While I consider myself a fairly decent cook of “authentic” Bengali cuisine, my mother has always issued dire warnings of pride coming before a fall. Mothers are never wrong. Recently, a few millennials stumped me by pronouncing my food “inauthentic”. The penny finally dropped after a few days of contemplation. What I offered my guests was not something they were familiar with anymore.
Bengal is not alone. What was once the norm is fast fading from India’s collective regional memory. With people in a migratory flux within the country and abroad, regional cooking styles and “authenticity” are determined by what is available in different geographies and climates. Traditional recipes and ingredients take a back seat. Most regional comfort food cravings are now met on weekends by restaurants.
It is not as if the commercial outlets don’t serve authentic food. In Bengal, there are several styles of cooking. What restaurants today offer was once called bhoj-barir ranna or food cooked for community feasts. The more affluent one was, the richer and more elaborate the dishes became, with expensive ingredients and an overdose of spices, oils, dry fruits, nuts, raisins, khoya, cream and fragrances. It involved cooking techniques like kosha (cooked rich in oil), rassa (in a thick gravy), kalia (replete with onions and garam masalas) and heavy kormas. This was how we entertained our guests but not what we ate at home on a daily basis. I had never heard of terms like kosha, rassa or kalia till I started figuring out wedding feasts or restaurant menus, thanks to which most Indian food has picked up the notoriety of being unhealthy, greasy and rich.
Nothing can be further from the truth. Traditional food in Bengal employs simple steaming, sautéing and stewing techniques that retained the colour, taste and nutritive value of fresh vegetables and fish. Flavours are introduced with a combination of temperings.
For example, fresh greens are put to steam with a teaspoon of oil and a tempering of kalonji or nigella seeds and whole dry chilli, cooking it in its own moisture with a sprinkling of salt. It is served as a first course, with the natural taste and goodness of nutrients retained. The next course could be a paanch meshali torkari. Seasonal vegetables, for instance, ridge gourd, sem or flat beans, red pumpkin, brinjal, whole cabbage leaves, potatoes are cut and carved in different ways (this is important as each vegetable has a different cooking time) and steamed in their juices with a tempering of choice. The end product is a moist mix of brilliant natural colours that retain bite and nutrients.
Add leafy greens to the paanch-meshali, ginger, coriander paste and ghee and it becomes a labra. Want a little zing? Some drumsticks, mustard paste and a finishing drizzle of raw mustard oil will turn it into a chorchori. There is no deep frying, no overriding masalas. The very same vegetables are transformed into a cumin-ginger paste jhol with minimal oil and slow stewing. Drop some fish into the latter and it becomes a Bengali’s ultimate comfort food – maachher jhol or a thin fish curry with vegetables. Families have their own definitions of comfort jhol which may include a touch of cumin, a dash of ginger, mustard paste or sometimes onion juice, breaking away from the Vaishnav tradition of no onion and garlic. Or a simple tel-jhol made with nigella seeds, haldi and chilli powder. That’s it. No goodness is sacrificed, no taste is lost.
One of my favourite meals is what I call bosha bhatey paturi (pic on the left), a three-in-one ensemble that demonstrates Bengal’s healthy, fuel-efficient and eco-friendly legacy. When rice is three-fourths cooked, fish mixed with a little mustard paste and a hint of mustard oil is wrapped in tender gourd leaves, and the parcels are placed on top and covered. The steam from the rice cooks both fish and greens perfectly. What you get is a wholesome meal that gives you carbohydrates, proteins and vitamins, all at once.
Thor-er Chhenchki (Sauted Banana Stem)
2kg – Tender banana stem
2tbsp – Grated fresh coconut
1/4tsp – Kalonji
1/4tsp – Fenugreek seeds
4 – Green chillies
4tbsp – Ghee
1/2tsp – Sugar
Salt to taste
Fresh coriander, optional
* Take the layered casing off the stem till just the inner stem emerges.
* Cut in 1/4” round discs, taking care to remove the fine threads that emerge with each cut. This will weigh around 500gm.
* Cut the discs into fine juliennes and keep soaked in water so that they don’t turn dark.
* Heat 2tbsp ghee and temper with kalonji and methi seeds and one slit green chilli.
* When the seeds splutter, add 1tbsp grated coconut.
* Fry on quick heat for a few secs and add the banana stem.
* Add salt and sugar, fry on high heat quickly for a few seconds.
* Lower heat, cover and cook.
* Remove lid and increase heat, all the while stirring till water dries up. Add slit green chillies, ghee and fresh coriander, quick fry for a few seconds and take off fire.
* Serve with hot rice and dal.