I was six years old when I first tasted coconut in a savoury dish. It was a mixed vegetable dish called Chapor Ghonto carrying a melange of flavours I had never encountered before, the chief one being coconut. Too sophisticated for my untutored palate, perhaps, but it left an indelible mark.
Until then, I had only ever tasted coconut in traditional sweets such as coconut laddoos and pithe. The idea that curries and dals could be cooked with this nutty white substance was a revelation to me, a child of the hills where ginger, turmeric and black cardamom grew in abundance and were, therefore, our primary flavourings.
But this was my intrepid mother’s way of initiating her family into the culinary mysteries of her friends and neighbours, many of them Bengali. As it turned out, this was a journey of discovery that turned her daughters into lifelong devotees of Bengali food. Bengali vegetarian food, to be more precise.
Bengalis are known for their gustatory culture, especially their fish and meat dishes in which they are masters of the universe. But despite the preponderance of seafood and lamb in Bengali dishes, if there is one cuisine in India that can hold its own among the meat-based haute cuisines of the world, it is Bengali vegetarian cuisine. But it is ironical that one of India’s richest and most refined schools of cooking was born from food deprivation. Bengali vegetarian cuisine began as sustenance for high caste Bengali widows.
After widowhood, these women – all married early to much older men – were forced by patriarchal tradition to abstain from meat, fish, onions, garlic and strong spices that might fuel their libido.
With the sap of life still high among many of them and the memory of rich morsels still tantalisingly fresh, these widows who were only young girls after all, used their creativity to conjure up tasty dishes which made up for the absence of the fish, meat and eggs they were used to. These labour-intensive culinary inventions contributed to what is now a rich vegetarian cuisine with these vulnerable women its unsung architects. Many widows were given the responsibility of cooking the vegetarian items for the extended families they lived with and thus was born a priceless culinary legacy.
Although some dishes are time consuming to make, if planned well, cooking Bengali food is a rewarding experience. It is more nuanced and refined than most cuisines of Asia. I make it a point to cook at least one Bengali vegetarian dish every weekend for my family. Here are some of my favourite recipes:
1 cup mocha or banana flower
2 potatoes (boiled & peeled)
2 tbsp coconut, chopped
A handful of roasted peanuts
1 tsp ginger paste
1-2 green chillies, chopped
1/2 tsp cumin seed
1/2 tsp fennel seed
1/2 tsp coriander seed
1 dry red chilli
Salt, to taste
Sugar, to taste
2 tbsp cornflour
1 cup bread crumbs
1. Oil your palms before cleaning the banana flowers. Chop the inner soft core to fine little pieces and soak in a bowl of turmeric water. Boil with salt water and turmeric until it’s soft.
2. In a frying pan, add a little cumin, fennel seeds, coriander seeds, and dry red chilli. Roast, and then grind to a fine powder.
3. Boil the potatoes till they are cooked and tender. Mash it with the boiled banana flowers. Add chopped peanuts, salt, sugar, and the fried and powdered masala. Mix together.
4. Add 1 tbsp of oil to a wok, and add the chopped coconut to it. Stir fry for 2 minutes. Add the ginger paste, chopped chillies, and cook till the raw smell is gone. Add the banana flower-potato mix, and fry for 10 seconds. Turn off the heat, and transfer the mixture to another bowl. Check for seasoning, and make small balls out of the mixture. Flatten them with your palm.
5. In a separate bowl, mix cornflour with 1/2 cup water. On a plate, add the breadcrumbs. Roll around each of the croquettes in the breadcrumbs, dip into the cornflour, and then roll on the breadcrumbs again. Deep fry the croquettes in hot oil, until crisp and browned. Serve hot with kasundi.
1/2 raw jackfruit
2 bay leaves
3 green cardamom
2-in cinnamon stick
4 black peppercorns
1 large onion; chopped
1 tomato; chopped
2-3 in ginger; finely grated
5-6 cloves garlic; finely grated
1-2 green chillies
2 tsp ghee
1/2 tsp red chilli pdr
1 tsp turmeric pdr
1 tsp cumin pdr
1 tsp coriander pdr
1/2 cup yoghurt; whisked
2 cups warm water
Salt to taste
Sugar to taste
2 tbsp mustard oil
2 potatoes; diced
1. Clean and cut the Jackfruit. Pressure cook with a pinch of turmeric. Keep aside.
2. Fry the diced potato and keep aside.
3. Heat oil in a skillet and temper with bay leaf, ground cloves, whole jeera, cinnamon and cardamom.
4. Once the spices get fragrant, add onion. Add a pinch of salt and sugar and fry till slightly browned.
5. Add the ginger garlic paste and fry for a few minutes. Now add the tomatoes, turmeric powder, red chilli powder, cumin powder, coriander powder and whisked curd. Fry till the masala blends uniformly. Sprinkle some water occasionally to avoid burning. Adjust the salt and sugar
6. Add the boiled jackfruit pieces and potatoes into the masala. Saute till the jackfruit, potatoes and masalas are well cooked.
7. Add a hint of garam masala powder and ghee.