Today, I finally got to sit down with my best “friend in deed” – my old big book of recipes – a steadfast friend since a decade. He has pulled me out of the “what-to-cook-and-how” crisis umpteen times. I love him and he has traveled with me everywhere. I wrote on him and he taught me. And yet, he has aged much more than I did, in these 10 years. It’s once bright brown, orange and yellow cover is now dull, worn-out and has colors more earthly. This senile tattered and torn book is one of my most treasured possessions.
‘Twas a gift to me from S. He calls it the “iconic Lokenath Khata” from Kolkata. Khata means a classic big Indian exercise notebook (a tall student’s journal). S has always been this true blooded Bong from south-Kolkata (here, Bong = Bengali). Though a Bengali myself, I’ve never lived in the state of West Bengal, not until 2006, which was the 1st and so far the last time, I had spent a couple months in Kolkata, “his” city of Joy. I am indebted to S to have shown to me a whole new wonderful world of Bong culture that was largely unknown to me. My Khata was one among those several things to remember S gave me, ones that reminded him of his city and of his childhood.
But this was not the 1st time S had gifted me a student’s notebook. He used to fondly buy me a few every year during college, with a hope each time that I’ll write notes in them and get more ‘regular’ in studies. Though I wasn’t half as reputed a scholar S was, I scored fairly happy marks through my “cram the night before a test” study hack strategies! 🙂 True to being a perfect misfit in a girl’s hostel. And end of each year, the notebooks S gave me, would still be just like new with a neat label (with my name and subject of study).
My thoughts and I followed this ritualistic cycle every academic year during studenthood – initial few days full of resolutions and determination…the rest of the days were of course history! So without exception, the first couple pages of each of my notebooks had diligently taken down notes. The remaining pages, bore beautiful impressions of my artwork during non-art classes or lazy uninterested doodles and noodles in abundance! 🙂
However, this wasn’t the case with my Lokenath Khata. Though I did start it customarily too – the 1st page with academic inscription was soon torn and trashed. I had then also carefully removed the other part of the spread, the connected second page from the stapled binder and had trashed it. Today, all pages in my Khata are covered in food recipes and notes of yum! Well not notes, scribbling to be more precise. I have scrawled recipes sourced from all over since 10 years now. And yet, there is still some surviving vacancy on a few Khata’s pages here and there. And the recipes aren’t really in writings, they look more cryptic. No one but I can make a sense out of these coded secrets! It is more like my chemistry memory notebook of equations. Definitely nothing like a recipe book. My Khata is full of abbreviations, invented text shortcuts, atypical acronyms and flowcharts. Can’t remember why, but I also wrote my Khata the other way round – last page first. Then there are instances when I had diagrammatically represented a style of cooking. Crazy!!! Yes, crazy and my genius 😉 I love the imperfections.
As I flipped through the pages, I was struck on this one recipe – Shahi Murg. Three generations of our family have relished this. Its one that I’ve perfected over years — an explicitly tried, tested and feasted on formula! It has ingredients that’re easy to source, a simple recipe, and is lip-smackingly delightful. It does not belong to any particular region in India, yet it perhaps has a tiny tinge of Awadh in it. The medley of spices wonderfully blend in to create a magical curry…nutty, mild, a hint of warm spice, tender juicy chicken soaking in the cream and that fenugreek aroma…Pure joy in your mouth! We loved it and I look forward to hear from you to know if you’ve liked it too…
- 2 lbs or 1 kg Chicken (Bone-in or boneless) -- cut to medium pieces
- Whole Spices -- 8 cloves, 2 green cardamoms, 1 black cardamom and 2 cinnamon sticks, 1 inch each
- 4 large garlic cloves
- 1 inch fresh ginger root
- 1 medium red onion
- 2 Indian green chilies (optional)
- 1/2 tsp turmeric powder
- 3.5 oz or 100 gm Tomato puree or 2 tbsp of a tomato based hot and sweet sauce (I use a sauce)
- 1 tsp Kashmir-i red chili powder (full flavored mild heat and vibrant red paprika powder)
- 18-20 cashew nuts
- 2 heaped tbsp sour cream
- 2 heaped tbsp dried fenugreek leaves or kasuri methi
- Salt per taste
- 4-5 tbsp of light olive/canola/vegetable oil or Ghee (clarified butter)
- Wash the chicken pieces thoroughly in a colander
- Peel and wash onion, garlic and ginger. De-stem and wash green chilies. Chop coarsely and grind them together to a smooth paste in a blender with minimal water
- Soak cashew nuts in warm water for 10-15 mins. Using a grinder, grind the cashews coarsely with 1-2 tbsp of water. If you do not like the cashew crunch, proceed to grind the nuts to a finer paste.
- Heat oil/Ghee in a Kadai or a deep saute pan and throw in the whole spices to splutter.
- When you can smell the spicy aroma (and before the spices get burned), carefully add the onion-mixture in it. Keep stove at medium heat and stir constantly to avoid the mixture from much spluttering. Saute for about 3-5 mins or until you see the mixture separate out oil from sides. If using tomato puree, add it now (if using the sauce, please wait for a later step)
- Add the happy sunshine powder (turmeric) as well as red chili powder and stir to mix
- Add the chicken pieces in and salt. Fry together with the spice mixture, and keep stirring occasionally to avoid burning. I make this dish on an open pan/kadai, without cover-cooking to avoid building up excess water. However, if need be, you may sprinkle minimal water to keep in the moisture if you see it getting too dry.
- When the chicken is almost done, add the hot and sweet sauce (I use Maggi's Hot and sweet tomato chili sauce that I get from the Indian stores here - it adds in a dash of tanginess and heat)
- Then stir in the cashew nut paste and sour cream and mix well. Switch the stove heat to lower medium to avoid the cashew paste to char at the bottom
- When the chicken is done completely and there's none but just a thick creamy gravy remaining, add the Kasuri methi (dried fenugreek leaves) and mix quickly. Turn off the stove and do not over cook fenugreek leaves to avoid a bitter after taste.
- Serve hot with Basmati rice or an Indian bread.
Shahi Fish Curry — To make this, take about 10 pieces of descaled and washed (bone-in) Fish. Freshwater fishes preferred, but you may also use saltwater fishes. Pat dry the fish pieces and smear them with a little salt and turmeric. Shallow fry them in a little oil. Let the fried pieces rest on kitchen towels for the excess oil to absorb. Follow instructions above (and skip adding chicken). After adding the cashew paste and cream and mixing, gently place the fish pieces in the simmering rich gravy at low heat. Flip both sides and simmer for just about a minute or until the pieces soften. (Shallow frying would’ve already cooked the fish well, so we don’t simmer them again in this step). Add Kasuri methi, mix and take the pan off the stove to avoid cooking fish pieces too much (over-cooking causes the fish pieces to break). Share and relish!