Mum’s Chicken Rice

 

I’ve inherited close to a ton, from my father. Like him, I’m an unnecessary level of logical. Inherently pessimistic and resourceful (which makes me one of the best people to stay close to during a zombie invasion, if you’re taking notes). I have a dimpled chin and narrow set eyes like he does, and I’m almost as awkwardly sarcastic in uncomfortable situations.

I’ve also inherited a few things from my mother. Not much, but a tad. I like to think I’m as resilient as her (my friends have informed me that I’m actually not). I might even say I have a fraction of her sense of humor and her aversion to housework. Apart from that, the most precious things I’ve inherited from her is a camel-colored wool winter coat, a very rare bracelet made of uncut diamonds and all the recipes in her repertoire.

I have to, at this point, put it out there, that my mum is no accomplished cook. She won’t be offended at this, because more often than not, when she’s asked to cook, we end up with either under-salted or over-salted food. But like many uninterested cooks out there, she has a handful of recipes that she’s brilliant with.

Chicken sandwiches, for one. You could live off my mum’s chicken sandwiches. She always makes them with marbled bread. The chicken is shredded and pummeled with salt, cracked black pepper and even more butter till it resembles handmade paper. And there’s always a smidgen of mayonnaise. On occasions I’ve supplied her with homemade mayonnaise, but she swears that the sandwiches work better with store-bought. Don’t ask.

The second recipe is a Bengali mutton curry that was handed down to her by her mother. As a working mother, right from the sixties through to the nineties, my grandmother barely had time to stand over the stove to produce a feast. Instead she had quick-n-easy dishes up her sleeve that she handed down to her daughter. I think she secretly knew how useful they’d be to her granddaughter someday. I was in my second year of college when she died. I hadn’t yet found my love for cooking. Five more years would pass before, in the middle of a bone-chilling winter, I’d try my hand at producing her mutton curry — with lamb instead of mutton — and end up in a food coma after emptying the entire pot.

The third recipe is a prawn in coconut curry. The fourth is a chicken rice. And today is about the chicken rice.

If you’re immediately thinking of some version of a Singapore chicken rice, don’t. Far from it. This chicken rice is a loose version of biryani, an easier and quicker fix if you’re craving meat in spices buffed into a cloud cover of white rice.

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You start with onions in ghee, and move on to adding ground spices and aromatics when the onions go glassy. The chicken pieces are then coated and par-cooked in the masala mix. Par boiled rice is added with milk and the pot is covered and cooked. The cook continues till the rice is fluffy and fragrant, and the till the lower layer sticks slightly to the bottom. Trust me, you have to be there for the stuck-to-bottom rice bits.

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I’m not in a hurry to give up on restaurant biryani yet. Mum’s version was borne out of the time when we were all craving biryani, but didn’t want to eat out. Isn’t that how great  homemade recipes come into existence? So she decided to put a quick version together. And what a version indeed. It’s one of those meals that always gets asked about when I post photos of it on social media. A few of my friends have hounded me for it. Anu, a friend from college, took it on herself to got in touch with my mother and get the recipe directly from her. It has my mother written all over it. It’s her signature. The recipe below hasn’t existed for generations in our family. Its not an heirloom. But I plan to make it one.

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Sikha Chowdhury’s Chicken Rice

I will understand if you’d want to run for a jar of Patak’s Original after glancing at the long list of ingredients below. Indian recipes have that reputation. But don’t. Trust me on this and you can thank me later. The recipe feeds a family of four. Or two very hungry people.

Ingredients

For the Marinade

  • Chicken cut into curry pieces, 1 kilo
  • 1/2 cup of yogurt (homemade is best, but store-bought will do)
  • 2 teaspoons of salt

For the Chicken

  • The marinated chicken
  • 2 tablespoons of ghee
  • 2 black cardamom pods, split through the middle to expose the seeds
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 2-inch stick of cinnamon
  • 4-5 pieces of black cloves
  • 2 large red onions, sliced thinly into 1-inch slices
  • 2 medium-sized tomatoes, quartered and all seeds removed
  • 1 tablespoon of garlic paste
  • 1 tablespoon of ginger paste
  • 1 tablespoon of ground cumin
  • 1 tablespoon of coriander powder
  • 1 tablespoon of red chili powder
  • 2 teaspoons of ground turmeric
  • White granulated sugar and salt, to taste

For the Rice

  • 1 1/2 cups of Basmati rice (of not, then any long grain will do)
  • 3 cups of water

To Finish

  • 1 cup of milk, full-fat
  • 1/2 cup of raisins or golden sultanas
  • 1 tablespoon of ghee
  • Salt, to taste
  • Chopped coriander, to garnish

