Sunday, September 11, 2005
Mouth watering Bengali dishes
When we are living away from home in surroundings, which is totally new to us, we can then realize all the conveniences we took for granted when we lived with our family. As I am far away from the house for last few years, with many other things the thing I missed most is my mother's cooking. Last Sunday while I was trying to cook chicken curry (probably the easiest way of preparing chicken). While eating it, I realized that it would never match the pleasures of eating home cooked chicken curries prepared by mother.
We Bengalis are one of the greatest food lovers in the world. Most of us are great eaters. Our lunch or dinners are considered incomplete without fish. In a normal weekday our lunch or dinner will generally comprise of bhat (rice), alu siddho (mashed potatoes), dal (lentils), bhaja (fries), tarkari (vegetables) and macher jhol (fish curry) and ghore pata doi (homemade yogurt) etc. Although these are multi-course meals, for special occasions like marriage ceremonies and anniversaries, the numbers of courses were even higher and variation in taste was more.
In my childhood and teen days holidays meant relatives coming at our home and vice versa. Then along with the regular things the menu also included Shukto(bitter dish), chaatni, maangsho (meat – generally chicken or mutton) etc. While I was busy in playing with my cousins we could smell the delicious smell of the preparation from the kitchen. In the kitchen, I remember, we can hear the various sounds of cooking mixed with the voices of mother and aunts, their red faces sweating from the oven's heat.
Food tells a lot about the culture of the people. There are also geographical reasons for food habits. It depends on the availability or the absence of different kinds of foods. Bengal for instance have countless sweet water rivers, ponds and lakes where freshwater fish like Rui(Rohu), Katla, Pabda etc. are found in plenty. These made Bengalis the greatest fish lovers in the world. A true Bengali will consider a meal incomplete without fish and celebrations are never done without a fish preparation. Even as a symbol of wealth and fertility, fish are touched by husbands and then sent to their brides before the wedding ceremony.
Talking about fish preparation reminds me about my aunts who have a special expertise in cooking a dish called “Horo Gouri” (Krishna- Radha). It is prepared with medium sized fishes like Koi, Bata etc. The name was given such because the two sides of the same fish will have two different tastes. One side of the fish is chilli-hot and the other side is sour. She also tells a story where a son asks her poor mother to prepare two types of dish… one hot and another sour. But the poor mother had only single fish. So she made this preparation with a single fish with double taste, which would satisfy her son’s taste bud.
As I jumped into the fish story first, one can misinterpret that Bengalis cuisine mainly consists fish. Although fish is an integral part of Bengali menu, it is generally a "multi-course" thing -- where there is some sort of an unwritten rule as to which course should follow what. For instance, meat always follows fish which always follows veggies.
A typical Bengali meal starts with a bitter dish Shukto. There is a belief that bitter things takes care of abdominal troubles, but the logic in starting with a bitter taste is that it makes the taste buds more sharpen and prone to accept other differentiating tastes. It consists of different type of vegetables, such as pungent mulo(white radish), bitter tasting korola (a bitter gourd..the pronunciation is like Toyota’s renowned Car model Corolla ), stiff vegetable like seem(a hard skinned flat bean), starchy vegetables like sweet potato and some delicious stems and leaves which only Bengalis seem to eat. To this are added bori (sun dried morsels fashioned out of ground split peas). At the end of the cooking ghee is added to it, which results in an outer worldly ultimate taste. As I’m not sure of the spices I’m omitting that part because I never felt like cooking this delicacy and thought I might spoil it.
The other type of starters are Aaloo Bhaate ( mashed potatoes), Begun Pora (roasted eggplant) etc which are not a special occasion dish, but rather a comfort food in Bengali household. In Aaloo Bhaate mashed potatoes are seasoned with pungent fiery mustard oil, onions, salt and chopped green chilies. My grandmother used to add dried chili fries with mashed potatoes instead of green chilies that made the taste different and unique. Begun Pora is flame roasted eggplant mashed with mustard oil, green chilis onions and ginger. Sometimes leafy vegetable shaak (green leaves) like spinach etc. preparation are also used as starters but as I don’t like them much I’d prefer not to discuss them except one. I only like laal shaak (red leaves) preparation with Kasundi (smashed mustard seeds).
