Around the age of six, I was introduced to cookbooks, and when I turned eight, my aunt bought a book for herself, which was a veritable treasure trove, according to me. Named “Rannar Boi” (Cook Book), it was written by Lila Majumdar, one of my favorite writers, and there were more than one reason why I found the book supremely useful.
She didn’t just talk about cooking and food, she also added party fixings and ideas, great return gifts that were age-appropriate (at least, at that point of time), helpful condiments, quick replacements and substitutes, cooking with leftovers and what is otherwise thrown away (like potato and gourd skins), food for holidays, and sickbed food which was actually pretty tasty, apart from a huge number of traditional Bengali dishes which I make on and off in my kitchen.
One such dish is Pish Pash. It’s meant for the sick, you know, but it is also great for those who want a really light meal in a jiffy. The beauty of Lila Majumdar’s cooking lay with the fact that she did not like spending a single minute extra in the kitchen, and so, all the recipes she made were extremely time and cost-effective. She was almost apologetic at times when she knew the cooking time would be higher, or extra fuel would be needed. But it was in her book I first encountered the current rage – Dulce de Leche (which was called Danger Pudding in her book).
Pish Pash needs little time, effort, ingredients, and patience. All you need to do is mix, stir, cover, and leave it alone. The dish virtually cooks itself. The key is to use the breast portion of chicken and good quality short-grained rice which is starchy. The star is the starch, so do not waste your Basmati on this one. It works great with Gobindobhog or Arborio or Sushi rice, but you can use any short-grained, starchy rice of your choice. It also benefits from slow-cooking, and the end result would be somewhere between a porridge and a mash, similar to a congee, as a few of my friends pointed out recently.
For each person, take 2-3 pieces of chicken breast. I prefer chicken breast on the bone, avoiding the spine (which means, I like getting a whole chicken breast, and then, after discarding the spine, cut the breast in 6-8 pieces, depending on the size of the breast, and use it accordingly). Wash well and apply a large pinch of salt and a dash of vinegar. Set aside.
Meanwhile, heat a tablespoon of butter and once the butter melts, throw in a stick of cinnamon, a couple of whole green cardamoms, 4-5 peppercorns, 2-3 cloves, and 4 cloves of crushed garlic per person. I am cooking for two people in this recipe, so I added about 8 cloves of garlic to the concoction. Let the garlic fry lightly over medium heat.
Soak the rice in some water. I generally use 1/3rd cup rice per person, but its up to you how much rice you think is going to be perfect for you. Change the water once while soaking if possible.
Add the chicken, turn up the heat, and sear, stirring constantly, till the chicken is lightly browned on all sides. Keep an eye on the chicken – this is the only time you will need to do so, because you don’t want your chicken to burn at any point. Once the chicken is seared on all sides, add 1/3rd cup cubed potatoes per person. Stir lightly.
Drain the rice off the water it was soaked in and add to the chicken. At this point, the rice needs to get a bit of the flavors from the pot, so keep stirring for 2-3 minutes over medium-high heat. Stir and mix, and then add enough hot water to cover. Make sure the water level is one inch over the rice/potato/meat layer. Bring to a steady boil, cover, and then turn the heat down to a simmer. Cook for 20-35 minutes, or until the rice is really soft.
At this point, you can add more water if you need, or make it drier. For me, a porridge-like consistency with soft potatoes and chicken is what I generally aim at, so the 25-minute mark works fine for me. Then, I open the lid, stir briskly, add salt to taste, and then serve it with a dollop of butter on top. It is completely up to you how you would like your Pish Pash to be, but you can always substitute chicken with white fish (and in that case, don’t cook the fish so much! Rather, reserve it after frying, and add it only at the very end). This makes excellent food in this terrible Kolkata summer, where all you need is something that digests easily, and tastes great!