Prabha (pronounced Prðbha) was about 10 years older than me. She lived with my Kaka and Kakima (Uncle and Aunt) to look after my cousins. When my cousins were away for school, she would also do some cooking. Those simple earthy Bengali recipes which many of us would think its most convenient to buy from Bengali stores or restaurants.
There are as many different chicken curries as there are cooks. Although this post seems to be about a Chicken Curry, but really its not. Its about Prabha and her Murgi’r Jhol.
There was nothing strikingly different about Prabha except the long printed frocks she wore, and her long hair which was always glistening with oil and braided neatly and folded midway, to reach the center at the back of her head. A single cotton black ribbon, the width of her palm held it up there in a bow. Very, very tightly.
Prabha also loved oiling my hair, which I later found out was an instruction from my Grandmother. Most afternoons during my vacation there, she would sit with a bottle of coconut oil on a small wooden stool and me by her feet while she’d take scoops of hair oil and nourish my scalp. The dripping oil would soon vanish into the pouffe of my hair. She would then take a comb to make two plaits with my hair.
It was during these one-on-one sessions in the afternoon that the not-so-talkative Prabha opened up to me with her stories about her little village in Bengal. How she thought my Kakima rescued her from poverty and a life of misery and gave her a home and a better life.
In the next couple of years, my interest in cooking was just beginning to surface. Most afternoons, I would sit on my haunches next to Prabha in my Aunt’s kitchen, and watch her make Sondesh, Nadoo, Goja, or the sweet of the day, while everyone else was enjoying their siesta.
It was during one such culinary session with Prabha that I saw her make this Chicken Curry. It wasn't some great gourmet, but this was how she learnt it from her Mother, I was told. I had my notepad ready.
As she was washing the pieces of the chicken under the courtyard tap, she said, “I used to catch my own chicken from someone else’s farm and kill it. My Mother would then clean it and cook it for my brother and me.”
I was already fascinated though I did not delve deep into the brutal method she chose to kill for her meal.
By the time, I had finished writing the ingredients, Prabha was already crushing a knob of ginger on the kitchen counter and throwing it in with the sliced onions which were sizzling in the mustard oil.
“How much coriander powder?” I asked Prabha. She mumbled something and showed me the quantity by pursing her five fingers in a round shape! I realized then that Prabha was beyond any measurements – culinary or otherwise!
Since that last Murgi’r Jhol session with Prabha, I have lost that notebook and all contacts with the girl from a small village in Bengal. But her great-tasting Murgi’r Jhol and fond memories are still with me.
This is the Murgi’r Jhol I associate with Prabha. I hope I am able to come close to the thought, effort and time she invested in making the chicken curry for us.
Ingredients for Murgi’r Jhol are:
One Cornish game hen (you can use regular pieces of chicken)
1 red onion finely sliced
5-6 green chilies slit lengthwise
1 ripe, medium tomato, cut into thick slices
Handful of coriander leaves finely chopped
2 tablespoons ginger-garlic paste
1 teaspoon red chili powder
1 teaspoon turmeric powder
1 teaspoon coriander powder
Pinch of garam masala powder
1 bay leaf
1 black cardamom
2-3 tablespoons mustard oil
Pinch of sugar
Heat mustard oil till almost smoking. Add the pinch of sugar and let it caramelize. Now add the bay leaf and black cardamom. Immediately add the sliced onions and fry on high-medium heat till the onions get a brown color. Add the chicken pieces and fry for 7-8 minutes stirring continuously. Add the slit green chilies. When the chicken is nice and brown, add the ginger-garlic paste and cook for five more minutes, covered with a lid. Add the dry spices – turmeric, red chili and coriander powder.
The pieces of tomato and salt go in next. Cover and cook for sometime on medium heat. Add about two cups of water and cover. Cook for 10 minutes till all the raw taste in the spices is gone.
Sprinkle a pinch of garam masala powder and chopped coriander.
Serve this Murgi’r Jhol* with steaming rice that has a smear of desi ghee.
*A jhol essentially is a thin gravy and its okay to have this chicken curry a little runny!