A: Food from the Indian state of Bengal is distinctively different from other parts of the country as they are usually mild and a lot less spicy. Even within Bengali cuisine, there are a lot of regional variations and the uniqueness of each region is fiercely protected. Very broadly speaking there are dishes from East Bengal (now Bangladesh) and there are ones from West Bengal (now being re-branded as Paschim Banga, which literally means the same as ‘West Bengal’ in Bengali). The landscape of the East is very different from the West, the East being more wet and fertile while the West is less green and more industrialised. Hence the local cuisines of the two regions have developed quite differently over the years.
Although originating from East Bengal, I grew up in the West as my grand parents had to migrate West during India’s partition. The independence came at a huge individual cost and people who migrated to the West stubbornly held on to their family recipes. More often than not, that was all they had to hold on to having lost their land and property along with family members and relatives.
Now, when we travel to Italy on vacation and see the Italians valiantly defend their regional variations in cuisine, I can easily relate to their urge to maintain their individuality.
I also believe that the recipes need to evolve. The ingredients of the original recipe may be tied to a particular region or not widely available. There are locally available substitutes that can work equally well to give stunning results. This is a Muslim dish from East Bengal which is prepared with goat meat. Other than the very light sour curd there is another ingredient which is a sour berry called Alu Bokhara available there. So, I had to make quite a few substitutes to make this dish: lamb instead of goat meat, Greek style yogurt for the light sour curd and sour Morello cherries (or sour berries) to capture the tangy taste of Alu Bokhara. Also instead of cooking on a low flame in an air tight container, I conveniently bake it in a ceramic roasting dish sealed with an aluminium foil.
There is a Hindu belief that meat and fish develop toxins when killed. To get rid of these toxins, before cooking, meat and fish are coated with turmeric (considered to be an antiseptic) and left to marinate for some time. Consequently, almost all Indian dishes have an abundance of turmeric in them. This dish, being a Muslim dish, lacks this particular ingredient.
This is one of the easiest dishes to cook when guests are around. It needs very little preparation time, has very few ingredients, almost no spices and most of the time it can be left to cook on its own in the oven without any monitoring. A simple hassle free dish which tastes amazingly refreshing and light.
N: I had a very talented uncle-in-law (pishemoshai) whose catholicity of interests meant that there was never a dull moment in his life. He was either doing something intellectually stimulating – indulging in the intricacies of the written word, humming a thumri, creating a riot in the garden, writing a poetry or up to some mischief – making a puddle of water to cool himself, spiking up a little boys hair with Brylcreem, whisking his in-laws to a surprise matinee show or seeking some chicken curry in a vegetarian hospital. He taught me to write English, a art sadly I never mastered to his standard. He cooked a chicken Rezala for me on his birthday and from then on Rezala bears a very special place in my heart.
A: The recipe is for 4 people and it needs one hour in the oven after about 20 minutes of preparation.
500 gm boneless leg of lamb, cut into 3 cm cubes
2 tbsp olive oil
A knob of butter
175 gm green chillies (low heat ones, with thick tasty skins), cut lengthwise, without seeds
225 ml thick Greek-style yogurt
120 gm fresh coriander, chopped
1 large red onion, very finely sliced
60 gm ginger, grated or finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, crushed
15 sour cherries (or 10 dried sour plums)
1 tsp toasted cumin seeds, ground
Seeds from 2 green cardamom pods
1/2 tsp salt
Preheat the oven to 160°C.
Warm the olive oil and melt the butter in a sturdy pan, big enough to hold all the ingredients, over medium heat. Add all the ingredients including the meat and allow to mix properly by stirring occasionally. Cover the pan and let it cook on the same medium heat for 10 minutes. There will be no substantial change in colour of the mix at the end of this process and it should look like the photograph above. The aim is not to brown the meat but to just allow the ingredients to mix together.
Transfer the contents of the pan into a ceramic roasting dish, spread evenly and cover with an aluminium foil to make sure that there is no room for the steam to escape. Place the dish in the middle of the preheated oven and leave it undisturbed for 1 hour.
Take it out of the oven and it is ready to serve.