Bengali food, for me, always evokes images of fragrant fish curry with spicy sauce served over hot bed of basmati rice. Bengali food encompasses the food of historical Bengal, now divided into country Bangladesh and state of West Bengal in India.
Bengal is full of rivers and consequently most of Bengali fish are fresh water fish. Until recently, marine fish were considered somewhat inferior. Floodplains of Bengal have been growing rice for more than four millennia. According to a decade old World Bank estimate, an average Bangladeshi gets 70% of calories from rice. Indeed there’s a saying that goes as “machhe bhate bengali”, which roughly translates into “a Bengali is made of fish and rice”.
There is no standard way of cooking Bengali fish. There are thousands of ways to cook a fish in Bengal and millions of families have their own unwritten family recipes. One of the famous ways to cook method is called “jhol”, which translates to liquid, and conceptually a curried stew with vegetable. Fish is simmered slowly with herbs and vegetables so that flavor permeates – something like French bouillabaisse.
My take on a simple Bengali fish curry included a neutral flavor fish, such as tilapia cooked with Panch Phoron spice in onion and tomato stew – a tribute to Bengali machhe (fish) jhol.
I understand that most people don’t have Panch Phoron in their cabinets. Even most Indian cooks might not have it. Few years ago, I saw my friends Sr’na and Pr’nta cooking with it. They were shocked that, being a self-proclaimed Indian food connoisseur, I didn’t know about Panch Phoron. My ego was hurt but balanced was restored when some of good Indian cooks also didn’t know about it. Then, I realized it’s a regional spice. Panch Phoran is a spice blend made from five (panch) whole spices; fenugreek, nigella seeds, mustard seeds, fennel seeds, and celery seeds or cumin seeds. It’s easily found in any of your local Indian grocery store. Even if you don’t have it, for purpose of this Bengali jhol dish, you can make your own with three, instead of five, main ingredients; fennel seeds, cumin seeds, and mustard seeds. Remember the keyword here, use “whole seed” not “ground spice”.
My Bengali fish recipe is so simple that it can be written in just one sentence. Heat oil on medium heat, fry spices for few seconds, sauté sliced onion till golden brown, and add chopped tomatoes, add salt, bring stew to boil, add cut fish (tilapia), turn off heat after a minute, and serve after few minutes of simmering. Try to add at least same amount (not more than twice) of veggies (including onion and tomatoes) as the fish. To get started, limit ½ tablespoon of spice mix per realistic serving of the dish. Remember that you can always add spices later but it’s impossible to remove it. Optionally, you can also sauté a few cloves of garlic and shreds of ginger with onion. One other thing you must remember is not to overcook the fish.
This is not a typical highly spicy creamy heavy dish served in Indian restaurants. The aromatic sweet flavors of fennel seeds, curry flavor of cumin seeds and mild spicy/hot flavor of mustard seeds go well naturally with tilapia and onion/tomatoes to make a very pleasant and light dish.
Panch Phoron’s image is from food-india.com.
Posted in: Cooking - Food Culture | Tags: Bangladeshi Fish, bengali fish, Bengali Five Spice, bengali food, bengali tilapia, Indian FIve Spice, jhol, Panch Phoron, Panch Phoron Spice
Perfect kabob = flavorful grilled marinated (or spiced) meat cooked succulent but tender enough to melt in your mouth. The major disappointment for kabob is a dry and chewy kabob. Generally, kabob is served with leavened flat-bread (often known as naan), rice and vegetables/salad.
There are four categories of kabobs;
Shish kabob or souvlaki or satay or sekuwa: marinated chunk of usually cubed boneless meat grilled over open charcoal. Shish kabobs are usually grilled with skewers. Shish kabobs need the highest quality meat because there is no processing of meat before cooking except marination. Since shish kabobs are cooked with just radiant heat, it can be most succulent and juicy kabob if cooked right.
Tandoor kabob or kathi kabob or bhatti Kabob: marinated chunk of (usually with bones) meat grilled in a high heat clay oven known as tandoor. Temperature in tandoor can go as high as 900°F. Tandoor Kabob is generally a bit dry than shish kabobs because both radiant heat (from fire) and convection heat (hot air) is cooking the kabobs. A famous example of tandoor kabob is the tandoori chicken served in virtually any non-vegetarian Indian restaurants.
Chapli kabob or kakori kabob or Kubideh kabob: spiced ground meat usually cooked over charcoal grill. Since it’s made of ground meat, many inferior meats can be served as this kabob. Basically it’s like grilled burger (with more spice). A burger can be McDry burger or a heavenly delight (see best burgers in DC).
Doner kebab (Turkish) or Turkish kabob (Indian subcontinent and Iran) or shawarma (Arabic) or gyro (Greek) : vertical cone shaped kabob that are sliced to order. The traditional way to make doner kabob is to stack marinated slices of lamb meat on a rotating vertical skewer in the shape of an inverted cone topped with fat, tomatoes, and onion flavoring the meat in bottom with its drippings when heated. However, in west doner kebab is often industrially manufactured with ground meat. The traditional doner kabob is cooked in rotating charcoal or wood cooker. It is sort of old fashioned rotisserie meat.
