treat. In August this year when I visited I went down, mostly to visit a music store where comming to think of it I have picked up an assortment of Bengali movies that I have not yet made time to watch. I reached early, I forget that shops open later in Kolkata, so I went in to see if I could conjure some of that special magic. A part of me was very hesistant, since this was a very fond memory and as most of us know, something is always brighter, lighter and sweeter in ones memories.
A still majestic place, when I went in they were still doing breakfast. There was no concept of Brunch, at 12:30 they cut off for lunch. I decided to order an order of scrambled eggs, tea and cookies and their much touted baked beans on toast. Something that I used to love…
My need to savor and sample everything often prompts me to order way more than I can ever imagine finishing in India, but nonetheless I persist happy to see the food, savor the moments of satisfaction when it comes. I did not drink tea in my school days and now as most readers know, I love my tea with a passion. The instution with its marble floors and monogrammed paper napkings did not disappoint me with its tea. The selection was not huge, but the well brewed pot of darjeeling that arrived was the right temperature and had tea leaves steeping in the white teapot. It is difficult to believe but good tea is becoming a dying art. It is always disappoint to me to find the offending tea bag when I order tea.
Breakfast was a quite peaceful affair, allowing me some time to reflect something that is too rare an occurance in my life, especially here in the US. I knew but still did not accept that it was my swansong visit with Dad. It was ironic to sit here and realize that I would not be eating with him out again…
The tea was complete with tiny tea cookies that were served with the tea. Then came breakfast. The scrammbled eggs as predicted were a lot and then I had the baked beans on toast to boot.
So, the question here was how good was the food. Actually, the baked beans were still almost every bit as good as I remembered finished with the tiny miced onions and green chilies. What I did not like anymore was white bread and both the eggs and the baked beans came on well buttered slices of white bread a la colonial India.
I hope I am back some time, with more time on my hand to repose and enjoy more tea, maybe this time with some of the black forest pastries that I loved so much. For now, I just keep this experience in mind and enjoy my stash of movies over the holidays.
While we do not often realize or focus on it, even without thinking, food is inspired by our moods, moments and recent experiences. This visit to India, I unexpected landed smack in the middle of green mango season which is early summer in Kolkatta, India. I had forgotten the exquisite tender tart taste of this young green mangoes. They are usually blown off the trees during the summer storms also called the norwesters or Kal Baishakhi. This is a pretty stunning picture taken and belonging to Nafis Jalil, showing the stormy sky during the storm.
These short bursts of thunder, lightening are followed by some imense and intense rain, cooling the earth and filling the air with the fresh and fragrant smell of the wet earth. What we ate almost everyday were the sweet and tangy green mango chutneys and I promise to blog and provide a recipe for this treat soon. As soon as I got back, I ventured to our Indian store and picked up a couple of mangoes, they lacked the subtle and delicate structure of the ones in Kolkata and it took me a week to actually cut and peel one since I was rather worried that I would be very disappointed. I have learnt that much as there is a need and tendency to recreate the immediate and carry travel memories, the work week and realty is different as is the taste, smell and appearance of produce transported far away. The ambience is difference, the billboard that I liked and have shared would not look the same in NYC.
After cutting the large, faint yellow counterpart I decided to make yellow tangy lentils with this. The yellow lentils too, are a homey traditional recipe that I have grown up with. Anshul of course, promptly fell in love with it. Thank god for small mercies, because they have not been feeling well (weak tummies), since we have returned. The doctor of course, upon hearing that we were in India has promptly pronounced that the stomachs have been infected with a tropical parasite.
This soft and flavorful lentil dish with steamed rice did the trick for today. I had made a couple of other things and some killer shrimp, hopefully I shall post these recipes over the week. I have a work conference later this week, I am truly looking forward the drive upstate, hoping to see some of the lovely flowers we have had in bloom. Now onto the recipe,
Tauk Dal – Soft Yellow Lentils with Green Mangoes
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 25-30 minutes in a pressure cooker
3/4 cup of yellow pigeon peas (toor dal)
1 green mango, peeled and chopped
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups of water
1.5 teaspoons ginger paste
1 tablespoon ghee
1 teaspoon nigela seeds (kalo jire)
2-3 green chilies slit
Method of Preparation
1. Place the lentils, mangoes, turmeric, salt, water and ginger paste in a pressure cooker. Cook under pressure for about 10 minutes, alternately increase the water content by about 2 additional cups and simmer for about 40 minutes, until thick, soft and creamy. These lentils unlike the usual Bengali style lentils are thick not thin and soupy.
2. Cool slightly, remove the cover, whip the lentils until smooth with a wooden spoon.
3. Heat the ghee on medium heat until melted and hot, add in the nigella seeds and wait till they begin to sizzle and add the green chilies, pour into the lentils and heat for 1-2 minutes before serving hot with steamed white rice.
So, in the spirit of promises being meant to broken, I did not really blog much while I was in Kolkata. I needed a break and honestly the oppressive heat was not really conducive for a lot of action, but it was very good for soulful and restful naps. I have indeed returned well rested.
