The Ghoti Bangal tussle: Chingri (Prawn) Malai Curry Recipe

I normally give instructions to our maid Banu on what to cook on phone from office. I don't really peer over her shoulders as she cooks, like our mothers do, when I am home.

I happened to be home yesterday and asked her to make chingri malai curry. I never tell her the name of the recipe. My trade secret.

Well she started and I suddenly realised that she'd been frying the prawns for a good five minutes. I ran to the kitchen and screamed. Then asked her to put oil for the curry in the pan. Saw the liberal amount that she put and screamed again. Then asked her to add the onion paste. She did so without covering the pan. A cloud of smoke came out. I screamed again. Covered it. And then proceeded to cook the dish myself! Feminine guile anyone?

Here's my cooking video for chingri malai curry

Prawn Malai Curry

Prawn malai curry, along with Kosha Mangsho and Bhaapa Eelish, forms the troika of the most regal of Bengali dishes. The first two would be the dishes which define a 'Biye Barir Bhoj' or Bengali wedding feast. Bhaapa mach, or fish steamed in mustard sauce, is a more ethereal dish best enjoyed with Rabindra Sangeet and steamed rice.

Prawn Malai Curry is a dish from the 'Ghoti' repertoire. Ghotis are Bengalis from West Bengal or the Indian side of pre-partition Bengal. Bangals form the other strain of Bengalis. They come from East Bengal. What is now known as Bangladesh.

The Ghoti Bangal rivalry used to be best exemplified by the Mohun Bagan (Ghoti) East Bengal (Bangal) football match. If East Bengal won then the prices of Hilsa would go up as Bangals would make curries of their favoured fish to celebrate. If Mohun Bagan won then the prices of prawns would go up as the Ghotis would celebrate over malai curry.

'Malai' stands for coconut milk here. Unlike in coconut milk loving South India, this is one of the rare dishes where coconut milk is used in Bengali cooking

Another legend has it that malai stands for Malay and the dish was brought back ny Bengali immigrants to Malaysia during the British rule.

For the records, I am a Bangal. Malai curry was never cooked at our place while I was growing up. But I fell prey to the charms of malai curry once I had it. As did everyone I have treated it to at Oh Calcutta. My non Bengali colleagues. My Parsi in laws. Everybody loves chingri malai curry.

Here's my recipe for the same

  • Take 250 g of prawns. Important to get the shop keeper to devein it if fresh. Or buy frozen deveined frozen prawns. Deveining prawns yourself is back breaking
  • Smear the prawns with a bit of turmeric and salt
  • Fry them in hot oil for not more than two minutes. You want the fishy smell to go but you don't want the prawns to overcook and become tough
  • Take a tablespoon of oil in a saucepan and heat it
  • Put in some whole garam masala (3,4 pieces each of cardamom, Cinnamon bits and cloves), a couple of bay leaves and a couple of dry red chillies
  • Wait till these splutter and the aroma of the masala comes out
  • Add in a paste of one onion. Stir and cover with a lid as a lot of steam will come out
  • Add a tablespoon of ginger paste once the onion begins to brown and stir
  • Add paste/ puree of half a tomato. Stir
  • Add 1 teaspoon each of cumin powder, coriander powder, chilly powder, sugar, salt and stir
  • Add 200 ml coconut milk
  • Stir the sauce till it bubbles a bit
  • Reduce the flame and add the prawns. Add a bit more coconut milk if you want some more sauce. You can add water if you want a lighter gravy.
  • Two minutes and take the dish off the pan
  • Let the prawn stand in the hot gravy for a few minutes more. It is important not to overcook prawns
This is best had with plain, steamed rice and green chillies on the side.