Street food


Papdi chat

If you have read Jhumpa Lahiri’s Namesake, recall how the story starts. Ashima reaches for the tin of Planter’s peanuts to mix with her puffed rice. She is attempting to recreate the popular street food available at every corner, every lane in the streets of Kolkata – jhaal muri. She adds the peanuts, some mustard oil, green chili to her puffed rice but it is not the same as what she remembers. Something is missing. The book stole my heart just by that vignette at the beginning – Ashima trying to recreate a comfort food in a land where she is new, everything is unknown. That is every immigrant at some point in their lives, isn’t it?

Papdi chat, as pictured above, is my absolute favorite street food that I make often at home. Either I have forgotten what the real thing tastes like or I have managed to create perfection or my palate has been compromised to think what I create is the epitome of papdi chat. No matter what the reason, I don’t feel like anything is missing from my concoction of papdi chat. Often I don’t have all the ingredients so I improvise. Today’s version included the following:

Papdis (wheat crisps, available in the snack aisle of Indian stores) – this forms the base. Top these with…

Half a cup of canned chick peas (garbanzo beans)

Half a boiled potato chopped into little cubes

2 tbsp of finely chopped raw onion (optional)

1 green chili finely diced – optional. If you like spicy, make it 2

2 tbsp of chopped cilantro leaves

1 cup of beaten yogurt poured over the mixture

2 tbsp of Chunky Chat masala

Half a cup or more, if you prefer, of tamarind date chutney

All this is topped with Haldiram’s Alu Bhujia (again available in Indian grocery stores)

I sometimes make it fancy by sprinkling pomegranate seeds on top.

Talk about burst of flavors in the mouth – crunchy, tangy, savory, sweet – perfection!

I say perfection and I am the only one who eats chat in our house. The non Indian and the part Indians do not care for it. I even go as far as to proclaim it as healthy – garbanzo beans, fat free yogurt, potatoes……healthy! At least that is my story and I am sticking to it.

When the morning starts with bugs in your masala…


I had to start work from 10 am. So I walked into the kitchen at 8:30, perused my pantry, discovered 2 cans of garbanzo beans and decided to make a quick, nutritious and tasty chana masala with them. I had found not one but 2 opened packets of MDH chana masala powder at the back of my Indian spice rack and decided to use at least one up. They should not have been left open. Who did that? (It was me, of course). I chopped onions, grated ginger, discovered there was no fresh garlic in the house to make fresh garlic paste so used powdered garlic (the purist in my cringed), lovingly washed and chopped tomatoes. I got all the ingredients ready, brought out my brand new kadhai and poured just a table spoon of oil to cook. This was going to be the inauguration of my new kadhai which I bought just 2 days ago. Once oil was hot, I put the chopped onions to cook along with a tsp of salt. This is a trick I learned to brown the onions evenly. Once onions were ready, I threw in fresh ginger paste and not fresh garlic paste followed by chopped tomato. After 5 or 6 minutes, once oil separated from the mixture, I added 2 heaping tablespoons of MDH chana masala powder gave it a good stir and let them cook for a few minutes. Once the masala looked nice and mixed, I added the drained and washed garbanzo beans, mixed them well with the spices and poured in hot water. It was meant to simmer for a while for all the flavors to mix in. That was all. Except this awful morning, this simple recipe backfired. I noticed, to my utter horror, little black flecks floated on top as soon as I poured water over the chana (garbanzo beans). Hoping they were cumin seeds, I picked up one on my finger and put it in my mouth. And crunched on it. They were NOT cumin seeds. I gagged and washed my mouth. The packet of chana masala was open for I do not know how many years and was infested with tiny black bugs, which were now floating on my lovingly made chana masala in my brand new kadhai. What an inauspicious inauguration of my much coveted cooking utensil!

Here is the thing though. If the morning starts with bugs in your food, the day can only get better from here, right? Gosh, it was so disgusting!

Masala kaju (cashew)


Although I met this young man at work, he quickly became more than a coworker, he became family – my adopted brother in my adopted land. What does that have to do with the photo above? I will get there. But first I must ramble, as is my habit.

One day, my friend who I mentioned above brought me a Tupperware full of roasted cashews. I ate a few and the tastebuds in my mouth did a happy dance. The nuts were so flavorful. He had fried the nuts and mixed them with Thai red chilies, lime kefir leaves, salt and the flavor was divine.