Spices, marination, sauce, side ingredients and type of meat may change but the above four categories encompass essence of all kabobs. For example, in countries with large Muslim population, kabobs are made from lamb and sometimes with beef, in Indian subcontinent it has curry based spices, in Thailand it may be served with peanut sauce, Greeks make gyro from pork, which is taboo meat in Muslim countries, and serve with yogurt sauce.
For me Kabob is street food or at most a fast food such as oldstyle delis. So, I don’t like the idea of kabobs in a fancy restaurant. A kabob joint should be an unassuming place that serves the quality Kabob with possibly flatbread and should not be heavy on your wallet. My search for perfect kabob took me to these places in and around DC.
In Moby Dick, it is sirloin. Many of Moby Dick’s entrees are very similar to the Persian national dish, Chelow kabob. Chelow kabob consist of steamed saffron basmati rice (Chelow) and kabob. Traditionally, Chelow kabob is served with grilled tomatoes on the side and butter on top of the steamed rice like the way it’s served in Moby Dick. Moby Dick also provides a classic condiments, ground sumac (Somagh), on their tables. You can sprinkle this reddish looking powder on rice to give somewhat of aromatic tart flavor. If you are adventurous enough, Moby Dick also serves the traditional yogurt drink, Doogh, which are often carbonated and flavored with salt and mint. Moby Dick has two varieties; the homemade and the commercial. The homemade is more flavorful while commercial is more carbonated. It reminds me of salty lassi drink people in northern India drink to cool off during hot summer days. Definitely try, if you are a foodie!
The kabobs here have more of Indian subcontinental influence (read; Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan and India) because spice marination of kabob has more curry flavors. However, it also serves kubideh, which is more of Persian style kabob. They also serves chapli kebab or chappal kabob, a spicy beef patty made in Peshawari style, a northwestern part of Pakistan. Lamb kabobs are served with bones as well as without bones. All the kabobs are served with rice, salad and Indian subcontinental style curried vegetables such as spinach potato (palak aloo), chickpeas etc. Beside kabob, Kabob Palace also serves other dishes such as Karahi chicken. One of the best part of Kabob Palace is that you get a free black masala chai (see previous post on chai) while you wait for your kabobs. Both time I went to Kabob Palace, it was snowing and their hot tea made me feel at home.
Ravi Kabob, Kabob Bazaar and others
Kabob Bazar is a kabob between courthouse and clarendon metro. It serves Middle Eastern type kabob, i.e., light on curry spices. It also has other Middle Eastern fare such as falafel, hummus, as well as decent selection of vegetarian and fish kabobs.
There are many other wonderful kabob joints around DC area that I have yet to explore. My suggestion is go and try them out. You may find a hidden jewel hiding in your neighborhood.
In search of Doner Kabob
Posted in: Travel and Food | Tags: bengali food, bhatti Kabob, Chapli kabob, DC Cafe, Doner kebab, Indian food, kabob bazaar, Kabob Palace, kakori kabob, kathi kabob, Kubideh kabob, Middle eastern food, Moby Dick, Pakistani food, Ravi kabob, satay, sekuwa, shawarma, Shish kabob, souvlaki, Tandoor kabob, Turkish kabob, types of kabob
Chatpati is one of my favorite Bengali snacks. The main ingredients are chickpeas and potatoes. It’s spicy, savory, and tangy, combining a satisfying variety of flavors and textures. And as an added bonus, it’s very healthy! I’ve found that even people who aren’t familiar with Indian food enjoy it.
The nice thing about this recipe is that it’s very flexible. Don’t like cilantro? Leave it out. Don’t have any tamarind? Just add extra lime juice. You can make substitutions for most of the ingredients, and the final product will still be delicious.
Soak the dry chickpeas overnight. Drain, rinse, and return to pot. Cover with hot water and bring to boil. Simmer until tender enough to eat, but don’t allow them to split. Drain them until ready to use. If you want to skip this step altogether, you can use canned chickpeas, but the flavor will be a bit different.
In a large pan, heat the oil. Add the onions, and sauté over low heat until soft. Do not brown them.
Add half a cup of water, cumin, coriander, bay leaf and tamarind puree. Bring to boil, then simmer until all the water has evaporated.
Add the fresh chilis and cook for a few minutes over low heat. The amount and type of chilis just depend on your taste. I like to use two serrano chilis and three habaneros. If you want it less spicy, you can cut a slice into each chili, leaving them whole, then remove them before serving. While the chilis are cooking, peel the potato and dice it into large chunks. You want the chunks to be larger than the chickpeas.
Add about three cups of water to your spices, and add the diced potato, tomato and ½ tsp salt. Make sure the water covers the potatoes and tomatoes completely. Bring to a boil, and then lower to a simmer.
Allow the mixture to simmer for about 30 minutes, then add the chickpeas and enough water to make sure everything is covered. Allow this to simmer for at least an hour and a half, but preferably 2-3 hours, stirring occasionally. The water will evaporate to create a thick sauce. You can cook it longer or add water to adjust the consistency.
Once you achieve the desired consistency, add the cayenne pepper, black pepper, sugar, lime juice, additional salt, and chopped cilantro.
Serve warm and garnish each serving with diced egg and cucumber.
Posted in: Cooking | Tags: Bangladeshi food, Bangladeshi snack, bengali food, Bengali snack, Bengali snacks, chatpati, chickpeas and eggs