Paneer Jhalfrezi

My festive season didn't exactly begin with a bang. And by festive season I mean the period that ushers in Durga Pujo. As a Bengali, Pujo (as we fondly call it) is in my blood. I love the paraphernalia and gaiety surrounding the festival. (You can read all about my Pujo sentiments and check out my Pujo special recipes in the Eat Like a Bong series). So staying in Calcutta, catching up with old friends, night-long addas, pandal-hopping and gorging on street food become second nature for those 5 days. But this year I wasn't going home for Pujo. I had a 20-day long trip coming up in a month's time and didn't really have the audacity to ask my boss for 5 more days' leave. But I didn't mind. In life, you gain some, you lose some. In the bargain to travel to Spain and Portugal, I had to forego my Pujo. Fair enough.
5 days before Pujo was slated to begin, a senior colleague at work asked me, "Pritha, you're not going home for Pujo?" I retorted smugly, "No such luck." But luck is a strange thing, and even before you know, it presents itself before you in a twisted manner. I was proved wrong. 36 hours later, I was on my way home. With a one-way ticket. But not to make merry or soak myself in the Pujo fervour. I had no idea what the next few days had in store. My grandmother, or Teesta as I call her (you can read about her here and here), was ill, seriously ill. The doctor gave little or almost no hope. I got to know of it the night before. I was talking to my Mama (mother's younger brother) about her health, and when I volunteered to come down, he didn't say "no", unlike so many other times when he had assured me that it was just a phase and she'll be fine in no time.
I rushed to her place from the airport along with my mother-in-law, who had arranged for everything at a such a short notice and had come to receive me at the airport. My mom was there. Teesta was lying on her surgical bed, where she has been lying for the last three years since a life-threatening cerebral attack robbed her of her mobility and speech. Upon seeing me, a thin smile crossed her face. "She is still feeling things, good," I told myself. Apparently, she was better than the previous night. Better still. Over the course of the next 4 days, she kept on getting better. But I was in the clutches of one of the worst colds in my life. I was coughing like a maniac, my nose was blocked, I was breathing with my mouth, and my voice went on a vacation. Teesta and I communicated in sign language. It was quite dramatic actually, especially given the context that it was Pujo and both of us would be the pioneers of our society's cultural programmes in our times. Four days later, still coughing and blowing my nose, I said "bye" to her. I cried my heart out, she cried even more. Beholding the picture of mush that we were, her nurse cried the most!
I came back to Bangalore on Shashthi, the day Pujo begins officially. My flight took off just before that dhaak started playing and the canopy of lights started shining atop the city. But I was happy. Teesta was getting better. What else could I have asked for? I didn't mind coming away from the city a single bit. After all, I was not supposed to enjoy Calcutta Pujo this year. I hate homecomings of this sort, the ones compelled by emergency. Even though going back home is always a beautiful thing, in situations like these you tell yourself, "I don't want to go. Not like this. I'd be happy to stay back, please just let everything be normal."
So that was Pujo. Knocking at the doors was Diwali. I was desperate to not let this opportunity pass by. After all, we all needed some smile in our lives. We lit our house with candles, invited our cousin who has recently shifted to the city and ate a hearty meal of Paratha, Saag Chicken, Ranga Aloo-r Malpua and this amazing Paneer Jhalfrezi. Braving the crackers, we followed it up with a quick trip to our local ice cream parlour to indulge in their sinfully exotic Death by Chocolate and finally wrapped up the day with back to back episodes of Game of Thrones.
Serves: 4-6

Ingredients:
Paneer, cubed or cut into long pieces: 500 gm
Onion, thinly sliced: 2
Green Bell Pepper, sliced: 1
Red Bell Pepper, sliced: 1
Tomato, chopped roughly: 2
Tomato ketchup: 3-4 tbsp (or more)
Ginger paste: 1 tsp
Garlic paste: 1.5 tsp
Green Chillies, slit: 2
Turmeric powder: 1 tsp
Red Chilli powder: 3/4 tsp
Coriander powder: 1 tsp
Cumin powder: 1 tsp
Garam masala powder: 1 tsp
Chaat masala: 1 tsp
Sugar: 1 tsp
Salt: To taste
Oil: 1 tsp (I used my air-fryer to lightly fry the paneer. In case you plan to fry it in a pan, you'll need a little more oil)

Method:

1. Marinate the paneer with a pinch of turmeric powder and salt for 15-20 minutes. Lightly fry in a pan (I used my air fryer to fry it, for 12 minutes in two batches). Tumble the fried paneer in a large bowl filled with warm water. This keeps the paneer soft and prevents it from getting rubbery.

2. Heat oil in a pan and add cumin seeds. Let it crackle for 30 seconds and then add the onions and a tsp of sugar. Saute for 3-4 minutes and add the ginger and garlic paste. Saute for another 3-4 minutes till translucent.

3. Now add the tomato and bell peppers and continue to saute on medium hear for 7-8 minutes more till they lose their firmness.

4. In the meantime, mix together turmeric powder, red chilli powder, cumin powder, coriander powder with a little water into a thick paste and add it to the gravy. Add the ketchup as well. Adjust salt and stir everything well.

5. Finally add the pre-fried paneer  and stir well to coat the pieces with gravy. Add a little warm water at this stage (and allow it to thicken) if you don't want it too dry. Cook for 5-6 minutes more.

6. Sprinkle the garam masala and chaat masala, mix well and let it simmer for another 2 minutes. Turn off the heat.

7. Serve hot with paratha, roti or pulao.

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