Thursday, February 2, 2012

Recipes from Bangladesh

Welcome to Bangladesh, land of "every recipe contains exactly one ingredient that you can't find locally and costs at least $14.95 to ship, if you can even find it online at all."

Besan chicken and bhuna khichuri, Bangladeshi style.

Officially, though, Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan) is a land of rivers, with about 700 natural waterways criss-crossing its total land area of about 91,696 square miles. It is a part of the ethno-linguistic region of Bengal, which also includes the Indian state of West Bengal. It is also one of the poorest nations in the world, ranking number nine on the world's scale of most populated nations and number 12 in terms of how dense that population is. The Royal Bengal Tiger hails from Bangladesh; so does the Clouded Leopard, the Sun Bear and several species of dolphin.

Bangladesh is that small green country to the east of India.

Bangladeshi cuisine is part of a larger family of Bengali cuisine, but it does have subtle differences, so I made sure that the recipes I ultimately decided on were from Bangladeshi sources rather than generic Bengal ones. The recipes themselves weren't hard to locate, but it seemed like they all had some kind of road block to throw at me. Part of the problem was I'd actually settled on a recipe that looked pretty interesting, but it wasn't until I sat down to make my shopping list (the day before I planned to go to the store) that I noticed exotic ingredient A) mustard oil.

Now the idea of mustard oil didn't really seem that strange though I couldn't remember ever seeing it in the grocery store. Turns out my memory was correct, you can't get it in our grocery store (nor at the co-op, and judging by the look I got when I asked apparently at the co-op they do actually think it's strange). I couldn't get it on Amazon Prime either, at least not in single-bottle format (and I really can't see ever getting though four bottles). I also couldn't find it at any of my go-to online food shops, not that it would have mattered anyway since I was running out of time.

So I starting looking around for a different recipe. Here's what I found:

Chicken Rezala: contains exotic ingredient B) keora water. Methi Chicken: contains exotic ingredient C) fenugreek leaves, and evidently fenugreek powder is a poor substitute. Chicken Makhani: contains exotic ingredient D) a pound of butter. This is for just two pounds of chicken. OK, butter isn't an exotic ingredient but jeez, even I don't want to eat that much fat. Chicken Korma: contains exotic ingredient E) screw pine essence. And finally, a Bangaladeshi style chicken curry, which besides being boring contained exotic ingredient F) Indian Bay leaves, which are not even remotely the same as American bay leaves.

So finally I found this recipe:

Chicken Besan
(from Tokjhalmisti)
  • 2 lbs boneless chicken thighs
  • 1/2 cup besan
  • 4 tbsp plain yogurt
  • 1/4 tsp turmeric powder
  • 1 tsp cumin powder
  • 1 tsp cayenne pepper, divided
  • 1/2 tsp garam masala
  • 1 tsp ginger paste, divided
  • 1 tsp garlic paste, divided
  • 4 tbsp cooking oil
  • 1 1/2 tsp salt

And yes, that is in fact exotic ingredient G) besan, which is a flour made out of garbanzo beans. Naturally I could not find that at the co-op either, but they did have dried garbanzo beans so I figured I'd just grind my own. Do you hear that sound? That is hysterical laughter. More on that later.

For a side dish I'd already decided on a khichuri, which is one of the more important dishes in Bangladeshi cuisine. I had to poke around before I found a version without Indian Bay or some other impossible-to-find ingredient, but I finally did, and here it is (from Indian Food Forever):

  • 1/2 cup cauliflower florets
  • 1 medium sized potato, peeled and cut into small cubes
  • 1/4 cup mung beans
  • 1 cup basmati rice
  • 1/2 small onion
  • 1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and chopped
  • 1/4 tsp ginger
  • 1/8 tsp cumin
  • 1/8 tsp coriander
  • 1/4 tsp turmeric
  • 1/8 tsp garlic powder
  • 2 tbsp cooking oil

The third recipe is a dessert, and I mainly made it because of the name. Because really, who wouldn't want to eat something called "cham-cham?"

