Sunday, May 30, 2010

Bangladesh - May 29th 2010

It was a lucky coincidence that I arranged to have lunch with Neeta, a colleague and friend of mine who is from India, one day before hosting a Bangladeshi dinner. She and I had a wonderful Indian meal at Cafe Bombay, about 4 miles from my house and while lunching on chicken dipped in spicy yogurt sauces, accompanied by lovely fresh roti (she knows every waiter there and of course she got us fresh bread...), various other wonderful veggies and great desserts, she recounted her recent vacation to Dubai and India and gave me great tips and advice for my upcoming dinner. Now, I know that Bangladesh isn't India and so does Neeta. She pretty much said Bangladeshi cuisine isn't flavorful enough (but then again I think there was a little national rivalry in this comment) but suggested one or two dishes to make it a great meal (like the mango lassi, loved this one!). By the time she started pulling out the sari and other Indian traditional clothes she brought for me to wear, the girls at the table next to us were drooling with envy! And rightly so. She not only brought me clothes but also jewels to go with it! I really wanted to wear the sari but I ran out of time and wearing a sari isn’t the easiest thing… Neeta sent me a video she found on youtube with visual step-by-step instructions to wear a sari: my intention was two wear the sari when the guests arrived and then changed through dinner. I loved the outfits and couldn’t decide which to wear. Of course, then I ran out of time and that meant that I couldn’t wear the sari. So I wore the skirt instead.
Isn’t it fab? This is a photo of me and the other ladies that were at the dinner (from left: Kako, Kyiomi, Me, Katie, Anne and Susan). As you can see Ann and Katie both wore their Indian outfits – they both have been to India and loved it. You can't really tell from the photo but I also had decorated my hand and my naked midriff with lovely sparkling stickers! If it wasn't for the fact that I had to cook and so was probably going to ruin it, I would have had henna tattoos done (Neeta said there's a place near the restaurant we ate at where the make great tattoos - maybe some other time).

I keep on talking about India but my dinner was about Bangladeshi cuisine. And I have to say that finding recipes wasn’t very hard but it wasn’t easy either. I just didn’t know how to sequence the various dishes… so I relied on something I found on Wikipedia: “The first item served may be a little ghee which is poured over a small portion of rice and eaten with a pinch of salt. Then come the bitter preparation, shukto, followed by lentils or dals, together with roasted or fried vegetables (bhaja or bharta). Next come the vegetable dishes, the lightly spiced vegetables, chenchki, chokka, followed by the most heavily spiced dalna, ghonto and those cooked with fish. Finally the chicken or mutton, if this being served at all. Chaatni comes to clear the palate together with crisp savory wafers, papor. Dessert is usually sweet yogurt (mishti doi). The meal is finally concluded with the handing out of betel leaf (paan), which is considered to be an aid to digestion and an astringent.” I started my search by looking at all the dishes mentioned in this paragraph about Bengali cuisine. I figured that while some of this might be Indian (Bengali being the cuisine of the Gulf rather than just Bangladeshi), I couldn’t really go very wrong.

Naturally I ended up with many many dishes and not enough knowledge to make an informed decision. So I decided to cook all of the above… I really intended to serve 10 different dishes but then I cancelled one of the pumpkin recipes as I bought pumpkin puree and it wasn’t going to work and the fried eggplant because we simply ran out of time. All this said, I ended up having 4 desserts, so at the end I had 13 different dishes! Which made scoring a pain in the ass… I have to rethink this scoring thing. Since I had 9 people at the table (plus me but I don’t score) and 14 dishes, that meant 131 different scores and it just took too long! Now, Floyd suggested that I also get an overall score as sometimes the individual dishes might not be great but the combination with the rest of the meal might just make it a really good one or vice versa… Well, I think it’s a good idea but I wasn’t going to introduce it last night (that would have meant 140 scores) but perhaps next time?

Of course cooking so many dishes was quite daunting so I enlisted Eric’s help and for once read the recipes in advance to determine what needed to be done or could be done on Friday night. Plus I went shopping for ingredients a few days before. Look at how many spices I needed for the dinner:

OK, I did buy a few too many spices (one of the items in the gift bag was panch phoron, a typical Bengali spice mix and I think I miscalculated how much I needed to fill the 5 little jars). What you see in the picture is cardamom pods, cardamom seeds, fennel seeds, fenugreek seeds, cumin seeds, mustard seeds (yellow and brown), celery seeds (in place of nigella seeds that I couldn’t find), turmeric, cinnamon and finally the stinky asafetida. This I have used before (I think for my Indian meal) and it really stink of someone who didn’t wash and has been wearing the same synthetic shirt for days. Every time I opened the door to the spice cabinet, I was hit with this smell. But it really does improve the flavor of the dishes in which it is used so one can bear the smell, plus you can’t really smell it once cooked.

