'My Bangladesh Kitchen' cookbook: Recipes from prawn bhuna to tamarind pop-overs

Aside from the food, Saira Hamilton explains that there's something distinctly Bangladeshi about the way it's eaten too

Friday 05 April 2019 15:20 BST
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There are specific dishes which shout Bangladesh, whether that is home-cooked fried hilsa fish, the famous Old Dhaka restaurants’ chicken biryani, or a delicious sweet treat such as ras malai.

These dishes stir the senses and evoke the smells and memories of the country as readily as any souvenir or photograph.

But beyond the dishes themselves, there is something about the way food is eaten that is distinctly Bangladeshi.

The family meal is the cornerstone of the Bangladeshi way of eating. The whole family will generally eat together, children and adults, no matter how late that may be. Young children are usually fed first and until they are old enough to feed themselves; a designated adult will mix up a big plate of rice with a small amount of meat, fish, vegetables and dal and then feed the youngsters by hand. The rice is formed into small balls which are then popped directly into the mouths of the children. This progresses to the balls of food being picked up by the children themselves, until eventually they learn to feed themselves and then they can sit at the table with the adults.

Bowls and platters of the various dishes are laid in the middle of the table. There will almost certainly be rice, and one or two vegetable dishes, and some kind of protein dish, probably fish. There could even be two types of fish dish, fried and curried. There may be a meat or chicken curry too and there will definitely be dal. Add to that a salad or chutney and you have the basic meal. Food is rarely plated up; people will serve themselves from the dishes on the table.

There is usually an order to the way things are eaten. The rice is put on the plate first and then eaten with the vegetables, then the fried fish, then the curries, and finally dal. Rice is usually topped up at least once; it would be considered odd at best and impolite at worst if you don’t have seconds. And probably the most obvious thing you notice when you sit down to a traditional Bangladeshi meal is that there will be no cutlery provided, as food is eaten with fingers. It’s a bit of an art and takes practice to eat this way without making a mess or ending up with food up to your elbows. But this is by far the best way to eat traditional Bangladeshi food, to deal with and remove bones from meat or fish and to get the perfect mix of the sauces with the rice and chutneys.

Chingri maacher bhuna – king prawn curry with tomato and chilli

Prawns are plentiful in Bangladesh and have always been enjoyed there. As with most things, Bangladeshis like to get their money’s worth out of a prawn and they eat every last bit of them. I’ll still never forget the first time my husband watched my petite and delicate mother munching on a massive prawn head whilst we enjoyed a family dinner together. His face was a picture, let me tell you!

Personally I prefer the other end of a prawn, and this was a dish I always requested mum to make for any special occasion or celebration. It is quite spicy, but you can reduce the number of green chillies to your taste of course. It is very important to cook the sauce down well before you add the prawns as you don’t want them to overcook and become rubbery. This curry can be made with any size of prawn; tiger prawns work very well. But my particular weakness is for very large king prawns, which is what I look for when I make this dish, and I buy them without the heads attached. Don’t forget to clean and de-vein the prawns before you cook them.

Serves 4

2 tbsp vegetable oil 
1 onion, chopped into 1cm/½in dice 
2 garlic cloves, finely sliced 
1 tsp chilli powder 
1 tsp ground cumin 
1 tsp ground coriander 
½ tsp ground turmeric 
½ tsp salt 
2 tbsp ginger paste 
200g/7oz fresh tomatoes, roughly chopped 
1 tsp sugar 
4 fresh green chillies, cut in half lengthwise 
600g/1lb 6oz large king prawns, peeled and de-veined (defrosted weight) 
3 tbsp finely chopped fresh coriander

Place a large frying pan, skillet or wok onto a medium-high heat. Add the vegetable oil and when it is hot, add the chopped onion. Fry, stirring regularly, for around 10 minutes until the onion is a deep golden-brown colour. Then add the sliced garlic and fry for a further 2 minutes.

Now add the ground spices, salt and ginger paste. Add a small amount of water (120ml/4fl oz) and stir everything together. Once the water has mostly evaporated and there is a sheen of oil on top of the pan, you can add the chopped tomatoes, sugar and fresh chillies.

Stir everything together really well and allow to come up to a gentle simmer. Then cover the pan and allow the sauce to simmer for around 10 minutes.