For the cham-cham 
(from Bangla Recipes)
  • 8 1/2 cups milk
  • 3 tbsp lemon juice
  • 1 tbsp sugar
  • 1 tbsp semolina
  • 1 tbsp plain flour
  • 1 tbsp self raising flour
  • 1/4 tsp cardamom powder
  • 4 cups sugar
  • 4 tbsp caramel syrup
For the mawa:
(from Bangla Recipes) 

  • 1/2 cup milk powder
  • 1/4 cup milk
  • 1 tbsp ghee 

And that's where I'm actually going to start this week--with the cham-cham, because although it really isn't that difficult to make it's actually quite time consuming.

The first component of this recipe is dry mawa which is (you guessed it) exotic ingredient H. Mawa is made using a time-honored, handed-down-through-the-ages cooking technique that relies on a complicated piece of cookery known as a "microwave." Fortunately, I actually posses one of these appliances so I was able to make my mawa in the Bangladeshi tradition. Haha.

The simple-but-tedious technique goes like this:

First mix together the powdered milk, milk and ghee (I don't know if butter will work as a substitute since ghee does have a somewhat different texture). Now put the mixture in the microwave for 30 seconds. Take it out and stir it. Let it cool down for another 30 seconds.

This porridgy stuff is milk, powdered milk and ghee.

Now put it back in the microwave for another 15 seconds. Take it out and stir. Let it cool for 30 seconds. Put it back in the microwave. Keep going like this until you've completed eight microwave-stir-cool cycles.

Progress ...

Then reduce the microwave time to 10 seconds, followed of course by more stirring and more 30 second cool-downs, and keep going until the mawa becomes kind of dry and grainy. Mine came out with rather large "grains" so I ended up putting the finished product in my mini processor until I got smaller grains.

I had to grind mine a bit, and I think the grains were still too big.

With the mawa finished, you can move on to the cham-cham. The first ingredient for the cham-cham is paneer, which is a kind of farmer's cheese that you can make yourself.

To make the paneer, first ready a fine mesh strainer by lining it with cheesecloth. Then bring the milk to a boil (take care not to let it boil over) and add the lemon juice. You will almost instantly see curds begin to form.

Pour the curds and whey (the liquid) into the strainer.

Strain the whey from the curds.

When the curds have cooled enough to be handled, knead them with your hands for about two minutes, or until there isn't any more liquid coming out. What you will be left with is paneer.

Transfer the paneer to a large bowl and mix in the semolina flour and the other two types of flour, along with the sugar and the cardamom powder.

Now add the paneer to the flour, sugar and cardamom powder.

Knead the mixture with your hands until it starts to feel a little greasy, then divide the dough into 20 equal parts and shape them into ovals. Note: I made a mistake converting liters to cups and I ended up with too little milk for this recipe, so my cham-cham were small and probably a little more doughy than they should have been.

These cham-cham are ready for the syrup.

Now dissolve the sugar in the water and bring to a boil. Gently drop the cham-cham into the syrup and continue to boil for an hour and 20 minutes. You will need to add about a half cup of water every 10 minutes or so to keep the syrup at the right consistency.

Put the cham-cham in the boiling syrup and let them cook for an hour and 20 minutes.

At the end of the hour and 20 minutes, add the caramel syrup (you can make caramel by melting and stirring sugar over the stove, or you can just use a bottled variety, which is what I did). Keep boiling for another 10 minutes, then turn off the heat. Add a cup of hot water and let the pot cool down.

When the cham-cham are cool enough to handle, take them out and roll them in the mawa. Done!

Roll the finished cham-cham in the mawa.


While the cham-cham are boiling, you can start work on the Besan chicken. Remember the hysterical laughter? That was because trying to make dried garbanzo beans into flour is about as easy as making pebbles into flour. In retrospect--since this recipe does actually include water--it might have been fine to just process canned garbanzo beans instead of sacrificing my poor coffee grinder and one of my kitchen towels.

In case you are actually a fan of self-torture, here's how I made my besan:

The garbanzo beans need to be "lightly roasted," whatever that means. I put mine in a 350 degree oven for about 10 minutes. I don't know if they really roasted or not, though they did appear to be a little darker in color when I took them out.

