Monday, February 12, 2007

Bengali kitchen

Turnpike Lane was frantically busy today with mainly Bangladeshi Bengalis stocking up on provisions in the numerous mini-markets and "saree" shops that line the little stretch of road around the Tube station. M and I joined them this morning. At the fishmonger, we asked for either carp or catfish. "What are you making?" the fishmonger asked. "A fish curry," I replied. To which he responded, "Most of my Pakistani and Bengali customers buy mullet for their fish curries." So grey mullet it was. "Do you want the fish heads too? My customers put them in to flavour the broth." "No, it's okay," I said.

As a Bengali I know how popular fish heads are for flavouring gravies and dals, but as an ex-vegetarian - vegetarian for eleven years, vegan for two years - I'm still a little squeamish of things with eyes and mouths.

From neighbouring grocery stores we also bought bags of patol, baby aubergines, sweet potatoes, shim and bunches of spinach, plus some kalanji or nigella seeds. From a sari shop I bought a pack of deep red round and a pack of silver diamond-shaped bindis for my wedding.

As M was returning back from an Arsenal match, I cooked tonight's dinner of maacher jhol (fish steaks in a spicy water) and palong shager ghonto (spicy spinach and sweet potato curry).

For the maacher jhol, I rubbed a little turmeric powder and salt into the skin and flesh of six grey mullet steaks and set aside. After fifteen minutes I heated some mustard oil in a heavy pan and fried the mullet steaks for around three minutes on each side until they were crisp and set aside. I peeled and grated an inch of ginger, and ground together a teaspoon each of whole cumin and mustard seeds. I finely diced a medium onion and fried the entire mixture in the mustard oil along with a teaspoon of nigella or onion seeds, six small dried red chillies and a teaspoon of ground coriander until everything sizzled gently. I added a few fresh chopped tomatoes and returned the fish to the pan along with some boiling water. The water came halfway up the sides of the fish steaks. I lidded the pan and simmered gently for ten minutes.

For the palong shager ghonto, I washed and chopped two big bunches of fresh spinach and six baby aubergine, and peeled and diced a white-fleshed sweet potato. I ground together a teaspoon of cumin seeds, a tablespoon of coriander seeds and six small dried red chillies into a fine powder. I heated the mustard oil in a heavy pan with an inch of grated ginger and a teaspoon of whole cumin seeds until they crackled and popped. I added the ground spice mixture and a teaspoon of turmeric powder, fried it a little then added all the vegetables and a teaspoon of sugar. I added enough boiling water so the vegetables were nearly covered and cooked at a simmer for twenty minutes, adding salt to taste.

I served both with Basmati rice. It was alot of food and there's enough for tomorrow so it'll save us cooking again. Sunday's were always big cooking days in my parents' house as I was growing up. Heady aromas would gradually fill the kitchen during the course of the day as both my mum and dad cooked several curry dishes. For M and I, Sundays now afford the lazy luxury of time to cook slow-cook food - curries, stews, roasts... Lovely.

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