Shil-Nora : Prized possession of a Bengali kitchen

I dread my mother’s phone calls after her favourite food show: Ajker Ranna in Doordarshan. Though many of us have ditched Doordarshan my mother follows this show closely. I tease her that she should win the best audience award. During one of the stray mother-daughter conversations she mentioned with pride Sarmistha (one of the popular names in Bengali cooking shows) has advised to use shil-nora to grind mustard paste as mustard peels get separated in a mixer. The mustard paste tastes better when ground into a paste in shil-nora, concluded my mother as the mustard is pressed with equal pressure which crushes the peels and the seed. Shil- Nora is one of my mother’s favourite tool kits. She has resisted kitchen technology of mixers and grinders and no paste, crushed spice is complete for her without the touch of shil-nora. A very dear friend, a self-proclaimed short cut cook but a great baker swears by her shil-nora for her poppy seed paste (posto bata).

Bata or creating a paste occupies a special position in Bengali cuisine. Mrs J. Haldar in her book Bengal Sweets calls this technique as braying or grating. She points to two derivatives of braying/ grating; i.e., pulp and paste. She explains that shil is the stone slab and nora is the stone muller.  It has to be polished regularly so that its edges remain sharp. Some carvers often engrave fish or other designs on the stone slab. It is used widely in Bengali wedding rituals as well. As a child I loved watching the hawker engravers engraving beautiful patterns on the stone slab.

Though its use in most households has been limited to making pastes of poppy seeds and mustard seeds and its use in everyday kitchen like my mother’s can range from making a lovely grainy paste of coriander- cumin and ginger paste used in lightly spiced gravy of a thinner consistency called jhol to grinding spices. The coriander, cumin and ginger paste lends a lovely body and flavour to the daily jhol rituals in everyday cooking in Bengali kitchens. Another wonderful and limited use of shil-nora is extended to pasting leaves and peels. Leaves of the humble bottle gourd vegetable are made into a fine paste and eaten with piping hot rice it tastes heavenly. Similarly raw banana peel paste with garlic, chillies and a little salt tastes divine. Humble pudina chutney made from pudina leaves, chillies and salt is a perfect accompaniment with any fried snacks. Diced small tomatoes (of green and red colour) when ground into a paste with a little dash of mustard oil, chillies, and salt is perfect accompaniment to a rice on a rainy evening. Shil- nora can be also be used for grinding pulses. The beautiful ras bara made from urad dal / biuli/ kalai dal tastes much better when the pulses are soaked and ground into a paste. Similarly, the whiff of lightly soaked green peas paste on a shil-nora signals the preparation of green peas kachori (disc shaped fried bread with a filling of green peas mix). The uses of shil nora are clearly varied so are its looks. My mother uses two sets of shil nora: one for all vegetarian purposes including rituals to prepare coconut paste for chandrapuli ( a moon shaped sweet prepared from coconut and sugar) and one for everyday purposes.  Shil Nora in my mother’s kitchen is entitled to a two day ritual rest on account of ranna pujo. Technology’s non-ritual character becomes explicit in days like these when my sister in law and I brought out the mixer grinder to make a poppy seed paste to give a finishing touch to the prized hilsa. As hilsa fish steamed away in poppy seed /mustard seed paste, nobody protested our use of mixer grinder. May be such exemptions do not apply to kitchen tools of industrial giants.

My mother’s fascination for her prized shil-nora has translated into my penchant for stone mortar and pestle which occupies a special position on the kitchen top and it has been part of my culinary life for four years now.

Do you share such obsessions with kitchen tools? Do write in to share kitchen tools anecdotes. Till then happy feasting!


Beyond Rice, Dal and Phish : Padmaparer Rannaghar

I have been on an eating spree ever since I stepped my foot in Kolkata. Simulataneously I have been struggling with a section of a long overdue chapter which was supposed to be in my supervisor’s mail box quite a while ago. Instead, I have been drowning my sorrow of  loss of words, sentences in tasting and feasting.

My partner in crime DP lured me to try this place tucked away in the bustling streets of Gariahat. Anybody who is familiar with Kolkata neighbourhoods and is well versed with haggling has interned in Gariahat. Though Gariahat streets wear a comparatively deserted look before the (in)famous Operation Sunshine to remove Hawkers from pavements still you will find rows of neatly arranged good starting from crockery to pillow covers in the pavements of Gariahat. There are several tricks to crack your deal in Gariahat and every house in Kolkata can vouch for a “bargaining expert” who got the best deal in Gariahat and a worst buyer who could never managed to reduce a penny. Nevertheless, street shopping continues to remain an integral part of Kolkata like its street food culture. One of the street food culture is pice hotel. Though I am personally unaware of the gensesis of the word “pice” hotel in Bengal’s gastronomic street food culture, pice hotels are integral to eating out cultures in former Calcutta ( now Kolkata).

