Monday 8 February 2016

Bengali Vegetarian Thali ~ A Splash of Unassuming Nuances And Striking Flavours

Bengali Cuisine has the nuances which have been imbibed from a very long and rich history with strong influences from the Mughal style of cooking, the British Babus, whose khansamas (male cook) modified the existent Bengali cuisine to suit their palates. Not only that, the style of cooking dishes, also varied as one passed through the length and breath of Bengal itself. Then there are also many dishes from Bangladesh which was earlier a part of Bengal, India. 

Both sides of my family come from Bangladesh and therefore the food cooked in my home, till date, has a very distinct touch of the region . There are also many a dishes which are indigenous to the region my family had roots in. 

Though Bengali food has largely remained a closely guarded cuisine for years, not transcending beyond the boundaries of Bengal, the earnest effort of some people, namely restaurateurs, bloggers, celebrity chefs etc. have resulted in the cuisine becoming more and more popular. The Bengali's have been largely a fish and rice eating community and are known for their sweets and desserts. Therefore it was natural for these two segments of food to gain popularity and familiarity outside Bengal. 

However there is a large and delectable vegetarian repertoire of dishes that is a part of every Bengali household. These are those dishes which are cooked everyday in most Bengali homes. Even if there is a fish and meat dish served, no Bengali meal is complete without vegetarian dishes, which too are served along with the Non - Vegetarian fare. 

This post is my humble attempt to take you all through a few of the vegetarian Bengali dishes which I love and which I have seen my grandmothers, aunts and Mother serving guests for years now. Therefore. whatever I have written in this post, is my own experience that has resulted from growing up in a Bengali household. The way of cooking these dishes which I have presented below is totally how it is cooked in my home. Though the dishes are similar to those cooked in most Bengali homes, the variations in these dishes are what my family must have incorporated in them over the years to suit our palate. 

I present to you a BENGALI Vegetarian Thali and will take you through each recipe in a separate post which can be accessed by clicking on the title of the recipe. But before that let me also tell you that BENGALI cuisine is an exhaustive treasure trove of recipes and my post only showcases a minuscule part of it. Now there are a few ingredients which are a must in all BENGALI kitchens, irrespective of the part of Bengal one comes from. 

Mustard Oil is the main medium of cooking dishes in most Bengali kitchens even today. Though with time other oils have been introduced in the BENGALI kitchen, the mustard oil has never left the shelf of the Bengali kitchen and even to this day if there is a chaste Bengali meal to be served, it is mustard oil for cooking it in and nothing else. Mustard oil is however not an easy medium of cooking if you are not familiar how to handle it , precisely because of its own distinct aroma and inherent properties. It is therefore always ideal to mellow it down, by bringing the oil to smoking hot first and lowering the heat for a few seconds before the first ingredient goes into the pot. Mustard oil is drizzled in some dishes like, aloo sheddo ( potato mash) or begun pora ( smoked aubergine mash) to name a couple, but I have never seen it being sprinkled on salads, soups etc. This dark honey coloured oil definitely is one ingredient which marks Bengali cooking.

If mustard oil is very important to Bengali cooking so is panch phoron which is the five spice blend and is commonly used for tempering in many a dishes. I have always seen it in the spice box in my home and only after I started blogging did I ask Ma about the exact ratio in which these five whole spices were combined together in panch phoron. The first thing Ma said was we do it by andaj (which meant that it was by mental measurement of the amounts of whole spices mixed here, which comes from years of experience in cooking and is the way ingredients are added in many a Indian home cooking). So I observed her when she was making her panch phoron to find out the exact ratio of each spice in the mix. Panch phoron combines Jeera ( Cumin Seeds), Menthi (Fenugreek Seeds), Kalo Jeera (Nigella Seeds/Kalonji), Mauri (Fennel Seeds/Saunf) and Shorshe (Black Mustard Seeds / Rai ). She added all the whole spices in almost equal ratio barring fenugreek seeds which was added a little less than the other as a result of its bitter taste. That was about it. Then she would give the jar containing the five spices a vigorous shake to combine all of them together. 

