Tales from didan's kitchen
A food blogger revisits her Bengali roots and grandmother's ilish and kochuri recipes to pen a novel about getting a second chance at life
Food novels inevitably make you hungry. Unlike cookbooks where brevity is favoured when relaying ingredients and method, fiction about food challenges the imagination with delectably-woven sentences. It's not a craft that can be easily perfected, and yet, any sincere attempt makes for a pleasurable read.
New Jersey-based food blogger Sandeepa Mukherjee Datta's debut novel, Those Delicious Letters (HarperCollins India), is one such experience. What begins as a story about Shubhalaxmi Sen-Gupta aka Shubha, working in a loss-making indie publishing enterprise in the US, while straddling life as wife and mother to teenagers, soon becomes a quest to connect with her homeland through food. The motivation comes from the epistles she accidentally starts receiving from a stranger. In the letters, the lady, who claims she is Shubha's didan (grandma in Bengali) from Kolkata, shares family recipes she grew up on, while doling out life lessons that shaped her. "The only solace in that month of torture and heartbreak was the ilish [hilsa]… that year the markets were flooded with shining varieties of ilish from the River Padma," didan recalls, while writing about the time, when her wedding date with a man she didn't love was looming closer. Her heart was elsewhere, and only the homemade bhapa ilish, calmed her anxious nerves. "It was a beautiful dish, with a play of sweet and sour that spoke of deep secrets," didan shares.
Hilsa also happens to be Datta's personal favourite, especially the ilish maacher tauk, a rustic meal, made with the head and bones of the fish. It reminds Datta of her grandmother's cooking. "My grandmother [would] set aside this dish for the end and late afternoon, the female folks who would sit down with a bowl of tauk and rice—soured with tamarind, sweetened with jaggery. While in one way, it bothers me that only the women were served the remnant bones and head of ilish, probably having given away the best cuts to the men, it also leaves me with a sense of community. The dish brought the women together, as they chewed on a hilsa head and gossiped about neighbours."
Datta's journey with food writing began 14 years ago, with her now, popular food blog, Bong Mom's Cookbook. "Growing up all over West Bengal, and some parts of Bihar, I learnt one thing, Bengalis love to eat, feed others and cook." The purpose of writing the blog was two-fold—first, to chronicle the recipes she had gathered from the women in her family, and second, to pass on that legacy to her daughters, growing up in a foreign land.
In 2013, she published a cookbook that shared its name with her blog. "It was part memoir, part fiction, and part cookbook. That is how I love to write about my food, through stories," she says. The novel, which she began writing around two years ago, allowed her to explore the idea of storytelling through the culinary prism. "I wanted to tell the story of a person, who like many of us, is at that mundane juncture… what could be better than the sensuality of food giving them a second shot at life? At the same time, I also wanted to talk about a feisty grandmother from another era, who took a second chance at life and chronicled it via recipes in a letter. Two lives, seemingly different, but alike and tied with a common thread."
Penning a character like Shubha also helped her articulate the role of the modern Indian woman in the kitchen. "[Many of us] who grew up in the 1970s and '80s, were told that we need to study instead of spend time in the kitchen. I think for that generation, the mothers were tired of domestic duties and wanted their daughters to break free from that role. So, we, the daughters, assumed cooking was not something worthy," she says. "Only later in life, do we realise that food and cooking is an integral part of our being and cooking a meal is not going to pull us down, if anything, it is going to give us joy." For someone like Shubha, she says, it was also a path back to a home she had long left.
For the stuffing
1 cup urad dal/kalai'r dal/biulir dal
3 green chillies
1 knob ginger
1 tbsp grated ginger
¼ tsp ground fennel powder
¼ cup mustard oil
Salt to taste
Sugar to taste
Soak the urad dal overnight in water. The following morning, put the dal in a blender along with the green chillies and chopped ginger. Add very little water to make a coarse paste. Not very coarse, but not smooth like a vada batter either. Heat mustard oil in a kadhai. Preferably one with a non-stick surface. To the hot oil, add the asafoetida, grated ginger and fennel powder. Pour the dal/lentil paste that you made. Add salt to taste and a pinch of sugar. Mix well. Now comes the part where you must keep stirring like a maniac, so that the dal paste does not stick. You might also have to add some more oil in the process. Eventually the paste will slowly start coming off from the sides and will get drier. It will also no longer taste or smell raw but will taste pretty good. If it does not, adjust the spices and keep stirring. Add a little more hing if you feel the aroma is missing. But take heart, this whole process takes a mere twenty to thirty minutes of your lifetime and life gets better after this. Once you have the stuffing, keep it aside and make the dough for the kochuri.
