Chingri maachher malaikari (prawn malaikari)


This is an iconic Bengali dish, ranking up there in the stratosphere with shorshe bhaapa ilish (steamed mustard-coated hilsa). It's made with medium-sized prawns and is eaten with plain rice for lunch or dinner -- it's not a snack. It can be cooked in large quantities and stored for a few days in the fridge -- leftover malaikari tastes pretty good too.

Memories of malaikari are mixed with my earliest memories of good food. My grandmother cooked it, and mom learned from her. Prawns were always a delicacy in the seventies when I was in school. My dad's public sector income always implied tight budgets, and mutton was affordable, but prawns were a luxury. Moreover, prawns were simply not available in most towns where we grew up. We used to come to Calcutta for summer vacations, and Calcutta was the magical place which had double decker buses, tall multi-storeyed buildings, and prawns. My mom would pack a large packet of lightly fried prawns to carry back on our return from Calcutta each time -- grandmom would arrange everything. All this cast a golden glow, in more senses than one, around prawn malaikari.

As I grew up, prawns, air-conditioned cars, and various other things became common. As an adult, I realised that most Bengali housewives cooked malaikari, but very few were really excellent. This is different from mutton curry, where a very good rendition is much more common. My mom, a constant explorer of even the classic recipes, kept fine-tuning her malaikari. One important breakthrough came relatively recently, more than three decades after her marriage. This was the addition of Maggi Hot and Sweet. More on that later. The recipe I've recorded here is pretty much exactly her version.

The name "malaikari" intrigued me for years. "Kari" could be etymologically linked to "curry", so that part is okay. Where did the "malai" come from? For some time I thought that it is linked to "malai" (cream) and I also thought (incorrectly) that cream is an ingredient. When this mistake was corrected, I thought that "malai" refers to coconut milk, which is a key ingredient in the dish. But my friend Anindya, who is a great cook and devoted foodie, gave me a very interesting explanation. The origin of the name is "Malay curry" according to him. It fell into place immediately -- this is one of the very rare Bengali dishes which uses coconut milk. In fact, when you taste good malaikari, you are reminded of Thai yellow curry sans the celery and Thai herbs. This quintessential Bengali dish, one of the icons which defines a Bengali's identity, is actually an import. What could be a worse blow to the Bengali's ego?


  • Prawns: one kilo, preferably fresh-water variety, cleaned, de-veined, shell removed, but with head and tail she'll retained


  • Curd: half a cup (about 150-200gm), stirred into a smooth paste
  • Haldi powder: half teaspoon
  • Salt: half teaspoon


  • Bay leaves (tej patta): two or three
  • Jeera (cumin) seeds: one teaspoon
  • Garam masala: ingredients crushed lightly to make a very coarse powder:
    • Small elaichi (cardamom): four
    • Cloves: eight to ten
    • Cinnamon (daruchini): a piece less than an inch long

Masala paste:

  • Onions: three medium sized, made into paste
  • Ginger paste: two teaspoons
  • Garlic paste: one teaspoon
  • Kashmiri mirch powder: one teaspoon
  • Haldi: half teaspoon
  • Maggi Hot and Sweet Sauce or some brand of Tomato Chilly Sauce: about 1-2 tablespoons

Cooking medium:

  • Cooking oil: about quarter cup
  • Good ghee: about quarter cup

Final stage:

  • Garam masala powder: half teaspoon or to taste (this is independent of the ingredients for making the coarse-ground powder)
  • Coconut milk: extract from one coconut
  • Sugar: one tablespoon
  • Salt: half teaspoon


