Don't worry. Bare pantries can make for bold flavours too. 6 simple recipes & 11 Instagram recipe story sets for lockdown born newbie home cooks. Finely Chopped Covid-19 Journal 5

Red rice. Green chilli pickle from Ram Bandhu, Nasik, Jharna ghee from Kolkata. Boiled moong dal. Panch phoron begun

1st April 2020

When the clock turned back

Today is the 7th day since we last stepped out of home after the Covid-19 necessitated lockdown was announced across the country. Barring to drop the trash every night. Or pick essential deliveries at the gate. Or buy vegetables or pav from the folks who come down the lane. We have had no reason to step out as we more or less have what we need at home for now. The most important being Baby Loaf's cat food though we ordered for some more from the chemist today.

We have been without our house-help too for the same reason.

As I wryly quipped to K, this reminds me of the period immediately after our marriage when we were quite broke. We could not afford to go out to eat. Nor could we afford help. So we would cook, wash and clean ourselves. We had a washing machine then but not a dish washer, unlike now when we have both. The dish washer is a big help but it makes us plan for each utensil used, as one cannot load it beyond a point. This, and the need to make each vegetable, grain, lentil, spice, egg, piece of chicken (now over) and mutton, count has had a deep impact on the way we cook and eat these days. Some of this is available at the markets of Bandra no doubt, but we do no want to go out for them till we need to. Deliveries from neighbourhood shops have stopped. The e-commerce apps have put their hands up in resignation too.

While frugality rules our lives these days, we have not had to compromise on flavour. I can confidently say that we have not had a single bad meal so far. And, with so less.

Funnily enough, we did not have to make a dramatic change in our food habits. The fundamentals of what we eat in these lockdown days is not very different from what we ate in the months preceding it, thanks to my focus on conscious eating. Yes, we ordered in with gay abandon earlier which we cannot now. Cooked more dishes too. Yet, it would be wrong to say that we are suddenly leading a very deprived life. It would be the opposite of that if anything. We have been really privileged and lucky, I feel.

One of the best things that has come out of this lockdown is to make people cook at home. And not just youngsters. Yesterday my 72 year old mother told me that she made rotis for herself. Something that she rarely makes. Her technique was based on what our cook from decades back had told her about measures back them and what some other friends of hers had told her too. She sounded as excited as some of my young friends, who live by themselves and tell me that they are learning to cook to feed themselves, do.

I have done a number of Instagram story posts during this period while cooking dishes such as Hakka noodles, egg rolls, vegetable spaghetti, mushroom sandwich, chicken curry, green moong dal, etc. I have saved them under as Instagram highlights. My aim of doing the Instagram stories is to help newbie cooks who need to enter the kitchen to fend for themselves and their near and dear ones without trepidation.

In this post I will share recipes of a few dishes that I made in the past few days for the same reason. Most based on the heritage of Bengali food that I come from. Based on lessons learnt from my mother's kitchen and practised that I have developed in my own. I have written the recipes down in a conversational, 'granny speak,' format and I hope you find them useful. I do not really use recipes when I cook and as you grow comfortable in the kitchen, you might see the same happen to you.

29th March 2020

Recipe 1: Boiled yellow moong dal 

Boiled yellow moong dal/ dal sheddo

Let us start with the boiled moong dal that I made a few days back.

I heated a bit of ghee in the pressure pan. I then added whole cumin seeds and a tej patta to it when the ghee was hot. You could add a green chilli too. Then added pre-soaked yellow moong dal and 4 times the amount of water (so that it does not dry up), some salt, turmeric, cumin and chilli powder.

I let the water come to a boil, shut the pressure pan, let it whistle for 4 times on a high flame, reduced the flame and let it cook on simmer for 30 minutes.

The end result was a hot and nourishing dal, packed with flavours of the lentils and the hint of ghee. In the past, I have added bits of cauliflower or carrots in it and blended it to make a power packed lentil soup.

Recipe 2: Panch phoron begun 

Panch phoron begun

I made red rice too that day and to go with the dal and rice, I made begun (aubergine/ brinjal/ egg plant) using the spice mix found in every Bengali kitchen. The panch phoron (five spice). We buy this as a readymade mix from Vijay Stores at Bandra's Pali Market in Mumbai. This consists of whole spices such as nigella seeds, brown mustard, fenugreek, fennel and and cumin (according to Wiki though I could have asked my mother). Panch phoron is used in Odisha, Bihar and Axom too from I gather.

