As a Tamilian married to a probashi Baangaali or Bengali emigrant, for over 25 years, I’ve acquired a few tastes. Mishti doi was the hardest thing for this tamarind, chilli, pickle and thayirsaadam type. My family although Tamilian, has wandered that broad swathe of the South from Tiruvannamali all the way to Machilipatnam for over 300 years, and in our TamBrahm home we have celebrated Ugadi and Tamil New Year. The food we’ve grown up on is closer to the Coastal Andhra style than any other. I grew up on a dazzling variety of chutnies, gunpowders, well fried porials and pulusus, thick pungent gongura flavored pappu, and pickles that curled the tongue! For one brought up on this diet, the idea of dahi made sweet was almost revolting! Growing up in Madras, the exotic food for us – I was raised vegetarian, not even eggs at home – was the masala or Punjabi cuisine. The Bengali cuisine was a mystery. Did something like that even exist?

My first encounter with Bengali cooking that occurred in Guwahati was very off-putting. My mother offered to teach our Bengali neighbors the art of making South style mango pickles – the avakka, thokku and dry mango pickle. When Mrs. Roy asked if she could use mustard oil instead of our regular til/sesame, mother agreed, but I gagged and ran out into the street unable to bear the smell. Yet a few years later, in Kolkata, when my sister and I tried jhaalmudi (a snack of puffed rice, sprouted channa, chopped veggies garnished with mustard oil) we were both hooked, and surprised that we actually liked mustard oil. But my encounter with real Bengali food had to wait.

 There aren’t many Bengali restaurants to be found in our cities, or so one would think, if we equate Kolkata to Bengal, ignoring the rest – Malda, Siliguri, Farakka and the many towns of the state. There are some good reasons. Bengali cuisine, especially the vegetarian, doesn’t use premixed pastes and powders – well not really – but most of the time. The ingredients must be fresh, cooked with a deft touch so difficult that it would drive a Japanese chef to seppuku. It must be lightly seasoned and served immediately. The two usual pastes – mustard paste and posto (poppy seed) paste – must be ground using a flat stone and roller. Mixer grinders don’t work very well, and turn both into a bitter mush at times. And unless you’ve lived among Bengalis, the flavors are nothing like what most people are used to, and it takes some time to get used to. Among other twists, what some cook with a heavy hand, like the karela the Bengali housewife sautés lightly, and others that are eaten raw, like carrots, can be cooked into a mush! and paneer? While the “Punjabi” style that is so dominant calls for fried paneer in heavily spiced gravy, the Bengali wouldn’t mind it fresh or lightly sautéed!

 Most interesting for me as a Madrasi is the number of vegetables we have in common. Almost everything we eat is eaten at my in-laws’. Raw plantain, plantain flower, plantain stem, raw jackfruit and seeds, raw papaya, snake/ridge/ash/yellow gourds, drumstick and the leaf, yams, and other tubers and many others.Preparing the vegetables for cooking is quite an art. I know every cuisine makes claims to the ultimate art of chopping the ingredients. Jeet Thayil thinks no one knows this better than the Chinese, although who would want to eat Chinese? Not me. The Bengali household favors using the floor standing blade – the boti – not very different from the Tamil aruvamanai. The Bengali spice box makes do with a few spices used in interesting combinations – methi, dhania, til, black and ordinary jeera, saunf, mustard seed, radhuni (the ajmod, a special spice seed), poppy seeds and bay leaves. The panchphoron or five spice mix is the acme of spice art. The West Bengali, which my in laws are, favors using spices fresh and whole –clove, cardamom and mace. Red chillies and green chillies are used judiciously. The gandhoraajlebu or the fragrant big green lemon, and ginger round off the garnishing mix. With these flavoring agents, some mustard oil or ghee and fresh fruit like sitaphal, and a few vegetables, a fairly elaborate meal can be prepared. The Bengali loves the begun or brinjal and has a way with it that is the envy of the vanka loving Telugu! Of the dals, masur and channa are preferred, toor and urad, not so much. The Hindu Bengali traditionally avoided garlic and onion, and chicken was a rarity till about 30 years ago, sweet water fish and mutton being the animal protein of choice. My mother-in-law, who grew up in a fairly orthodox home in Central Kolkata would say that the only eggs that were eaten were of the duck.

