“How much do you Love me?” asked the great King. His two daughters ruffled their robes and dashed towards him, slouching so much that their temples almost touched his feet. The third and youngest one stood smiling, her eyes shone bright with love for her father. The mighty King was bent with age and could hardly see her.
“Oh, I love thee far more than all the gold thou hast gifted, my liege”, rattled the eldest, in the meekest voice that she could manage. The King parted his white beard in two and looked up, pleased at the fondness of his daughter.
“My lord, I love thee beyond thy rubies thou hast given, all my life”, squealed the other, ensuring that she was heard louder than her sister. The King patted his grey moustache and felt his heart beating with pride for his daughter.
The King turned to the youngest and asked, “And you, how much do you love me, little one?”
“Worth the grain of salt, Daddy”, she answered coyly.
The mighty King rose from his throne with great indignation. The royal courtesan stopped dancing. The courtiers stood up. The fan-bearer lost control and dropped the heavy mink and ermine fan-staff on the alabaster floor.
“Is this how you chose to insult me?” growled the King, his fists clenched in chagrin.
The youngest princess closed her eyes and bowed her head, her lips pursed in silence.
The offended King banished her into exile. The little princess took off her gold and rubies and went to live in the forest with nothing but a bag of salt. His two elder daughters giggled to each other and went to hear the birds sing in the royal garden. Months rolled ahead. The King started missing his little daughter.
Then something strange happened. The vendor who supplied salt to the royal palace had taken very ill and stopped sending sackfuls. All royal stores that heaped piles of the white grain ran dry. The royal emissary returned with news that the neighbouring crown prince had refused to let open his supplies. The prince hoped the mighty King would grow weak and offer his kingdom in submission. The two elder princesses could not barter salt for gold and rubies with the adamant prince, either. The King could not have food without salt for more than a week and stopped eating. Everyone became very worried.
The royal vizier suggested the little princess be brought back. She came, bag of salt in hand and poured a fistful of the white grain into the broth, the royal chef was stewing. The royal butler served it to the King. He sipped it to the lees and quaffed off the drops that dripped from his moustache. He summoned the youngest princess and eyed her with remorse. “I realize why you love me as much as salt”, and stroking her ebony plait, he said, “pardon me, my girl, for what I have done.”
She hugged him, wiped his misty eyes and planted a big kiss. The King took off his crown of gold and rubies and placed it on her head. Parting his lips in a full-hearted smile, he declared, “My youngest daughter, who loves me the most, is rightful heir to the throne!”
“Yes, Your Majesty”, screamed the courtiers, wiping tears of joy.
“Aye your majesty”, shouted the salt-monger, who sprang back from nowhere. With him he’d brought two cartfuls of salt, enough to last the royal stores a month or more. He knelt down and kissed the ring of his young new Queen.
The little princess, now Queen, looked at the lissome lad with a sheepish smile and winked back … 🙂
Imagine what life would have been without salt. Salt is powerful. So much so, that we can hardly imagine food without it. Even the humblest bong thala (platter) boasts of a mound of rice, lime wedges and a pinch of salt. Having survived a kidney stone operation once, ask me what a couple of salt-free months can feel like! Not only was I advised against edibles with high sodium content (pickles, lentils, red meat, purines such as spinach, cauliflower, etc.) but also denied the pleasures of kancha-noon-paatey (a natural bong urge to sprinkle added salt while having rice and curry) by my “obtrusive” wife. After many a brawl and deep contemplation, I decided “Onek holo, ebar ekta espar ospar dorkar…” (Enough is enough! I need to put my foot down now.) I hit upon a clever plan of rustling up a super dish sans salt and surprise wifey. The only pre-condition I gave myself: it had to taste good and it had to be bong.
Lobsters in Coconut Milk sans Salt
Privy to many a debate over the authority of a largely ghoti malai curry to a relatively bangal sorshe ilish, I chuckled at the realization that a twist in the tale would result in a Prawn Thermidor which is sweeter, requiring lesser salt or a Prawn Cocktail, which could also be had as a dessert and requires no salt at all. However, my inclination for all things bong made me try what every Jamai (groom/son-in-law) craves during his Shoshthi (a post-nuptial bong ceremony when the groom is treated to delicacies by his mom-in-law). I settled for a dish inspired by Chingri Maacher Malai Curry. Some of its basic ingredients, like amchur (dried mango), tomatoes and prawn heads have a lot of salt in them already. I decided to take advantage of this. I used absolutely no salt and thought of sharing the dish with YOU.
