Bengalis love their food. When a bunch of Bengalis get together, the conversation mostly revolves around food, football and politics. Any guesses to which topic takes precedence?
When we speak of Bengali cuisine, fish and rice (maach-bhaat) comes to mind. But Bengali cuisine isn’t as fishy as one thinks. A fabulous vegetarian spread and an amazing range of sweets are also hallmarks of the cuisine.
Bengalis, like the French, spend not only a great deal of time thinking about food but also in its preparation and eating. Quips like ‘Bengalis live to eat’ and they ‘spend most of their income on food’ are not entirely misplaced. The early morning shopping for fresh vegetables and fish is the prerogative of the head of the family, and it is believed that he alone can pick the best at a bargain.
Bengal’s distinct cooking techniques set the cuisine aside from any other. The ingredients keep varying, but the cooking method remains the same under certain broad categories. For example, jhol is a light, watery concoction, cooked almost daily in a Bengali home. It can be made with vegetables (niramish jhol), fish (macher jhol) or meat (mangshor jhol). Chechki is a lightly spiced, stir-fried preparation tempered with panch phoron (five-spice blend). It could be made with potatoes (aloo chechki) or cauliflower (kopi chechki). The variety found in Bengali cuisine is limitless, each with a distinctive style, taste and flavour.
We live in a country where recipes change every few kilometers. New ingredients are added, several subtracted, and different cooking techniques employed. Take the example of Bengal’s favourite fish ilish (hilsa). The techniques and ingredients used to cook this delicate fish boggles the mind: jhol, jhal, bhape, tok, begun-diye, paturi, sheka, pora, matha-diye chocchori, etc.
More often than not, the word Bengali evokes images of all that is succulent, syrupy and luscious. This cuisine will unleash your gastronomical desire and curiosity.
5 recipes for famous Bengali foods:
ALOO DUM (Spiced potato curry)
Ingredients: 2 cups boiled and peeled baby potatoes; 1 tsp cumin seeds; 1 tsp each of haldi powder, chili powder, cumin powder, coriander powder; ½ tsp garam masala powder; a paste of 1 onion, 2 tomatoes, ½” ginger, 1 chili; 1 tsp sugar; 1 tsp roasted cumin and red chili powder; 4 tbs mustard oil; 1 tbs ghee; salt to taste
>Heat 2 tbs mustard oil in a pan. Sprinkle cumin seeds and cook till light brown. Add the potatoes. Saute well. Add ½ tsp turmeric powder and salt and cook till the potatoes get a light brown colour. Keep aside.
>Heat the remaining oil. Put the prepared paste and sauté for 2-3 minutes. Add the remaining powdered masalas. Add salt to taste and sugar. Sauté till the masala leaves the sides of the pan. Add ½ cup water and bring it to a boil till the gravy is thick.
>Add ghee, garam masala, and roasted jeera-chili powder.
>Served best with luchi or puri (deep fried puffed bread)
ILISH BHAPE (Steamed mustard hilsa curry)
Ingredients: 2-3 piece of ilish or hilsa fish; 1 tbs black mustard; 1 tbs yellow mustard; 3-4 green chilies; 1 tbs yoghurt: 1 tsp turmeric powder; 4 tbs mustard oil; salt to taste
>Prepare a paste made with black and yellow mustard, 2 green chilies and salt.
>Take a microwavable dish. Place hilsa fish and apply salt, turmeric, the mustard paste, yoghurt, mustard oil and the remaining green chilies on the pieces.
>Cover with a cling film. Microwave for 3 mins
KORAISHUTIR KOCHURI (Green peas stuffed puri)
>For the filling: 1 cup of green peas shelled, ½” piece ginger, 2 chilies, 1 pinch asafetida, 1 teaspoon sugar, salt to taste
>For dough: 1 cup flour, 1 tbs oil, ½ cup water, salt to taste
>2 tbs oil or ghee
>Mix all the ingredients from the dough section to make a pliable one. Keep aside.
>Make a coarse paste from all the filling ingredients.
>Heat 2 tbs mustard oil in a pan. Sauté the paste till most of the moisture is evaporated and the mixture leaves the sides of the pan. Keep aside to cool.
>Divide the dough into lime sized balls.
>Roll each dough ball into 3-inch diameter discs. Place 2 tsp filling in the centre of the disc. Bring the ends together and completely cover the filling. Repeat the process and prepare stuffed balls.
>Take one stuffed dough ball. Roll out as thinly as possible making sure that the filling does not burst out
>Heat a nonstick skillet. Place the kochuri and roast from both sides till golden applying a little (about 1 tsp) oil or ghee from the sides.
(Tip: Traditionally this is deep fried but this is a healthier version, roasting with minimum fat)
MOCHAR GHONTO (Banana flower curry)
Ingredients: 1 tsp each red chili powder, cumin powder, turmeric powder; 1 tbs raisins, salt to taste; 1 tsp sugar, 1 tsp ghee; ¼ tsp garam masala powder; 2 tbs scraped fresh coconut; 2-3 bay leaves; 1 tsp cumin seeds; 2 medium potatoes, boiled, peeled and cut into cubes; 1 banana blossom (mocha) finely chopped, boiled and mashed; 3 tbs mustard oil.
> Heat mustard oil in a pan, add bay leaves and cumin seeds and sauté till fragrant. Add potatoes and sauté till light brown.
>Add boiled banana blossom and sauté well. Add chili powder, cumin powder, and turmeric powder and mix well.
>Add raisins, salt, and sugar. Mix well and cook for few minutes till everything is combined well. Add ghee, sprinkle garam masala powder and scraped coconut. Mix lightly. Serve with plain white rice.
MISHTI DOI (Sweet yoghurt)
Ingredients: ½litre milk, boiled and reduced to 1 cup; 4 tbs sugar; 2 tbs yoghurt
>Heat reduced milk in a pot.
>Add 2 tbp sugar and mix well till it dissolves.
>Heat a pan, add remaining sugar and 1 tsp water and cook, stirring till the sugar is caramelized.
>Now heat milk in the pot again, add the caramel and stir it for a ½ minute.
>Let it cool. Add yoghurt and mix well. Let it set overnight.
>Chill and serve.
The writer is a celebrity chef and author of two cookbooks—Planet Gastronomy and Bangla Gastronomy