I heated mustard oil in a wok. Then added the panch phoron mix to the oil, once the oil was hot. Once the seeds sputtered, I added sliced aubergine to the wok. I diluted some turmeric, chilli powder and cumin and powder in a bit of water before adding them to the pan. Just as my mother had taught me. This prevents the spices from getting burnt in the pan. I gently stirred it all together on a medium flame and then, once the brinjal cooked and turned soft, I cranked the heat up to add a bit of a crispness to the texture.

The dal bhaat and panch phoron beguner chorchori made for a great lunch packed with memories of home. Oh, and one more tip. I cooked enough rice for two or three meals at a go and put it in the fridge to save time and effort. As my mother taught me to, I sprinkle some water on the rice before re-heating it.

I added some ghee to the dal and rice. The cow's milk Jharna brand which is popular in Kolkata. And the chilli pickle from Ram Bandhu in Nasik at home. Ghee and pickles can help liven up many a Spartan mean and have a good shelf life too! K is not fond of Jharna ghee so we use local ghees such as Gowardhan or Parsi Dairy Farm (very expensive) for dishes that she would eat. Jharna is better used as a finishing ghee. Like extra virgin olive oil in Italian cooking. Drizzled in once the dish is ready,

Recipe 3: Air fryer alu bhaaja

Dal, bhaat and air fryer alu bhaaj

30th March 2020

I had some of the leftover dal and rice with the alu bhaaja that I made in the air fryer the next night.

Alu bhaaja literally means fried potato. The jhuri alu bhaaja consists of very thinly sliced, thinner than matchsticks in fact, potatoes. You would find this in Bengali restaurants. My mother makes thicker slices for her alu bhaja. My version is inspired by her. As this was a last minute decision, I used the air fryer. It is quick, requires no tending compared to frying in a pan which is the real deal admittedly, and needs comparatively less oil.

The basic marination of alu bhaaja is turmeric powder and salt. At times, I add black pepper powder or red chilli powder too.

I wrapped the turmeric and salt smeared sliced potatoes in an aluminium foil after adding a few drops of mustard oil to the potatoes and mixing it together.

I heated the air fryer for 10 min at 200 C. I then put in the foil envelope into the air fryer and kept it in 15 min at 200 C. I then unwrapped the foil from the top so that the potatoes were uncovered from the top and put it for 15 min at 200 C and finally another 10 min at 150 C and it was ready. K felt they were a bit dry but it worked for me. Perhaps you could try keeping it for a bit less time. You can do this in an oven too. Takes more time. Or do it the way Ma Durga meant it to be and deep fry it.

A hack that my mother use while cooking with potatoes is to parboil it and then fry it or add to curries. You need less oil this way.

Lessons from a Bengali kitchen

29th March 2020

Murgir jhol

Less is more

Simplicity is the hallmark of Bengali cooking as I have realised over the years. Restraint rules the kitchen.The aim is to respect each ingredient used, spurred by the motto, 'less is more.'

The food served by my mother while I was growing up reflected this. I understood this even better myself once I after I shifted to Mumbai from Kolkata and begun cooking and thereby explored Bengali recipes. I experienced first hand how just adding a pinch of nigella seeds or a green chilli, or adding a dash of mustard oil at the end, or ensuring that the fish is not excessively fried before it is added to a curry, or focusing on the way a vegetable is cut, can add myriad flavour dimensions to a dish.

Zero waste

Murgir jhol bhaat Sundays
The other thing that was drummed into our heads while growing up by mother was 'do not waste food.' That lesson has stood by me well in these times.

I made a murgir patla jhol (light chicken curry) and rice for lunch on Sunday. I used the three drumsticks left in the fridge from the pre-lockdown days for the curry. As they were rather big, I used the cleaver I had brought back from Chiang Mai to chop each into two so that the curry would last us longer. I added potatoes for the same reason.

30th March 2020

We had the leftovers from the curry for lunch the next day. As the chicken left was not too much, I had a bowl of dahi with chaat masala and podi sprinkled on top, to complete the meal. Focusing on each bite made me relish the food and feel full.  I realised that would have eaten more than I needed to had there been more.