Side note on turmeric: it stains everything. My beautiful French manicure was yellow, my kitchen sink was yellow, my counter was yellow. It’s a die!

To find all ingredients I ended up going to the farmers market and to the H market which is a Korean Supermarket that recently opened in Atlanta and I love it! I think it has even more various foods then the Decatur Farmers Market. In fact I think the DFM is becoming a little too fancy… they even have tastings now… The H market is really great, I have to remember it the next time I have an exotic meal coming up (which ain’t the next one as you’ll see at the end of this blog entry). The DFM didn’t have banana flowers (I didn’t even know bananas had flowers, never mind that they were edible) and while the H Market didn’t have fresh ones, it stocked canned ones that was going to be OK for my dish (Mochar Gonto).

Friday evening I started the preparations: soak lentils (regular ones, I chose green), soak banana flowers in turmeric water – I assumed this was water mixed with turmeric –, start preparing the ural dumplings (made of black lentils) and leave to stand in the fetid asafetida overnight, prepare the chaatni (Bangladeshi for chutney), prepare one of the desserts (mishti doi), play with outfits, jewels and bangles (purchased at Indian store in extra large size to accommodate my large hands that according to Eric would make a boxer envious).

Saturday morning I was awake at 6.30am: before you think “dedication, she must be really loving this cooking thing”, please understand that I didn’t intentionally wake up that early. Which begs the usual question: why is it that during the week I need an alarm clock and I still struggle to get up at 6.30am but on a Saturday morning I naturally wake up that early even though I could sleep in a little longer? If you figure it out, please let me know. After coffee and another quick review of the recipes, I had the realization that perhaps I could cook all the dishes without rushing and without starting really early… Eric and I decided to go on a quick 3 mile run to get the stress of the week out. Those that know me well know that I like running and run a lot but I have been having a problem with my right hip and can’t run much lately; it’s driving me insane and the weight is coming back but that’s probably on account of the snacking at work. We’ve recently moved to a new work location in our office complex. I call it the armpit of the Coca-Cola compound as it’s in the basement of one of the buildings typically used for meetings and training classes: I miss the daylight dearly but because there are always a ton of meetings going on in the rooms adjacent to my workspace, there’s also always a ton of food available. Cookies, popcorn, nuts, rice krispies squares, chocolate brownies, fruit, yogurt, bagels, pastries, etc. Somehow my willpower seems to have abandoned me lately but that might be because my new job actually bores me and there’s a fine line between hunger and boredom in case you haven’t noticed.

That’s enough about me (for now).

First things first. The ural dumplings seemed to be the one item requiring a lot of labor and a lot of preparation and as I started laying out the ingredients on the table, it hit me that something was a bit weird: 175mg of green chilies, 200gr of red chilies, 100gr of black pepper…this thing sounds like a bomb. And this is before we start listing out the other spices ginger, coriander leaves, cardamom seeds, panch phoron, fennel seeds, cloves, cumin seeds, mace, nutmeg, stinky asafetida and cinnamon… And everything in massive quantities. Thing is, the dumplings were an ingredient for the Mochar Gonto (the banana flower dish) and so I did a search in google to find a recipe. I think though this must have been a recipe to serve 50 people because I ended up with so many dumplings and a ton of other mixture left over that I ended up putting in the compost heap (I sincerely hope there is no harm in feeding a really picante mixture to the ground – maybe I’ll have spiced tomato plants and the squirrels will stop eating them before I have a chance to pick them).

Once the ural dumplings were done and left in the sun to dry, Eric and I decided to make a second trip to the Indian store to get a few more sweets and also make a trip to Target to get the treat sachets for one of the goodies for the gift bags and then another side trip to a liquor store to get 1.5lt of grain alcohol (not for the Bangladeshi dinner, for the limoncello we were going to make over the week end). It hit me that I should have used gloves when handling the chilies… my hands were on fire!

