Like Rice to Bengali Heart

by Neelini Sarkar

It is one of those spectacular sunny blue afternoons in Milan. One appreciates it more because it has been preceded by weeks of miserable drizzle. It’s the kind of afternoon that would be well spent walking around Parco Sempione, which is bordered on four sides by a medieval castle, an arch of peace, an arena and an art museum (with a discotheque in its basement). This is where I go running every morning, all around the park, amidst joggers and dog walkers. My favourite bit of the park, though, is right in the middle, where there is a shallow lake with ducks splashing about. If you stand on the bridge you see the castle on one side, the peace arch on the other, and on a cold clear morning you can see smoke rising from the water.

But this particular sunny afternoon, I am curled up on the sofa after an Indian meal. I truly believe that rice does something to the Bengali heart that not even the best Italian mozzarella or Chianti wine can do.

I cooked chicken pulao, dal, okra and lamb chops. I discovered an Indian grocery store in a little street behind Corso Buenos Aries – home to a thousand shops and a darling little cafe called San Gregorio that makes the best cream brioche. I went to to buy jeere but ended up with a packet full of groceries. Naturally.

Chicken pulao is simple enough, but I can’t seem to find good chicken in Milan. The supermarkets have either fillets or chicken with its skin on, meant for roasting. And it tastes rather too chickeny for my liking. Of course, if you go to the pork or beef sections you will find shelf after shelf of cuts of meat I didn’t know existed. But this is Italy, a land that doesn’t believe in chicken.

Chicken Pula

Chicken Pula

The dal was more successful, since the Indian store seemed to sell a variety of dals, and even the regular Italian grocery stores keep red split lentils (masoor/musurir dal) as it’s occasionally used to make lentil soup for the healthy Italian soul. I couldn’t find coriander leaves so I put cumin and onions in the dal. And a rather generous dollop of melted butter, since I’m cooking only in extra virgin olive oil.

Okra was a last minute purchase from the Indian shop. This is my favourite vegetable and one that I buy from my sabzi wala in Delhi almost every week. It’s quick and easy and one doesn’t have to think too hard while cooking okra. I was also cooking the Indian meal for an Italian friend, who wasn’t familiar with the vegetable. Cooked with onion, cumin and turmeric, it tasted fine but the okra was not very good. Many of the pieces remained crunchy at the end. If anyone knows how to fix this, I’d love to know.

As for the lamb chops, ah, now here is something that works in Italy! I marinated my lamb in yoghurt, ginger, garlic, chilli flakes, dhaniya powder, cumin powder, salt and pepper and a drizzle of olive oil. And put it in the oven for about an hour. Voila. My mother, when I told her I made lamb chops, thought I was talking about the Bengali chop, leaving me drooling over visions of mangsher chop from K. Allen or even Market 1, CR Park, and feeling somewhat foolish with my all too simple desi meal with which I was trying to impress my Italian friend.
Next time, perhaps I should attempt biryani, to show them how we use saffron. A Milanese specialty is saffron risotto, which is delicious and pure but at the other end of the rice spectrum.

And so I return to my sun lit afternoon, both heart and stomach fulfilled.

My Milan Kitchen

My Milan Kitchen


(Neelini Sarkar nurtured books and authors 24/7 at HarperCollins India for five years before her sabbatical. She has promised us many Milanese adventures in the coming weeks, particularly, though not only, in the realm of food.)

Penne in a Home-made Pomodoro Sauce or Post from Milan#2

by Neelini Sarkar

Today I discovered that you don’t need to add a hundred ingredients to a recipe to make it taste good. A few simple flavours in the right combination can fulfil you.

This is the simplest of all pastas though not always easy to get right. It’s important that you have the right pomodoro, Italian for tomato, and these are usually tastiest when in season, in summer. However, I managed to find some ripe mid-size tomatoes still on the vine and I thought they were quite delicious. Of course, I have to wait until summer to compare.

I blanched the tomatoes in boiling water to get the skin loose, and then peeled them off. I crushed them with my fingers till they were nice and pulpy while I heated some olive oil in a pan. Extra virgin is the way to go, I believe. I sautéed some garlic slivers and chilli flakes in the pan – I used way more garlic than I would add to any other cuisine, and I think it’s important not to fry the garlic too much. It shouldn’t change colour because then you start getting this delicious burnt flavour that’s more suited to Chinese than Italian food.

I added my pulpy tomatoes to this and a bit of vegetable stock to give it more flavour (you can also add plain water or perhaps some white wine). And now I had to let it simmer, simmer for the longest time until the sauce dried up. Meanwhile I had set a large pot full of salted water to boil – again, I used a lot more water and a lot more salt than I normally do when cooking pasta in India. When the water started bubbling, I added the penne (ridged penne rather than the smooth kind, because it absorbs the sauce better; you can also use spaghetti, fusilli or any other pasta). The pasta took 11 minutes to cook (at least that’s what the packet said!). You know it’s done when it’s al dente – in India we tend to overcook pasta and make it extra-soft. I was used to that but I find this method even yummier. As soon as the pasta has cooked, drain it out. Don’t let it sit in the water.

The tomato sauce was done by now – I added a little more water/stock till it reached a consistency that I liked. I added fresh basil leaves at the end, salt and some pepper (not too much pepper since I had added a generous sprinkling of chilli flakes earlier).

I mixed the penne with the tomato sauce carefully, arranged it on a plate, sprinkled freshly grated parmesan on top (Note: always sprinkle with your hand high in the air, as it spreads out better), and voila.

What I like most about this recipe is the freshness of the tomato and basil, and that it’s not overcrowded with flavours. Of course, you can add anything else you like – capers, anchovies, olives, chilli peppers, etc. – but I found its simplicity remarkable. And more than the cooking method, which is really quite basic, it’s the ingredients that make this dish what it is. Tomatoes may not be in season in winter, but this is the perfect meal when it’s minus one degree outside.

Penne in a home-made Pomodoro Sauce

Penne in a home-made Pomodoro Sauce

(Neelini Sarkar nurtured books and authors 24/7 at HarperCollins India for five years before her sabbatical. She has promised us many Milanese adventures in the coming weeks, particularly, though not only, in the realm of food.)