Chickening out

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Chicken is simple to cook. If you put your mind to it then a delicious, genuinely Indian chicken dish is not that tough. Of course, there are some basics to cooking chicken Indian style. First, boneless chicken does not work - lose the bones and you'll have a weak tasteless gravy. Second, the skin has a lot of flavor so dont throw it away before cooking - pick it out after the dish is done and throw it away (you need just a little skin though, too much will just make it greasy). Third, dont go to a supermarket chain for your chicken - those look great, cook beautifully but taste of nothing. Shell out twice the money, but its worth getting non-frozen free-range chicken.

The simplest chicken dish I know is a Raj-era dish called Shikari Murgh, or Hunters Chicken. I don't remember how I came by it, and the name - I guess it was cooked by shikaris when on a hunt because it's really quite simple to make. Take some large pieces of chicken, make a few slits in them to let the flavors in deeper, rub with lime juice and chilli powder. Heat a generous quantity of ghee in a wok, put the chickens and some salt in and toss around on medium heat. Then add a little water (maybe a half cup per pound) and cover till the chicken is almost done. Then put on high heat till any released water is nearly dry. Takes about 10 minutes or so depending on the size of the pieces. There are some simple variants of Shikari Murgh take come out pretty good too. One, use pepper instead of chilli powder, but in that case the pepper is added at the end - coarse fresh-ground is the best. A little dried kasoori methi - crushed and added at start - is also a great flavor twist. So is a touch of powdered cinnamon, added at the end.

Thats the simplest chicken dish I know. Very tasty, but it has no gravy and is therefore not really ideal with rice or bread. The next dish is a notch up from Shikari Murgh, and one of my favorite ways to make chicken - its a Bengali variant called Kosha Chicken or chicken slow-cooked without water. It's the cousin of Kosha Mangsho - which uses goat instead of chicken.

Kosha Chicken starts life with some dried red chillies, some cloves, a little cinnamon and a few green cardamoms in the wok in hot oil on a low flame. Be generous with the chilly - its supposed to be spicy. Then add fine-chopped onions, about a cupful per pound. Once the onions are done - transparent, maybe just a little browned - add a generous dollop of ginger garlic paste (about a tablespoon per pound) and toss the thing around till the water from the paste is gone. Then the tomato stage - optional but nice - chopped tomatoes added and the whole thing cooked while stirring till the tomatoes have become mushy jelly - this takes a little time. Finally the chicken - with bone and skin - salt, sugar (bongs always add sugar but you can chicken out) and leave covered for about 30 minutes on a low flame just above a simmer. And the magic ingredient - two medium potatoes cut into halves added along with the chicken. The chicken is done when the potatoes are done - and there should be a thick gravy left that clings to the meat. Thats it!

Ok there are some things you can do to juice it up even more. Jeera and Dhania - the two workhorse condiments of Indian food. Put about half tablespoon of each into hot oil (ghee) in another wok or tarka pan, and keep on low heat till the oil visibly separates out. Then pour it into the chicken, preferably when about two thirds done. Another good touch is a bit of powdered garam masala added at the end.


Sandwiching Milan

about Malpensa Airport, Milan, Italy No comments:

Malpensa sounds like a Bengali dessert but is actually the name of Milan's airport - as a disembodied announcer has already announced several times in the twelve hours I have spent here.

Airports aren't usually food destinations. Even in countries that should know better, the fondness for food and drink seems to stop at the check-in gate and passengers are usually stuck inside with a choice of three different outlets of the same single vendor offering ordinary sandwiches at outrageous prices.

Milan does not disappoint. There are seven restaurants, or so it seems at first glance. It turns out that all of them are run by the same company (MyChef) and offer the same food - just the decor is different. In the central food court, because of some wierd workflow that only the Italians seem to understand, you pay first at the chocolate counter and then order what you want at each seperate counter - one for coffee, one for sandwiches, one for wine and so on. Since the items and prices are displayed at each counter, this usually means several trips back and forth to remember each tongue-twisting name while the lady at the counter in extremely hip glasses wonders why god created non-italians.