Back to the house, we started on the rest of the dishes and by 4pm decided we needed a break. While Eric passed out on the sofa, I prepared the menu and then after a few minutes with my feet up, went to lay the table. Or at least I thought it was a few minutes. Not sure if I misread the clock when I thought it was 4pm or I rested longer than intended but the next thing I knew was that it was 6pm. I refused to panic but eventually went to raise Eric from the dead as I really could do with another pair of hands. I think it was at this time that I realized that there was no way I could find the time to wear that sari… oh well, the skirt looked great anyway! Right about at 7.15pm – 15 mins before the guests were due to arrive – we also gave up on the fried eggplants dish. In reality it wasn’t much the time shortage as much as the fact that the recipe yielded very little of the paste needed to coat the eggplant slices. Never mind, we still had ton of food!

Finally it was time to greet my friends: Katie and Richard, Kako, Kiyomy and Floyd, Kako, Susan and Tim and Anne. The first couple of bottles of wine were opened and shared amongst us and all the ohs and ahs over the outfits were exchanged and we were ready to eat.

We started with the Ghee Rice. Personally I loved this one. It’s rice cooked in spices and ghee (clarified butter to you and I) and mixed with cashews, onions and green chilies. It was a nice start to the meal, I agree with Wikipedia!

Then I served the shukto: this is a mixture of veggies cooked in coconut milk; so nothing unusual except who’s ever heard of things like bitter gourd, ridge gourd, parval? These are all vegetables and I later discovered that they are all available fresh at the Indian market… well, I ended up searching up and down the farmers market and the H market with Iphone in hands to see if I could spot them by look since it appears that depending where you are they are all called different things (bitter melon, Chinese okra to name but a few). Of course this dish also included lentils (most of the dishes did – it’s one of the main staple in Bangladesh). It was really good. Everyone really liked this one! And don’t get put off by the photograph… although it does look like a pile of dang…

Third appetizer: Bangladeshi Masoor Dal: you guessed it, more lentils. This time red lentils. The dal wasn’t anything special to be honest. Nobody thought it was bad but nothing that anyone would want to replicate or take home. It was rather simple to make though.
The main course was a combo of 3 more dishes: dhoka - lentil cakes, mochar ghonto with the ural dumplings made of black lentils and a fish dish which had no lentils listed as an ingredients.
The dhoka recipe I found online had a really helpful step by step photo sequence so I knew how the thing was supposed to look like through the preparation. They were really yummy aside from the almost disaster: I ran out of cumin and coconut milk so I left to go to the store and Eric was in charge of cooking for maybe 20 minutes. He was preparing the gravy for the cakes and when I came back home I discovered he had poured the gravy over the ural dumplings! Oh darn! They weren’t even cooked yet. However as I mentioned earlier there were enough dumplings to feed a small army so I chucked the whole thing in the compost and got Eric to start on the gravy again. For someone who almost always cook from recipes, he seems to have troubles following the ones I get for my alphabetical dinners. I can’t fathom any reason. Nope, I stopped and thought a bit more about it but really Eric is an excellent cook so there’s no reason why he wouldn’t read my recipes (lamp of genius: is it because being a man he perceives my recipes as an instruction manual and therefore won’t read them??).
The fish was not the right fish: the recipe called for Ilsa fish which is typical in Bangladesh but not to be found in Atlanta. A substitute is the shad fish but when I asked for it at the farmers market the fishmonger and a couple of customers around me all started pointing and shouting at the same time, yes, yes, shark here is shark! Never mind. A few searches on googles app resulted in my buying cod. I just think cod is so plain it can substitute everything really. That’s why they coat it with batter in England and serve it fried with the chips! It also had a ton of bones. It wasn’t a bad dish and most of my guests liked it but that’s probably because of the coconut milk and the mustard oil. Note to self: must try mustard oil on bread. I never used it before and it’s got a really nice color – a lot of the recipe called for cooking in mustard oil.

Cakes are on the right, fish on the left.

What can I say about the mochar ghonto: you could hardly taste any of the banana flowers and as expected those ural dumplings were bombs. Katie and Richard are very accustomed to really hot dishes (he’s from Mexican descents) so they like them and I even manage to convince Katie that she wanted to take the rest home (I hope she remembers that they were not cooked). Susan and Tim on the other hand, really hated them! And to be honest aside from Katie nobody thought this dish was anything good. Frankly neither do I and it was definitely the one requiring the most prepping. Everyone agreed that it looked pretty on the plate!

