I fell in love with Vasundhara Chauhan’s food writing in The Hindu the first time I read her column, many many months ago. Her first article (at least the one I read first) was about the food of the North East, specifically Naga food. I was already somewhat familiar (had many friends from that state in college) with their cuisine, so I could relate to the article, and that bit about steamed squash, a vegetable commonly grown in the North Eastern parts of India, and these days widely available in the hotter plains as well. Which reminds me, Bengalis living in Shillong peel and slice squash, dip them into chick pea flour – besan - batter and fry. Crisp hot squash fritters are delicious with tea or coffee on a rainy evening. They are also a good accompaniment to Bengali khichuri.
Since my first (reading) encounter with Chauhan, I’ve never missed her food column (Gourmet Files) in the Sunday Hindu. Her no-nonsense and honest writing is a pleasure to read in a world of vapid and often ignorant food writing. She also takes me back to a time when women made many dishes at home, including continental ones, from scratch and innovated and substituted ingredients and condiments with great success. Her recent column (on Sunday 4th August ’10) “Authenticity, please” had me nodding my head vigorously in agreement through most of it. Food writers often don’t even know what they are writing about, are ill-informed and have little background knowledge, which they think they can camouflage with flowery language and exotic terms. I read food articles where it is obvious that the writer jotted down whatever the chef said without bothering to verify or even understand. As for food experiences, I have burnt my fingers at many glitzy eating places where authenticity is as taboo as “decent service!”
Coming back to food and specifically Bengali food, because this is what “Authenticity Please” signs off with: I have read Chitrita Banerji’s book on Bengali cuisine ( a lovely and nostalgic book to read), but let me add here that there are as many versions of each popular Bengali dish, (with probably the sole exception of Jhingey Posto [ridged gourd with poppy seeds], but that’s probably because there’s not much you can do to that dish) as there are communities and sub communities in Bengal! So it is with the Lau Chingri that Chauhan looked up in Banerji’s book. There ARE Lau Chingri recipes that use garlic and onion. My mother always did, and she considered cooking prawns with lau one of the quickest fish dishes that even children would eat.
Here is one which is from an old recipe book brought out by NIAW( my copy is the 1985 edition!), and this particular recipe is by NIAW member Jaysree Sen.
500 gms tender lauki, cut into fine juliennes or shredded. You can also use green papaya or white pumpkin.
250 gms of fresh cleaned shrimps or prawns.
3 tbsp mustard oil
2 large onions chopped
1 clove garlic chopped
1/2 tsp turmeric
2 tsp each of Coriander and Cumin seeds ground mixed with 1/2 tsp of chili powder
1 tsp sugar and salt to taste
Green chilies (optional)
Method: Heat mustard oil, fry garlic and onions until limp. Add prawns/shrimp, ground spices, green chilies and steamed lauki/lau. Saute (the recipe book says fry, but I think that is not the correct term; incidentally the book is full of spelling and grammatical errors, but the book is awesome as far the recipes go) until the prawns/shrimp are cooked and the vegetables are dry.
In my version I add a sprinkling of Bengali garam masala – green cardamoms, cloves and cinnamon sticks – in this case a tsp ground and I also add a bit of ghee. My mother used to do this. The aroma was heavenly. I have eaten lau chingri with rice as well as parathas as a child.