That is one of the biggest fears of my mother during the lockdown period. That we will eat too much and not have any exercise and become unfit!

Making the murgir jhol stretch

Lest I sound chauvinistic, I must quickly stress that I have seen this philosophy of amping up flavours while being frugal practised across the country. India has believed in zero waste for centuries; well before the modern nation state was created.

Thanks to this, The food cooked in home kitchens across the country has always been so nuanced. So light. So soulful. So sans excess.

I say this on the basis of meals that I have had the privilege to be have had in Assamese, Mangalorean, Gowda, Parsi, East Indian, Himachali, Gujarati, Punjabi, Sindhi, Keralite, Tamil, Koli, Maharashtrian, Banarasi and Punjabi household kitchens so far. I am sure that it is the same elsewhere.

Home cooked Punjabi style halva poori chhole sent by our friends the Grovers

Open house. Open kitchens.

29th March 2020

The mah ki dal and masala paratha from the Grovers

While Indian kitchens are about frugality and prudence, they are run by people who are all heart.

K and I have been fortunate to have been adopted by friends who display this spirit when it comes to us. This has added a welcome dash of warmth and colour to our diet in the time of social distancing

In an earlier post I had written about our neighbours the Badamis, who had sent us homemade cookies, Goan prawn curry rice and then masoor pulao too. Last night their daughter, Gia, brought us a plate of freshly baked and rather deliciously buttery chocolate chip cookies. When I thanked her, Gia said, "it's nothing. I baked as I was bored at home." Her mother corroborated the story when I thanked her later.

Then there were our friends and fellow Soka Buddhists, Anuradha and Manoj Grover, from down the lane who sent us a message saying, "we want to send parathas. Plain, alu or methi thepla? Let me know."

While I was cooking the chicken curry on Sunday, our watchman called me to come down and pick the 'Lockdown Care Package' sent by the Grovers. A stack of piping hot and freshly made ajwain spiced parathas and a delicious mah ki dal. I began munching on them while making the chicken curry itself. You should not hold back when showered with such love.

30th March 2020

The next evening I sauteed onion, tomato and capsicum, heated a paratha on the tava and then made a roll with it. We had the dal and paratha for dinner and froze the rest of the parathas for later.

Thank you Anu and Manoj
2nd April 2020

I published this post after doing some final edits then went to the kitchen to cook. Suddenly got a call from our watchman asking me to come down to pick a parcel.

Turned out that our friend Shaswati Saradar (who often cooks and invites us or sends us food in general) had cooked and dropped tomato chutney and jheenge/ turiya/ ridge gourd bhorta for us. I had passed on the vegetable to her yesterday to use as cutting and peeling it was too daunting. Banu does it for us. Shaswati not only cut and peeled it, but she chopped it and then squashed it (baata) and the slow cooked it with subtle seasonings. And gave us some! See, what I said about big hearts?

Recipe 4: Chholar dal

The green mash is the jheenge bhorta by Shaswati. She made the tomato chutney too.

Luchi and chholar dal were the first Bengali and Indian dishes that I had liked as a kid. I had it when I first visited India and Didu, my grandmom, made it for me. I cannot make luchis, but do make a decent chholar dal now. The plan was to have it with red rice today when the bhorta and chutney came in to give company.

I soaked the chholar dal/ channa dal/ Bengal gram in water for an hour. Then boiled it with 4 times the mount of water as dal, a bit of turmeric powder and salt in the pressure cooker, for 4 whistles on a high flame and 20 min on a low flame.

I then heated a teaspoon of ghee in a pan, added a pinch of whole cumin, a fresh red chilli, a clove, cinnamon and a cardamom piece. I then added the boiled dal and water. Plus a teaspoon of cumin powder and half a teaspoon each of red chilli and garam masala powder and a quarter teaspoon of sugar. Once the dal came to a boil, I reduced the flame and let it cook for about 10 or 12 min by which time the dal had thickened and got a nice consistency and it was done. Traditionally it pairs best with luchi, kochuri or porotha but gave me abundant happiness with red rice and the bhorta today.

Chholar dal

Starting our day with a sense of gratitude.

The cookies baked by Gia Badami which tasted as beautiful as her handwriting

I know that we are privileged and lucky compared to many during this time.