Then came the chaatni to clear the palate: I chose one made of pineapples. It was nice and sweet and it probably would have been a good idea if I served it with the mochar ghonto to dull some of the fire. Also, Wikipedia says that it’s served to clear the palate before serving dessert but everyone agreed it would have gone better as an accompaniment to other dishes. It was good though. I think aside from Tim everyone liked it!
And finally desserts:
1. mishti doi. This is really a homemade yogurt. It’s made of full fat milk cooked with sugar (oh how good full fat milk tastes, I forgot. And the cream on top was so thick that I had troubles getting the milk out of the bottle!). Once it’s cooked you leave it overnight to set. I was worried it wouldn’t work but it did! Everyone except for Floyd loved this. Eric didn’t even try it – or better, he eventually had a tiny little spoon of it and said: you’d rather I didn’t rate this).
2. Mango lassi: this is divine! Really easy to make too. Neeta and I had it for lunch at cafĂ© Bombai and she convinced me to make it. Katie took some of it home too then texted me the next morning to say that she had it for breakfast. So did I, and for lunch too. It’s really really tasty and what do you know, it’s weight watchers friendly too!
3. Rasgulla. I bought this at the Indian store. Neeta made me. Every recipe I found online really scared me… it’s really cheese balls in syrup but you actually have to make the balls and I just couldn’t make any sense out of the recipes.
4. Bangladeshi sweets: I am sure these are what I intended to make for dessert when I made a Pakistani meal many years ago. Except that mine had the consistency of play dough… I liked the little pink and yellow sweets. But we’d rather not know how the coloring is achieved.
5. Other brown balls in syrup. Katie brought these and they also were in a can. I can’t remember the name though…. They were really yummy!

In case you haven’t noticed, we had brown and white balls for desserts. Now the amount of comments that came out of these were really hilarious! I leave it up to your imagination… it could well be that they sounded funny on account of the hukka pipe that Katie brought to the dinner and was promptly lit up with its mango tobacco and shared across the table. Fun. But… next time I think we’ll go outside or chose a room with ventilation… I was quite queasy after a bit! The rest of the guests had a really fun time with it as the photos would attest…

Here is the menu and the scores:
Ghee Rice: 8.1
Shukto: 8.9
Bangladeshi Masoor Dal: 6.3

Main Courses:
Dhoka (lentil cakes): 6.3
Mochar Ghonto (with ural dal dumplings): 5.2
Doi Ilish: 7.3

Anarosher Chaatni (Pineapple Chutney, Bengali-style): 7.8

Desserts:Mishti Doi: 8.4
Rasgulla: 6.1
Mango Lassi: 8.1
Bangladeshi sweets and other brown balls: not rated… on account of my queasiness….

And I almost forgot: the goody bag! This time I filled it with a jar of Panch Phoron which is a typical Bengali spice mix, 2 narkel nadu which are coconut sweets (they were supposed to look like balls but I put too much kheer (condensed milk) in it and so ended up with mini cakes, a set of bangles and some mini fancy sparkly stickers that you could put on your forehead, hands or belly. By then I was really tired and completely forgot to take a picture but trust me, the ladies really appreciated the content!

So this was another fun evening. And judging from the emails I received from my friends, they all had a really great time. Floyd and Kiyomi sent an email saying that their overall score was a 10. I will end this with a quote from a book I read recently that sums up pretty much something that I knew already… it’s not just the food, it’s the company that make these evenings really special.
"Apprentices have asked me, what is the most exalted peak of cuisine? Is it the freshest of ingredients, the most complex flavors? Is it the rustic or the rare? It is none of these. The peak is neither eating nor cooking, but the giving and sharing of food. Great food should never be taken alone. What pleasure can a man take in fine cuisine unless he invites cherished friends, counts the days until the banquet, and composes an anticipatory poem for his letter of invitation? "
The Last Chinese Chef
Next we’re coming to America: Canada.

Stay tuned…


Peter Wallace said...

Rossana, loved your report as always! You have to put all these on a book! Glad you sly had a fun time!

Peter Wallace said...

Um, glad you ALL had a fun time...!

Anonymous said...

Yes, as always, we all had fun time and enjoyed food!!! Thanks Rossana again for the great night!
Kiyomi and Floyd

dan le said...

LOL. Love, love your take on the "most fun evening without illegal herbs and spices." Remind me not to get into an elevator with you Spice Girls anytime soon.

Anonymous said...

Once again you outdid yourself, Rossana! Your attention to detail and your ability to capture the authenticity of a culture is always spot on! Add to that your knack for bringing a pleasing mix of people together makes every party a success. Tim and I are always honored to be included in any of your adventurous ABC-country dinners! Please keep us on the list. Kudos to Eric, too! Grazie mille, Susan

Anonymous said...

Looks like the most colorful one yet! I love reading your posts-feel sorry for your book editor, though, trying to choose the "best of" for your forthcoming book! -Laurel