Although there may be some dispute as to when exactly the Kaliya, or Qaliya, entered the Bengali kitchen, it may be deduced that the term ‘Qaliya’ definitely had made its entrance in India during the Tughlaq dynasty at least. On Muhammad Bin Tughlaq’s rather tedious journey from Delhi to Daulatabad, it is said that to simplify the cooking procedure, turmeric would be added to the meat curry and the result would be called a Qaliya. In Bengal, however, when it appeared in the culinary domain, remains a bit of a mystery since one theory suggests that it reached Bengal through the Mughals, while another surmises that it might be connected to Bakhtiyar Khalji, a Turko-Afghan general who had led the conquest of Bengal and Bihar between the years 1197 and 1206 A.D., and is known to be responsible for the Islamic rule of Bengal.
Another theory suggests the appearance of the Qaliya with Murshid Quli Khan, the first Nawab of Bengal, reigning between 1717 and 1727. The last one seems to be quite logical, because when he was working under the Diwan of Vidarva, Abdullah Khurasani, he had spent a considerable time in the Deccan Plateau, and then was handpicked by Aurangzeb and sent to Bengal to become the Diwan of Bengal. Whatever might be the origin, the recipe of Qaliya that followed in many households of Bengal would essentially have three staple ingredients – onion, ginger, turmeric, and some form of protein. A bit of acid would be added in the form of yogurt or tomato, and the result would be a dish that would have some form of protein in a delicate, slightly soupy gravy. Muslim restaurants of present-day Kolkata, like Shiraz Golden Restaurant, would refer to the ‘Qalia’ or ‘Qaliya’ as a light gravy, to be served with hot naan or tandoori rotis, similar to how the naan qaliya is served in present-day Aurangabad.
However, the ‘Kaliya’, which has its roots firmly entrenched in the ‘Qaliya’, diverts towards a different direction. In most Bengali households, gravy made primarily of onion, ginger and yogurt, cooked together with chillies, is what generally a ‘Kaliya’ refers to. The most popular is the Fish ‘Kaliya’, made mostly with thick steaks of ‘rohu’, ‘catla’, or ‘ayr’. The method of preparation would be similar to how meat would be prepared, and mutton can also be cooked the same way, where the primary flavour would be of a combination of onion and ginger. Garlic is optional here. Ingredients are kept simple and easily available. The cooking procedure would often add a tempering of cinnamon, green cardamom and cloves, the essential Bengali ‘Garam Masala’, and the tempering would be followed by a gentle caramelisation of finely chopped or grated onion till they would be really soft. Chhanar Kaliya would involve making small balls of cottage cheese and simmering it for long in this onion gravy. In this, it deviates from most other recipes with chhana in it, because most of these recipes would be sans onion and garlic.
(Also Read: Impress Your Guests With Channar Payesh (Paneer Rabdi) – A Delicious Bengali Dessert)
To make chhanar kaliya, it is ideal to make your own cottage cheese, and then the gravy is prepared in which it’s simmered to ensure the sauce flavours went in the cottage cheese balls well. Ideally, it is served with luchi or polao, and is considered to be a decadent dish by many. The version made by me contains a healthy dose of Kashmiri chillies for the colour and I tend to stuff the chhana balls with a mixture of raisins and chopped cashews.
Bengali Chhanar Kaliya Recipe:
For the chhana balls:
2 litres milk
1 teaspoon calcium lactate (or 2 tablespoon lime juice)
1-2 tablespoon corn flour or potato starch or fine maida
1 tablespoon raisins
2 tablespoon roasted cashews, chopped
Oil to fry
For the gravy:
2-3 tablespoon ghee or refined oil
1 cup finely chopped or coarsely grated onion
1 tablespoon ginger paste
2 whole green cardamom
1 stick of cinnamon
1 bay leaf
2 teaspoon Kashmiri chilli powder
1 teaspoon turmeric paste
1/2 cup beaten yogurt
1 teaspoon coriander powder
1/2 teaspoon roasted cumin powder
1/2 teaspoon garam masala powder
1 tablespoon cashew paste
Salt to taste
1 tablespoon sugar
A few sprigs of coriander for garnishing
Start by mixing equal amount of lime juice/calcium lactate with water. Hydrate the raisins in water for 1 hour.
Heat the milk in a large pan lined with muslin cloth and thoroughly mix in the calcium lactate/lime juice solution. Let it curdle for 1 hour, then strain and hang the resultant chhana in a muslin cloth for 2 hours.
Once the chhana has drained for about 2-3 hours, remove the cloth and start kneading. Knead for at least 3-5 minutes, and then add enough corn flour/flour for the dough to bind while being stuffed and then fried. Once the dough has reached a pliable consistency, make into small balls and then start filling it with roasted cashew and raisins. Dredge the balls in flour, then fry them in oil or ghee carefully, so that they don’t disintegrate in the gravy or during frying.
Heat a large pan and fry the chhana balls till they are golden. Set aside.
Heat a pan over low heat and add the ghee. Add the whole spices to the ghee and let it infuse for 30-40 seconds. Then, add the onion and start cooking over medium-low heat, stirring often, till the onions are golden. Then, add the ginger. Stir and let cook till the onion and ginger are golden brown. Add the chilli powder and the turmeric. Stir to combine.
Beat the yogurt well and add the cashew paste, coriander powder, cumin powder and garam masala powder. Remove the pan from the heat and add the yogurt mixture slowly, stirring briskly to ensure that the yogurt doesn’t separate. Take some time and get the masala thoroughly mixed before returning the pan to low heat and simmer till the yogurt-onion mixture starts releasing oil. At this point, add 1 1/2 cup warm water to the gravy and let the gravy come to a boil. Add salt and sugar to taste (generally, chhanar kaliya tends to be slightly on the sweeter side).
Then gently place the balls of fried cottage cheese and bring to a gentle simmer for about 6-10 minutes, covered. Then, turn off the heat and let the dish rest for 10 minutes, which would help the juices seep into the fried cottage cheese balls. Open, sprinkle a bit of garam masala powder (optional), a dollop of ghee and a bit of chopped coriander to garnish and serve.
About Poorna BanerjeePoorna Banerjee is a food writer, restaurant critic and social media strategist and runs a blog Presented by P for the last ten years where she writes about the food she eats and cooks, the places she visits, and the things she finds of interest. She is deeply interested in culinary anthropology, and food history and loves books, music, travelling, and a glass of wine, in that order.