To start with, in my family there are elders such as my mother and mother in law, their siblings and my grandmother who are having a really tough time fending for themselves during the lockdown. As are countless elderly people across the country. More on this in another post.

As, I am sure, are the many youngsters who have come to make their fortune in cities such as Mumbai. Who live by themselves and suddenly have to fend for themselves without being trained for it or being equipped for it.

Crushing is the plight of the migrant workers who are stuck between borders with no resources or place to go. In their own country.

This is truly the time to count one's blessings as we were taught to do when in school.

I had just finished writing this post and was going to rustle up lunch when the watchman called. In keeping with the theme of the piece, the Grovers had sent us a surprise package of hot halva, poori and channa for Ashtami

My mother told me that children in her time, or to an an extent during ours too, were not exposed to luxuries while growing up in middle class families. The thought behind this was that this would train them for facing tough times that might appear in the future. She said that she worries for today's generation, who according to her are far more pampered.

I am not that worried, I confess. Humans have shown great abilities to adapt over the ages. To stand by each other. I am sure that the youth will learn from our mistakes and do a better job of looking after the world than we have

Now tell me, has the lockdown taught you anything? Made you realise something that you had not? I would love to hear from you.

Baby Loaf knows how to fend for himself. This morning I saw that he plonked down a cushion on the bed in the guest room cum/ study and had settled on it comfortably

Wait, don't go. I have got more recipes for you.

Recipe 5: Boiled green moong dal lentil soup

30th March 2020

Boiled green moong dal soup

I have in the past told you about how we make the Punjabi dhaaba originated Kolkata Bengali favourite, green moong dal torka or egg torka, at home. Well, I boiled green moong dal in the pressure cooker to make this the other night. Then I got busy and realised that I could not make the torka that night and did something else with the boiled green moong which was so easy and yet gave us a lovely dish.

To boil the green moong, I put in four times the amount of water as there was green moong in the pressure pan, with a bit of salt and turmeric added in. I let the water come to boil, shut the pressure pan (using a pressure cooker speeds up the cooking process) and kept it on a high heat for 4 whistles and low for 30 min. 

I took out some of the dal and added a few roughly chopped tomato pieces, a bit of finely chopped ginger and garlic, and some pepper powder and let it cook on a low flame for about ten minutes. I added a bit of ghee while it boiled.

Made for a lovely soup where the flavours of the green moong were dominant and which had a lovely bite provided by the lentils, tomatoes, ginger and garlic, ingredients which added diverse and contrasting flavours to add panache to the dish. If you want it to be more soupy, then you can blend it in a food processor or mash with a ladle.

I had cooked extra green moong of course and will make some egg torka with what is left.

Recipe 6: Vegetarian wholewheat spaghetti with no cheese

31st March 2020

This is not an Indian dish but let me give you the recipe of the vegetarian spaghetti sans cheese that I made and shared on Instagram yesterday. This is very easy to make.

Here is my Instagram handle: @thefinelychopped

More recipes/ hacks from my Instagram highlights.

  1. Egg torka
  2. Murgir jhol/ chicken curry
  3. Vegetarian spaghetti
  4. Leftover chicken curry sandwiched
  5. Anda bhurjee sandwich
  6. Meat and potatoes roast
  7. Repurposed leftover roti/ paratha egg rolls
  8. Mushroom toast
  9. Kolkata Hakka noodles
  10. Basic khichudi/ Bengali Khichdi
  11. Chholar dal

My murgir jhol recipe template. 
Green moong tarka dal recipe


Cooking Girl said…
Hi KK, simply enjoy reading your posts be it here or on FB. Have a question as an aspiring writer - what is the best platform for a daily food blog? Would a FB page suffice or is a "blog" needed? Perhaps you could do a post on the best media for blogging in today's world when there are so many options - FB, Instagram and the old fashioned blogs.

Kalyan Karmakar said…
@CookingGirl: thanks so much for reading and am so glad to hear that you enjoy it.

I am not sure if the answer to your question has to be a choice. I would recommend some sort of blog/ website for a writer. It is your space. You can write long copy. Build an identity over time.

It will not have the sort of reach that Facebook or Instagram has. Use those to draw people to the blog. Perhaps that's my bias as an old fashioned blogger speaking :)