Chingri Maachher Malai Curry (Prawns in a Rich Coconut Gravy)

For as long as I can remember, I've waited round the year for these four days to unfold... yes, the four days of Durga Pujo. No, I'm not religious and Pujo to me is not about the rigours of rituals. It isn't for lakhs of us who start shopping 4 months in advance for pujo, who get leaves sanctioned at work months before and book their train/flight tickets to be in their city and soak in the merriment, who try to scan the first "baansh pora" (planting of bamboo rods to construct the puja pandal), or the first pujor banner/hoarding from more than a couple of months before. What enthralls me about pujo is the spirit of festivity in the air, the smell of happiness, the sound of excited chatter and the smiles all around. From weeks before it becomes difficult to walk on the streets, to brave the traffic, to take your normal route to work or anywhere else. But we don't mind, do we? And finally when that dhaak starts to beat, you know this is what you had been waiting for. No sooner than you realise people have swarmed on the roads in gazillions, clad in the new attires, nursing shoebites in high heels. The breathtaking designs of the pandals, the beautifully carved idols and the mesmerising play of lights compete among themselves for the greatest honours and we, the hoppers, satiate our eyes and soul with the masterpieces on display.
Today is Chaturthi (Pujo officially begins day after tomorrow), but as I stepped on the roads yesterday I could see the swarm of people thronging the pandals which had all started shining brightly in their captivating array of lights. The route to my office, which normally is a 25-minute distance, took me 1.5 hours to cover. On reaching office I found my boss had pinged me from Delhi, saying, "You guys are closed from Oct. 1-4, right?" and despite myself I could feel a foolish smile cross my lips at the prospect. Yes, we are closed. For the first time in 3 years, I will not be sitting at my workstation during Pujo. I'm here to embrace you, Calcutta, in all your beauty and grandeur.
For such a grand festival like Durga Pujo, the food on the plate should be equally grand. In Bengali households, we almost worship prawns and Pujo undoubtedly means hogging on the best food available in town. We don't cook at home at all, but many of us venture out to savour Bengali delicacies served by reputed restaurants. Chingri Maachher Malai Curry is one such undisputed dish that features on top of our lust list. Immersed in a thick rich gravy of coconut (three ways), this prawn dish is sure to blow your mind.
Serves: 4
Ingredients:

Prawn, deveined: 500 gm (medium sized)
Mustard/vegetable oil: 2 tbsp (or more if required)
Ginger paste: 2 tsp
Onion, finely chopped: 1.5
Green cardamoms: 4
Cinnamon: 1 stick
Bay leaf: 1
Cloves: 4
Turmeric powder: 1tsp
Red chili powder: 1.5 tsp
Kashmiri red chilli powder: 1 tsp
Green chillies: 3-4
Coconut paste: 4 tbsp
Mustard seed paste: 1.5 tsp
Fresh coconut, grated: 2 tbsp
Coconut milk: 150 ml
Salt, to taste
Sugar: 2 tsp
Ghee: 1.5 tbsp
Garam Masala: 3/4 tsp

Method:

1. Wash the prawns well and rub them with 1/2 tsp of turmeric, salt and 1/2 tsp of red chilli powder and set aside for 30 minutes.

2. Heat oil in a non-stick pan and lightly fry the prawns on both sides in batches. This should not take more than 3-4 minutes per batch.

3. In the same oil (add more if necessary) add bay leaf and let it splutter for 30 seconds. Add cardamoms, cinnamon and cloves. Sauté till they release aroma .

4. Next add the onions and sugar and sauté for 3-4 minutes till golden. add the green chillies and ginger and continue to cook for another 2 minutes.

5. In 2 tbsp water, mix the powdered spices and add to the pan along with some salt. Go easy on the salt because there's already some in the prawns. Stir on high heat till the raw smell goes and oil is released.

6. Now one by one add the coconut paste, grated coconut and mustard paste. Mix them well with the spices for a minute. Pour the coconut milk and bring to a boil. Now lower the heat and simmer covered for 3-4 minutes. Uncover, add some water (quantity depends on how thick you want your gravy to be), again bring to a boil and then cover and cook on medium heat for 2 minutes.

7. Finally, add the prawns and simmer for about 5-7 minutes. Be careful not to overcook. When it is done sprinkle garam masala and the remaining 1 tbsp ghee and serve hot with plain rice.

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