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Cooking Kosha Mangsho to Accompany the Kolkata Biryani

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Sujay Thakur cooks some kosha mangsho to be teamed with a plate of Kolkata Biryani, while talking to Somrita Urni Ganguly about the politics of cooking, feeding, and eating (Kolkata, November 12, 2017)

 

Edited transcript

 

Somrita Urni Ganguly: Today we’re moving from the narrow lanes and by-lanes of North Kolkata and the hustle and bustle of Central Kolkata to the South of the city. We are in Garia at the moment, right outside Garia metro station and Garia Bajar. And, we’re meeting Mr. Sujay Thakur this afternoon.

 

In Kolkata we usually like our biryani by itself. Or maybe, sometimes we team it with a glass of chilled cola or maybe cold lemonade followed, of course, by antacids like Gelusil! Sometimes, however, we are in a mood to indulge and we team the plate of Kolkata Biryani with maybe a plate of mutton rezala or chicken kebabs or perhaps chicken kosha or maybe, um, mutton kebabs – mutton sheekh kebabs. We are standing outside Sujay Thakur’s house who is going to very kindly make for us his version of the mutton kosha, he’s calling it the mutton hariyali kosha.

 

Mr. Sujay Thakur who hails from the district of Siliguri in North Bengal teaches British Literature to undergrad students at GMVM, a college affiliated to the University of Calcutta. And he will be preparing his version of the ‘kosha mangsho’ for us today as we were discussing. Hi Sujay!

 

Sujay Thakur: Hi! Hi! Welcome! Welcome!

 

SUG: Thanks so much. So, we do have the kosha mangsho in store.

 

ST: Yeah, absolutely, would you like to try? Some kosha mangsho with a mint twist!

 

SUG: Absolutely. Kosha mangsho is a quintessentially Bangali dish where chunks of mutton and potato are cooked in a thick paste, primarily comprising ginger, garlic and onion, in pure mustard oil. But Sujay as he’s told us is giving his personal twist to the kosha mangsho, so let’s see what we have. So, Sujay if you would tell us about the ingredients today –

 

ST: Yes. So here is it. What I have done is, yesterday around say, at 10 o’ clock at night we have marinated this mutton. 500 grams of mutton we have taken.

 

SUG: That’s right. What have you marinated it with?

 

ST: We have mint, coriander, and some beaten yogurt and a bit of turmeric and salt and we mixed it up and we gave the mutton bit of a massage with that and then you wrap it up and put it in the fridge. So, eight hours is the minimum period for marination, otherwise, you know, the softness doesn’t come properly. Now, there’s another hack to it. If we are, if you don’t have much time you can just put it in the pressure cooker before marinating, put it for five-ten minutes and then do the same thing.

 

SUG: That’s right! So, that way you make the mutton softer but you’re going to be slow cooking it today with eight hours of marination before. Okay, and what other ingredients are we using today?

 

ST: Right, so, other than that, here’s a mixture of chilli and garlic. And then you have sliced onions. It is important that the onions are sliced exactly in this way so that after that –

 

SUG: - very thin slices?

 

ST: Yeah, very thin slices. After that you have to just use your hands so that the texture of the onions remain. Other than that, there is a little thing that I have made – a paste of mint, coriander, red chilli powder, and a bit of sugar. Okay?

 

SUG: Okay!

 

ST: That enhances the taste.

 

SUG: Right. So, you’ve added those with water and made a paste?

 

ST: Yes. Other than that, you need some six bay leaves, and three red chilli, sundried, some clove, cinnamon and some five pods of cardamom.

 

SUG: Okay!

 

ST: And we also need some – this is coriander powder, and this is cumin powder. So, we’ll make a paste, while we go on. And other than that, we need some hot water. And to top it off we need some ghee.

 

SUG: Clarified butter.

 

ST: Clarified butter – one teaspoon would be enough.

 

SUG: Okay.