  1. Coat the prawns with half teaspoon haldi powder and half teaspoon of salt.
  2. Then coat the prawns with the curd, making sure that all prawns are coated properly. Keep aside for 30-45 minutes.
  3. Mix the onion paste, ginger paste, garlic paste, Kashmiri mirch and remaining haldi powder together, add a quarter cup of warm water, stir slowly so that there are no lumps of powder.
  4. Heat a wok or deep frying pan on medium heat, dump the cooking oil and ghee in it.
  5. When the oil is hot, dump the coarse-ground garam masala powder, jeera seeds and the bay leaves into the pan. Fry for a few seconds.
  6. Add the mixture of onion paste, ginger, garlic, Kashmiri mirch and haldi into the pan. Fry in medium heat, stirring slowly, for 4-5 minutes. The colour of the paste mixture will change from a light yellow-orange to a darker orange-brown, and some oil will begin to become visible, coming out of the paste. This is when we know the frying is done.
  7. Add the Maggi Hot and Sweet Sauce to the pan. Stir slowly and mix for a few seconds.
  8. Add the prawns to the pan. Turn up the heat to medium. Fry, stirring very slowly, to ensure that the paste in the pan coats all the prawns properly and none of the prawns breaks in the stirring. Continue frying and stirring very slowly for maybe 2-3 minutes, till the prawns change colour to a patchy reddish brown in parts, pale cream colour in parts.
  9. Mix the coconut milk with half a cup of water to make it smoother, in case it is too thick. Add the coconut milk to the pan, stirring slowly to mix thoroughly with the contents.
  10. Add the sugar and half teaspoon of salt to the pan. Stir slowly to mix, wait for half a minute to let it dissolve, then taste the gravy and fine-tune it with salt and sugar.
  11. Simmer for 5-7 minutes more. If the gravy appears too watery, boil on high heat instead of simmering to make the gravy a bit thicker. Add the garam masala powder (the fine powder, half teaspoon) towards the end. When it's time to take the pan off the flame, there should be enough gravy to cover most of the prawns, but not all.

Serve with plain boiled rice.

Practitioner's notes

  • Some people like coriander leaves. They will add a small fistful of chopped coriander leaves to the pan just before taking the pan off the flame. Try it.
  • If Maggi Hot and Sweet Sauce is not available, try one of the other Tomato Chilly Sauces. The important thing is to try to get that spicy hot and sweet taste. If none of these options are available, use good, preferably somewhat spicy, tomato ketchup. Tomato puree is the last option, and will make the taste bland(er). And note well: "hot and sweet" is not at all similar to "hot and sour". There are many ready-made bottled concoctions called Hot and Sour Sauce, based on soya sauce, useful for Chinese dishes. Do not bring such sauces anywhere near a malaikari pan.
  • The best size of prawn to use for this dish is the kind which gives about 10-15 prawns per kilo. Bigger prawns, which fit 3-5 per kilo, are glamorous and very useful to impress ignorant money-minded guests, but do not delight the true malaikari devotee. There is a place for lobster thermidor and champagne, and there's a place for malaikari and rice. If you can't understand this, you are condemned to eat just lobster and champagne all your life.
  • The prawn heads should not be removed during the preparation, even if you don't like eating them. Their presence adds significantly to the texture and flavour of the dish.
  • Too much curd degrades the taste -- 250gm curd is too much for one kilo of prawns. Too much salt during the final fine-tuning stage will cause problems -- start with half a level teaspoon and taste the result before adding more. The cinnamon piece should not be more than an inch long under any circumstances -- it will tend to overpower the flavours.
  • The final addition of fine garam masala powder is optional. Do not add too much of the powder -- this is too delicate a dish to survive such punishment. Most urban housewives will add the powder from a store-bought packet of branded masala. Much better results are obtained if you grind the three main ingredients (clove, cardamom, cinnamon) in a wet grinder or using a pestle and mortar with some water and make a fine, wet paste. But then this is true of all garam masala powder.
  • When I say the extract of one coconut, ensure that it is one coconut. One popular brand of coconut milk sells tetrapaks containing the extract of two coconuts. Read the fine print.
  • I've mentioned "preferably fresh-water" prawns basically to focus on fresh prawns of a variety which do not have a strong odour when raw. Some sea-water prawns have a strong fishy smell; they are unsuitable for malaikari.
  • Impatient cooks will spoil a pan full of malaikari by frying the onion paste mixture too little. The aroma of raw, unfried onions can spoil almost any dish, even ones much less delicate than malaikari. The onion-frying stage can take five minutes on lowish medium heat. Keep stirring.
  • For those unfamiliar with Kashmiri red chilly powder, it looks superficially like ordinary red chilly powder but adds very little chilly-hot taste to the food. It adds a nice red colour to the gravy and contributes its aroma.
  • Those who like their malaikari chilly-hot can add 2-3 green chillies, slit lengthwise, to the pan about 2-3 minutes before the very end. Do not add chillies when the onion paste is frying; it will make the taste altogether too hot to be called malaikari.
Zircon - This is a contributing Drupal Theme
Design by WeebPal.