Chhana'r polao is a fragrant rice-based dish with Indian cottage cheese, chhana. This recipe is from the 1902 cookbook called Amish or Niramish Ahar (Vol. 1) by Pragyasundari Devi, Rabindranath's niece. This particular recipe seems to be influenced by Persian cooking in not just the ingredients it uses (dried fruits, nuts, saffron, etc.) but also in the technique it follows in achieving the delicate balance between decadence and subtlety.
Every year we commemorate Rabindra Jayanti (birth anniversary of the Bengali poet laureate, Rabindranath Tagore) on our channel, by cooking one of the recipes from cookbooks authored by members of the illustrious Tagore family. In nineteenth and early-twentieth century Bengal, the Tagores held a prominent position in social, cultural and political life. Although Rabindra Jayanti is the birth anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore, well known for his contribution to Bengali poetry, music, education and publishing, we take this opportunity every year to celebrate culture surrounding food. The Tagores were steadfastly modern in their outlook, and the recipes cooked in their household—some of them extremely quirky—reflect their sense of being part of a larger world beyond Bengal.
For the aakhni
- 7 g shah jeera
- 7 g white pepper
- 30 g chhola'r dal (Split Bengal gram)
- 1 pc cardamom
- 2 pcs cloves
- 1 pc cinnamon
- 2 pcs bay leaves
- 1 pc dried red chilli
- 15 g ginger
- 700 g water
For the phnaki moshla
- ½ tsp shah jeera
- ¼ tsp white pepper
- ¼ tsp nutmeg
- 1 pc cinnamon
- 2 pcs cardamom
- 3 pcs cloves
For the rice
- 250 g basmati rice (aged, non-parboiled, soaked for 2 hours)
- 15 g salt
- 1 L water
For the chhana
- 200 g chhana
- 3 pcs dried red chillies
- ½ tsp salt
For the polao
- 1 pinch saffron
- 1 pinch sugar
- 1 tbsp warm milk
- 115 g total ghee
- 15 g raisins
- 15 g almonds
- 15 g khoya kheer (solidified milk)
- 15 g pista
- 2 pcs cardamom
- 3 pcs cinnamon
- 1 pc cloves
- 1 tsp phnaki moshla
- 2g salt
- 5g sugar
- bay leaves
- 15 g rose water
Step 1—Make the aakhni
- Using a cheesecloth, tie a spice bundle with shah jeera, white pepper, chhola'r dal, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, bay leaves, dried red chilli and ginger.
- Boil it in a saucepan with 700 g water until the water reduces to about 100 g, leaving behind an amber-coloured stock.
- Once reduced, cool the pan, and squeeze the bundle to extract all the flavourful liquid. This is the aakhni. Measure 100 g of aakhni and set aside.
Step 2—Boil rice
- Wash and soak the basmati rice for at least two hours. Then strain it and set aside.
- Bring a pot of water (1 L) to a boil with 15 g salt. Once bubbling, add the soaked and strained rice, and cook it until the rice is roughly 90 per cent done. Ours took 10 minutes, but the time will depend on the quality of your rice.
- Strain the cooked rice and spread it to cool.
Step 3—Make chhana
- Bring milk to a boil. Add vinegar or lime juice to it to separate the curds and form chhana. Collect the chhana on cheesecloth and shape it into a block.
- Once set, divide the chhana in 4-cm-large cubes.
- Soak 3 dried red chillies in hot water. Once they are softened, transfer them to a mortar. Grind to a paste with ½ tsp salt.
- Coat the pieces of chhana with this chilli paste. Set aside.
Step 4—Make phnaki moshla
- Grind shah jeera, white pepper, nutmeg, cardamom, cinnamon and cloves to a fine powder.
- Sift it over a tea strainer or a fine-mesh cloth. Set aside.
Step 5—Fruits, nuts and saffron
- Blanch and peel the almonds and pistachios, and chop them into thin slivers.
- Grind a pinch of saffron with a few grains of sugar. Steep in 1 tbsp of warm milk.
Step 6—Fry in ghee
- Heat 40 g ghee in pan. Fry marinated channa evenly until golden. Remove from the pan and set aside.
- Reserve the extra ghee in a small bowl, leaving only about 2 tbsp in the pan. In it, fry the raisins, almonds and khoya kheer, one by one, and set aside.
Step 7—Mix rice
- Now with the prep done, we're ready to cook. Start by transferring the boiled rice from the strainer into a large mixing bowl.
- To it add 1 tsp of the phnaki moshla (ground spices), cardamom cinnamon and cloves (chaal makha moshla), fried khoya kheer, raisins and almonds, pistachios, 2 g salt, 5 g sugar and 75 g melted ghee.
- Mix thoroughly but gently so that the rice does not break.
- Then add saffron and mix only a couple of times so that the streaks of colour are not lost. Set aside.
Step 8—Cook on dum
- Set your pan on the heat. Grease it with ghee and cover the base completely with bay leaves.
- Over it, layer some rice, followed by some more bay leaves. Heap the remaining rice in a pyramid, to allow the rice room to expand.
- Add 100 g of the aakhni and 15 g rose water.
- Cover and cook on dum on medium heat for 15 minutes.
- Turn off the heat and let it rest for another 15 minutes before serving.