Chewing over jhal moori and chicken tikka masala

Culture shock is a strange thing. When I came to the UK in 1980, there were many things I had to get used to, and many things I got wrong; I’ve shared some of my thoughts with you over the years. But not this one.

You know, the scariest thing I had to overcome, in the context of culture shock, was this: getting used to Western cuisine. No, not what you think. Calcutta is a pretty cosmopolitan city, I’d been used to western cuisine.

What I hadn’t been prepared for was the way people here cooked Indian cuisine. That hurt. It really hurt. In the early years, everywhere I went, people were hospitable to me. Extremely hospitable. So much so that everyone tried to provide me with “Indian” food. And it was expected that I ate it.

It’s kinda hard to describe the feeling I had, when I went into a pub with friends, and it was time to order food. I was expected to order the “curry” on the menu. Which meant saying a little prayer and then manfully working through meat with apples and raisins, with a bit of stale curry powder thrown in, and if you were lucky, a large dollop of turmeric for colouring (which had the salutary effect of killing all other tastes for a short while).

Those were the days. We hadn’t really learnt about curry here at that time. [Actually the same could be said about wine. Those were the days indeed, when Black Tower and Blue Nun and screw-top warm Lambrusco were readily available, when French wine was conspicious in its absence, and the New World had not yet arrived. I remember a particularly bilious Bulgarian Laski Riesling that would have worked well as a paintstripper…]

Then the Invasion from Sylhet arrived, and we moved to Curry Awareness Phase Two. Now, when I went with friends to an “Indian” restaurant, I had to explain to them that for me, it was like being invited to a European restaurant. How would you feel if you went to a restaurant that served smorgasbord, paella, gnocchi, chateaubriand and wiener schnitzel? What would you think?

I had to explain to them that the Indian restaurant was actually Bangladeshi, and that the chefs had created an “Indian” set of dishes suitable for the western palate. That the vindaloo tasted nothing like the vindaloo I’d had in Goa, that vindaloo itself had nothing to do with degree of hotness. That chicken kashmir and meat madras were dreamt up by people who could not point to Kashmir or Madras on a map.

But at least the cuisine was edible, and I started enjoying myself at Indian restaurants.

Now? Now life is fantastic. I can eat good Indian food anytime I want, there are good North Indian restaurants, good South Indian vegetarian restaurants, good Bengali fare, even good Nepali fare.

And during this time, this strange beast called the Chicken Tikka Masala has become, and now stayed, Top of the Pops.

Which makes this video of how to make it interesting to watch. Actually it’s an excuse for showing the video. I haven’t tried the recipe, I have no idea how good it is, but I do like the way they present it.

Talking about recipes, here is one that I do want to try. CY Gopinath on jhal moori. I’ve met CY many years ago, he probably doesn’t remember. But the jhal moori he describes is the jhal moori I remember, so I intend to try and make it.

19 thoughts on “Chewing over jhal moori and chicken tikka masala”

  1. Ah the good old days of hot curries that just blew your brains out. I remember you ordering raw chillies because the vindaloo or phal wasn’t hot enough! Just dipping naan bread in the sauce of your curry was enough to rip out the lining of my throat!

  2. I always thought Chicken Tikka Masala is a British-Asian dish not an Indian one. It indeed is a big favourite in Britain but it is local cuisine isn’t it?

    BTW I am going to explore that jhal moori link in detail. I need to make some to serve alongside canapés next weekend (Does that upset you? Serving canapés with jhal moori? ;-)

  3. You’re absolutely right, it is a British-Asian dish, which is why I referred to it as a “strange beast”. I had never heard of it in the 23 years I lived in India. Chicken Tikka yes, but not Chicken Tikka Masala, and definitely not tasting the way it did.

  4. Shefaly, I see no reason why you couldn’t serve jhal moori with the canapes, it’s definitely something that’s starter material rather than main course material. I think the key comment Gopi makes is to avoid the temptation to add tamarind, avoid the temptation to go the sweet-hot bhel poori route. If you can hold your nerve and go with the raw recipe I believe it will pay off. let me know how you get on.

  5. To return to the authentic cuisine of my youth would require finding a giant economy size bag of frozen fish sticks of the sort my dearly departed mother used to favor — and not for their delicate taste, I can assure you. The evolution of food is much like the evolution of language: constant and unstoppable. White teens from the burbs are not going to stop sounding like inner-city gangstas anytime soon, and there *will be* tamarinds in the vindaloo, yo.

    Now, I am an utter dilettante when it comes to curries, but I did know what to expect enough that, when I encountered Bifu Kare in Tokyo in the early ’80s, it certainly didn’t seem a member of the class. This beef curry is invariably served with thin strips of pickled red ginger, called beni-shoga, and is typically offered in rickety kiosks proximate to train and subway stations. Plus, it is (or was then) very cheap. This latter characteristic made me come to love the stuff dearly on my $14,500 per annum budget.

    I do enjoy traditional Indian curries from time to time, though I am still a rank newbie, not an aficionado. However, I have gone to some lengths searching for “authentic” bifu kare cum beni-shoga here in Colorado. The trick, I’ve found, is to look for funky Japanese lunch counters in really tacky strip malls. So far, I’ve found only one. Maybe I’ll drive out there for lunch.

  6. The great British dish of Chicken Tikka Masala, I have to admit, is one of my favourites. Cuisine changes and adapts and that one certainly has. Here in New York I tend to compare the ‘India’ restaurants to the food I get in the UK. For all I know the ones here my be more authentic but they don’t taste the same as the ones I grew up with. It’s all about what you are used to.

