May 28, 2012

Mustard Prawn – Bengal Style

The Basics
  • The secret ingredient of this dish – Mustard Powder
  • The secret to success of this dish – Do not overcook
  • The basic truth about this dish – When you don’t have time and want to impress guest this the dish to go
A bit of a background because food is also about the experience.

The more I travel outside my country, the more I get frustrated with the “bastardised” “Indian” food. Like Europe, India is a collage of different cultures having their own unique climate, which influences their own unique food. Each region having its own unique produce and climate, which influence what is eaten and paraded as the staple diet. The attitudes and social behaviors also guide what they eat, how much they eat, how often they eat and what role food plays in their life.

I come from the state of West Bengal, a state which still claims to be the hot bed of intellectuals. But I still believe when Opu (my brother-in-law) says that it was just a cosmic co-incidence that it became a hot bed of cultural renaissance. A renaissance, even if there was one, was long over with the death of Satyajit Ray.

My grandfather came this state, which was part of the undivided Bengal. They belonged to what was initially East Pakistan and is now called Bangladesh, a country which still has to decide which side they are on.

Bengalees love to eat and live to eat and this dish that I am going describe is ode to the subtle and simplicity of Bengalee cooking. It revolves around 4 critical ingredients that is fundamental to any Bengali kitchen – Prawn, Mustard (the oil and the paste), Turmeric, fresh coconut and fresh green chillies.

The simplicity of this dish runs completely against what most of us get outside India, paraded as “Indian” food. This type of food is only served in some unimaginative parts of the north India. What makes it worse is that this type of food has been further westernized, “creamified” and sweetened for the western palate. A palate which is over simplified, misunderstood and mis-catered by the diaspora of India restaurants across the world.

In this particular world, there is no difference between spicy and hot, where food is assembled using an array of pre-cooked gravy, where the focus is less on food and more on tomatoes and the profitability of the restaurant. At most times, these funny little places with their less funny owners assign the wrong reasons for the success and failure of their restaurants.

While I can write on and on, I rather focus on the dish.

Statutory warning: This dish will have a kick depending on where you procure Mustard Oil from and how you prepare your mustard.

Ingredients that I used that day (and for this visit an Indian Store):
  • Prawns (uncooked, the fresher the better, the ones from my hometown are the best)
  • Mustard Oil (not the ones from Mexico or Fiji but from India)
  • Fresh Green Chillies (sliced)
  • Black Mustard seeds (these need to be hand-ground else Coleman Mustard powder is the alternate)
  • Turmeric
  • Freshly grated coconut (if you are outside India, go with the frozen grated coconut and not desiccated corpses)
  • Salt (Of course)
  • Unsweetened Yoghurt (optional)
  • Fresh Banana Leaves (optional, ideally the light green younger leaves)

The Process

Clean the Prawns and marinate it with turmeric and salt for at least half an hour. Simultaneously stone grind the black mustard seeds with a little salt, water and a couple of green chillies. If you are using mustard powder I would recommend using only Coleman’s unless you are lucky to lay your hands on the Sunrise mustard powder from Kolkata, India. In that case mix it with lukewarm water and salt so that you get a nice paste. Add a dash of mustard oil as well. Let it soak for 10 minutes.

Add the mustard paste to the Prawn. Use a microwaveable bowl which can be cover cooked. Add lots of freshly grated the coconut (thawed frozen ones). Add a good helping of mustard oil (about 4 tablespoons for 500 gm prawns). You can add yoghurt at this stage. Add 3 – 4 fresh green chilllies (sliced). Season the dish and then microwave for 5 minutes.

In case you have fresh banana leaves available, you can place it at the centrer  of bowl and then pour your prawn and cover it with another layer of banana leaves. Once done take it out, stir it well and then add another 2 tablespoons of mustard oil and 2 more fresh green chillies. Microwave for another 3 minutes.

Serve with fresh hot steamed rice and nothing else.

Nov 5, 2010

I Miss Life. So will June. Do You?

If the answer to the above question is "No", do not read further. This post, which was written in an early September morning, finally sees the light of the day.