A few other ingredients which are very prominent in the Bengali Spice Box are Radhuni (resembles carom seeds /ajwain closely in looks but has it own aroma and is commonly used as a tempering for dals (lentil curry), Shorshe ( Mustard seeds whose paste is used in many a dishes, more than the seeds used for tempering), Posto (Poppy Seeds used in many many dishes after being ground into a smooth paste), Kalo Jeera ( Nigella seeds used commonly for tempering ).

Kasundi the hand pounded Bengali mustard sauce, Noutn Gur/Nolen Gur or Patali Gur ( Date Palm Jaggery), Gobindo Bhog Chal ( A variety of very fragrant rice grown in bengal), Jharna Ghee ( A very popular brand of clarified butter loved by Bengali's), Ghondhoraj Lebu ( A variety of Lime which has a very distinct citrus aroma) are just a few of the things which I remember has never left the shelves of my Mother's kitchen ever. 

Dear readers this is just a very small part of what you can expect when you think of Bengali cuisine.

The Bengali Thali which I present to you in this post is a very basic thali which I have seen my paternal grandmother put up many a times. Lovingly called Thakunu (grandmother in Bengali) by the little ones in the family, her dishes and cooking skill has been unmatched by any other in the family so far. She came from a family of zamindars ( Land lords ) from Comilla, Bangladesh and her tradition infused cooking has remained a topic of discussion even to this day. I took her dishes for granted and a regular family fare and regret the fact that I did not learn more from her. Though I did watch her cooking many a times but was never trained in cooking by her unlike my mother and aunts. This post is my love filled reverential offering to a lady whom I loved with all my heart and who cooked like a dream. All the recipes here are her recipes.

Bengali Vegetarian Thali ~

The Bengali Vegetarian Thali I am presenting consists of in order of serving :

1) Gondhoraj Lebu, Noon, Lonka ( Lime, Salt, Green Chilli)
2) Papad ( Poppadoms)
3) Luchi (Deep fried Bengali Bread)
4) Uchche Bhaja ( Thinly sliced stir fried roundels of Bitter gourd, which is part of Teto /Bitter which is a must to start of a Bengali meal)
5) Posto Narkel Bora (Poppy Seeds and Coconut Fritters which form part of the Bhaja or fries)
6) Jhuri Aloo Bhaja (finely grated deep fried potato chips)
7) Notey Shaag Bhaja ( Amaranth Greens Stir Fry | Chaulai Saag Ki Bhaji )
8) Bhaat ( Plain White Rice)
9) Moong Dal Narkel Diye (Mung Beans lentil curry with coconut)
10) Shorshe Dharosh ( Okra cooked in mustard paste)
11) Doi Begun (Aubergines cooked in a tempered mildly spicy yogurt sauce)
12) Chapor Ghonto (A mixed vegetable dry curry with fries lentil fritters, this forms a part of the shobji or vegetable curries)
13) Phulkopir Roast ( Cauliflower roast)
14) Basanti Pulao ( Saffron coloured Pilaf)
15) Plastic or Peper Chutney (Raw Papaya Chutney)
16) Khirer Chop (Evaporated and Thickened Milk stuffed fried sweet Dumplings)
17) Nolen Gurer Ice-Cream (Ice-cream infused with date palm jaggery)
18) Mishti Paan ( Betel stuffed with condiments and aids in digestion)

The Bengali Vegetarian Thali is such a wonderful mix of the bitter, sweet, tangy and savoury flavours. Different dishes add to the delicate balance of these flavours making it a delightful experience. I have tried to add dishes in my Thali which steers away from the more popular and familiar dishes. For example mishti doi (Sweet Yogurt), Chum Chum, Rasmalai etc. do not feature in my Thali because of their immense popularity and familiarity. It has been my humble yet earnest effort to bring to you lesser known dishes which are such an integral part of Bengali Vegetarian Fare. Once again please note that this post is a result of my personal experience growing up in a bengali household.

Also the theme of the Culinary Hoppers this month's Blog Hop is Bengali Vegetarian Cuisine, so I have taken this opportunity to bring to you a number of dishes I grew up eating and which still cook in my kitchen. Do check out all the other delectable dishes presented by the Culinary Hoppers right at the end of this post.