 

ST: So, the first thing we do, is after we cut the onions, we take one teaspoon of coriander powder, and one teaspoon of cumin powder, and we’ll mix it with water. So, because this entire dish will be slow cooked it’s better everything is in place. Only tricky part about this mutton is that it will change its colour. Like from reddish brown to light brown to dark brown. So, it is a controlled browning of the mutton. Okay?

 

SUG: Controlled browning of the mutton? Never heard that before, lovely!

 

ST: So, yeah, so we’ll do that, and I’ll just need some water. Yeah, so the paste is done and we’ll just keep it. And after that, this is something that we have devised – we’ll cut the bay leaves because it saves a lot of time and energy while stirring it; keeps the smell intact, but while you cut it you temper it with some, what do you call it?

 

SUG: Mustard oil?

 

ST: Mustard oil. And we’re good to go.

 

SUG: Okay, so we’re using an electric induction knob today?

 

ST: Yeah.

 

SUG: Is this something you say you learnt from your outside – living in a hostel?

 

ST: Of course! Of course! Hostel life teaches you all kinds of hacks. Yes, so what we do is, we just heat it up – the kadhai – and once it’s done, then we put a dash of oil. Now the oil must turn into light yellow.

 

SUG: Right. That’s how you know that it’s hot.

 

ST: Yeah, so we wait till then, maybe a minute or two.

 

SUG: Yeah, and this is for our audience that is not familiar with mustard oil – it has a very distinct smell.

 

ST: It’s that pungent smell. It’s absolutely a pungent smell, one has to grow to like it.

 

SUG: Right, it’s an acquired taste.

 

ST: It’s absolutely, absolutely! So, we’re just waiting. See, it’s boiling, and after a few minutes, you’ll see that the colour has changed – this dark yellow to light one.

 

SUG: Right.

 

ST: So, the oil has been heated enough and we have put in some bay and cardamom and dry chilli. It has almost tempered, and the heat must be controlled, it shouldn’t be on high heat, otherwise this entire thing will burn. So, we do, we temper it for, say 30 seconds, and after that we will put in the onions. Now you see as the spices are sputtering – once the sputtering is there, you know it’s good to go. Okay? So, after that we out the onions. Now putting in the onions, there’s a way. You must crush it with your hands and after you crush it with your hands you must put it in.

 

SUG: Does the crushing lead to any effect, Sujay?

 

ST: Yeah, yeah, it, it enhances the flavour; otherwise the mutton will smell. Okay? So, this onion in due course will change its colour to light brown. Okay? So, we add some salt, and also some sugar. Sugar helps anything to caramelize.

 

SUG: That’s right.

 

ST: Just a dash of sugar will do. Now once it’s done, we have to keep it on low heat, and we will cover the lid, and we wait for around five minutes, and we wait until it changes its colour.

 

SUG: Right. So, Sujay, when did you make kosha mangsho at home for the first time?

 

ST: I didn’t make it at home actually, I made it at a friend’s place, it was back in Delhi. Before that I always thought that making chicken or mutton will be very, very difficult. But then one day we were very hungry and it was I think the day after Diwali, and there was no Domino's or KFC, nothing was open, everything was shut. So, what to do? So, we found out magically, that inside the refrigerator there’s some piece of raw chicken. I called up my mom and I’m like, you know, what do I do? And over the phone I got some instructions but of course, then, fortunately it turned out to be good, and then I understood, probably, you know, you can do it!

 

SUG: Yes, hunger drives us to do all sorts of things!

 

ST: Yeah, and that led me to try out other things as well. And, you know, I realized that everywhere I go and everywhere we eat, there are certain things you pick. For example, the mutton that we are cooking today, I don’t know you will find it anywhere else, and it’s, it’s a thing that I have devised. Let’s try and test it.

 

SUG: That’s right.

 

ST: So, as my grandmother is, used to tell me that, you can eat anything as long as the salt is fine.