Early today morning, shoulders drooping, head weighed down, my eyes fell on my AVIS Rental contract which is of no use anymore. Just a month back this was one of those many important documents whose loss threatened great challenges. Dodge Nitro it says. It brought a flood of good memories.

Living in the past and worrying about the future - a feature of our life these days.

Kolkata, Indore, Mumbai, Delhi, Kharagpur, Bangalore, Pune, Hyderabad, San Francisco, Copenhagen, Hyderabad, Boston, Chicago - cities that where I have lived and worked in excess of a month.

Kolkata, Pune, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Chicago - cities in which my six year old June has lived for six months or more and we have called "home".

Over the last decade, as I made the painful transition from being just a wayfarer to a working wayfarer (the eternal migrant), I have marvelled at how mobile we have been. Our life (Mun, June and myself) cannot be but more symptomatic of the changing times.

As things like career, job, employability and all past notions around "making a living" continously gets redifined and evolves further into commodified monstrosity, we have moved from place to place and tried to make the best we can.

Everyone of those places we stayed are etched in myriad memories. Memories that are not just black and white but are air brushed with different hues. Hues that together tell our story which is neither happy nor sad, but exciting nevertheless.

Most importantly, these stories remind us of the different people that peppered our lives and helped us along. These are angels without whom our experience would not have been half as enriching.

Recently a very senior colleague mentioned, "What have you been running from?". The question triggered some thoughts and some more retrospection. Some honest crude answers immediately screamed to my mind and belittled my ego once again. A defensiveness which becomes more and more protracted.

To describe me as an escapist, however, will be an over-simplification. However, right across my desk, someone smartly rights, "Dont take yourself so seriously. Nobody Does". Was it coined just for me, to wake me up?

Recently, I feel the need to free myself of the "I". The stories of Matrix and Inception and a recent book that I am reading, makes me wonder, is my life a series of programmed dreams that I am continuously sleeping through.

Our evolving society constantly allows us avenues to free ourselves from the "they" to the "we" and finally to the selfish "I".

While business leaders and the various soft and hard 'social networking tools' remind us to collaborate, we are also coached and cultured to develop our personal brand. Ruthlessness personified, we recognize no one and seeks only the self. Each trying to understand and dissect our own personality. Spectatoring it and then tweaking it to display to others, for them to consume, and digest so that we all can manipulate their perception.

Unconsciously, we want to script a life like a well enacted drama that will have an happy ending for us. An ending which is neither in sight nor can be pictured. An attempt to choreograph every move and orchestrate everything.

Each of these individual dramas are creating "clanks", because in the larger stage everyone is an "I". Unlike Bollywood Friday releases these dramas do not factor each other.

So the world threatens to become increasingly more clanky, less appetizing, more unsavory. I miss life, the life that I see in my father's black and white album, and the life which I never believed could get engulfed in so much complication.

However, I think June will write the same 20 - 30 years from now, regretting the life that she had and she saw her dad living.

So some food for thought if you are done with your sweets.

Happy Diwali!

Jul 24, 2010

Rantu Maa

Death comes nearer, kisses and teases me one more time

26 Mar 1986 was the first time I ever had consciousness of death. Before that day, news of death never stirred my senses, never made a difference to "my" life. But this time it was my granddad - a grander man I have never known and whose presence I had gotten used to since my birth. He was bed ridden for three months and his death brought a sense of relief and I thanked god and was happy. Today I have similar feelings about another death.

Rantu Maa, as she was fondly referred to, never became a mother but was no less a mother to Mun. I do not know much details about her life except of what she narrated to me, during the lazy languid afternoons I would spend in her terrace abode on "Tintola (third floor)" in a sleepy Kolkata lane, which Opu says has not changed one bit in the past 20 odd years.

She was one of the many relationships I acquired as a result of my marriage. Relationships which are no less important to me than those more congenital.

It was interesting to hear my girlfriend talk a lot about Rantumaa. It was those days, when love was nascent and fresh, days when you would want to wrap your girlfriend's life around yourself. I was curious to meet Rantu Maa and impress her, since she seemed so special to Mun.