Dishes ~

Uchche Bhaja | Thinly Sliced Stir Fried Roundels Of Bitter Gourd ~

Every Bengali meal generally begins with a serving of something bitter along with rice. When I asked Ma why she said that the belief is that anything bitter clears the taste buds and prepares them to savour all the medly of flavours which would follow suit. Also there is a very popular Bengali saying " Teto Diye Shuru, Mishti Diye Shesh " which means commence the meal with something bitter and the finale to the meal is something sweet. Hmmm interesting thought.
In Uchchey Bhaja or Bitter Gourd Fry the bitter-gourd is cut into thin roundels, then stir fried using salt and turmeric only. The light crunch incorporated from stir frying masks the bitterness to some extent.  

Posto Narkel Bora | Khus Khus Aur Nariyal Ke Vade | Poppy Seeds And Coconut Fritters  ~

Posto Narkel Bora is normally served at the beginning of a Bengali meal and is a part of the Bhaja or fried dishes. It is served along with piping hot rice with a drizzle of ghee on top of the rice and a dal or lentil curry. These fritters are delightfully flavoured and even with the very few ingredients used makes for a very delicious starter. You can also simply snack on them by dipping them in a mustard sauce like the bengali kasundi or any other. MORE...

Jhuri Aloo Bhaja | Finely Grated, Deep Fried Potato ~

A very large part of my school life was spent having Jhuri Aloo Bhaja while rushing over the early morning breakfast. Served along with Phana Bhaat which is rice overcooked in water till it looks almost like a porridge and where all the starch of the rice is retained. Generally a lavish sprinkle of clarified butter is done atop the phana bhat and it is served with fries, most prominent being jhuri aloo bhaja. In Jhuri Aloo Bhaja the potatoes are finely grated and deep fried. Jhuri Aloo Bhaja is served after Teto and is a part of Bhaja or fries, which are generally served with rice after the bitter dish.  

Notey Shaag Bhaja | Chaulai Saag Ki Bhaji | Amaranth Greens Stir Fry ~

Shaag Bhaja or Leafy greens stir fry form a very integral part of a bengali meal, served at the beginning along with teto and Bhaja. Shaag Bhaja is made with leafy greens stir fried along with either cubed aubergine or Potato and fried sun-dried lentil dumplings or Bori. The benefits of shaag are numerous and one has to develop a taste for it. But the goodness is so evident in every bite that you will be automatically swayed to eat it. 

Moong Dal Narkel Diye | Mung Beans Lentil Curry With Coconut ~

Moong dal is cooked along with grated coconut, to dish out a creamy yummy side dish, which is hearty fullfilling and the ultimate comfort food. Dal is interwoven  in any Indian Thali no matter which part of the country the Thali belongs to. 

Shorshey Darosh which translates into Okra in mustard gravy has been prepared in my family for more than a decade. It is a curry and is served in a Bengali meal along with dal ( lentil curry ) after teto (bitter dishes like bitter gourd fry, shukto etc. ), shaag bhaja ( leafy greens fry) and bhaja ( fries ) have been served. The use of mustard paste and mustard oil is indigenous to bengali cooking. Almost everything barring a few dishes is cooked in mustard oil. My grandmother had used poppy seeds and coconut to mellow the strong taste of mustard in this dish to suit all types of palates. The result was an immensely pleasing dish which definitely gets the taste buds all worked up. MORE...

Doi Begun | Dahi Baingan |Aubergine in Yogurt Gravy ~

Doi Begun or Aubergine in Yogurt Gravy is a tangy savoury dish with light sweet notes. The Bhaja Masala plays a very important role in this dish. Bhaja Masala is a combination of dry roasted cumin seeds, coriander seeds and dry red chilies, ground together into a powder. Its aromatic and imparts the distinct aroma to the Doi Begun. In this dish the yogurt is not cooked but spices, vegetables and aromatics are tempered in oil and mixed with yogurt, salt, turmeric and bhaja masala. The aubergines are fried and then arranged on a serving dish followed by spooning of this yogurt gravy over them. Its a very simple dish , yet a dish which your taste buds will not forget for a long long time. For the recipe of Doi Begun click the heading above the picture.