First I tried putting the dried garbanzo beans straight into the grinder. Besides making an ear-splitting noise, nothing happened, unless you count that ozoney smell you get when you burn out the motor in a small appliance. So then I tried putting them in a plastic bag and smashing them with a meat mallet. Those rock hard little bastards put so many holes in the plastic that they actually started flying out of the bag every time I hit it. So I covered the bag with a towel and hit the beans a few more times, but stopped when I noticed I was putting holes in the towel. By that time I'd managed to break the beans into marginally smaller pieces, so I tried putting them back in the coffee grinder. This time I actually made a little progress. When a powder started to appear around the edges, I dumped the beans into a fine mesh strainer and sifted them into a bowl. I returned the larger chunks to the grinder and kept going until I had the amount called for by the recipe, which was about the time the coffee grinder completely crapped out.

This is my besan, one coffee grinder and a kitchen towel later.

So armed with my hard fought and won besan, I forged onward.

Once you have your besan, mix it with the yogurt, turmeric, a half teaspoon of the cayenne pepper, a half teaspoon of the ginger paste, a half teaspoon of garlic paste and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Mix it all together until you have a paste, then add water a few tablespoons at a time until you get a batter that is about the same consistency as pancake batter.

This batter is made of besan and spices.

Now heat 4 tablespoons of oil and add the chicken. Season with salt and cook until the internal temperature reaches 165 degrees. Remove from the pan and let cool slightly, then add the cumin, the garam masala and the rest of the cayenne pepper, ginger paste and garlic paste. Stir to coat and let marinade for about half an hour.

Afeter thoroughly cooking the chicken, marinade it in the spices for 30 minutes.

Heat the oil until bubbles rise around the end of a wooden spoon. Dip each piece of chicken in the batter, turning to coat. Then deep fry the chicken in the oil.

Now I had issues with the deep frying, I suppose because I'm just not a very seasoned deep-fryer (yeah, I have no idea what I'm doing). My chicken stuck to the bottom of the pan, and so the coating didn't stay on. I had to reapply it after I took it out of the oil, and yes it looked as ridiculous as it sounds.

At great risk to my integrity as a chef, here's how the chicken came out.

The easiest part of this meal is the khichuri. The Bangladeshis do khichuri in various incarnations--this one is a basic, or "bhuna" khichuri, made with mung beans (other versions use red lentils).

Now I actually got my mung beans from igourmet, which was stupid, because they are mung beans and they're not really that hard to find. In my defense, though, all these Bangladeshi recipes referred to them as "moong daal," so I thought I was looking for something exotic. So yeah, when they arrived I was mildly irritated. Also because they showed up exactly one hour before I was supposed to start making this recipe, so I wasn't able to soak them as required. Instead, I put them in my pressure cooker on medium high heat for about eight minutes, which worked just fine although it was a lot more cleanup than I wanted. Have I mentioned how cool my pressure cooker is? The instruction book is dated 1964.

See the date? December 25, 1964 (that's my grandma's handwriting).

So anyway, to make the khichuri, first fry the cauliflower and potato cubes lightly in a tablespoon of vegetable oil. Add the onion, the jalapeno peppers and the spices. Now add the rice, the mung beans and about a half cup of oil and stir until well incorporated.

Add the rice to the vegetables, then add the water.

Add two cups of water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and cover the pot. Simmer for 20 minutes, or until the water is absorbed.

Finished khichuri.

So even though I had to do cosmetic surgery on the besan chicken, it still came out delicious. There was a lot of flavor in the breading, which leaned a bit on the salty side but was unusual enough that the extra salt didn't really bother me. The only thing I didn't really like about it was the oil--thighs are oily to begin with, and the deep frying just made them oilier. Of course the effect probably would have been less if the breading had actually stayed on the meat.

The khichuri was good too, but I think I would have liked it more if it had had some Indian bay in it, or maybe some screw pine essence, haha. It was a little bland, but maybe that's why it's just called a "basic" khichuri. My kids didn't really touch it, though they all wanted more chicken.

The cham-cham was really good--it reminded me of the gulab jamun that you can get at most Indian restaurants (round balls of deep fried dough cooked in a syrup). My kids liked them, which I did find a bit odd since they were only mildly sweet and the mawa that covered them was a bit unusual, at least by American kid standards. I think I'll probably have to make the cham-cham again, though, since I wonder how different mine were due to my substandard metric system conversion skills.

Next week: Balochistan (a region of Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan)

For printable versions of this week's recipes:


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