The upside, however, is very good coffee and some of the best sandwiches I've had anywhere. The choices are many; various combinations of ham, cheese and bread with or without dressing. Paninis, panindos, foccacias line the counter, attached to names like papavero and napoli. Luckily, quality of the ingredients, specially the freshly grilled bread, is exceptional. They're all melt-in-the-mouth wonders, with real ham and cheese to boot. The wine counter was a disaster, the grilled mixed skewer average, but the sandwiches nearly make me want to layover in Milan again.

Let me go grab my third.

The Bitter End

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Bongs are very fond of bitterness. I'm not talking attitude or psychology; this is something that's far more important to the bhadrolok - food, or more specifically the first course at lunch. Now the whole business of a bong lunch is ridiculously elaborate. The full ceremonial version, usually served when someone is dead, goes to fifty plus courses and is supervised by a stern grandmother. More common, however, is a managaeable ten-odd choices in a very strict order and the first course is, traditionally, a bitter dish. The most common bitter is the pedestrian karela - usually steamed and mashed with potatoes in mustard oil - but there are more exotic choices None more than neem-begun and sojne phool. Neem, of course, is India's wonder herb - able to cure everything from bad hair days to tropical malaria, minor infection to major infestation. Its fruit is inedible and its tough, fibrous leaves taste bitter enough to deserve every wonder-drug epithet. The persistent bong, however, is not so easily dissuaded. It turns out that at the end of winter, the neem tree sprouts tiny, soft, non-firbous new leaves that can be fried with aubergines for the most fantastic bitter-sweet first course ever. And, you won't die of the pox, malaria or malnutrition. That's not the end of the story. Neem trees are fairly huge trees, and these tiny interesting leaves (they're purple when at the most tender) sprout at the end of the branches out of reach of all but the monkiest. The only ones accessible to ordinary people are neem saplings, and even in a countryside dotted with neem trees there aren't that many saplings. The leaves, therefore, are not an easily acquired taste; you might have expected demand and supply to dictate that they be expensive but this is bongland. In Asansol market an old man sells small, two-portion bunches of these leaves for two rupees each - he has maybe ten or fifteen of these laid out on a small piece of cloth, neatly divided into really tender purple leaves in front, or slightly bigger bunches of older lightgreen ones at the back. Bunches sell at a brisk pace, almost as quickly as he can make them by digging into the stash of leaves in a bag on the side. The bag looks like it holds enough leaves for another maybe fifty bunches. His take on demand-supply is that the higher the demand the quicker he can go back and home and sleep, so getting hold of these leaves means going early. Cooking neem begun is deceptively simple - small cubes of aubergine (begun) are deep fried till completely tender, and then mixed with the neem leaves, which were fried seperately till crisp (though be careful, they burn very easily). The two fry at different rates so it takes an expert to fry them together ; adding the neem and some magically accurate point in the process of frying the begun so that both end up done. Much better to do it seperately or outsource to a bengali housewife. The resultant dish is a marvel of balance of both texture and flavor - by now the neem leaves have become crisp and crackly while the aubergine is mushy and sweet. While still bitter, it's only a pale reminder of the poisonous bitterness you have just tamed. It's had with rice, which gives bite and body. Sojne phool, or drumstick flower, is different. Neem begun is strong bitterness barely tamed; sojne phool is a faint flavor that could easily become a mushy tasteless mess. Even the potatoes it is cooked with can overpower the flowers, so proportion is all-important. It has all those medicinal benefits that people make you swallow bitter stuff for - quite disproportionate to its gentle bitterness, I'm told - which is a big reason for it being eaten. Again, the season for it is only a few weeks at the end of February, and the process of getting hold of the flowers involves old men and their economics. Don't let all this fool you into thinking that sojne phool is merely something to be swallowed under the stern eys of your mother as you head for bigger things. The faintly bitter flowers, mixed with tiny cubes of potato and a touch of mustard make for a dish that's impossible to describe but difficult to forget.


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