 

SUG: Haha! And, you know, there’s a reason they call cooking an art, you’re creating things, you’re adding your touch to it.

 

ST: You know what, I think it’s very, very political to call cooking an art; those who are privileged to call it an art. You see, cooking is not an art for my grandmother, who didn’t have the good fortune to go to a school. Cooking was something that she was meant to do, according to her. My grandfather was a panchayati leader in Bangladesh. So, my grandmom tells me the story that sometimes at 10 o’clock in the village, 10 o’clock is a long, like, it’s deep into the night. He used to come with fifty people and he was like, okay fine, cook. Not even cook – okay, fine, give me some food! Without even asking whether, have you eaten, whether there is food, so she will whip up something. So, yeah, standing here, talking in a colonial language, of course, it’s a privilege, and to market things that is normal for the women of the society, but I don’t think it’s an art. Personally, it’s not an art. Maybe it’s an art for other people. But for me it’s therapeutic. That’s it.

 

SUG: It’s therapy, right. And also, it’s necessity for some people.

 

ST: Absolutely. I wouldn’t put myself in that prejudiced position to call it an art.

 

SUG: Right, poetry can’t always feed hunger, as we know. So, should we check on the onions?

 

ST: Absolutely. You see, it is changing its colour. As you can see, from light pink it is turning into light brown, not yet. So, we have to wait this out because if the onion is not cooked properly, the entire dish will go kaput. So.

 

SUG: Right, so, we wait for this to turn into maybe a translucent brown -

 

ST: Yes!

 

SUG: - and let it cook for some more.

 

ST: So, as you can see, it’s become light brown. See, this is exactly the texture we need. Now, in this we put some garlic and chilli paste.

 

SUG: You made the paste in a mixer-grinder?

 

ST: No, this is not in the mixer-grinder. This is in a pestle and a mortar.

 

SUG: Okay.

 

ST: Right. And you stir it. It’s on medium flame, or heat in this case. Then there’ll be a distinct smell of garlic that you’ll find after which we will add some yogurt mixed with mint and coriander that we made.

 

SUG: Right. We’d seen the mixture before.

 

ST: Yeah. So, I’m reducing the heat. And we will keep it for five minutes and then we will put the yogurt.

 

SUG: So, Sujay, going back to what we were talking about – you, know, you said how cooking was a necessity for your grandmother. In present day Bengal, in modern Calcutta, we see a lot of fathers cooking, and a lot of brothers cooking, and in other words, even though this sounds gendered, but we see a lot of men cooking of late. Whereas, even today, in 2017, cooking is seen to be the woman’s job, a task, a thankless task, as it were. How do you think we can go about changing such a notion?

 

ST: I think, simply, it’s very simple, ask the woman to go out, or make the woman go out on her own. I have not seen many chef who are female. Like I remember, there’s an instance in Delhi, we were at a south Delhi restaurant, it’s a Malayali restaurant, and the chef happened to be a woman, just like any other chefs. So, that is when it strikes you, you know. I think that politics comes, does the male chef who cooks at the restaurant, does he go back and cook at his own house? Or, does he have a wife, or a girlfriend or a partner waiting for him with a dish. I think that is where we interchange the dynamics, that, fine. You can just pack something from your place, and just go because you’re eating, but well, eating in this country and this society, are not just eating. Because we are very less on resources, eating becomes a fanfare, eating becomes a community, eating becomes ritualistic. Now coming back to your question about many men who cook. Of course people cook but there’s a certain class factor which I believe is there, a certain category of people who couldn’t move beyond that, so called, I hate to use the word, but so called patriarchy. That’s something we need to delve into. Right, I think we are done here.

 

SUG: Yes, I’m moving in to take a look at it.

 

ST: Yeah. So, the colour has changed considerably.

 

SUG: And also, it smells brilliant, I can tell you that.

 

ST: Yeah, thank you. We’ll just put it on medium high flame, and we put the yogurt.

