As I have indicated in past posts, my parents are West Bengal Bengalis, coming from the east of India. And as I have mentioned before, much as I love their wonderful culinary heritage, I've not been gifted with the skill and judgement to cook their food.
So when I discovered Mallika Basu's book "Miss Masala" I was pretty pleased. Not only is this a book attempting to show how good, tasty Indian food does not have to involve slaving away in the kitchen, but Basu is of Bengali descent too!
It turns out that Mallika Basu was born in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta). She came to the UK aged 18 to study, and has lived here ever since. Her journey into culinary literature started off as a blog detailing her experiments with simple, fast Indian cooking. After her studies, Mallika carved out a successful career in PR, and is now a Associate Director for a London PR Consultancy.
Her book is one of the most useful Indian food books I have seen in a long time. What is special is how it takes the reader/cook through dishes, explaining the ingredients and techniquest, building up the level of difficulty as it goes. It's like a cookery course in book format. In addition, the anecdotes about reconciling the demands of work and a busy social life to find the time for making these dishes are humorous, written with a light and knowing hand. It made me feel like we were co-conspirators, and that I wasn't alone in wanting a rewarding life which also allowed for good food at home.
This is my test of her recipe for I couldn't find it on her recipe on her blog (which I do recommend) http://www.quickindiancooking.com/ so I am posting a picture of the recipe from the book here:
Chingri Maach is Bengali for prawns. The ones you can get in West Bengal and Bangladesh really have to be seen to be believed; they are such whoppers, you'd think someone got confused and served you lobster instead!
One ingredient you may not be familiar with is Mustard Oil. This is used very commonly in Bengali cooking. So commonly, in fact, that I found my bottle in Tesco, of all places! You will find that supermarkets in areas where lots of Indians live will stock it. If not, then your local Indian grocery shop should sell it.
The first step of the recipe calls for making a curry paste. So I had to start by preparing my paste ingredients.
Then they had to be mashed up into a paste. Stupidly, I thought the blender attachment on my food processor could manage this task. But the small amount of ingredients meant the blades couldn't get a good purchase on all the stuff.
So I had to carry out a small amount of improvisation. I'm not unused to this. Often it's because I've not prepared properly. Or I've made a similar miscalculation. Still, I can't complain, since I've nearly always been able to get myself out of the whole I got myself into.
I found that by shaking the blender vigorously from side to side and pushing the unblended ingredients back down into the blender as I went, I managed to blend the cubed ingredients into a paste. I had to blitz, stop, mix, push down, blitz, and then repeat again. (Word to the wise: use the food processor part of the machine! Don't waste time and effort!!)
Obviously, none of the above is the fault of the author of the recipe, Mallika Basu. It is all mine. As I've often said, I make the mistakes so that you don't have to!
Eventually, I got my curry paste done. And fragrant and well textured it was too!
Next came the frying of the whole spices with the sugar. This is a picture of the spices at an early stage of cooking:
Here you can see the caramelisation of the sugar occurring. As you can see, the sugar is the brown coloured (caramel) droplets in the oil.
Then the paste has to be added. This does have a tendency to spit at you, because the paste ingredients contain a lot of water and the oil is rather hot. Be careful and hold your body back away from the pan if it starts to get nasty. Keep calm, and try not to worry.
As you cook the paste, you will need to keep it moving, or it will catch and stick to the pan. Put some good music on and bliss out, or put your phone on speakerphone/hands free and have a chat. Just don't leave the pan unattended!
Eventually the paste will change colour.
Then it is time to add the sauce flavour base: the chilli, turmeric and chopped tomato. You will see the colour changes almost as soon as you have mixed it all up.
As Mallika says; here is the tricky part of the recipe. You need to mellow the spices and cook it all gently without burning. Put the pan on the smallest ring of your hob, and turn the heat really low. Burnt garlic and ginger will ruin the taste of the overall dish. Keep an eye on the pan and stir regularly. You will be able to smell the contents change in character. At the beginning you will be able to sense the ingredients; you will get tinges of the smell of each. As you get to the point where they are cooked, they will meld together.
We then have to add the coconut milk.
This will need very thorough mixing, to ensure all the flavours and smells permeate the coconut milk thoroughtly. You will not want unmixed sections, as these will taste bland and uninteresting.
Then add your prawns. Frozen prawns must be defrosted beforehand, or you will have to radically increase the cooking time.
After the allotted cooking cooking time, your prawns will be perfectly cooked, and will have taken on the flavours of the sauce
Serve with boiled/steamed Basmati rice.
Verdict: This did taste like an authentically Bengali curry. The gravy is flavoursome and goes well with rice, but equally would compliment breads such as paratha or chapati. The dish has balanced 'spicy' taste, but not mountains of heat. To me, "spice" is not about heat alone; it is about the tones of classic Indian spices which creates tones, reflections and counterpoints. The chilli powder did provide some heat, but it was subtle and cooked into the sauce in a very pleasing way. Fans of vindaloo and phall may want to either up the amount of chilli powder or substitute for 2 slitted or dried chillies added in at the stage where the coconut milk is added. Even though the amount of sugar added is small, it does provide a sense of sweetness which permeates the dish beautifully. It is a quintessentially Bengali element to the finished dish. This is a highly effective recipe which is in places work intensive, but that the work rewards the cook in the final result.