Kolkata, is the city of my birth and a city that despite its teeming crowds, a city that sooths and relaxes. It is probably one of the most happening foodie cities that I know. It does not have the pace and flash of NYC but let me tell you, it certainly gives NYC a run for its money when it comes to its food obsession. For the first time in many years, I actually took notes and tried to chronicle some of my food experiences. This post will tell you about Oh Calcutta and the banana blossom or the mocha (the ch pronounced like chicken). Learning to work with the banana flower, needs is a little initiation, which I received this time round and shall happily share with you, but first let me tell you about my dining experience. The thought of eating Bengali food outside home in a city where mom is present takes some persuasion and this thought should actually be kept in mind when reading my thoughts and ideas on this restaurant.
I had heard wonderful things about Oh Calcutta, a Bengali concept restaurant by Anjan Chatterjee, bloggers have written a lot about it. It is a chain restaurant and is present in most of the metropolitan cities in India. I went in with mom (kids and Anshul, still in NY) at about 8pm and was greeted with a fairly empty restaurant, it was way too early for the conventional dinner time. I was really struck by the décor, it seemed to capture an artistic Bengali touch well, loved the old B&W photographs and of course the plates with the outline of the sky. In general, it set the mood well. The menu in my opinion was good, but a little light on the home-style Bengali dishes however did a good job of making the cuisine generally accessible and polished. This is an incredibly difficult proposition since Bengali’s do pride themselves on the general inability to commercialize their cuisine.
After some debate we settled on some of the general favorites, for an appetizer we did order the banana blossom chops. These are typical Bengali snacks of a filling encased in potatoes. The version here was thin and compact with a small amount of potatoes, I liked this, my mom was not so sure about the lack of adequate coating. They were served with an interesting cucumber relish and kasundi (a fiery traditional mustard relish). It actually might seem that we Bengalees are obsessed with mustard, this is true, what is also true however is the fact that some very simple variations in spicing can create an amazing amount of diversity in taste and texture when it comes to using mustard.
This was followed by the classic Hilsa, I choose a variation in a green mango sauce, I wanted to try the nuanced tart tastes of this gravy. I would have preferred it with a more traditional white rice, much as I like the steamed white Basmati, it does not quite fit the Bengali definition of rice. The Kasha Mangsho, dry and spicy goat meat curry with luchi’s was what sealed the deal for me. All in all I liked the place but will say that I found it a tad pricey, but definitely a must try.
Now, onto my experiences in taming the Banana Blossom, I started out with some good pictures but by the end of the process, I ended up with rather sticky hands so no continuing pictures. I had first procured this recipe a while back for blog reader BulBul, but re-tried this myself under the supervision of mom and sous chef Anima. I am wondering if I can train my kitchen helper Martha to actually deal with the cleaning of the Banana flower.
So you start with a beautiful, banana flower or blossom, as you remove each beautiful vividly colored leaf you shall see a stack of pale yellow (almost white) bananas. These need to be carefully removed. Once you have accumulated all of these the fun begins! You might want to grease your hands at this point. Remove the outer thin shell of these tiny flowers and taking about three to four at a time, line them in lateral sequence and take off about a centimeter of the tip, pulling out the stamen with it. Finely chop the remainder of the bananas. Continue this process for the entire batch. Whew! The difficult part is complete!!!
Mochar Chop – Potato and Banana Flower Croquettes
Prep Time: 1 hour and 30 minutes (30 minutes for the chops to bind)
Cook Time: 30 minutes
For the filling
2 cups of the chopped banana flowers (prepared above)
2 cups water
2-3 tablespoons oil
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 teaspoon ginger paste
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
¾ teaspoon red chili powder
½ teaspoon garam masala powder
For the casing
2 cups mashed potatoes (a starchy variety such as russet or Yukon Gold)
1 egg beaten
½ cup water
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups of dry commercial breadcrumbs
Oil for frying
Method of Preparation
Place the chopped banana flower and the water in a large cooking pot. Bring to a simmer on medium heat. Cook for about 10 minutes.Drain the banana flowers and squeeze out any excess moisture.
- Heat the oil on medium low heat and add the chopped onions and cook for about 5 minutes. The onions should wilt, soften and begin to turn gently golden.
- Add in the ginger and cook for one minute.
- Add in the prepared banana blossoms and increase the heat to high and cook the mixture, stirring continuously.
- Add in the salt, sugar and the chili powder and cook the mixture for about 5 minutes, you should have a dry and relatively well browned appearance.
- Stir in the garam masala and set aside to cool slightly.
- Take a small amount of the potato filling and shape into a flat cake, make a dent in the center and place about 2-3 teaspoons of the filling and then seal the filling with the potato mixture.
- Continue this until all the banana flower mixture is used up.
- Place the egg, water, flour and salt in a bowl and beat the mixture until the mixture is well beaten. It should be a smooth batter like consistency.
- Spread out the breadcrumbs in a flat plate.
- Dip the potato cakes in the batter and coat uniformly with the bread crumbs.
- Place each coated chop in a plate, place the chops in the refrigerator and allow the chops to bind.
- Heat the oil on medium heat in a wok and test with a bread crumb, the crumb should sizzle and rise immediately to the surface.
- Place about 2-3 of the chops into the oil at a time and fry for about 3-4 minutes on each side until nice and crisp.
- Drain on paper towels and serve with ketchup or your choice of a relish.