During my late teenage years when I finally decided to venture into Bengali cuisine in the kitchen I started with Bengali vegetarian dishes all because of my maternal grandmother whom I call dima. Dima is the loving way I address my maternal grandmother (generally maternal grandmothers are called didima) Before I move on to the recipe I must share with you my nostalgia. A woman who measured with her eyes and created charming dishes, the one whose condescension seemed adorable, the one who refused to be confined to the kitchens and would travel every weekend till she fell down and broke her hip in 1996. At 93 years today she is an old frail woman in her body but she still roars like a lioness which well doesn't scare her equally ferocious daughter but it makes sure she has the last say in matters which concern her. I decided to share a heritage recipe for Chanar dalna.
Between my two grandmothers my paternal grandmother would try and make an array of dishes in the kitchen but quite honestly she is a better teacher (she used to teach in a school) than a cook while my other grandmother was the magician. She was openly critical of her daughters' cooking, my mother hardly cooks and her other daughter is also not particularly fond of the kitchen. Her one term for things which did not meet her standards were termed 'bhyajals' (adulterated) and she was openly partial to both her children and granddaughters. I have always been the apple of her eye and while growing up have spent all the weekends at her home and would usually be fed ghee (clarified laden) dishes and when in my teenage years I would sulk and say it is too fattening she gave me the term 'fancy'.
It was only in my years in college when I suddenly realized the woman who didn't care much about the kitchen as her contemporaries yet produced these lip smacking dishes following the traditional way of cooking yet not measuring should go directly in a diary. I bought a diary and noted down a few of her recipes. When I asked for measurements she was outright enraged and told me, 'if you want to be a good cook why will you steal my measurements?' Well till I started writing for my blog my motto while cooking was to measure with my eyes till I realized the importance of sharing the precise measurement with my readers.
You see I have a special relationship with my dima which goes beyond the kitchen. Her outright fussiness and partiality made her well not too adored but how can I not consider myself lucky that I am one of the few people she would trust enough to gossip with , where she would talk about everything under the sun. As a result I virtually know things which even her daughters do not . She would openly complain to me about how her other granddaughters do not visit her . That they are much more elder than me and has kids and live far away were not reason enough for her. That I visited her weekly because I stay within a kilometer is of no concern of her's.
She was the only one who was happy when I ballooned up during my wedding from my thin self and is now not too happy to see me make an effort to loose weight. Even though I do not like my puffed up terrible self in this picture I will treasure this one for life.
My greatest achievement in the kitchen was when , dima who is critical of everyone's dishes except my mimi's( which should be another story) told me my 'Chanar Dalna' was 'just like it should be' . Well my mimi is my maternal uncle's wife who is a brilliant cook and though dima has seldom openly appreciated her she has told me on numerous occasions how she loves her cooking and hoe 'my daughter-in -the law is the rea cook and your mother and aunt are mad women' . I am incidentally close to both women (dima and mimi) and am glad that both of them did guide me with Bengali cuisine. For my dima a vegeterian dish seizes to be one if onion and garlic is added but this dish with all its flavours is sure to find a place in your heart.
This recipe is an amalgamated one which uses my dima's and Mimi's recipe so while I cook it in pure ghee because anything else is 'bhyajal' as per my dima I use my Mimi's technique for making the chena (the cottage cheese which is the base of the dish)
Incidentally both women uses the same recipe and I know for a fact it is a heritage recipe since my mimi who is already on the other side of 65 years uses her mother's recipe who follow her mother and a recipe whcih was followed by a 93 year old woman surely is a heritage recipe . So I am proud that I have access to this particular recipe. It is slightly sweet, milky and heavenly in taste.
To make the Chena / Paneer / Cottage cheese
1.5 litres of full cream milk
Juice from 1.5 lemon diluted with previously stored whey/ buttermilk/ warm water
Simply bring the milk to a boil , simmer it and then add the diluted juice (lemon + liquid) this diluting of the juice makes sure you get the softest of cottage cheese. Wait till you see the chena forming and the water turning olive green and then turn off the stove and then put a lid on the container and wait for 5 minutes. Now collect the chena in a muslin cloth or cheese cloth but reserve the whey. Tie the cloth with the chena inside and wash it with drinking water and then carefully squeeze out the water and flatten it and keep a dish on top of it and then place a lightweight stone bowl or a book on top. Do not use a very heavy item else your chena will come out hard. Wait for 15 minutes to 20 minutes and cut into cubes. If left for too long the chana turns hard.
For the Chanar dalna :-
The freshly prepared chena
1 small to medium sized tomato made into a fine paste
4 cups of whey (cups which hold 210ml of water)
2 tsp Smooth ginger cumin green chili paste with 1 inch ginger, half a tsp cumin seeds and 2 green chilies
1 inch cinnamon
Pinch of hing
1 tsp cumin seeds
2 green cradamom
1 large bay leaf /tej patta
Salt as per taste
Sugar 2 tsp
2 tbsp clumped up ghee + extra if required
1 large potato cubed into bite sized cubes smaller than the chena
1/4th tsp turmeric
2 whole green chili
Tiny pinch of garam masala
Melt the ghee and fry the chena in batches and soak it in the whey to keep it soft. Once you are done with all the chena lightly fry the potato cubes and keep in another dish.
Now if your potato has soaked up all the ghee which it usually doesn't add some more ghee and add the hing and when it splutters add the cumin seeds and then add the ginger cumin chili paste and keep stirring. Add the bay leaf, cloves after you crush them a bit, green cardamom post crushing, cinnamon post crushing and then when well sauteed add the tomato paste and stir it and fry it on medium flame till the oil separates and then add 2 cups of whey and bring to a boil and add salt and turmeric and simmer and add the potatoes. Now bring to a boil again and then simmer covered till potatoes are well cooked. Once you potatoes are fully cooked add 2 more cups of whey and bring to a boil and add sugar and carefully add the pieces of chena and bring to a boil and simmer without a lid for 10 minutes. The gravies from Bengal aren't very thick so it should not be thickened with any agent or dried up. Once done transfer on to a serving bowl and then use 1 tbsp water and bring it to a quick boil , what you will get is some foam and drop in two slit green chilies while constantly stirring it with a spatula and use the spatula to get the stuck wet spices and then pour it on the bowl containing the dish . Your wok will be clean and you will not leave out any spice stuck with the wok. Enjoy this classic dish with plain basmati rice or try the classic Ghee Bhat.