Once, during a visit to Calcutta, I was invited to lunch by a woman whose reputation as a Bengali cook made me accept with delighted anticipation. The meal she served surpassed my expectations. What stood out above all the expensive fish and meat was her mochar ghanto, a fragrant dish consisting of banana blossom, or mocha, combined with tiny cubed potatoes, tinier coconut chips, chickpeas and spices. It’s a classic of Bengali cuisine, which is known for its flavourful yet delicate use of spices and a wide range of ingredients.
My fellow guests avidly consumed every item on the table, but I noticed a teenage girl, who screwed up her face with acute dislike when she tasted the banana blossom. After lunch, the girl told me she’d never had it before and found the texture off-putting, though she didn’t mind eating cucumbers, tomatoes, green peas and cauliflowers. What she loved most, however, was going out with friends and ordering french fries at a fast-food restaurant. Any budding notion I may have had about extolling the banana blossom to the younger generation instantly vanished.
Bananas have been around in India for aeons, and both the blossom and the pith inside the trunk were long ago integrated into the cuisine. A sixteenth-century biography of the Bengali mystic Chaitanya lovingly describes a banana blossom dish prepared for him in the house of a disciple. The fruit is not only universal nourishment but a prime offering for the gods. In Bengal, the plant has a mystique enriched by folklore. As a child, I loved the story of the beautiful Behula who sailed downriver in a banana raft all the way to the underworld to rescue her husband from the deadly vengeance of Manasa, the snake goddess.
Growing up, cooking lessons did not interest me, but watching my mother painstakingly prepare mocha was a delight that never waned. She took the large cone-shaped object and removed the reddish-purple leafy bracts. Under each nestled a cluster of tiny bananas which she put aside. Once all the purple layers had been stripped away, a smooth ivory-coloured centre was revealed. Along with the pile of baby bananas, this was chopped into small pieces and briefly boiled with salt and tamarind to leach away any bitterness. For her much-anticipated mochar ghanto, she then heated mustard oil, tossed in bay leaves, whole cumin seeds and a few slit green chillies. As the fragrance of the spices filled the air, the banana blossom was added to the pot along with sautéed potatoes, coconut chips, and chickpeas, and seasoned with ground turmeric, ginger, cumin, coriander, chilli powder, salt and sugar. A final emulsifying touch of ghee and garom mashla was blended in just before the pot came off the fire. Bengali gastronomes consider this dish not only an eclectic pleasure but also a true test of a cook because of its mélange of textures – dense, chewy, soft and brittle – and the harmonious melding of spices. Every time I ate my mother’s mochar ghanto, I agreed.
Sometimes, I saved a couple of the discarded purple bracts and pinned them together with toothpicks. Under my fingers they were amazingly seductive, soft as silk, smooth as velvet. The conical shape, slightly wider at one end, resembled a boat. In the evening, I’d go up to the roof, fill a large pail with water, place a small clay oil lamp left over from a Diwali festival on the purple leaf, and set it afloat. Usually, there was enough breeze to create little eddies on which the banana boat tossed around gently. I sat mesmerised, watching, wondering if it would capsize, but it never did, though the lamp went out after a while.
Recipe for Mochar Ghanto
• 500 grams freshly chopped mocha (banana blossom), cooked and drained
• 60 grams chhola (Bengal gram), soaked overnight
• 170 grams ground coconut
• 2 medium potatoes, peeled and cubed
• 1 teaspoon whole cumin seeds
• 2 bay leaves
• 1 teaspoon each of turmeric and red chilli powder
• 1 teaspoon ground garom mashla (cinnamon, cardamom and clove)
• 3–4 green chillies, slit down the middle
• 4 tablespoons mustard oil
• 1 teaspoon ghee
• salt and sugar to taste
Mix the turmeric and chilli powder with the cooked mocha and set aside. Heat the oil in a pan and sauté the potatoes until light brown and set aside. In the same oil, throw in the bay leaves and cumin seeds, fry for a minute and throw in the soaked Bengal gram. After stirring for two or three minutes, add the cooked, seasoned mocha and stir for 3 or 4 minutes. Add the potatoes and half a cup of water and keep covered over medium heat until the water has almost evaporated. Now add the ground coconut, a teaspoon of salt and 3 teaspoons of sugar. The sweetness has to be a bit pronounced in this preparation. Stir thoroughly, add the ghee and the ground garom mashla, and taste (adjusting as needed) for the final salt and sugar balance before removing from the stove.
Excerpted, with permission, from A Taste of My Life: A Memoir in Essays and Recipes by Chitrita Banerji, published by Picador India, an imprint of Pan Macmillan India