Maximum Malai Curry
I missed cooking something special for Poila Baishakh, or the Bengali New Year, this year. That's because I was out of town. I mean, one does need to mark the first day of a “new year” in some form, right? A day that is supposed to usher in 12 months of good luck and prosperity? Of course, it rarely does, but that, as they say, is another story.
Anyway, since one is not given to wild partying on the night before the Bengali New Year, one always wants to do something else to celebrate the occasion. Such as cooking a nice, festive dish. But this year I was stuck in a disappointing, has-been tourist place called Kathmandu, where the closest I could get to things festive was a “Jhakkas Tequilla Dance Bar” (spelling not mine) in Thamel -- the supposedly happening entertainment district of the city. Bollywood strains wafted from this jhakkas joint and I lost no time in beating a hasty retreat.
Well, back in Calcutta, I finally got down to making the “special occasion” dish that I had been promising myself. It had to be quintessentially Bengali, of course, and I spent some time deliberating on what it would be. Some silken, airy luchis with a dark, rich, finger-lickin’ good kasha mangsho, I wondered. (Oh, but it was too much trouble in this heat!)
Muri ghanto (fish head cooked with rice)?
(Mmm… not bad, but since I was going to take a photograph to post on this blog, not nearly gorgeous looking enough!)
A simple, lightly spiced, narkel diye chholar dal (channa dal with diced coconut) and my signature mishti pulao? (Nope, not quite that festive!)
And then I plumped for that old favourite – chingri maachher malai curry (prawns cooked with coconut milk). It’s super festive, super good to eat, and super gorgeous on every count. And, amazingly, not too difficult to make either. It all hangs rather finely on andaaj, or judgment, though – the sweet of the coconut milk has to mingle with and mellow out the slight pungency of the sauce just so. The result should be a smooth, velvety, prawny explosion of flavour that’s as irresistible as a million bucks. Or, erm, whatever it is that you find irresistible!
Coconut milk is widely used in the cuisine of coastal places like Bengal and Kerala in India – and, of course, in other southeast Asian countries such as Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, and so on. The Bengali chingri maachher malai curry has its own distinct character and taste. I have come across many variations of the recipe. The one I follow – the way it’s been made in my mother’s family for years – depends largely on the use of two different consistencies of coconut milk, which is added to the dish at different stages of cooking.
One tip: Do not boil the sauce for long after adding the thick coconut milk. It is liable to curdle and that would be truly tragic.
Chingri Maachher Malai Curry
(Prawns with coconut milk)
Serves: Well, left to me, no more than 2. But I guess you can stretch it to 3 or 4.
1 kg prawns, deveined and with their heads on. One kg could get you 9-10 odd big-sized prawns such as scampi
1 medium coconut
2 medium onions ground to a paste
1 inch piece of ginger ground to a paste
1 tomato grated
¼ teaspoon turmeric powder
4 red chillies ground to a paste
4 green chillies
A few sticks of cinnamon
A few cardamoms
Mustard oil for frying
Salt and sugar to taste
Extra cinnamon and cardamom ground to a powder
First prepare the coconut milk.
Thick milk: Grate the coconut. Add half a cup of boiling water to the grated coconut. Cover and leave to soak for five minutes. Then pour the mixture into a piece of muslin cloth and press to extract the milk. Keep it aside.
Thin milk: Add about a cup of boiling water to the grated coconut once again. Repeat the process as above. The milk extract this time will have a thinner consistency. Keep it aside for use later.
Now smear the prawns with a dash of salt and turmeric powder. Heat the oil in a kadhai. Fry the prawns in small batches until they turn coral pink and the heads take on a lovely orange hue. Do not over fry as this will make the prawn meat too tough and chewy. Keep them aside.
Strain the hot oil to get rid of the bits of prawns meat that may remain in it. Pour it back into the kadhai, add some more oil, and when it’s hot, put the cinnamon and cardamom into it. Now add the ground onion and fry nicely till it turns golden brown. Then add the ginger paste and a little later, the grated tomato. Continue frying on medium heat till the oil separates.
Add the turmeric and the ground red chillies. After frying a bit more, add the prawns and salt to taste. Now pour in the thin coconut milk and bring to a boil. Add the whole green chillies, lower the heat and leave to cook till the lobsters are done. Taste the gravy and put in a bit of sugar if you like your malai curry on the sweeter side.
Now add the thick coconut milk. Bring it to boil briefly, sprinkle the garam masala powder, give it a stir, and turn off the heat.
Serve with steamed rice.