Chapor Ghonto ~

Chapor Ghonto is a dry mixed vegetable curry with fried lentil fritters as the main highlight of this dish. The word Ghonto comes from the Bengali word Ghant which means to stir and mix vigorously. All Ghonto are dry curries with no water used for cooking the dish, where a lot of frequent mixing and stirring is done and always contains lentil dumplings or fritters. My grandma carried this dish from Bangladesh and cooked it in her kitchen in India for years together. This dish oozes with tradition, aroma from the clarified butter used in it and yumminess with every bite.

Phulkopir Roast | Cauliflower Roast ~

Phulkopir Roast is big chunks of cauliflower cooked in a skillet or heavy bottom pan infused with a lavish spice mix. This dish is cooked in spice and aromatics infused clarified butter in a cashew nuts, poppy seeds paste on a low flame, wherein the big chunks of cauliflower is literally roasted till cooked in this silky rich gravy. A lavish sprinkle of seedless raisins adds the final touches to this dish. A personal favourite I love the flavour the cauliflower acquires in this delectable dish.  

Basanti Pulao | Saffron coloured Pilaf

Basanti is a colour which comes from the word Basant which translates as Spring. Spring comes in with all its bright amber and gold hues and the same hue is got into this pilaf by adding saffron, hence the name. This is a sweet pilaf and is cooked with the very aromatic Gobindo Bhog rice variety. Whole garam masala infused ghee is used to cook this rice and later on a sprinkle of powdered garam masala results in this superlative pulao.

Plastic Chutney or Raw Papaya chutney is another lovely dish from the treasure trove of Bengali #Vegetarian dishes. I have been quite intrigued by the name of this dish and I assume that maybe the resemblance of the super thin Papaya slices used in this chutney to small pieces of plastic sheet could be a reason for this nomenclature. With a unique texture the Plastic Chutney is a true delight and is sure to leave you asking for more, once these glistening see through papaya slices, seeped in saccharine and lemon drops land on your tongue. The flavour burst is sure to evade all your senses. You will never know its raw papaya once the final outcome of the dish is achieved. The transformation that the oft perceived boring raw papaya, undergoes in this dish is a pure delight not only visually but also to your taste buds.

Chutneys of different types like tomato chutney, pineapple chutney, date and tomato chutney, mango leather chutney etc. are normally served with a Bengali meal. Chutney forms an integral side dish in Bengali Cuisine and is not just savoured as a dip only, by Bengalis. MORE...

Khirer Chop |  Evaporated And Thickened Milk Stuffed Fried Sweet Dumplings ~

Khirer Chop are saccharine dipped flour dumplings filled with a gooey melting stuffing of evaporated and thickened milk and nuts mix.  The milk is thickened after adding semolina and sugar and when it reaches almost the required consistency bread crumbs and nutmeg is added to further thicken it and perfume it. The stuffed dumplings are deep fried and later dunked in a sugar syrup. Khirer chop may not have taken the world by storm like other Bengali sweets, but if you have not tasted them, you are surely missing something.

Notun / Nolen Gurer Ice-Cream | Ice-cream Infused With Date Palm Jaggery ~

This ice-cream, trust my saying so dear friends is the finest among what food haven has to offer. The unique taste the Nolen Gur imparts to the ice-cream results in an insanely delicious ice-cream. This ice-cream is a fairly new addition to the Bengali Cuisine repertoire, but has gained popularity beyond imagination within a very short time. Homemade, egg-less, no ice-cream maker used, you will be surprised with its creaminess and texture and this is one sensory treat which I assure you will not forget soon.


A whole treasure trove of Dishes from BENGAL awaits you right below. Kudos to the Culinary Hoppers for bringing together this delectable food carnival from BENGAL, inspite of belonging to other regions of India. They all have put their heart and soul and cooked up a fare which will leave you asking for more.
                     ~ Mishti Doi
                     ~  Luchi
                                            ~ Aloor Dum

1 comment:

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