Although I say this about every Indian cuisine under discussion, I have to state, with renewed vigor, that the Bengalis really do have one of the most interesting regional Indian cuisines. The low-lying Ganges-Brahmaputra delta, the largest of its kind in the world, has bestowed a bounty of rice on the region, and the abundant rivers have shaped the cuisine so that river fish and other estuarine seafood make their way into almost every aspect of the cuisine. In addition, the hot, wet climate of Bengal makes it a paradise for all the tropical greens and vegetables so beloved along the Indian coasts, including some that are hard to find anywhere else. In short, all the ingredients are in place for a unique and absolutely inimitable cuisine.
In her interview with Tiffin, food writer Chitrita Banerji recommends this dish, for chingrir malaikari, from her book Bengali Cooking: Seasons and Festivals, as the ideal entryway into the wonders of Bengali cooking.
The original recipe calls for head-on tiger prawns, and if you can find them at your local seafood market, I highly recommend that you use them. They take a little more work to eat (you’ll have to use your hands) and to clean, but the effort will be well worth it. A great part of the appeal of this dish is in the very physical act of its consumption. The shrimp heads aren’t merely decorative: they add a tremendous amount of flavor to the sauce they are cooked in. And if you aren’t a picky eater, make sure to suck the delectable juices out of the heads of the cooked crustaceans: I sometimes think this is more delicious than the meat itself!
A note on coconut milk: The original recipe calls for freshly made coconut milk. If you have access to fresh coconuts, I highly recommend making your own milk. The resulting dish will be greatly improved by it. If not, though, rest assured that canned coconut milk makes a fine substitute.
A note on garom mashla: The mixture of cinnamon, clove, and cardamom used here often goes by the name of garom mashla in Bengal. Though it has its similarities to the more common garam masala, I recommend making your own—the simplicity of these three spices combined are more in the spirit of this plain and delicious dish.
A note on chiles: It’s imperative that your malaikari be a bright red color when it’s done. For this reason I’ve suggested you use cayenne and sweet Hungarian paprika. The cayenne adds some heat to the dish, while the sweet Hungarian paprika gives it a lovely bright color. Don’t feel bound by my recommendations, though: use whatever high-quality ground chile powder you have on hand and prefer.
Chingrir Malaikari, adapted from Bengali Cooking: Seasons and Festivals by Chitrita Banerji, published by Serif Books
1 lb head-on tiger prawns of large shrimp
3–4 small red onions, peeled and roughly chopped
4–5 large cloves garlic, peeled
1 2.5-inch piece ginger, peeled and coarsely chopped
2 1-inch sticks of cinnamon
4 pods green cardamom
½ teaspoon turmeric
1 tsp cayenne pepper
2 tsp sweet Hungarian paprika
¼ cup ghee
Salt to taste
1 14-oz can full-fat coconut milk
1 cup freshly grated (or frozen) coconut
Prepare the prawns by thoroughly cleaning them. If they still have their shells on, use a sharp pair of scissors to open their backs and remove the black vein you find there. If you decide to use shelled shrimp you can perform the same operation using a sharp paring knife.
Toss the cleaned shrimp in a bowl with ½ tsp of turmeric and 1 tsp of salt. Steam them over boiling water for 3–4 minutes until they turn pink. They may not be fully cooked at this point, but that’s fine: they’ll cook longer in the sauce. Set aside until ready to use.
Next, purée the onions, garlic, and ginger in a blender, adding a little water to ease the ingredients together into a smooth mixture.
Using a spice grinder or the small jar of a blender, grind together the cinnamon, clove, and cardamom to a fine powder.
Heat the ghee over medium-high heat in a high-sided sauté pan with a heavy bottom, until the ghee has melted and begins to shimmer. Add the puréed onion mixture and cook, stirring often, until the mixture turns golden brown, 10–15 minutes.
Add the turmeric, paprika, cayenne, and 1 teaspoon of salt. Stir for 2–3 minutes, until you begin to smell the spices. Add half the powdered cinnamon mixture and fry a minute or two longer.
Add the steamed shrimp to the pan and stir to coat the shrimp well with the onion and spice mixture.
Add the coconut milk to the pan and mix thoroughly so that the spices and onion are well dispersed throughout the coconut milk.
Bring the mixture to a boil and let simmer for 4–5 minutes. Taste for seasoning. The finished dish is supposed to be mildly sweet to complement the heat of the cayenne, so feel free to add upto a teaspoon of sugar if you feel the sauce needs it.
Cook till the sauce has thickened slightly and the shrimp are cooked through and tender. Finish by stirring in the reserved grated coconut and the rest of the powdered cinnamon mixture.
Serve while still hot with piping hot rice.