How-to

  • In a large bowl, coat the pieces of chicken with yogurt and 2 tbsp of salt. Wrap the bowl with cling film and rest in the refrigerator for two hours or more. If you’re in a hurry, rest for 20 minutes.
  • Wash the rice well in running water till the water is clear, instead of milky.
  • Bring the rice and 3 cups of water to a boil. The moment the water starts boiling, reduce the heat, cover the pot and cook for 7-8 minutes.
  • The rice needs to be par-cooked. Not completely soft, still a tiny bit raw in the middle of the grain. Drain the water and spread the par-cooked rice on a shallow tray to let it cool for a while.
  • Heat 2 tbsps of ghee in deep-bottomed pan.
  • Add the black cardamom, bay leaf, cinnamon and cloves, when the ghee is hot enough. Stir for 30 seconds.
  • Add the onions. Cook the onions till they go translucent and glassy, and start to turn slightly brown at the edges.
  • Add a teaspoon of white granulated sugar and stir till the onions start to brown up slightly more.
  • Add the tomatoes and cook till they soften a bit.
  • Add garlic, ginger, cumin, coriander, red chili powder and turmeric. Stir till the onions are all coated with the spices. If the mixture starts to go a bit dry and difficult to stir, add a tablespoon of water, and cook till the liquid evaporates. Add a tablespoon more of water and repeat. A total of 4 tbsps of water can be added gradually and stirred till dry. At the end of which the mixture will start to resemble a coarse masala paste.
  • Add the chicken along with its marinade. Stir to coat the chicken with the masala paste.
  • Reduce the heat to medium. Cover and cook for 8-10 minutes till the chicken starts to release some of the liquid. It should look like a chicken curry by now. If not, add a little more water and cook for 3-5 more minutes. Taste and season with salt.
  • Layer the par-cooked on top of the curry. Sprinkle the milk and raisins on top and give everything a good stir. All the rice doesn’t have to be coated fully with the masala. White patches of rice are OK.
  • Reduce the heat to low. Cover the pot tightly and cook on low heat for 15 minutes, or till the chicken is cooked through. It would be wise to check the mixture once in the middle of the cook. If it seems a little too dry, the rice will burn at the bottom, so don’t hesitate to add a little more water.
  • Remove from heat and sprinkle with freshly chopped coriander. Serve with a cucumber raita or a few slices of pickled cucumber.
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What we eat

You know what the rains are like here. We get swept away and washed off of all our sins every season. Then we roll right out of bed, grab black umbrellas left behind by our grandfathers, go back to work and dream of khichdi.

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Khichdi with fried aubergines and cubes of potatoes coated in a poppy-seed crumb, crispy fried of course, and a large dollop of ghee on top for good measure. Khichdi, like this, or with flaked fish British-style, is something I will cook forever. I have done my research online trying to find poetry or pretty prose that might have been written on khichdi, but I have been unsuccessful so far. With fried hilsa fish, with popadoms and mango chutney or with an omelette on top. It is not a head-turner in any sense. It is not something you’d find in QP LDN’s menu for sure. But let’s be real here. As much as I enjoyed QP LDN’s food last summer, I did walk out of there still feeling a little hungry (and lighter in the pockets) and ended up gorging on a quarter-pounder form Burger King. That should tell you a lot about how we eat. And more importantly, what we eat.

A man I had dated for a very short while, had studied my Instagram feed very carefully. He said, “You really love food, don’t you..”

I do. But he wasn’t really asking a question, it was more of a self-assured whisper under his own breath, as if he was looking for clues to help him decide what to give me as a birthday gift. He then proceeded to observe, “You eat fancy!”

He didn’t last till my birthday, but I still think of that conversation.

The sausage salad

The truth is that we don’t eat fancy at all. We eat out. We visit our favorite Indo-Chinese establishments or stroll to the neighborhood burger place that has, in recent times, turned magnificent. We get biryanis home-delivered. But those meals, although scrumptious enough to swear by, are hardly ever the kind of fancy you would want the world to be envious about. Good food. Great food, even. But not fancy food.

Most of our meals are home-made. Cooked or slurried together due to lack of time. A mutton curry, the recipe of which was handed down to my mother by her mother, with fluffy white rice. A homemade vanilla cake my colleague baked for Christmas, that we had with coffee. I found myself with some cooked pork sausages yesterday. I threw them in a bowl with a 6-minute egg, day old lettuce that already had a few brown edges, and dollops of mayonnaise. I then called it a sausage salad. That’s my daily level of fancy-ness. It may be comfortable, mediocre or cherished. But it is what it is.