Marinade ~ again, turmeric, and, this time a little garlic paste & lime juice. Rub them evenly over the thoroughly washed and deveined lobsters with their heads secured. Leaving this aside for ten minutes would remove any germs that the crustacean may be infected with
Lobsters ~ golda Chingri, tingri bingri; ah, the very thought of inserting my thumb into the lobster’s red gooey head, scooping out a delicious lick thereafter, leaves me jeebhey-jol (salivating) and case-gondogol (inducing naughtier thoughts I dare not share here). SLURP! 😛
Oil ~ preferably mustard oil, gosh I am so bong, no qualms on this
Sugar ~ a few crystals in hot oil caramelize and lend a rich colour to the gravy, steer clear of using a lot to avoid sweetness, unless of course you are very ghoti (folks from the western half of the bong planet)
Coconut milk ~ I’d swoon over my grand-mom whenever she would desiccate coconut over a kuruni (serrated blade), immerse them in warm water and squeeze milk off them. The whole process lasted hours and looked like a ceremony. But these are the days of constrained time and limited resources. Go for the pouch of sealed coconut milk that you’ll readily get in most grocery stores
Corriander powder ~ dhoney guro, another of my grand-mom’s wonder condiments
Amchur ~ mango, halved/quartered and sun-dried, if you don’t get to lay your hands on whole pieces, use the powdered variety available. This is a tradition passed on by my mom and one ingredient, my wife hates; we invariably end up fighting on whether to use it or not, presumably because her mom, my mom-in-law, does not like amchur
Green chilies ~ whole and slit in the middle; slitting gives the flavour but not the heat
Onion Paste ~ this is essential for a ghono kai (thick gravy)
Tomatoes ~ dumo dumo kore kata (roughly chopped); enough to replace the salt and balance the sweetness of coconut
Bay leaves ~ tej-pata, this along with some black cardamom seeds (boro aelach) is all you need as garam masala
Garnish ~ thinly sliced onions, ghee (clarified butter), some dry red chilies
As for the proportions of each ingredient, I’d like you to evolve your own mix and enjoy the effect. In case you don’t, please feel free to write to me at email@example.com
Now let’s talk of nailing the lobsters down in coconut gravy … 🙂
Heat oil in a thick-bottomed wok until fumes appear. Drop a few sugar crystals and see them dissolve. Throw in the slit chilies. Crackle bay leaves and black cardamom over hot oil and reduce the flame. Sauté the onion paste and fry the lobsters on both sides. After they’ve turned pink from white, throw in chopped tomatoes. Cover with lid and let the mixture bubble away for 5 minutes. Remove lid and sprinkle coriander powder. At this stage macerate the soggy tomatoes to release more salt. Fold in the coconut milk, let it simmer on medium flame for some time, and gently stir without battling an eyelid, lest the milk curdles. You’ll love the smell of the frothing coconut milk wafting in air and the sound of the boiling lobsters bobbling happily inside.
For the garnish, I love to use beresta: a bong-muslim technique of tempering finely sliced onions over ghee (clarified butter), with some dry red chilies burnt over low-flame for a second or two and finally brought to a boil with a ladleful of lukewarm water. Drain off the excess water and pour the beresta over the lobsters floating merrily in runny gravy. Let it stand for a minute. The lobsters would have released their scarlet juices by now. Look down and regale at the elixir YOU have just produced… Heaven!
Here’s how the heavenly concoction looks like:
P.S. In case you want thicker gravy, use coconut powder/paste instead of milk, add the flavoured beresta water.
While we were devouring the lobsters with boiled rice for dinner, I asked my wife, who was oblivious to this salt-less episode, “Kemon hoyechey?” (Do you like it?)
“Um”, she nodded, licking her fingertips, “theek-thaak (okay-ish). Btw, did you forget putting in salt?”
“No”, I chuckled, muttering to myself, “just added a little more sugar than usual”
And then, I curled my lips in a sheepish smile and winked back … 🙂