 

SUG: This is the yogurt which is mixed with crushed mint leaves and crushed coriander leaves.

 

ST: Coriander, and some ‘garam masala’.

 

SUG: And some ‘garam masala’.

 

ST: So, we let this cook for another five minutes. Okay, so, you see, I think it’s, yeah, it’s done properly. Now we put in some coriander, cumin and red chili – Kashmiri red chilli – powder mix into it.

 

SUG: Coriander, red chilli, and Kashmiri –

 

ST: Red chilli powder.

 

SUG: Kashmiri red chili powder!

 

ST: Now, as I told you before, it’s very simple, so, in goes all the masalas and all the ingredients. And once it comes to boil, we put in the mutton. And, it’s all about timing. So, you know, every fifteen minutes you have to look and scrape the ‘kadhai’, otherwise –

 

SUG: So that it doesn’t stick to the base.

 

ST: Yeah and of course, as I told you that it’s a controlled browning process, so, we must take care of that. So, yes, and now we put the mutton.

 

SUG: This is 500 grams of mutton going into the mixture.

 

ST: Yes. I have used the ‘raann’; ‘raann’ means the leg.

 

SUG: The hind leg?

 

ST: Yeah. You can also use the ‘seena’. But, ‘raann’ makes it more succulent. It has got less fiber. And, we put some salt. Not much because already we have put in a lot of salt while marinating it. And salt is the key word, in any kind of cooking. So, one must be very, very reserved about it.

 

SUG: Yes, as you mentioned, your grandmother said that –

 

ST: Yes, if the salt is right, I think you can eat anything. Now, on low flame, we let it come to boil for ten minutes.

 

SUG: How long does the entire process take, Sujay?

 

ST: See, this will take around another forty minutes maybe. But, if you’re cooking, of course, it depends on the amount of mutton you’re cooking because it’s a non stick thing. If it is cooked on high flame, which generally used to happen before, like, in my father’s village, they have all this wood as fuel. So, there they will probably cook it in half an hour, or an hour. So, there’s that factor. But this will take around forty minutes. Okay?

 

SUG: Okay!

 

ST: You know what the Americans call the soul food? We have it here in what the East Bengali food culture has. I mean the leftover of bottlegourd, or the head of a fish, and you out that fish head into a lentil and make a soup out of it. You won’t find an affluent family doing that. You will only find it in poverty stricken areas. All the vegetarian dishes that you see today have mostly come because of the Benarasi widows. Like the young widows who used to go there and they were denied garlic and onions and everything. So what do they do? Well, they cut the banana flower and make a dish out of it. You see, today it’s a delicacy. You’ll pay like what, a hundred/ two hundred/ five hundred for a dish at Bhojohori Manna or wherever you go. So, if I say, if I’m a fool then of course I think of course that my mother and only my mother is cooking it, absolutely forgetting that she is cooking it because she has been taught. Culturally taught. The way I am cooking meat. I mean nobody taught me. My mother never taught me. And, at my house going to the kitchen, it was, I would not say that people look down upon you. But it’s a thing that you’re not supposed to do. So, I cook on my own idea of politics. Like why shouldn’t I – I have two hands, I can see, I can smell, I am sane, so let me cook my own food. It’s the basic thing I can do to survive. So even if I cook  a bowl of Maggi, I think even then it’s politics.

 

SUG: It’s a statement.

 

ST: It’s a statement. That you know, at least I am taking care of myself, so I’m not dependent on other people. I don’t feel like cooking just for myself. Today you guys are here, so, I don’t know, there’s a certain level of unhinged joy in feeding people. And feeding people is something that makes me cook. It can be feeding myself as well. I have seen it. I must tell you that I have been influenced by the Khalsa people. Okay, like the langar system. Like, how much privilege can I have just to put some food on somebody’s plate, you know? Children whose parents work as labourers, don’t they deserve a life? It all comes down to food. If your tummy is full then you can have poetry.