Usually pice hotels serve rice, dal, fish at a nominal rate and there are several hotels around Sealdah and other pockets of North Kolkata.

Check out the following entry by Nandini Dutta on Pice Hotels

Though visit to pice hotels have become rare I crave for the food served at Pice hotels. There are dedicated Pice hotels to satiate the “East Bengal cuisine”  known as Bangal food and dedicated places for Ghoti food or cuisine from West Bengal. Despite being a MohunBugun fan I have shared a fancy for Bangal food when it came to Pice hotels around Marquis Street.

Padmaparer Rannaghar is a restaurant tucked away in the lanes of Gariahat. Padma- the river that flows across Bangladesh also acts as the symbol of “Bangal” Cuisine. For instance some people prefer Hilsa from Padma over Hilsa from Ganges. Padma is symbolic of Bangal identity and food in particular. Hence Padmaparer Rannaghar is an apt name for a restaurant that mostly serves Bangal food.  DP and I headed towards this restaurant sharp at 1 O’ Clock.

DP and her family have become regular visitors of this restaurant. DP insisted that I should read the rather metaphorical and rhyming menu which can be deciphered by someone who knows how to read and write Bangla. The menu can be lost in translation. So if you are a non- Bengali speaker you have to make do with the translation services of your waiter and will miss out on the food-metaphors and the generous use of adjectives in the Menu.

For people familiar with Bengali, here are some instances from the Menu

Machcher Mukta Kanther Dal ( a Dal prepared with Fish head)

Anarasher Madhyamani Pulao ( a Pulao prepared with Pineapples)

Dugdhadhabal Murir Pulao ( Chicken Pulao)

Manshabandi Dhakar Biryani ( Biryani cooked in Dhaka style)

My morbid translations cannot match the food metaphors and I am afraid I might land with up a rather funny literal translation.  After browsing through the rather long menu what struck me was the balance between vegetarian and non-vegetarian items. Infact I would strongly recommend this place to my vegetarian friends who crave for Bengali vegetarian delicacies. They have a wide variety of greens or sag preparation ranging from Pui Shak, Palak , Kachu Sag, Kalmi Sag and Lal sag. You can start off your meal with a sag before heading for Shukto ( a bitter dish ) and then a wide variety of Subzi based Dal.

What surprised me was the Dim Diye Jasorer Daler Stew ( A  Dal-Stew preparation from Jessore). While I am a huge fan of fish head Dal preparation common in Bengali households I had never heard of  Egg based Dal preparation and we decided to take a chance. As I geared up to order some Sag DP warned me against it. Apparently Rice is served with Kachubata( Colocasia or referred to as Arvi in Hindi) and fried Kalmi greens ! Being a die-hard fan of Dal-posto combination,  I had to enjoy my Dal and Rice with some Posto(poppy seeds) preparation; so we ordered Dekhan Hasi Narkel Posto ( a Poppy seed based preparation with potato and grated coconut).  We thoroughly enjoyed the Dal with sliced boiled eggs and sliced carrots adding colour and texture to the dal. A Must try!

DP missed her Fries and ordered Nanan Bhajar Bhojananda ( which is a mix of fried vegetables). You can skip this.

Finally  three nonvegetarian items followed: Chital Pristharakhya Ananda Muitya ( a Chitol Fish Preparation), Kachi Pathar Dildaria Jhol ( Mutton Curry) and Morola Machcher Tak ( A Tangy preparation of Morola Fish). DP recommended the Chitol and Mutton Curry and I insisted on ordering the last preparation. Morola Macher Tak could have been a little more tangy.

We finished our meal with Malpua which was rather chewy. Except the sweet dish and the fries I can go back again to savour the same delicacies particularly the  Dal and the Posto.

In a nutshell, this place translates the pice hotel menu into an AC eating out place for a nominal price. We paid Rs 650 including a tip of Rs 20 for the grand feast. The staff is quite helpful and next time I am settling down for a nice helping of Dab Chingri ( A prawn preparation served in tender coconut). But the star dish of the entire meal was Kachu Bata which was complimentary!!!!!! If you enjoy the luxury of staying in the neighbourhoods of Kolkata head to this place for a lunch break after you are tired with your street shopping @ Gariahat. For all non- Kolkata foodies this place is worth a visit and add to your wish list.

Padmaparer Rannaghar:  26/4, Hindustan Park Ground Floor, Gariahat Junction, Gariahat, Kolkata-29. Phone : 933149590