The next step is to add the prawns, which should be cleaned and ready to cook. (If you are using frozen prawns, make sure they are thoroughly defrosted before you start to cook.) The sauce at this stage should have thickened slightly. Add the prawns to the pan and stir well to coat them in the spiced tomato sauce. Cover the pan again and let them cook for around 5 minutes. If the pan is not simmering well, you may need to increase the heat slightly.

After 5 minutes, uncover the pan and turn the prawns. Add in half the chopped fresh coriander and stir well and then cook, uncovered, for a further 2–3 minutes, or as long as it takes until the prawns are completely cooked, firm to the touch and opaque all the way through. The sauce should be quite thick and cling to the prawns.

Finally, garnish with the remaining fresh coriander and some extra green chillies if wanted. This curry is delicious with plain steamed rice or with freshly made luchi.

Shabzi achar – mixed vegetable pickle

This is a recipe that is different in every household, but it follows the same basic method as most quick pickles. It’s not exactly instant but the pickle can be eaten straight away, once cooled, unlike certain other pickle-making methods. I am using cauliflower, carrots, garlic and chillies in my pickle but you can substitute other vegetables that you have. Use similar hard vegetables rather than anything too soft and juicy, and always make sure the vegetables you are using are cut to similar sizes and are completely dry before cooking in the spiced oil.

Serves 8 as an accompaniment

1 tbsp plus 1 tsp salt 
300g/11oz cauliflower, broken into small florets 
300g/11oz carrots, peeled and cut into 1cm/½in slices 
20 garlic cloves, peeled 
10 small hot fresh green chillies, left whole 
3 tbsp panch poran 
120ml/4fl oz/½ cup mustard oil (see note) 
2 tbsp finely julienned fresh ginger 
1 tsp ground cumin 
1 tsp ground coriander
 ½ tsp ground turmeric 
½ tsp chilli powder
 65g/2½oz dark brown sugar, muscovado is perfect 
75ml/3fl oz white vinegar 

First prepare the vegetables. Take a large bowl of cold water and dissolve the 1 tbsp salt in it. Then cut all the vegetables to a similar size, keeping the garlic cloves and chillies whole, and place into the salted water. Allow the vegetables to sit in the salt solution for 30 minutes.

Drain the vegetables in a colander and then spread them out on a tray and let them air-dry for a further hour.

While waiting for the vegetables, take a small frying pan or skillet, and place over a low heat. Add the panch poran and stir it around in the pan for around 1 minute. Once the seeds are toasted, tip them into a spice grinder or mortar and pestle and blend them briefly. You are looking for a rough powder, not a fine dust.

Once all your ingredients are ready, take a large saucepan and place onto a medium heat. Pour in the mustard oil and leave for a minute or so until it heats up a little. Then add in the 1 tsp salt, and the sliced ginger, cumin, coriander, turmeric and chilli powder.

Now add in the vegetable pieces and stir well. Sprinkle over the ground panch poran powder, dark sugar and vinegar, and stir again. Cover the pan and allow the pickle to cook for 30 minutes and then turn off the heat. Test a piece of carrot to check it is cooked. If should not be completely soft, but the point of a sharp knife should go in quite easily. If it is not quite there, cook for a further 5 minutes.

Allow the pickle to cool down completely in the pan for 4–5 hours before pouring into sterilised jars to store. This pickle will keep for up to 3 months if stored in a cool, dark place.

Tip: Panch poran is the fragrant Bengali five-spice, containing mustard seeds, cumin seeds, fennel seeds, fenugreek seeds, and nigella seeds.

Note: Mustard oil (shorsher tel) is a staple ingredient in Bangladeshi cuisine and probably the flavour that really defines the cuisine of the region. However, there is controversy about its use on medical grounds due to the presence of erucic acid and potential side effects, and certain institutions advise not to use it; it is banned for consumption in the EU, Canada and the USA. As an alternative it is possible to make your own mustard-infused oil instead. Simply heat some vegetable oil in a small pan then stir in freshly crushed mustard seeds, turn off the heat and allow the mustard to infuse the oil slowly. Once it is cool, strain and store the oil in a cool, dark place to use.

