Chingri narkel bhorta -spicy shrimp mash with grated coconut, little help from mustard paste and lots of green chilies and generous drizzle of raw mustard oil to induce the kick in it.
“Bengali cuisine is all about aroma and reticence” and with that Amit Chaudhuri in his Telling Tales went on to describe his discontent and disappointment on the steady decline of Bengali food in modern days. How the beloved “hilsa, tangda and pabda” has changed over the years, and how the Bengali spices gave way to foreign invasions, and why we cater the spiced up versions of Bengali food to the rest of the world. The austerity that surrounds the Bengali cuisine, the closely guarded secrets of Bengali cooking and lack of aptitude among the newer generations to learn the traditional way of doing it has forced the cuisine to its nadir. In spite of the rapidly diminishing true flavors of Bengali cuisine, the gastronomic Bengalis who can go on debating to a great extent on should we add turmeric in posto or not, scratched their head to recreate the flavours from the memories, the result may be hotchpotch of something else but even if it get slightest inclination towards “that renowned scent” , there are every reasons to feel proud about it. After all food remains the only way to reconnect with one’s root in todays migrating societies.
Today, here I am sharing with you a very rustic Bengali recipe, that may not have any glamour factors attached to it, but recently it has resurfaced from the rustic hearth to the glitzy modern-day kitchen in five-star restaurants and that took me by surprise. It tasted good but I will reserve my opinion to myself on how authentic it was or not, the most important point is that these “almost lost recipes” are making their way back into the main course of Bengali cuisine, and that is worth appreciating it. And above all the best part of such experience was that it had stirred up my memories from its sleepy recess and sent me two decades back, when I had something similar and divine.
Food evokes so many feelings in us, memories, nostalgia and while on one lazy Sunday afternoon we were silently devouring the kachki macher shutki (sun-dried fish), my dad went on sharing his memoirs on shutki (dried fish / shrimp), his hometown near the river Padma in undivided Bengal, and how they had to leave everything after the partition and how he longed to go back there at least once. Through his misty eyes I could see his pain, but I could never deeply understand it. The “migrant” gene is so deeply burrowed in my DNA that I found myself hardly attached to my roots or anywhere else for that matter. So when people ask me “where is your native” I give them a blank stare. However those sudden nostalgic moments gave us a rare opportunity to enjoy the pleasure of another divine dish called “ kucho chingri khosha bata” .
Kucho meaning tiny , Chingri meaning shrimps, khosha meaning scales and bata meaning mash in Bengali. These tiny white shrimps with scales on are rare commodity even in fish markets of Kolkata, so my dad had to travel half the city to buy the chingri shutki (dried shrimps), all the way from Sealdah market. One preparation was with aurum leaves (kochu saag) and another was with sweet red pumpkin (lal mishit kumro with skin on) called as kumro bonthi. In the former recipe he had added grated coconut and the latter was just a sweet and hot shrimp and pumpkin relish, no spices was added. The kick was induced by eight to ten green chillies and to heighten the flavour extra virgin (cold pressed) mustard oil in its raw form was used.
Ever since the early Portuguese mariners brought the chillies to the deltaic plains of Bengal, the green variety aka “kancha lanka” became the indisputable ingredient in the Bengali cuisine. And as they said “it ain’t no mustard oil if the pungency did nt hit you in the nose and makes you teary eyed”. This Bongo (Bengali) –Portugues marriage between sorshe tel (mustard oil) and kancha lanka (green chillies) has really worked so well that it goes onto define the very essence of Bengali cuisine . This chingri khosha bata recipe has its origin in the swampy areas of fertile plains of Chittagong (in Bangladesh), where it is now known as chingri bhorta hinting at the muslim influence in the region. The original recipe does not include posto bata or sorshe bata which I guess are later addition to it, once the recipe had been transported to epar bangla (west bengal) through the migrants, as kochu saag largely remains the repertoire of Bangal ranna.
Recreating the dish that should smell and taste just like the way it should be, eons ago in some other time, is near impossible one. Authenticity is highly diluted by the fact that the main key ingredients won’t taste similar now. Another factor was that how can I get these in Bangalore? So tiny white shrimps – cancel . Kochu saag / aurum leaves – cancel ; Sweet red pumpkin – cancel. Sil nora / grinder to grind the spices – cancel. But my Ma who is super optimist about almost anything in the world, encouraged me to go for it, her logic was simple “anything taste better with shrimps” and I so agree with her.
In transition, here evolve almost another recipe, that taste different, flavoured differently but with strong reminisce to its earlier avatar.
Basically this recipe involves very little cooking . Tiny shrimps with scales are replaced by farm raised medium size white shrimps. So had to devein it and de-scale it. Mustard paste and grated coconut are optional but nevertheless it makes the dish unique. The best way to devour it to serve it along with steamed rice, the way any true blooded Bengali would love to relish it. For rest of the world, you can wrap it inside a crunchy lettuce and serve it as an appetizer.
- Shrimp / prawn (white) : 15-20 medium size
- Red onion : 1 large (finely chopped)
- Green chillies : 10 -12 as per heat tolerance (finely / coarsely chopped)
- Garlic cloves : 12- 15 if it is small size (minced)
- Mustard paste (freshly pounded) : 2 tsp (optional)
- Coconut (freshly grated) : 2-3 tbsp
- Coriander leaves : ½ cup ( finely chopped)
- Mustard oil (extra virgin) : 2 tbsp
- Turmeric paste : ½ tsp
- Nigella seeds / kalonji : ½ tsp
- Salt to taste
- Black peppercorns : 8-10
- Lime : 1
- Clean and devein the shrimps. Remove the scales too.
- With a sharp knife, finely mince the shrimps. Squeeze out the excess water from the shrimps. Repeat the process till the shrimps are very dry. This is an important step.
- In a pan, heat two teaspoon mustard oil and add the garlic and peppercorns. Once they release the aroma, add the shrimps and stir it till the rawness disappear. Do not overcook the shrimps more than 2 minute. Shrimps should not release water.
- Remove it from the heat.
- In the mixie jar, add the shrimps - garlic-pepper, half of the onions, half of the green chillies, mustard paste (it should be very thick, not watery), coconut, turmeric paste, one teaspoon mustard oil and salt. (You could do this with your hand on sil nora / stone grinder or mortar and pestle)
- Pulse it in the mixer till you get an even chunky mash. It will take 3-4 pulses to get the right mash consistency.
- Return to the pan, add two teaspoon mustard oil, add the nigella seeds.
- Once it starts sizzling, on a high heat add the shrimp mash and stir it lightly for two-three minute till everything gets clumpy and whatever water remains dries up quickly.
- Remove from the heat. To the shrimp mash add the remaining onions, green chillies and corainder leaves. Give it a nice stir.
- Sprinkle a quart of freshly squeezed lime over it.
- There should be a mild hint of tartness to it. So use the lime accordingly.
- Lastly drizzle the remaining mustard oil over it and serve warm with steamed rice.
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