The Bengali cook wastes nothing. A quick stir fry of vegetable peels, greens, and crab legs or fish head with some dal would be acceptable at the master’s table!

Bengal has so many different types of rice that you will forget your Basmati and Godavari rice. There’s my favorite the Gobindo Bhog, which my wife insists is used only for kheer, but I love, for the main course. There’s the parboiled rice, sometimes hand pounded, that goes best with maacherjhol! But if there is one thing that is distinctive of Bengali vegetarian cooking it is panchphoron. When we moved to the US many years ago, my mother-in-law gave us a bottle of panchphoron, lovingly assembled by her. We still keep that bottle with us, unopened. It’s our inspiration.

 So here’s a simple feast of begun phoda – roasted baingan; chorchori, a vegetable stir fry; shukto or a vegetable medley; cholardaal, made with chana dal, sweet chutney. And another thing, Abhay Charan Dey aka Srila Prabhupada’s ISKCON that has done much to popularize vegetarian food around the world uses asafetida or hing liberally. But my mum-in-law never liked it! You can try leaving out the onions if you wish and substitute it with roasted or ground saunf sprinkled on your dish just before you serve. If you want to use hing, use a pinch and fry it lightly with the tadka.

Begun phoda

  • Ingredients
    • 1 nice fat baingan
    • 1 teaspoon of mustard oil
    • 2 green chillies chopped
    • 2 teaspoons chopped onion
    • Chopped coriander

  • Roast the baingan over a flame slowly not letting the skin break open, but till the skin is blackened completely and just starts to crack.
  • Place the roasted baingan in a shallow tray and let it cool. Peel the skin delicately, remove the stalk. Mash the baingan lightly with a fork and sprinkle the mustard oil, green chillies and salt.
  • Garnish with the coriander and serve.
  • Substitute baingan with a mash of steamed potato and/or karela, and compact them into patties before serving. If you’ve never liked karela, try it with the mustard oil and see how different it tastes.

Chorchori

This is not a specific dish, as much as a class of stir fried vegetables and sometimes even scraps.

chochori

  • Ingredients
    • A small bunch of seasonal greens – spinach, or any other greens of your choice, use puisaakif you can get it. If you’re from the South, any of the local greens too can be used. You can chop the greens fine or coarse. If it is pungent green like mustard green, chop it fine, or else coarse.
    • 10-15 cubes of yellow squash or kaddu
    • One raw plantain chopped into cubes, preferably smaller than the kaddu cubes
    • One ridge gourd – beerakkai or peerkangai – peeled and chopped. If you prefer keep the peels aside to be fried and added to the Chorchori
    • About 5 seeds of dhania crushed
    • About 5 pepper corns crushed coarse or else one whole red chilli crushed
    • 3 cups chopped of any beans of your choice – green beans, barbatti or karamani, seem or avarakkai
    • About 10 small badi fried (it is dry flakes made with urad dal and used in kadis or the heavy sambars of the South like pitla) this is called bori in Bangla. I’ve also tried using what is called karuvadam in Tamil, one of the many types of the Kannada sandige.
    • A teaspoon of panchphoron – you can get this seasoning/tadka mix at any store or make it yourself. Use equal parts of black mustard seed, til, saunf, jeera and methi. Add some radhuni seeds if you can.
    • A teaspoon of turmeric
    • A tablespoon of mustard oil
    • Salt to taste
  • You can do this in two ways. Expert cooks add one vegetable after another in decreasing order of time to cook. You can also get around this by sautéing the vegetables one by one.
  • Heat the oil in a big kadai, add the paanchphoron, and wait for it to pop. Sprinkle a pinch of the crushed dhania crushed pepper/red chilli and let it fry for a few seconds and sprinkle the turmeric.
  • Add the chopped raw plantain and at high flame turn it over continuously for about 5-7 minutes. Add the cubed kaddu, ridge gourd and the beans and turn them over a few times. Cover the kadai with a lid and let it cook for about 5 minutes.
  • Add the greens and the salt, the remaining dhania and pepper/chilli, mix the vegetables together, and cover the kadai and let it simmer for 5-7 minutes.
  • Take the kadai off the flame, garnish with the fried vadi and serve.