Cashews (kaju) were, and still are, expensive in India. We could afford them once in a while in small quantities and only at the beginning of the months when we were flush with new paychecks. Cashews were for rich people, peanuts belonged to us.

One of my most popular gifts that I take back home are big jars of cashew nuts from Costco. They bring smiles of joy in people’s faces. The weight of carrying a heavy jar of cashew nuts is totally worth all those smiles.

If you want to spice up your cashews, and if you have some Indian spices lying around, you can have jar full of spicy, savory cashews to snack on when hunger strikes.

Heat a tbs of vegetable oil in a large skillet.

Fry whole Kirkland jar of unsalted cashews on low heat till they attain a golden color.

Keep the fried cashews in a bowl.

In a separate bowl, mix 2 tsp of chaat masala, 2tsp (or less) of Kashmiri chilli powder, a tsp of garam masala, a pinch of Himalayan salt or rock salt, a pinch of citric acid.

In the same skillet where you fried the cashews, throw in a handful of dried red chilis, and once they give out a spicy smell (10 seconds) add the spice mix. Keep the heat to medium low. Mix the spices for about 15 seconds and add to the fried cashews.

Coat them well. Cool completely and store them in a jar.

Lastly, chomp away.

Sometimes I add a few raisins to a handful of spicy cashews when I snack on them.

Divine!

Leftover Queen


All of you hail the Leftover Queen a.k.a me. I claim the title, the crown and the throne. I claim all of it.

I wrote about my nonstop cooking on the Diwali weekend. If you have not read it yet, you can read it here.

Since I go overboard when I cook, I ended up with a lot of leftovers. Generally, Sean eats leftovers for weeks and he is very happy to do so. As we pack away the food in the fridge on the day I cook, I can see his mind planning his meals for the week ahead. He threatens us not to finish the dal or the paneer because he plans to eat them for another meal. The threat is not serious, only semi serious. But this time, I must have poisoned him somehow because his stomach did not feel great for a couple of days after Diwali and he did not want to exacerbate the situation by eating spicy dal makhni and creamy malai kofta. So I, who is not fond of dal makhni or malai kofta too much, had to eat the leftovers. The children, in general, rarely eat left over Indian food. They are high maintenance but thankfully I am done maintaining them. They maintain themselves quite well when it comes to meals.

After 3 days of eating leftovers to empty the fridge, I had a plan. A beautiful, bold, exquisite, earth shattering, tradition breaking plan. I thought outside the box.

This is what I did. I took out the container of malai kofta from the fridge. I follow Sanjeev Kapoor’s fool proof recipe of malai kofta. It is easy and delicious. You can look at the recipe here.

I poured the malai koftas with the gravy in my food processor and made a puree of the whole thing. Then I added 2 and a 1/2 cups of whole wheat to the puree and hit the dough button of the food processor. The liquid in the puree was not enough for a sticky dough so I added 1/3 cup of plain yogurt to the mix. I took the dough out of the food processor and kneaded by hand for about 5 to 7 minutes. When the dough formed a smooth ball, I covered it with damp cloth and went for my walk.

After the walk, I kneaded for another 3 to 4 minutes and made little balls to roll out.

The next part was easy. I rolled the dough out into rotis and cooked them on the skillet with oil spray.

The malai kofta parathas were ready.

I told myself I just transformed a leftover into a healthy meal. Whole wheat, paneer, potatoes, ok fine, a little cream in the gravy made it a tad unhealthy but it tasted good. Everything tastes good with cream and butter, sigh! As I finished cooking the last paratha, my family casually gathered around, “Whatcha making?”

Ryan was stressed about a math test so he walked around to calm his nerves and ate at least 3 parathas in the process if not more, Sahana and Sean ate a few with left over dal makhni. I ate 3 of them. They were soft and oh-so-flavorful. I decided right then that I will claim the title of Leftover Queen in my blog post. And I just did!

The thick and thin of dal.