  7. JP:

    “… to avoid the temptation to add tamarind, avoid the temptation to go the sweet-hot bhel poori route.”

    This is what makes the recipe tricky. North Indians tend to think paapri-chaat and claim to make jhal-moori hence the debacles that often result.

    I am trying to convince a Punjabi friend (married to a Bengali friend, hah!) to make jhal-moori by the recipe and bring along. I am a good but nervous cook but I am a good hostess so it may well work out..

    Will report how it goes; if not this time, then soon for another dinner party.

    Thanks.

  8. Dominic:

    Heston B is nowadays creating ‘my perfect…’ on BBC. Y’day was Baked Alaska.

    I think the difference is cooking for love and cooking for money.

    HB cooks for the latter so he is after perfection and exact replicability; I cook for love and love, as we know, is not perfect, nor does it see imperfection as dominating everything else ;-)

  9. Hi Shefaly,

    I cook for sheer epicurean gluttony myself :-)

    I’m sure there is a place in the world for people who want to push the Chicken Tikka Masala envelope, and it’s nice to know they are there just so we don’t have to.

    Happiness is a fresh onion and a sharp knife.

  10. Dominic and JP:

    I managed to cook a robust chicken curry yesterday without a shred of onion. No difference was noticed or reported (on asking) by the eaters… ;-) Strangely it was reported that it was somewhat heavy on garam masala which I make myself each time so it is indeed a tad more puissant than regular garam masala.

    Happiness I think is garlic, a lot of ginger, and a pestle and mortar.

  11. Yo JP – I cant help but paste this email forward I received from a school friend in DC …very apt to your post …

    The connection between young love and Calcutta’s jhalmuri

    From the darkness of KOLKATA’S Lake Gardens come the sounds of lovers holding hands.
    Bet you’ve never heard the sound of lovers holding hands before, but I have. It’s not the usual slurps and slobs and
    chwoops and fevered whisperings, but more a steady chomp-chomp-chomp.
    Occasionally you might hear an intense burp. It is the sound of two people deeply in love eating Calcutta’s jhalmuri
    together. No other city serves up this amazing snack based on puffed rice, or muri. The jhal refers to the fiery trail it
    blazes as it enters your system. Calcuttans buy their jhalmuri from numerous itinerant vendors who emerge towards twilight, with wicker baskets full of muri hanging from their waists. Arrayed around the basket like bullets in a carabinier’s magazine are old tins of ingredients such as rock salt, onions, green chillies and so on.
    If you took a closer look, you would find at hand a large Dalda tin as well, defaced and blackened, almost tired, in which he will combine the ingredients; and the small wooden baton with which he will give the mixture a twirl before serving it in paper cones rolled from old copies of Ananda Bazar Patrika. Bengalis will swear that there is something almost magical about the old tin which imparts a fire-tinged magic to the jhalmuri and explains why home-made version can never match what lovers munch at Lake Gardens.
    In the lane that runs by The Statesman building in Chowringhee, a gloomy hole-in-the-wall dispenses jhalmuri and nothing else. We used to despatch the office boy on late-work evenings to pick up jhalmuri. Putting aside crowquill and Rotring, we would shovel fistfuls of the stuff into our mouths, cursing at the fieriness of it and wiping the tears from our eyes. Work would be impossible later anyway, so we’d retire to some nearby beer bar and discuss the future of communism in Bengal.
    Because it is based on puffed rice, you might mistakenly conclude that jhalmuri is probably a cousin of Bombay’s
    bhelpuri, but the truth couldn’t be further. If puffed rice is the gene pool, then jhalmuri is the warrior and bhelpuri the poet. The biggest mistake you could make would be to try and adapt jhalmuri to local taste, for that would not be murder, it would be assassination.
    I spoke to several people, some of them Bengali, others with Bengal in their blood, to piece together the recipe for
    jhalmuri. Everyone remembered different ingredients, and I conclude that jhalmuri’s recipe itself must be variable. Accordingly, the recipe I give below lists the basic ingredients, and separately, a couple of add-ons. My only caution to anyone experimenting with other add-ons is to remember that a fine line divides jhalmuri from other puffed rice preparations. On no account should you try to sweeten it, using tamarind water and the like, for that would bring it too close to the Maharashtrian counterpart. Similarly, do not add any ground spices such as aamchoor (dried mango
    powder) or garam masala as you might get interesting tastes but none of them will be the real thing.

    Ingredients
    Basic 250 gms puffed rice (muri)1 or 2 onions, finely chopped

    2 or 3 spicy greenchillies, sliced into fine ringlets

    Half a cup of peanuts1/4 coconut, sliced into slivers50 gms

    dried peas (chana)Boiled

    potato sliced into flakes1/2

    cucumber finely chopped

    Rock salt1-2 tsps

    freshly pressed mustard oil

    Half a lemon

    Add-ons
    Raw mango cut into little slivers

    Red chilly powder

    Note the casually used phrase freshly pressedmustard oil?. Not only is this darker and more aromatic than the refined and packaged version, but it gives teeth to the jhalmuri plus it is whatCalcutta’s muriwallas use. Whatever you do, do not, repeat, do not substitute mustard oil with any other oil except at your own peril. You’re ready now. Bung the ingredients into an old magic tin and give it a good twirl with a wooden spoon. Squeeze some lime juice over it. Walk into a cosy dark spot with someone you love deeply, and start eating jhalmuri, occasionally holding hands or burping.

  12. great stuff. But it’s going to be a while before I can try the recipe out, need to source the freshly pressed mustard oil first. i’m sure there must be some regulation that says it’s bad for the pixies or something.

Let me know what you think

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