For the dough:
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat
1½ tbsp vegetable oil
A pinch of salt
In a wide-mouthed bowl, add flour, salt and oil. Rub the oil in the flour with your fingers. Then gradually add warm water and knead the dough until it is soft. Cover the dough with a damp towel and let it rest.
For the kochuri:
1 ½ cups for frying vegetable oil
Make about 20 balls, the size of a gooseberry, out of this dough. Dip the tip of a ball in oil and then flatten it between your palms. Now roll it out into a 2" circle. Take a little of the dal stuffing and put it in its centre. Bunch up the sides of the dough disc to form a purse-like formation. With your fingers, close the top of the purse so that the stuffing does not come out. Flatten it between your palm and you are ready to roll. Roll out the stuffed ball into small discs about 3" in diameter, the same size as a luchi or puri. Heat enough oil for frying these in a kadhai. When the oil is hot, dip the rolled-out disc to see if the oil bubbles. If it does, slowly release the disc in oil and press with a slotted spoon, coaxing the kochuri to puff. Once the kochuri puffs up and becomes a shade of pale brown, take it out and repeat the process for the rest.
1 kg mutton (buy cuts like front shoulder or back leg)
To marinate mutton
½ cup thick yogurt
2 tbsp ginger paste
¼ tsp turmeric powder
½ tsp red chilli powder
1 tsp, loosely packed garam masala powder
Salt to taste
2 tsp mustard oil
For Tempering I
2 bay leaves
4 green cardamom
2 cinnamon sticks
2 dried red chillies
For Tempering II
2 knobs of ginger grated to almost 2 tbsp of it
¼ tsp asafoetida
1 tsp, loosely packed Kashmiri mirch
Mix the above spices in a little water to make a paste
For masala Paste
2 tsp cumin seeds
2 tsp coriander seeds
1 tsp fennel seeds
2 dried red chillies
Soak all the above in lukewarm water for 15 to 20 minutes and then put in a blender to make a wet masala paste.
1, ripe and juicy tomato
2 or 3 green chillies
½ tsp garam masala powder
A pinch of nutmeg powder
1 petal javetri or mace
Salt to taste
2 tsp sugar
1 tbsp ghee
Marinating Buy and wash goat meat thoroughly. Place the washed mutton pieces in a wide, open-mouthed bowl. Add all the ingredients listed above for marinating the meat and toss the mutton pieces, making sure the pieces are coated with the spices. Cover and refrigerate overnight. Cooking In a wide-mouthed pan, heat about ¼ cup of mustard oil. Add two tsp of sugar and swirl it around until it browns. When the oil is hot, add the whole spices for tempering. When the whole spices sizzle, add the grated ginger, hing and the Kashmiri mirch paste. Sauté for 30–50 seconds. It will give off a lovely fragrance. Now add the chopped tomatoes and sauté for a minute. Add the mutton pieces, reserving the marinade liquid for now. Fry the mutton pieces at medium high heat until the meat pieces lose their raw colouring. Next, mix the wet masala paste with ¼ cup of yogurt and whip it well. Pour this into the pan, stir and mix the spices and mutton. Cook at medium heat for around 15 to 20 minutes, stirring frequently. For the next steps, you can continue cooking it in the pot or you can switch to a pressure cooker. It will take an hour or more in a pot and about twenty minutes in a pressure cooker. Transfer everything to a pressure cooker, if you choose to go ahead with the latter. Add the marinade liquid and 1-1½ cups of water at room temperature to it. Add the garam masala powder, nutmeg powder and mace. Mix well. Let the gravy simmer at medium heat and come to a boil. Taste for seasonings and add salt/sugar as needed. Soon you will see a fine layer of oil floating on top. Add the green chillies then. Put the lid on the pressure cooker. Cook for five whistles in a whistling pressure cooker. In a Futura-like pressure cooker, once the steam builds up, the mutton will be cooked in about 15 to 20 minutes. Serve with steamed rice or pulao.
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