After about a month of sneaking around with my boyfriend, I finally disclosed to my parents that I was seeing someone. The ‘someone’ happens to be from America, his skin color is white and the only Bengali he knows is “Ami tomake bhalobashi” (I love you) that was taught to him by some mischievous coworkers to get him into trouble. The first reaction was of utter surprise. The rule following me was breaking all kinds of rules of romance. I was never told not to fall in love, so “seeing” someone was not the problem. In fact I was told it is best to choose my own partner if I could. Well, I took their advice to heart and then some. I chose someone from outside my state, my country, my religion, my culture. Anyway, I digress.

After the initial shock, I was asked to invite this man to our house. I have already written a blog on that so I will not elaborate. Today I want to write about dal (red lentils). Sean soon became a regular at our dinner table. I remember he was given a knife and a fork with rice, dal, alur dom and some other vegetable. He moved those aside and used his hand to eat like the rest of us. That earned him a lot of brownie points. “Look, he is just like us!” my family often exclaimed.

They spoiled him though. After several experiments, it was established that he loves a very thick dal, tempered with a spicy masala. That kind of dal or masala masoor is more of a North Indian dish. We, Bengalis, like our masoor dal very thin, tempered with dried red chili, kalo jeere (nigella seeds), turmeric powder and slit green chilis. Sean ate at our house at least 4 nights a week and masala masoor was made for him ALL THE TIME!!! When I complained I was told he is the guest and one should make food that the guest likes. All I did was grumble.

Fast forward to our first year of marriage. After eating boring food cooked by Sean for about six months, I took matters into my own hands. I learnt to cook Indian food. Sean praised my initial attempts at making dal and sabji to high heavens so I would take up the mantle of cooking for the family. Since I am a foodie and I realized I enjoyed the task of cooking, I did become the primary cook. Sean is a vegetarian and I am concerned about his protein intake, I make a pot of dal for the family often. It is always thick masala masoor. Unfortunately, my 2 kids love the true Bengali dal which they eat when they go back to Kolkata and they LOVE that. They always complain I make the dal of their dad’s choice and not what the others in the family like. They are not wrong. If you look at the 2 recipes below, you will see that the masala masoor does seem more flavorful, and folks may turn up their nose at the Bengali patla ‘mushur’ dal but trust me, patla ‘mushur’ dal, jhirijhiri alubhaja (finely cut potato sticks), gondhoraj lebu (lime juice) and perhaps a piece of fried hilsa fish or at least a boiled egg is one of the most delicious food to a Bengali. Soul food!

Masala Masoor Dal.

Boil 1 cup of masoor dal (red lentils with about 3 cups of water. Add water if needed to reach desired consistency. It generally takes about 20 to 25 minutes.

In a different pan, heat oil, add a cup of chopped onions and fry them till golden brown.

Add 1 tbsp of ginger garlic paste to the fried onion. Cook till the raw smell is gone, about 20 seconds.

Add one and a half cup of chopped tomatoes. Cook the tomatoes in medium heat till oil separates.

Add a tsp of turmeric, one and a half tsp of coriander cumin powder, half a tsp of red chili powder and 1 tsp of garam masala to the tomato mixture.

Mix well and stir the mixture for about 5 or 6 minutes.

Add the mixture to boiled dal.

Add salt to taste.

Garnish with chopped cilantro, if so desired.

Serve with roti or rice (or eat this as a soup).

Masala masoor

Patla Mushur dal

Boil 1 cup of masoor dal in about 4 or 5 cups of water. There should be adequate water even when the lentils are boiled.

In a separate pan, heat a tbsp of oil.

When the oil is nice and hot, add a tsp of nigella seeds (kalonji or kaalo jeere).

Once they splutter, which they will start immediately in hot oil, add 2 dried chili.

Stir once and add the oil infused with nigella seeds and chili into boiled dal.

Add turmeric, slit green chilis (optional) and salt to taste.

Simmer for 10 minutes and your patla (thin) mushur dal is ready.

This is how we eat patla dal. We take a mound of rice on our plate. Then we make a hole in the middle of the rice and serve the dal in that hole. Then we mix the rice and dal, squeeze some lemon juice on to it and eat it with thinly sliced potato sticks.

Patla mushur dal

Just writing this down transports me back home. Make both types and then tell me if you are Team thick daal or Team thin daal.

Arranged marriage and daal bora (red lentil fritters).