I do not remember my first meeting with her but over time, I slowly got to know a lady who was strong-willed, independant, practical, out-spoken, affectionate and had seen a lot more of life than I ever will.

Rantu Maa could easily symbolize the modernness of Bengal at that time. A culture where women would be thriving and would be big stakeholders of the household and possess a big say in all major decisions.

I heard stories of how she tried to run with the speeding train and in the process injured herself when she was young. How she would drive an Amby - a predominantly man's car and drop her docile doctor hubby to his chamber. How she was denied an opportunity to screen test for a Satyajit Ray film (I never asked about the culprit, I hope it was not Babuji).

My mom often mentioned how impressed she was each time when she would see Rantu, prim and proper, and with that smart hair cut, even when she would be very sick.

I would be amazed to see her energy levels when she was nursing "Babuji" while pushing seventy herself. She would read, stitch, limp through her household work, and would still have energy left. How she would maintain her bank documents, allocating and reallocating funds as if she was sitting on a mountain of wealth to be distributed to the princelings after her time.

I hated to see a person of her agility lose her physical mobility as time progressed. Over the past ten years of my marriage I saw how a hyper active individual would be forced to be a supplicant of her age.

I still cannot accept the withering of our body as time progress and would rather have grand people die grand. Today, I heard how she held the hand of her two brothers and apparently indicated minutes before her death, that her time had finally come. It typefies her, ever conscious of the dark realities of her life and never out of touch.

Honestly, I was praying for it for a while. She always had a sense of humor, rather dark humor. Each of our last conversations would be around this fish called "Koi", a delicacy among us Bongs. A fish which refuses to give up its life, rather cursed. Whenever you bring a Koi fish home (in Kolkata we usually buy live fish), it would be alive right through the dissection process and even wimper in the frying pan.

Recently, I would always refer to her as a "Koi Mach" and how she is cursed to live long. Each time I would meet her during my trips to Kolkata, I would think this was the last time. In my heart of heart, I would wish that her life conditions would change so that her grandeur is reinstated.

This time when I bade good bye during Christmas trip, she said "Aaar dekha hobena". I am both happy and sad that the words came true. While I write this, my eyes swell up whenever I think she is now a part of my past. While the last rites are getting performed miles away now, she forces herself into my present, may be till I visit Kolkata and accept the emptiness of the "tintola (third floor)" of 19/S Abinash Banerjee Lane.

I dearly hope the room is not dismantled for another month (for Mun's sake), so that we can see it one last time. See it the way Rantu Maa would keep it. Neat, tidy and crisp. And I hope I can lie down on her soft bed one last time.

I wish I knew her for a far longer period. Her death, like some recent deaths, brings it much closer to me again. Whenever I take a pause and I look around at my parents' generation, I fear their absence and how we would get used to it with time.

Life's cruel, but death is harsher. It will kiss us all.

Jan 25, 2010

Imperfect Past, Future Tense?

There have been many yearnings to 'post'. Many flashes of titles. The letters floating around those titles, trying to get colored in the myriad hues of emotions that they come swimming in. However, the circumstances have not allowed me to sit by and allow those letters to sequence themselves in a post of mine.

I started writing a post about a couple of months back. The notepad file where I pen my post bears evidence to that. Eerily it was the same location where I am now. I was riding the Metra from Downtown Chicago to Lake Forest, my present nest. These were the exact words,

"Copenhagen. San Francisco. Boston. In the interim, glimpses Los Angeles, Washington D.C. and New York. Now Chicago. I am lucky to get glimpses of these great cities. I write this post, while I sit in the Metra, going back to my abode in Lake Forest from Chicago downtown."

But thats the only lines that I could write. When I am not busy with work, my mind is too busy either hanging onto the past or bringing in the thoughts and worries of the future. Each day I realize, that my present is sinking in the abyss of my thoughts.

When I look at others, I see how much they get done.

I feel I do not get much done inspite of the burn around of my life. The intensity of my workplace does not help either. My penchant to get soaked in, also adds to the challenge. But my circumstances are just like any other. It is not so special and neither am I so special.

Then what?