Shukto

This looks like the avail that Southern medley of vegetables but isn’t anything like it. One doesn’t use dahi with shukto, although some TamBong fusion has emerged of late.

  • Ingredients
    • One karela chopped into small cubes with the seeds intact. This is one ingredient that must be used for shukto. You can’t make it without karela.
    • Two drumsticks or murungakka chopped into 2 inch bits
    • A cup of cubed elephant yam, the orange yam, also called senakazhangu in Tamil or a raw plantain cut into 2 inch bits
    • A cup of drumstick leaves
    • 1 cup of cooked karamani seeds or lobia
    • A bowl of snake gourd sliced into long bits
    • A cup of any green beans of your choice
    • One long baingan cut into 2 inch bits
    • A cup of jackfruit seeds.
    • A two inch piece of ginger minced fine or crushed
    • A cup of fried vadi.
    • A tablespoon of mustard oil
    • 1/3 cup of poppy seeds soaked well and ground into a paste.
    • Two teaspoons of panchphoron, one dried red chilli, and some radhuni seeds if you can get them.
    • ½ a teaspoon of turmeric powder
    • Salt to taste
  • Cook the jackfruit seeds, raw plantain, drumstick in a pressure cooker or steamer till soft but not mushy.
  • Heat oil in a kadai, add the panchphoron, dried red chilli and radhuni, and wait for it to sputter. Keep aside half the tadka in a cup.
  • Add the karela, baingan, beans and drumstick leaves, and the turmeric and keep stirring at high heat till they the vegetables are crisp and just done.
  • Add the steamed vegetables, the crushed ginger and turn the mix over a few times at medium heat.
  • Add the poppy seed paste, a cup of water, the salt and bring to medium heat till the mix begins to simmer. Cover and simmer at medium heat for 10 minutes till mix thickens.
  • Turn off the heat, garnish with the remaining tadka and the fried vadi and serve hot.

Cholardaal

  • Ingredients
    • One cup of raw channa dal cooked with one teaspoon of turmeric powder till soft and mashed lightly. It is recommended using a pressure cooker, and cooking it for a little longer than you would cook toor dal.
    • Two teaspoons of panchphoron.
    • One bay leaf
    • 4 green chillies cut lengthwise or one dried red chilli. I have been told adding these does violence to cholardaal, but the Madrasi in me can’t help it!
    • Half a cup of grated coconut.
    • A tablespoon of ghee as my mother-in-law always used it. I am adventurous and like using mustard oil. I am not sure what is orthodox.
    • Half a cup of chopped coriander
    • Salt to taste
  • Heat the oil or ghee in a kadai. Add the panchphoron, the bay leaf and two chopped green chillies or the red chilli, half the grated coconut and wait for the mix to sputter. Take out half the tadka and keep it aside in a cup.
  • Add the mashed daal to the kadai and stir it at high flame for about 3-4 minutes and then reduce it to a simmer, stirring it lightly so as to neither break the dal further nor let it scald.
  • After about 7-8 minutes when the mix starts to bubble up add the salt, the left over chopped green chillies and bring to a quick boil.
  • Turn off the heat, garnish with the reserved tadka, grated coconut, and chopped coriander and serve.

 

daal

 

 

Chaatni or chutney can be a very elaborate dish served just before the dessert course and can be made with a medley of tart fruit. Always use gur/jaggery

  • Ingredients
    • 10 pieces of dates chopped into largish cubes. Or else use chopped figs.
    • Two firm tomatoes, preferably green, chopped into cubes
    • 1 sour apple peeled and chopped into cubes
    • 1/2 teaspoon of saunf and one red chilli
    • ½ a cup of gur crushed fine
    • Three teaspoons of ghee
  • Heat the ghee in a kadai, add the saunf and the red chilli and wait for it to sputter.
  • Add all the fruit and the chopped tomato and stir lightly.
  • Add one cup of water and half the gur and dissolve it in the water at high flame
  • Cover the kadai and let the mix simmer for about 20 minutes, till the fruit begins to soften and the mix begin to thicken.
  • Add the rest of the crushed gur and turn up the heat without allowing it the mixture to reduce or scald and cook till the tomato pulp begins to separate from the skin.
  • Turn off the heat and let the mix cool down.
  • Serve with fried papad (or papodbhaja as Bengalis would say)
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