I was about 8 or 9 years old when I was allowed to tag along with some neighborhood girls. They were teenagers then, and very interested in boys and marriage. This was late 70’s India, where girls stole glances at young men and vice versa but very few openly had a relationship. Arranged marriages were prevalent, love marriages were rare. One of the girls in that group was from a big family. She was the youngest of 10 siblings. Her older sisters were regularly sitting in front of families of prospective grooms to be ‘shown’ for marriage. She had a lot of ‘insiders’ information on how the process went and we were her adoring audience. She told us one of prospective groom’s father asked a sister in one such ‘viewing’ that if the family had only rice and masoor dal (red lentil) in the house what food can the girl make out of those ingredients. She was being judged for her resourcefulness in a mid to low income level Bengali family. The girl responded she would make rice, daal, dal bora (lentil fritters), daal bora r jhol (fritters in a curry), daal borar chutney……. and I forget what else.

Although I have eaten daal er bora occasionally in Indian restaurant near me, I have never ventured to make any from scratch. Just a few days ago, in a conversation with my college buddies on wsapp the topic of daal er bora came up. I eagerly asked for the recipe and when my friend gave it to me, I thought “This is easy. Even I can do it.” And I did.

The fritters are simple, delicious and yes, a tad unhealthy. I thought of frying them in my airfryer but instead I went old school and fried them in oil.

  1. You need to soak 1 cup of red lentils overnight or at least for couple of hours. This is what masoor dal or red lentil looks like:

2. Drain the water in a sieve and put the wet lentils in a food processor to pulse it to a paste with a few tsps of water.

3. Add 1 tsp of kalounji seeds (nigella seeds) with the paste – optional

4. Add 2 tbsp of finely chopped onion – optional

3. Add 2 tbsp of chopped coriander leaves. I love coriander leaves but if you don’t like them, you can leave them out.

4. Add 1 tsp of turmeric powder and if you like spicy, 1/2 tsp of red chilli powder

5. Add 2 tbsp of corn starch to make the fritters crispy

6. I like to dice one of two green chilies in the mix. If you like them, throw them in. Who is going to stop ya?

7. Add salt to taste and yes, a tiny bit of sugar. We Bengalis like a little sugar in our food.

8. Mix all the ingredients together. Heat oil in a pan or wok, put tbsp full of the lentil mixture in the hot oil and fry till they turn golden brown.

These crispy fritters taste delicious as a snack with your evening tea or as an accompaniment to rice and daal.

So I ate them for dinner with my rice and dal. Sean ate a few with his sandwich. Ryan bit into one and gave the rest to me. Sahana ate a few dipped in her daal.

Since I made many in my excitement, we still had quite a few leftover. I remembered the resourcefulness of the ‘would be’ bride of my childhood and made red lentil fritters curry the next day when the crispiness of the fritters was gone.

For the curry:

  1. Cut a potato into small cubes.
  2. Make a tsp of fresh ginger paste or finely grated.
  3. Heat a little oil in a wok.
  4. When the oil is hot, add a tsp of cumin seed. It splutters, be careful.
  5. When cumin splutters, add the grated/paste of ginger and let is cook for 20 seconds till the raw smell of ginger is gone.
  6. Now add a small can of tomato paste. Lower the heat and let the tomato mixture cook till the oil separates. Add 1 tsp of turmeric and 1/2 tsp of red chili powder. Add a little water from time to time so masala does not burn.
  7. When the tomato mixture thickens, looks rich red and oil separates, add a tbsp of tomato ketchup. Mix together. Add a cup of water to the mixture and add the potato cubes.
  8. Let the potatoes cook in the gravy. Add more water if needed.
  9. When the potatoes become tender, add the fritters. Add more water since the fritters soak in water and the gravy dries.
  10. Add salt and let the gravy simmer for 10 minutes or so.
  11. Before turning the stove off, add a tsp of garam masala and 1 tsp of ghee (clarified butter). The ghee is completely optional.

The widows in Bengal were expected to live a life of austerity after their husband died. The measure of austerity involved giving up not only meat, fish and eggs but also onions and garlic. The ladies became creative and derived delicious meals with the ingredients that they were allowed to consume. Daal er bora is supposedly one such dish that the widows of Bengal invented. Tasty and versatile that can enrich your taste buds even without the use of garlic and onions.

Resourcefulness has been the means of survival for women for centuries in every aspect of life including food.