These starters are followed by dal ( lentils), which is generally accompanied by bhaja (fries) of either vegetables or fish. There are various type of lentils which are cooked in typical Bengali style. For instance Moog Daal cooked with fish head (Maacher matha) which gives it exclusive flavour , Chholar Dal ( split pea lentils) cooked with small pieces of coconut, Arhar dal cooked with ghee etc . The other types of lentils are Matar Dal (pea lentils), Kalaier dal( urad dal), Biulir dal etc. Some people in different parts of Bengal take dals at the end of their meal.
With dal the side dish contains wide range of bhajas. And the bhaja, delicate pumpkin flowers dipped in a chickpea flour batter and deep-fried. Bhajas can be made out of any kind of vegetables and even the throwaway part of vegetables like alur khosa bhaja, made with the potato skins or kumro phul bhaja, made with pumpkin flowers dipped in a flour.
Then comes Tarkari or curries mainly cooked with fresh vegetables and have some gravy. Most common are the aaloo(Potato) r dum which is a slowly cooked potato dish, Bandhakopir (cabbage) torkari , phulkopir (cauliflower) dalna with delicious and spicy gravy. Tarkaris also sometime contains non veg things like small shrimp (in Lau chingri), or fish head pieces (in Muri ghonto). Among torkaris one of my favourite is Aloo Posto (Poppy Seeds) or any other type of postos (One of my friend cooks Cauliflower posto, even mushroom posto..all of them are tasty). Although posto is a delicacy of West Bengalis, it is now accepted to all type of Bengali households across the geography. My another traditional favourite tarkari is Mocha(whole banana flower) r ghonto cooked with ghee, Garam Masala and coconut. One who haven’t tasted it can’t even imagine it’s outer worldly taste. It’s also very hard to prepare where you have to remove the hard stem and hard white at the base from each flower and Soak in to salted water overnight. Other few lovable tarkaris are echor (Green Jackfruit) er torkari or Mulo (Horse Radish) preparation with dhone pata (Coriander leaves ) and one of my mother’s special Potli (oily Parwal preparation).
This is followed by the non veg dishes. First comes fish preparation. Although I talked about it earlier some of my favourites are ‘Ilish Paturi’(Hilsa smoked inside banana leaves), ‘Chingri Malai Kari’ (jumbo prawn in the coconut cream ). I’m also very fond of my mothers Bhetki Kalia’, which is an interesting dish containing bhetki fish, potatoes and cauliflower and Tel Koi (Climbing Perch cooked with mustard oil). Last but not the the least, I also like the chital maacher muithya (my mother in law prepares this variety too good) which is a very delicious boneless preparation out of the thorny (Gaada) part of famous Chital maach.
Meat is always followed by fish. Bengali meat dish commonly are Khasir Mangsho (mutton - goat meat) or Murgir Mangsho (chicken). In case of mutton I generally prefer Kosha mangsho (cooked in a thick spicy gravy). But I think I’m quite addicted to the stew like Murgir Jhol (home style light chicken preparation with butter, pepper, papya etc) which my wife prepares very well.
After meat comes Chaatni (sour pickle type preparation). I don't like this item too much as I feel the taste destroys the other delicious tastes of Fish or meat. But it's good for your digestive system. It's generally prepared with tomatoes, Mangoes etc. I thing that Green Mango chatni tastes better than other chatnis.
The deserts are sweets ranging from Mishti doi ( yogurt sweetened with caramel or jaggery) to paatishapta ( individual crepes stuffed with sweetened shredded coconut and cream) or even the payesh ( rice pudding). Leave aside various sandesh (best is nolen gur er sondesh) and Bengali special Rasagolla.
I think that's all. Hey, now I deserve calls from my readers who will invite me for lunch and dinner with these items. Thanks in advance :-)