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We took a whirlwind tour of Bangkok, Singapore and Bali. I travel to eat — for the most part — and I was not disappointed. Big bowlfuls of kuay chap, rolled noodles with crispy pork, hokkien mee, unctuous plates of Hainanese chicken rice, nasi goreng, barbecued pork ribs, piles of seafood by the beach and cups of robust Luwak coffee with sweet coconut milk. Nothing plated, ready for Instagram. But everything made to fill an insatiable appetite for good food.

We returned to a rain-drenched waterlogged city. And within 24 hours of arrival, I was craving khichdi. A steaming plate of gooey rice and dal, to warm you up in the chill of monsoon. So we had khichdi for lunch. And a quiche for dinner.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, She talks about eating un-fancy and then goes and serves up a quiche! But a quiche is right up there with khichdi, believe you me. It’s pie-crust, egg custard and filling. And there is not much that you can screw up. If making pastry makes you nervous, just get a crust from the shops. The custard is a mixture without all of the fiddly bits that go into making an anglaise. And then you have the filling, either cooked or raw, based on what you choose. A quiche is one of those dishes that you can load and dress up for a party. Or you can choose to have it for dinner at home. A quiet and good meal. After all the bright loveliness of Instagrammed food shots and the silkiness of a quenelled mousse — khichdi, chicken rice, mushroom quiche…is what we eat.

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Chicken and Mushroom Quiche

I don’t have a record of producing ground-breaking quiches. But I had once made a chicken and cheese bake in a disposable aluminum tray, that had gotten high praises at an end-of-semester student-professor lunch. So, listen up.

Feel free to get a store-bought savory pie crust. If you’re not quick or confident at making pie-crusts, it makes no sense to labor away and experiment with them for a simple dinner. Let’s be honest here — pastry can smell fear. If you have a good shortcrust pastry recipe use that. If not, I love Rachel Allen’s pie crust recipe.

Note the cheese — choose something you like to eat a lot of. A light cheddar or a matured one, sharp and violently orange. The next time I’m making this, I would definitely want to use something hard, either Pecorino or Parmesan. The recipe also uses cooked chicken. Preferably dark meat. If you have leftovers from a roast, that’s best. Or poach a chicken with salt and black peppercorns, strain off the water and fork the meat of the bones.

Ingredients

1 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp unsalted butter
1 garlic clove, minced
Shredded meat from 1 chicken thigh and drumstick
1 cup of sliced button mushrooms
Fresh thyme
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
3/4 cup whole milk
1/2 cup double cream
3/4 cup grated white cheddar
A pinch of grated nutmeg (powdered)
3 eggs
Salt and Pepper, to taste
Freshly chopped coriander leaves or parsley leaves (optional)
8-9 inch diameter shortcrust pastry shell

How-To

Pre-heat the oven to 180 deg C.

Heat oil and butter in a pan. Add the minced garlic and cook for 30 seconds to a minutes, just to remove the pungency. Add the cooked chicken and mushrooms. Cover and cook on medium heat for about 5 minutes, till the mushrooms soften a bit. Add fresh thyme leaves, Worcestershire sauce, salt and freshly ground pepper. Do a taste test. Adjust the salt and pepper, if needed. take the mixture off heat and set aside.

In a large bowl, combine milk, cream, nutmeg and eggs and whisk well till the mixture is smooth.

Tip the chicken-mushroom mixture into the tart shell and spread evenly. Pour the milk mixture carefully over. Sprinkle cheese evenly on top. Season with salt and pepper. Bake in the pre-heated oven for 30 minutes, till the custard is set. It takes a little more (about 40 minutes) in my oven. So check with your oven temperatures. Garnish the quiche with coriander and serve.

Radio silence. Berlin. And the problem that sparked the idea.

Do you hear that?

The radio silence that makes it seem like the blog’s gone dead?

Well, it hasn’t.

I’m coming to you from somewhere high above the Atlantic, as I fly back home. The airplane cabin is dark and quiet. The baby in 24C was crying a while back. He’s fallen asleep. I’ve just a finished a spectacularly bad meal of pack-n-seal biryani. But buckle up, this is going to be a long one.

It would be OK for you to assume that I haven’t been doing much of cooking or baking, and you wouldn’t be wrong. Barring junk-that-will-make-you-slobber-uncontrollably hot dogs and a chicken and mushroom quiche, which I will share with you shortly, I haven’t really spent much time in the kitchen this year. So far.

Remember how we discussed Altertrips over lemon cake? I did promise to share more with you and now is just as good a time as any.

Two summers ago, in 2015, we took an impromptu flight to Berlin. Just because. Fauri, my BFF from Uni (and fellow kebab-lover), was finishing up with her post-grads in Dessau and I was looking for a short break. Germany seemed like an attractive option. Unfazed by the popular consensus about the starkness of bratwurst, my family wanted to come along. And so they did.