Fuska – tamarind pop-overs

I didn’t know what to call these in English as there isn’t really a translation that works! In Bangladesh these are called fuska or phuchka, and in India they call them pani puri. Whatever you call them, they consist of a bite-sized crispy shell which is then packed with a vegetarian filling and topped up with a sweet and sour tamarind water. In Bangladesh these would usually be eaten in cafés or from market stalls as a snack between meals, but they can be made at home too. It’s not exactly easy to make them, but it’s well worth doing so. The individual components can be made up to 24 hours in advance and then everything put together just before you want to eat them. The shells can be found ready-made in Indian grocers, so that is also an option.

I warn you that when making a batch of fuska, there will always be one or two that won’t puff up and rise, and these can be discarded (or eaten up anyway). The cooked shell should be wafer-thin, almost translucent, and very crispy. These absolutely must be eaten in one mouthful; try to take a bite and you will end up with tamarind water running down your elbow and chin. Fuska are not meant to be elegant, just very tasty!

Serves 4–6

For the fuska

115g/4oz plain flour 
115g/4oz fine semolina 
1 tbsp cornflour 
¼ tsp bicarbonate of soda 
1 tsp vegetable oil 
85ml/3fl oz warm water 
Vegetable oil for oiling and deep-frying 

For the filling

125g/4½oz chickpeas, cooked or from a can, and drained 
125g/4½oz cooked potato, cut into 1cm/½in dice 
1 hard-boiled egg, finely chopped (leave this out if you want to keep the dish vegan) 
2 tbsp finely sliced spring onions 
1 tsp finely chopped fresh green chilli 
1 tbsp finely chopped fresh coriander 
½ tsp dried red chilli flakes 
1 tsp chaat masala 
½ tsp salt 

For the tetul-er pani (tamarind water)

1 tbsp tamarind paste, or to taste 
1 tsp sugar, or to taste 
½ tsp ground cumin 
½ tsp dried mint 
120ml/4fl oz water 

For the garnish

2 tbsp natural yogurt 
Ground black pepper 
A few fresh coriander leaves 

To make the fuska dough, put the flour, semolina, cornflour and bicarbonate of soda in a bowl and mix together. Mix in the 1 tsp of oil well. Now add the warm (hand-hot) water, a tablespoon at a time, and mix together with your hands. The dough should come together after 4–5 minutes of mixing and kneading. It should be quite a stiff dough. Once in a ball, cover with oiled cling film and allow to rest for 30 minutes or so.

Next, take golfball-sized pieces of the dough and roll them out as thin as you can, around the same thickness as a tortilla. You may need to brush the surface and the rolling pin with some vegetable oil, but don’t use extra flour. Use a 5cm/2in round cutter to cut out small circles of the dough. Lay them out on a tray, uncovered, for around 20 minutes to dry out before frying; this will help the final crispness.

Pre-heat oil for frying either in a deep-fryer or a suitable pan or wok, to around 180°C/350°F. Fry only a few fuska at a time; don’t overcrowd the pan. They should take 2–3 minutes each batch. You are looking for the fuska to puff up into a perfect sphere. The best way to do this is to drop them carefully into the oil then wait for them to float to the surface. When they are on the top use a slotted spoon or spider skimmer to gently baste the top of the dough with hot oil; this will aid the puffing-up process. When one side is golden-brown, flip to cook the other side and repeat the basting process. When cooked, lift them out and put into a colander lined with kitchen paper to drain any excess oil. They need to be cool before you can begin to fill them.

Now make the filling (which you can do in advance, as it is used cold). Put the drained chickpeas in a bowl and crush them gently with a fork. Add the diced cooked potato, diced hard-boiled egg, spring onion, fresh chilli, fresh coriander, chilli flakes, chaat masala and salt, and mix it all together very well.

Make the tamarind water by whisking together all the ingredients in a small bowl or jug. Taste the mixture as every batch of tamarind paste has a different level of acidity.

Construct the fuska just before you are ready to eat. Use your thumb to crack a hole in the top of each fuska shell. The crumbs should fall inside. Spoon in around a teaspoon of the chickpea filling then around a teaspoon of tamarind water. Top with a small dollop of the yogurt mixed with the black pepper and a garnish of coriander before serving.

Cook’s tip If you have a few fuska that haven’t risen, don’t throw them away: they will still taste good. Try piling the filling on top like a bruschetta instead.

'My Bangladesh Kitchen: Recipes and food memories from a family table' by Saira Hamilton is out now. Published by Lorenz Books, £20

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