 

SUG: Yeah. That’s true.

 

ST: Then you can have everything. So, that basic that fundamental thing I have kept to myself. I never forget that. I can afford to, but I don’t. It’s not as if I’ve seen it in my personal life, fortunately I haven’t, but I’m aware of it. So that way, I think, feeding people makes me cook.

 

SUG: So, where would you take me if I asked for a plate of biryani? What are your favourite places in Kolkata for Kolkata biryani?

 

ST: In Kolkata I will take you to Arsalan. There is a little shack of a restaurant called Asma which is right here, after Narendrapur, they serve excellent beef biryani.

 

SUG: Oh, that’s, that’s amazing.

 

ST: And that’s something that is to gorge upon, I mean for some 70 – 80 bucks. It’s for everybody, okay? And these two places I would like you to take. And other than that, I think, you’re just asking about Cal, right?

 

SUG: Yes, we’re talking about the, the biryani with the aloo.

 

ST: Yeah, the Kolkata biryani.

 

SUG: Hmm.

 

ST: Yes, so, let’s us check. I think we are almost done. The way to check whether the mutton is done or not, is just whether you can tear the piece with your finger. I’m just doing it with a spoon.

 

SUG: Yeah.

 

ST: Here, you can, but we will, we’ll need some more time, see, it’s tearing up, but not entirely.

 

SUG: You’d like it to be more tender.

 

ST: Yeah, just a bit more tender. Otherwise it’s fine. I mean you can exactly right now but I want you to tear it up with your fingers. So, you see, this is what it is, you can just tear this. Now, it has become softened, so, let’s just put the lid back and I’ll just give this a little stir. Another ten minutes on low heat. So, let’s see. Now you see the colour is nicely changing into light brown and it’ll get browner, it will get dark brown. And until it gets dark brown we’ll keep it on low heat and we’ll cook it more. Okay?

 

SUG: So, this is what you were calling the gradual browning?

 

ST: Yes, this is the controlled browning process. Yeah.

 

SUG: Controlled browning!

 

ST: So, it’s done. Okay, let’s see? See, the colour has again changed to a darker shade of brown and I will just scrape the bottom of it.

 

SUG: And this is for the viewers who can’t get the smell, it’s overwhelming. I could feed myself on the smell itself.

 

ST: Haha. Yeah, thank you. We’ll just keep seven more minutes and then we’re ready to serve.

 

SUG: In other words, you’re saying that you come and regularly check how the meat is faring while you’re cooking, so you know whether it’s done.

 

ST: Yeah, because otherwise, sometimes you have to see the consistency of the water. It must not get very dry. So what you can do if it’s getting dry, you can add some water, hot water, preferably. This bottle of water I have kept directly under the sunlight because I use it, you know, that lukewarmness, the sun is, quite, um…

 

SUG: Yes, we’re talking about Calcutta!

 

ST: So, I think hot water is better. You always put hot water in any kind of dish. If you put hot water, it enhances the cooking.

 

SUG: Right! So, for our dish you’re suggesting that we do not want it to be a curry consistency but almost like a sauce consistency, thick.

 

ST: Yes, yes, of course, of course, this is a kosha, you see, so, yeah!

 

SUG: And here we are with our Bangali kosha mangsho, and Sujay has added his own twist to it. The mint flavouring that we hope to get out of it is Sujay’s addition. But this looks just the perfect side for a plate of Kolkata biryani.

 

ST: So, as you can see, the mutton has been transferred to the bowl, and just to garnish it we put one teaspoon of clarified butter. Here. So, we’ll just let it melt in the normal heat, okay? And we are good to go! So, here you go!

 

SUG: Thanks, so here we have our kosha mangsho with a mint twist. Oh my god, this is beautiful!

 

ST: Thank you!

 

SUG: Thank you and I can’t wait to try this with some biryani!