The first time I heard of Goalondo Chicken curry was from my Dimma (maternal Grandmother).
Dimma was born in Chandpur, present day Bangladesh and raised in Rangoon, Burma. Her father, my great-grandfather or Dadabhai as we called him was an academic and educationist in the Rangoon University. Dimma would share countless stories about her travels through Burma and East Bengal. There is this one time she told me how she and her family crossed through the Arakan Yoma hills on bullock carts to escape the Japanese during the Second World War. I will reserve that story for another time. Back to Goalondo.
So the story goes, dimma, dadabhai, didibhai (her mother ) and her brother and sister would travel to Maimanshing (a district in Northern Bangladesh ) from Rangoon and they would take the steamer, crossing the Bay of Bengal and the Padma delta making their way up the river. At the confluence of Padma and Jamuna ( Brahmaputra as it is known in that region) stood a small wayside docking station for steamers, Goalondo ghat. Here they would change steamers and head further up Jamuna to Maimanshing. Almost 70 years after Dimma took this journey for the first time, she still remembered what it was like to travel in those dingy, musty and often cramped steamers. The steamers would stock up their supplies and rations until they made their way to the next port. The Khalashish ( sailors ) would do the cooking mostly on the port side of the steamers and menu would include the catch of the day. Sometimes, when they docked at larger ports, they would stock up on meat and fowl. This is how the Goalondo Chicken curry was born. Cooked on the steamers that sailed through the heart of undivided Bengal.
Dimma was not a chicken eater. So she never knew what the curry tasted like. All she would say is that the jhol (curry) was taltaley ( runny and thin ) with oodles of oil floating on the top. The curry was very basic and rustic cooked by boatmen, few pantry staples that the steamer could carry. Now, I have never been on the Goalondo Steamer nor, did I know anyone who had tasted the curry or at least have a memory of what it tasted like. Only dimma’s sketchy memories and stories dating back to 7 decades. But then memory is a very powerful thing and if you try hard enough it leads you in the right direction. They may be loose fragments, but when put together it can help you weave quite a story or in this case the first step to a timeless recipe.
My quest to get to the bottom of this recipe began. I looked everywhere and this was before the internet world out there in India. I looked into every possible Bengali cookbooks and magazine; from Leela Majumdar, to Bella Dey to Desh to Sananda to all possible sources that I could get my hands on but to no avail. I had this idea in my head and over the years and romanticize all about the curry, the gorgeous red colored oil-rich curry but I had no way of getting to it. All that changed, thanks to Pritha Sen and her tireless efforts to work to and preserve old forgotten and often hard to get Bengali recipes ( she also works on other Indian recipes as well and has a one of a kind super excellent and delicious restaurant in Goa, Mustard ).
This particular version of Goalondo Chicken curry is guided by Pritha Di and is as authentic as it gets. The curry has a mild pungent smell and it is quite possible the boatmen used what we call is dried fish (shutki maach) to add a little weight to the curry and Pritha di, thanks to her extensive research came to the conclusion that shrimp paste was the best thing to use. I found her recipe in one of the food groups on Facebook and a write up in Times of India, from there on all I had to do is just get my hands on the ingredients. Now Pritha di is a fabulous cook and I don’t think my curry did any justice to the once cooked by her or for that matter the boatmen but it did help me to recreate a time and a memory my Dimma was a part of and that is good enough for me.
This is my rendition of the recipe based on what Pritha di had shared.
- Chicken – A medium sized whole chicken cut into pieces for curry
- 5-6 fat garlic cloves
- 8-10 red chillies dried (adjust according to your level of heat tolerance )
- Ginger- 2 inches
- potatoes -2 quartered
- Shrimp paste- 2 teaspoons
- Onion- 1 medium grated
- Mustard oil- be generous
- red chili powder- 1 teaspoon
- turmeric powder- 1/2 teaspoon
- salt to taste
- You start by making a paste of the ginger, garlic, and the red chilies. Make sure the paste is course because the boatmen never had blenders or grinders just a slab and a grinding stone (sheel nora ). I used a blender but did not add any water and I also added 2 teaspoons of chili garlic paste (Huy Fong Indonesian paste ).
- Clean the chicken and then marinade the chicken with 1/2 the onion paste and half of the chili garlic paste, 1 teaspoon of the shrimp paste along with the potatoes and leave it for about a couple of hours. I did not use the fish sauce as mentioned in the recipe. It is too pungent for me
- Heat a kadai or a wok with mustard oil and once it is smoking hot, add the remaining onion, chili garlic, and the remaining shrimp paste along with 2-3 green chilies slit and saute till the raw smell of the onion and garlic is gone and the color of the paste changes to brownish.
- Now add the chicken and the potatoes and saute till the chicken gets brownish spots on it. Then add salt and cup of water, cover and let the curry simmer on low heat for about 25 mins or so. When you take off the lid a thin layer of reddish oil should be flowing on top. Serve with rice, lime, and lots of onions.
Note: There is a second recipe that calls for the use of poppy seed paste along with all the other ingredients without the shrimp paste but I haven’t really got to try it out so when I get around to it I surely should have a feedback. But this particular recipe is a lip smacking, soul-satisfying happy tummy kind of curry and it is a keeper. But the best part of all this that now I have a part of a beautiful memory of Dimma and it is all thanks to Pritha Di.