Authentic Chhanar Dalna (Bengali Cottage Cheese Kofta Curry)

While cleaning my bookshelf a couple of days back, I stumbled upon this slightly mildewed Bengali cookbook ‘Randhan Shikkha‘ which translates to ‘cooking lesson’. The book is from the 1950s and belonged to my late mother-in-law who had given it to me knowing my love for cooking and vintage recipes 🙂

A treasure trove of earthy Bengali dishes long forgotten…..

That’s when I decided to dedicate this whole month to recreating uncelebrated heritage recipes from the regional kitchens of India that no longer enjoy the privilege of being talked about, written about or included in the menus of a typical Indian restaurant.

These culinary classics from our grandmothers’ times are slowly getting lost in the age of convenience and fusion food.

So what better way to start the new year than to share some of the most authentic regional recipes starting with what else but Bengali cuisine. After all, Indian food has so much more to offer than just butter chicken, chole bhature, masala dosa or mishti doi!

Recipe no: 1 from my #regionalkitchensofindia series.

Chhana/ Chana = cottage cheese; dalna = gravy/ curry.

Soft pillowy fried cottage cheese (chhana) balls simmered in a freshly made ginger-cumin-green chili based gravy, finished with a big dollop of ghee (clarified butter).

Chhana is not to be confused with paneer. Technically they are made in the same way but chhana is much softer and moister and is kneaded like a dough to make soft balls for kofta curries or the iconic rasgullas.

Looking back I recall my thakuma (grandma) cooking her signature cottage cheese and potato curry on special occasions when niramish (vegetarian) meals meant strictly no-onion and no-garlic. My maa still makes it every year during nabobarsho (Bengali new year) if she’s in town.

The dish probably has its origin back in the times when Bengali Hindu widows were prohibited from eating anything non-vegetarian including onion and garlic, so women prepared a lot of recipes with milk in order to get required protein in their food and since then the recipes have passed down several generations.

The quintessential ‘aada-jeere baata‘ (ginger-cumin paste) is the heart of his curry. The gorgeous aroma of this paste made in the mortar-pestle evokes a sense of comfort and transports me straight to my thakuma’s hneshel (grandma’s kitchen).

Bittersweet memories!

Try out this simple recipe the next time you want some protein-rich vegetarian dish. It is guaranteed to make your tastebuds dance!

Ingredients (9-10 medium sized koftas):

The original recipe calls for homemade chhana/ chhena (cottage cheese), but I used Nanak’s fresh paneer which tastes fantastic and is extremely soft, making it the perfect substitute. For those of you unsure of your chhana making skills or are pressed for time, I would highly advise to get very good quality fresh paneer made from full fat milk.

For the chhana/ cottage cheese koftas:

220 g fresh paneer, crumbled

1 tbsp all purpose flour/ maida

1 tsp sugar

Salt to taste

White oil to shallow fry

For the gravy:

1 tsp cumin seeds

1 large bay leaf

1 large cinnamon stick

4-5 green cardamom

3 cloves

A paste made of 1 tsp cumin seeds, 1 green chili and 2 inch ginger chunk (preferably in a mortar-pestle)

1/2 tsp turmeric powder

1/2 tsp kashmiri red chili powder

2 medium potatoes diced in cubes

1/2 chopped tomato

2 whole green chilies

1/2 tsp sugar

Salt to taste

11/2 tbsp white oil

1 tsp ghee (clarified butter)

1/2 tsp garam masala (preferably Bengali gorom moshla)

1 small cup warm water

Method:

In a bowl add the crumbled paneer, all purpose flour, salt, sugar and knead well like a dough for at least 6-7 minutes. Now divide the dough into slightly flattened balls/ koftas of equal size.

Heat oil in a frying pan and shallow fry the koftas on medium heat until golden brown on both sides. It takes about 2-21/2 minutes on each side. Remove from the pan and keep aside.

In the same frying pan (remove the excess oil, only keep about 2 tbsp), temper the oil with cumin seeds, bay leaf, cinnamon, cardamoms and cloves. Once the spices are fragrant, turn the heat into medium-low and add the ginger-cumin-green chili paste into the pan carefully as the oil may start spluttering a lot. Stir fry for 2 minutes.

This is the time to add the potatoes, red chili powder and turmeric. Keep frying for few more minutes until the potatoes are softer. Now throw in the chopped tomatoes and whole green chilies and continue to fry until the oil separates and the spices are well cooked.

Add some warm water (depending on how you want the gravy consistency to be), salt and sugar and let it come to a boil. Cover and cook for 5 more minutes.

Now add the koftas/ channa balls into the gravy, a dollop of ghee and a sprinkling of garam masala. Cover and let it simmer on low heat for 2-3 minutes.

Switch off the flame and keep it covered (standing time) for 5 more minutes. Serve hot with steaming white rice or ghee bhaat 🙂