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I don’t have to tell you how family vacations are completely different from vacations with friends. It’s the priorities that get you. Hostel vs Hotel. Sightseeing vs Eating. Eating Indian vs Eating local. Walking around all day vs Going back to the hotel for an afternoon siesta.

Luckily, my family’s made up of champs and travel-hungry people.

We booked an AirBnB, a charming two-room apartment in Barbarossastraße, with the tiniest of kitchens and a bathroom that was so narrow, you wouldn’t be able to stretch out both your arms sideways at the same time. The apartment was stacked with its neighboring units and overlooked a cozy courtyard. The coziness and the green of the courtyard was welcoming. However, it meant that neighbors could easily hear you talking if you raised your voice a couple of notches. Toddlers looked up from their playtime and quietly watched us drag our luggage to the first floor.

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On top of the Furnsehturm. Tickets Here.

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Take the mountains’ word for it

We took a weekend trip to Darjeeling. A work thing. Mixed with tons of sleep. And food.

Well, I mean, look. Just look.

Fish Au Gratin, Glenary's - The Subjectivist

The last Friday night was spent swaying in a train, as we made our way to Darjeeling. At one point, the time when my folks honeymooned there, Darjeeling was quaint, cold and romantic. It is still cold. It is no more quaint. And the romance is stale and fragrant-less.

Now it smells of horse-shit, from the ponies that carry children around the market square. It also smells of smoke from the Read More »

Biryani and Other Love Stories

I have made a lot of mistakes falling in love, and regretted most of them, but never the potatoes that went with them.― Nora Ephron

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Lovers on a bench, Dominique Amendola

When you grow up in the sweltering heat of India, sitting in a brick-clad classroom stewing in your own sweat, listening to your professors drone on about Structural Design, there is very little motivation for you to even like summer, let alone love it.

After your nineteenth birthday, you decide that it is time to fall in love. And the right candidate comes along very soon. A senior at the University and although his arms are a little thinner and danglier than you would have liked, he seems perfect. Tall, dark, almost handsome with a carved beard that makes him look like one of the Bee Gees. He also likes to dress in black from head to toe.

But the clincher? He owns a motorcycle — a ratty Yamaha RX-100 that champions at sputtering. That machine splits through the silent night air, every night and wakes up everyone at the girls’ hostel. He has the faultless makings of a “bad boy”.

It starts with phone calls that last through the night while your classmates Read More »

When all else fails

If anyone tells you that you can’t spend an entire weekend in half-prostrate on your bed with your laptop balanced on your stomach, surfing through food blogs for inspiration with your left hand stuck in large bag of Cheetos, then cut them out of your life. You don’t need that kind of negativity.

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Before anything else, let me warn you that I don’t have a recipe today. If you’re leaving then I’ll see you again in a few days!

Over the last couple of years, my habit of surfing through food blogs has largely dwindled. Sometimes when the load is light at work, I tilt the laptop screen at an angle that makes it difficult for my co-workers to notice what website I’m on. And then I go visit the food blogs that speak poetically about onions and bean soup, pieces on food tech start-ups, food movements in China and I especially pore over the ones by travelling gluttons. But gorgeous websites like Foodgawker and Tastespotting has remained largely untouched for the last two or three summers.

The last two days however, have been enlightening. I’ve learnt that I’m one of those unmarried, Read More »

A chicken roll that won’t let you forget

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“Isn’t it to die for?” My friend gushed breathlessly between bites of Kati Roll.

I was meeting her after 10 long years smack dab in the middle of rain-infested New York City, and she’d dragged me to Greenwich Village to taste a popular Bengali import (or export? Import, if you’re anywhere out of West Bengal).

The chicken roll.

Except that the Kati Roll Company is calling it the Kati Roll.

Versions — diluted, exaggerated and almost always awful — of the quintessential roll in various parts of India, do actually go by that name, so I can’t blame them.

Gujarat (and the Indian West Coast in general) has a version, inexplicably known as a Frankie, where the chicken is tomato red in color and amount of spice will produce a hole in your chest. Delhi’s back alleys produce “rolls” that are made of succulent kebabs wrapped in flimsy rumaali roti. Note how the word “roll” is within quotes.

I once also had a Bengali cook at an Indian food stall on Portobello Street make me chicken roll that had a white yogurt-based sauce that brought forth the same kind of emotions that underwear stuck in your butt-crack brings.

“Isn’t this the best chicken roll you’ve had outside of Kolkata?” She gushed again, this time looking directly at me. I nodded vigorously, making sure my mouth was too full to speak and hoped she couldn’t make out how much I wanted to dump that roll on her head.

Read More »